When I’m creating a show my first rule is that I’ve got to love my characters. They may be flawed – they should be flawed – but ultimately I love them and care about them. And hopefully, I can convey that to the audience and they’ll love them too.
Again, the characters don’t have to be particularly loveable. Sweet and earnest and always-doing-the-right-thing is also boring. The best characters are complex. They may have internal battles between good and evil. They may be scoundrels but deliciously so. Or they can’t get out of their own way. Or life’s dealt them a bad hand. Or Hitler was their nanny growing up. I dunno – there are endless possibilities.
And often times the more layers the better.
But lately I’ve observed a disturbing trend. (Now the rant begins) Series creators are making their characters so hateful that I stop caring.
GIRLS is a good example. Season one those girls were quirky and self-centered but sort of fun. And they liked each other. By season two I wanted to slap all of them. And they wanted to slap each other. The end result is ratings for year two have plummeted.
And this season I’m starting to feel that way about MAD MEN. As readers of this blog know I am a huge MAD MEN fan. The first few years were phenomenal television. I loved it so much I almost took up smoking.
But then things started to shift. Betty, who season one was my favorite character, became such a hideous bitch I now expect her to wear a coat made of Dalmatians. Still, almost everybody else had some redeeming qualities (although I’m still looking for Pete’s). Peggy was adorable, Roger provided comic relief, Joan advanced in a man’s world using both her brains and bra, and then there was Don Draper.
He was a man of mystery, trying to overcome a dark past, flailing, always feeling out of sync, endlessly searching for who he is and what will make him happy. And it helps that a great actor (Jon Hamm) plays him. He could be infuriating but he was always fascinating.
So for years we felt for Don, even looked the other way when he did dishonorable things like cheat on his wife with every woman other than Bella Abzug. The hope was always that he’d figure it out, finally be comfortable in his own skin, and that all of his good qualities would rise to the surface and he’d become a better father, husband, employer, and stop wearing hats already in 1968. And if he slipped up a little, well – he’s only human and we’ve come to expect that. Betty is trying to throw Hansel & Gretel in an oven, she’s a lost cause. But there was still hope for Don.
Until this season. Now he has a loving wife, a wildly successful career, and he has become television’s biggest prick. It’s not enough he’s cheating on Megan, but he’s doing it with another woman in his building and he’s all buddy-buddy with her husband. They socialize together. He invites the guy to the office. What a fucking asshole! Meanwhile, he tries to destroy his wife’s dreams simply because they inconvenience him. He never talks to his children, even on Christmas. And he’s a cold distant boss to all his employees while still demanding total loyalty from them.
Why should I care anymore about this miserable soul? Because he gets to his front door, slumps down to the ground, and feels sad? At one time there were glimmers of humanity, moments when he would exhibit surprising kindness. But not anymore. Not this season. Even Jon Stewart noted it on THE DAILY SHOW last night.
Joan has slept with an oaf who looks like Shrek to become a partner. Roger has no relationship with his daughter and is basically drinking himself into oblivion. Pete never learns. He only has affairs with women who are nuts. This must be his test to see if he’s attracted to them: He asks a woman to cook him dinner. If he comes home and a rabbit is boiling he jumps her bones.
As brilliant as MAD MEN creator Matthew Weiner is (and Matt’s a friend who I acknowledge is a better writer than I’ll ever be), I worry that he’s stopped loving his characters. And I fear his loyal audience is starting to feel disillusioned. I’m not saying make Peggy the way she was, or have Don play catch with whatever actor is playing his son Bobby these days – everyone can evolve, everyone can change (or not change if that’s your prerogative), but we want to care. This year that's becoming a real chore. Please renew your vows. Love your characters again so we can. Or let Megan shoot Don. Something to get us back!