I see your Don Draper, and raise you anyone else (Updated)

I’ve been thinking about characters lately. What makes a good one? Heck if I know, but like porn and a good slice of margherita pizza, you know it when you see it.

Which brings me to two filmed entertainments, one a TV show and one a movie [Minor Spoilers To Follow For Both].

First, there’s Mad Men, the deliciously sultry paeon to sex and advertising and the fact that – as Don Draper tells it, but doesn’t live it – sex doesn’t really sell. It’s an entertaining hour, and probably the “best” show on television. Here’s the problem: the characters stink. Even Don. Especially Don.

The problem is that Mad Men’s characters are stuck in a perpetual holding pattern, endlessly circling the runway, making a few small passes but never quite given clearance for landing. They have no perceivable goals – can anyone tell me where Mr. Draper is actually going? What he wants? Perhaps this is intentional, but if it is, it’s stupid. Every life altering event (say , a heart attack, induced by having sex with a young girl out of wedlock) is followed by a change in path (renewed faithfulness to one’s wife) and then by a remission to bad behavior (more sex with young minxes). I’m all for characters that struggle with their flaws. A character without flaws is just the latest John Wayne vehicle. But characters in Mad Men struggle for no perceivable reason – they are flawed simply because Smart Television Viewers demand that our characters be flawed.

This brings me to 500 Days of Summer, a delightful film I’d recommend to anyone – except girls. A straw poll I’ve conducted has suggested that men enjoy the movie significantly more than women. This would be the point to mention we are talking about a romantic comedy.

The reason for this is, I think, quite clear. Tom, the male lead, is a fully formed character, hopelessly naive, yet pessimistic; stuck in a terrible job, but ambitious; talented, yet stifled; in love, yet not; aware, yet oblivious. There is an arc to his story. We begin with youthful hopefulness, and end with hopefulness of a mature kind.

Summer – that’s the girl – is as one-dimensional as any character Jennifer Aniston has played since Rachel. She doesn’t believe in love, and…that’s about it. She has no perceivable ambition, even an ambition for nothingness. She exists in a world for the purposes of Tom’s characterization. One wishes she had a long-held dream of being a pastry chef or toy store owner, or a passion for anything beyond Tom and foiling Tom. Whether or not she actually fulfilled her dream, she must have one.

So that’s that. Go see 500 Days of Summer, if you’re a dude, and all should just start watching Season 3 of Mad Men – you won’t have missed any progression in the first two.

Update: Two things have made me adjust my thinking slightly on Mad Men. First, the second half of Season Two happened (to me, a year late). It’s great. Second, I was told by loyal Meanderings reader KS to think of the lack of change as Mad Men’s genius – that the unspoken, and therefore un-acted-upon, feelings and desires of its characters are what give the show its most emotional heft.

That seems to be about right to me. But The Wire is still better.

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