Sometimes, you watch a television show or obsess over a character’s development and you learn a very obvious and wholly intended lesson from it. Chuck's Chuck Bartowski is an exemplar of being yourself. Firefly's Malcom Reynolds is all about sticking to your principles and being the good guy in the face of overwhelming adversity. Sometimes, the writing is seamless and the message is clear and everyone goes home happy.
This isn’t an article about those times. Those times are boring. It’s why half the dialogue on Pan Am makes me want to drink bleach. This is an article about doing keg-stands in Oz and pulling down the Wizard’s curtain before he even has the chance to turn his big floating holographic head on. It’s about over-analyzing things to the point that reality is nothing but a thin cloud cover over the toxic rays of an unforgiving sun and we’re entirely okay with that.
This kind of stuff happens in television. It's inevitable and it isn't the end of the world. Here are a handful of examples, from past and present, of lessons that went off the rails when it was convenient to do so because the heroes didn't stick to the message at hand.
Maggie Ryan from Pan Am
The Lesson You’re Supposed to Learn: "You have to take advantage of every opportunity presented to you in order to get ahead in life."
The Lesson You Actually Learn: It’s okay to sell everyone you come in contact with out because you had a hard life and you deserve to have nice things. In flashbacks, we learn that Maggie is a former truck-stop waitress, the one that always has her head in a book and probably throws Shakespearian quotes to the kitchen staff. I’ve been that waitress. It blows. I’m right there with Maggie when she jumps on the chance to kick that popsicle stand. But as the series progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that Maggie is afflicted with a severe case of the gimme-gimmes. She openly flaunts her refusal to adhere to Pan Am regulations, then panics when the revelation that her fluency in Portuguese is a tall tale compromises her job for real. Solution? Tell your superiors about the affair your co-worker is having with his mistress. Because, you know, that’s honorable. The kicker is when Maggie’s fellow crew members find out how she kept her job, and aside from some token grumbling about it, get over the betrayal pretty fast. She even gets to keep her invite to the New Year’s Eve party.
The Doctor from Doctor Who
The Lesson You’re Supposed to Learn: "Trust The Doctor: genocide is bad."
The Lesson You Actually Learn: Trust The Doctor: genocide is A-OK as long as the other side starts it first. Make no mistake, the Daleks and the Cybermen are Bad Guys. They’re the Bad Guys that get paraded out for season finale cliffhangers just to remind you that their evil cannot be contained by a single episode. I’m not saying that the Cybermen aren’t terrifying and terrible creatures, I’m just debating how much higher The Doctor is on that moral ladder with his willingness to wipe them off the plane of existence. I mean, there’s no question that the Nazis were a scourge on humanity, but we didn’t erase all life from Germany at the end of World War II. In fact, the bombing of Dresden is widely considered to be an atrocity. So…are we saying that it’s okay to kill all the Cybermen because they aren’t human? Well, then it boils down to racism. Is The Doctor a racist? Sometimes I wonder.
Hercules from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys
The Lesson You’re Supposed to Learn: "Hercules is a paragon of righteousness and you should strive to be as inherently heroic as he is."
The Lesson You Actually Learn: It’s okay to totally drop the ball on that goodness thing if you’re having a bad day. How many times does Herc go off on some emo-kid bender every time someone close to him kicks it? Look, there’s a big difference between having a bad day and calling off of work to recuperate in the bathtub with a bottle of UV Cake and a laptop streaming One Tree Hill reruns on Netflix and leaving ancient Greece to fend for itself because you need to go find yourself or some hippie crap. Own your responsibilities, man. If you need to crash with the Druids for awhile, it’s cool, but get Xena on back-up or something.
Lorelei Gilmore from Gilmore Girls
The Lesson You’re Supposed to Learn: "Good parents are involved in their kids’ lives."
The Lesson You Actually Learn: Helicopter parenting is perfectly healthy for parents and children alike. Those moms that hang out with their daughters’ boyfriends aren’t creepy or sad at all. Lorelei is a hip, cool mom. She and Rory are witty and rival Chuck Klosterman with their pop-culture savvy. Lorelei Gilmore is an awesome role model in a teen-mom success story kind of way but she pushes the envelope into creepy-overbearing-mom-trying-to-recapture-lost-youth too. When I was in high school and my mother insisted on chaperoning post-football gatherings at the local greasy spoon, I wanted to die. I absolutely wanted to die. When she started to get along better with my boyfriends than I did, I cried foul. But according to the Gilmore Girls, she was right all along. Creepy is the new caring.
Don Draper from Mad Men
The Lesson You’re Supposed to Learn: "Adultery will destroy your marriage."
The Lesson You Actually Learn: It’s only adultery when your wife does it. Let’s break down the breakdown of the Draper marriage, shall we? Don has slept with, well, pretty much everyone, and it’s the standard. It’s what we expect of Don. Even as a chick watching Mad Men, my annoyance at Don’s extramarital dalliances is just that, an annoyance. I get it. Don Draper is a stud. I’m not annoyed that he’s cheating on his wife as much as I’m annoyed that Mad Men constantly feels pressured to remind me of what a Manly Man Don Draper is. But when Betty starts messing around, my righteous indignation switch is stuck in the on position largely because Betty is rarely presented as a sympathetic character, even prior to her taking up with Henry Francis. Why can’t Betty get any sympathy? Every single character on Mad Men goes through cycles of being an awful human being and being an awesome human being. It’s one of the things that makes the series such a work of art. But Betty is consistently painted as a crazy, bored housewife. Her affairs are presented as some sort of revenge against Don, while Don’s are presented as, well, that’s just what Don does. A good deal of Betty’s frustration stems from the fact that she knows that Don is cheating on her throughout the first three seasons, but she can’t prove it. Does that frustration justify Betty’s actions? No, but that doesn’t make Don any less guilty either.
Aidan McCollin from Being Human
The Lesson You’re Supposed to Learn: "Tyrants are terrible and should be promptly decapitated."
The Lesson You Actually Learn: Sometimes it’s better for everyone just to live in fear and oppression. Throughout the entire first season of the North American Being Human series, we’re treated to clashes between our dashing undead hero, Aidan, and his deranged vampire daddy, Bishop. We’re meant to sympathize with Aidan and we do. Totally. Bishop is a Bad Guy. Aidan just wants to shack up with his werewolf BFF and live off of the bags of blood he pilfers from the hospital supply closet. Is that too much to ask? Bishop comes off as a sort of vampire Stalin-lite with the dogmatic adherence to his own special brand of what makes the ideal vampire until he (literally) loses his head. What should be smooth sailing for Aidan in the aftermath is revealed in the second season to be pretty much the worst thing ever with Aidan now responsible for Bishop’s “orphans” who are oh so hungry and don’t see the need to follow Bishop’s rules anymore. The man was a monster, but you didn’t see wayward vampires chomping down on coma patients during his rule did you? No. No you did not.
Dr. Perry Cox from Scrubs
The Lesson You’re Supposed to Learn: "If you are intelligent and competent at your job, you will have a long and rewarding career."
The Lesson You Actually Learn: There are absolutely no long-term repercussions to mocking your boss (to his face) on a near daily basis. Perry Cox is one of the best doctors in Sacred Heart. He’s JD’s mentor. He’s like House without the drug problem. That’s all awesome, but at what point do you think Kelso would claim enough is enough in the real world? Sure, we see the occasional career set-back for Cox when his mouth runs away from him and everyone laughs at crusty old Bob, but in nine seasons, the only real threat to Dr. Cox’s job security comes from his own decision to quit medicine for a few days to drink his way through Southern California after that whole unfortunate rabies thing in “My Lunch.” He even gleans himself a nice teaching position in the final season of the series, despite the fact that if he wasn’t an entertaining character on television, he’d probably be a terrible person to work with.
Sam and Dean Winchester from Supernatural
The Lesson You’re Supposed to Learn: "Family is everything, especially when your family keeps getting slaughtered by demons."
The Lesson You Actually Learn: A co-dependent relationship is the only one that will make you truly happy. God, these two are almost too easy. Supernatural itself acknowledges the dysfunctional relationship between one of C-Dubs most adored sets of siblings, but at the end of the day, they just love each other, man. How can you not love love? Sera Gamble calls it “The epic love story of Sam and Dean,” and their soul mate status has been all but confirmed by Chuck Shurley himself. That’s sweet and all, but their twue wuv keeps breaking the world. And the fact that they could really care less about that fact as long as they have each other’s GQ good looks to angst at speaks for itself. Sam and Dean have both had meaningful relationships outside of each other, sure, but time and again, those relationships are dismantled, the pieces held up to the light and dismissed as something less than their epic Winchester bond. Go Google season four’s “Sex and Violence.” It’s okay. I’ll wait.
And I know there’s more out there. Tell me about your own adventures in over analysis.