On Competence (TfH Watches TV 2)

Mad Men went out with a wimper.

Wherefore this wimper?

Partly the hubris of spreading a single season over two years. Partly the series’s obsession with a tired Freudian narrative of an otherwise great man whose dead whore mom got stuck to his Achilles heel.

But partly the loss of Don’s competence. With no other competence to make up for it besides cruelly (used and then) underused Joan Holloway Harris.

Mad Men got less compelling around when Don stopped showing us how great an adman he was. And it never even bothered showing us the boldly designed steam off Peggy’s hot Googie shit.

Professional competence. Our new fantasy.

Take another fancy drama. Is it possible that actual Soviet spies were actually as amazing at spying as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings? The Americans would be just another show about a dysfunctional marriage if those two weren’t so damn good at their jobs.

Their skill at spying is a key draw of the show. The show lingers with libidinal fascination over their spywork. The mail robot tinkering (mail robot!!!). The hotel switchboard hacking. The slow lure, compelling one innocent after another into redshirting themselves for someone else’s motherland. Sometimes for sex. Sometimes for money. But always in complex relation to a Jennings character who has tapped the sucker’s secret life sap with the casual skill of a grizzled northeast maple farmer.

They’re really good at spying. And the show focuses on that as much as on their fragile marriage.

And House of Cards is now just another show about a fragile marriage. The presidency kicked Kevin Spacey’s wingtips over his bald spot. Even his one-liners are weary in Season Three. He’s not as good at politicking and the show’s not as good at making us care.

Risking an overly broad sweep, I see professionalism as a somewhat recent meta-trend. TV people are very good at their jobs, which are more important to far more shows these days.

Of course, Law and Murder Scene Moral Ambiguity Investigation has always been about the professional competence of the cop/lawyer/medical detective.

The pleasure of the ghastly mystery and its solution, and the pleasure of evildoers (or diseases) brought to tidy, skillfully-cut justice is only half our delight.

The other half: a foxy investigator doing her job well.

Crunching pure hours of broadcast time, procedurals are dominating the basic cable menu in heavy syndication, with new ones squirming out every season.

But now, nearly every show of note, not just every procedural, is about professional competence. The characters we like, we like for their job skill.

Elsewhere in culture, too.

The jerkface who invented Apple was the subject of a bestselling biography. A real-life Don Draper. No one liked him, but was better than us at his job. So we all want to be like him.

There is so much precarity in our laboring lives that we hunger for fantasies of being superior workers. Of characters who can tell off their bosses or date their colleagues or hold office pie-eating contests on the clock because because they’re SO GOOD they are unfireable.

Even Don, who actually has been fired. Twice. Is professionally redeemed at the end for his really good ad idea. That’s his happy ending.

Even when the workers are murdering spies: They get the job done. They hunker down and twist that neck, despite how tiring all that neck-twisting has become, because they’ve committed to a job. A job that will kill them if they try to leave it. Sure!

But we all have to keep our jobs. No matter how neck-twisty they get. We have to twist that neck too.

It makes sense that, after years of recession, stagnant wages and high unemployment, we are projecting fantasies of professionalism into our ether.

Our family dramas–The Good Wife, The Americans, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos–are about jobs. Our workplace comedies–Parks and Rec, the Mindy Project, Brooklyn 99–are about workplace families.

Labor and love knotting ever more intricately.

Mad Men has always been about these knots.

And about how capitalism feeds off our most closely held feelings. And how we not only let it happen. We love it. We buy our Mad Men clothes from Banana Republic. We tell Facebook the awesome thing our baby did. We lust after Don and Joan but especially Don, and Steve Jobs and every other captain of industry lauded for making money rather than for helping people. Lauded for helping people by making money.

Now every other show is about these knots too.

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2 thoughts on “On Competence (TfH Watches TV 2)

  1. Enjoy your writing so much, and I can’t even fully appreciate this post bc I don’t watch those shows! Almost makes me want to go rent them and catch up.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Hi Cindy! Thanks for your comment! My goal is to watch ALL THE TELEVISION so you don’t have to.

      Hope you’re feeling fantastic!

      On Jun 6, 2015, at 8:04 PM, Thinker For Hire wrote:


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