TV is in love with Damaged Men.
More specifically, the people who create TV and decide what programs make it to air are in love with Damaged Men. Viewers are more like enablers.
TV shows just can’t get enough of dark, gifted men who plumb the depths of their tortured souls. Or, to look at these Damaged Men another way, self-centered jerks who use their gifts as a pass on acting like functional primates.
Some shows featuring Damaged Men have managed mass popularity. Others have ridden critical ardor to a pop culture impact that goes far beyond anemic ratings. We are demanded to not just respect the pain of the Damaged Men of TV. It is insisted that we celebrate it.
Occasionally a Damaged Woman makes it into the spotlight. But by and large, the kind of dysfunctional humanity that enchants critics and creators is reserved for the male half of the species. What are some of the hallmarks of TV’s Damaged Men?
Damaged Men Luxuriate in Dysfunction
Damaged Men must endure suffering that would make an average person crumble. No run-of-the-mill mortal problems. If the suffering isn’t epic, it’s clearly not good TV.
So the title character of House, M.D. suffered from a leg injury that left him permanently crippled and addicted to Vicodin. Mad Men’s Don Draper had the trifecta of an apocalyptically horrid childhood, functional alcoholism and borderline sociopathy. Over on The X-Files, Fox Mulder was driven by the traumatic childhood abduction of his sister by aliens.
An addiction of some sort is par for the course. NYPD Blue’s Andy Sipowicz shared Don Draper’s boozehound ways. Don’s sexual compulsions have been shared by Damaged Men like Masters of Sex’s Bill Masters, ER’s Doug Ross or Boardwalk Empire’s Nucky Thompson. Actual mental illness is also popular (see Fringe’s Walter Bishop or the title sociopath of Dexter).
Damaged Men Are Brilliant
Their personal lives might qualify as emotional Superfund sites, but Damaged Men are amazing at their jobs. They lead their fields. When people have no one else to turn to, they come to these Damaged Men. Who inevitably treat them like crap, but fix their issues anyway.
Damaged Men can be brilliant doctors (House, Ross, Chicago Hope’s Jeffrey Geiger, Bill Masters), groundbreaking scientists (Walter Bishop, Breaking Bad’s Walter White) or trailblazing businessmen (Don Draper, Empire’s Lucious Lyon). Damaged Men seem to do rather well in law enforcement (Fox Mulder, Dexter, the men of True Detective, the title character of Sherlock) and also at crime (Nucky Thompson, Dexter again, Walter White). Alan Shore, the brilliant lawyer at the heart of Boston Legal, seemed to split the difference.
You will not see Damaged Men working mundane jobs. Or if they do (see Walter White), that’s just part of what’s keeping them down until they turn a mental corner and go full-on psycho.
Damaged Men Are Self-Destructive
Dysfunction plus brilliance equals self-destruction, at least for TV’s Damaged Men. They might be aware that they are not, in some respects, healthy. Or functional. Or even sane. Probably there are people in their lives urging them to not just wallow in their massive issues, but to actually attempt to address them. And they might. For awhile.
So they’ll kick that pill addiction. They’ll put away the bottle. They’ll stop porking every female who stands still for two minutes. They might seek therapy or a 12-step program. They might say “Hey, I don’t need to murder any criminals today.”
It never lasts. Setbacks are inevitable. Something won’t go their way. And then it’s back to the demons with a vengeance. Anyone stupid enough to think these Damaged Men might actually change will have the tire marks on their backs to demonstrate how wrong they were.
Damaged Men Need Wingmen
Someone has to clean up the wreckage that Damaged Men inevitably leave in their wakes. House could be the biggest S.O.B. in the Tri-State area because Wilson was always there to run interference. Walter Bishop refrained from blowing up more stuff because Peter, Olivia and Astrid exerted a good influence on him. Doug Ross might have been an even bigger mess if Mark Greene hadn’t been around to reel his friend in. Watson seems to keep half of London from b-slapping Sherlock.
Other wingmen are more like partners-in-crime. Whenever Don Draper needed a companion for boozing and whoring, Roger Sterling was there. Walter White couldn’t have become the meth kingpin of the greater Albuquerque area without Jesse Pinkman watching his back. Whenever Alan Shore was up to some hijinks, it was a good bet that Denny Crane was involved. Lucious Lyon has had any number of co-conspirators (Bunky, Vernon, Thirsty), though their mortality rate is alarmingly high.
Sometimes the wingmen have had enough. They turn their backs. They refuse to play. They won’t engage. That also never lasts. They can’t abandon their best friends. There’s more enabling to be done. More havoc to midwife. But you know, it’s just because they care so darn much.
Damaged Men Are Nothing Without Long-Suffering Women
How can Damaged Men exist without ruining the lives of women who really should be smart enough to know better?
Some Damaged Men managed to focus on ruining the life of a single woman. Walter White dragged his wife Skyler into his black hole. Doug Ross’s complete inability to be a functional person almost finished off Carol Hathaway more than once. Nucky Thompson managed to both save and ruin the life of his wife Margaret. And viewers couldn’t help but give Dana Scully an “Amen, sister” every time she rolled her eyes at Fox Mulder.
More often than not, though, Damaged Men have an entire coterie of women whose lives they disrupt. House not only had boss and occasional love interest Cuddy, he managed to have negative impacts on ex-fiancée Stacy and adoring acolytes Cameron and Thirteen. Don Draper continuously disrupted the well-being of wives Betty and Megan, daughter Sally and protégée Peggy (not to mention a long line of girlfriends, mistresses and hook-ups). Bill Masters does nothing but disappoint wife Libby and partner/lover Virginia Johnson. Lucious makes both Cookie and Anika simultaneously aroused and homicidal. Dexter only ruined the career of foster sister Debra. Which was getting off easy, since he got his wife Rita killed.
Why do women who have so much going for them allow themselves to be dragged down by Damaged Men? Co-dependency seems like too easy an explanation. Maybe they enjoy the rush of unpredictability. Maybe they’re drawn to the brilliance. Or maybe they just need someone to shake them and say “Fool, you are wasting your life.”
Happily, many of these long-suffering women were able to extricate themselves from their Damaged Men. All the women in House’s orbit skedaddled before he could ruin their lives for good. Margaret Thompson chose life in a New York tenement over continuing to be married to Nucky. The women in Don’s life all realized that distance (emotional and physical) was the only way to not be driven mad. Skyler turned on Walter White to protect their kids.
Damaged Men don’t seem to be in any danger of leaving our TVs any time soon. But at least some of the women escape them in one piece.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on October 29, 2015.