Breaking bad: father figures in the ‘Golden Age’ of television

It could be argued that the Golden Age of television (that is television far superior to the movies) began when New Jersey mob boss-elect Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) waded into his swimming pool in his bathroom robe, to feed a family of wild ducks that had arrived to live in his backyard.

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Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and those ducks

It was the pilot episode of what was to become arguably the greatest television series of all time,  introducing one of the most terrifying, complex but also most loved characters in modern pop culture – and also a father.

In the next few weeks, two other great shows of the golden television era – Dexter and Breaking Bad – will come to an end with climatic, thrilling episodes.

And both have as their central characters – fathers.

There’s Dexter Morgan, the blood splatter expert working in Miami homicide, efficiently disposing of serial killers in plastic covered rooms for eight seasons, who is also the father of blonde-haired Harrison and stepfather to the hardly ever seen Cody and Astor.

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Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) and Harrison

And there’s Walter White, a poorly paid school chemistry teacher diagnosed with lung cancer turned arch-druglord and master crystal meth cooker, who is also the father to handicapped teenager Walter White Jr and infant Holly. He is also very much the “father figure” to his drug lab partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) but rather than guide him away from drugs and crime (as most fathers would do) he leads him deeper into the spider’s web.

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Walter White (Bryan Cranston) isolated from his family

Both are loving fathers and yet dreadful role models.

Walter White starts off as a meek, dying father, deeply attached to his wife and children, who by degrees becomes more ruthless as he becomes powerful, who resorts to murder – including the poisoning of a child – to build his financial fortune.

Dexter Morgan has little time for traditional fatherly duties, palming off his son to a carer or who ever it seems will take him, while he pursues and butchers serial killers, keeping their blood samples on glass slides behind the air conditioning unit.

They are liars, deceivers, criminals and terrible fathers by any standard or measure and yet we love them. Through eight lumpy seasons of Dexter and five faultless seasons of Breaking Bad, my wife and I have taken comfort in “Darkly Dreaming” Dexter and cunning Walter White (though not so much when he’s in his white underpants).

Similarly, Mad Men’s Don Draper hides his true identity from his family. He may be the best dressed, smoothest man ever to appear on television (and most frequent user of brylcreem), but he’s also a serial womanizer who makes Michael Douglas look virginal. He loves his three children, but frequently greets their visits with a frown and can only relate to them as he does to adults. His chief role as father – when he’s involved – is to tell them off.

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Don Draper (Jon Hamm) with his two children

And let’s not forget Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) the drunkard, bent cop of that othere groundbreaking television show, The Wire, who also happened to be a father.

But back to Tony Soprano. The late James Gandolfini played him with Shakespearian range as both a terrifying tiger and a soft, cuddly teddy bear – fond of his cigars, two colour bowling shirts, tracksuits, whores, extortion rackets and murder when necessary.

But also a man who loves his children deeply and who is a great protector of his family.

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Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) with his son Anthony Soprano Jr (Rober Iler)

This dichotomy of loving father/ruthless mob boss is partly what made the show so watchable.

An episode that stands out is when Tony accompanies his daughter Meadow to visit a prospective college, and in between strangles Fabian Petrulio, a former mobster turned FBI informant. Tony savagely murders him, despite Petrulio pleading for his life. The job done, he takes Meadow to another college interview. Here he stops to ponder a quotation from the writer: Nathaniel Hawthorne :

“No man… can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which one may be true.”

This could apply equally to Walter White, Dexter Morgan or Don Draper, fathers whose sense of identity disappears behind the masks they wear, the lies they tell.

It is interesting to note (and Freud would certainly have found it telling) that both Walter White and Tony Soprano’s sons bear their own names – the sins of the father passed on to their children in name and deed.

Perhaps some of the power of these shows, what makes them so compelling and addictive, is the fact that their main characters are so deeply flawed as fathers and family men.

And its interesting to note, that David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, claims his father was “an angry man who belittled him constantly as a child” while Jeff Lindsay, who wrote the Dexter novels on which the series is based, penned a column for the newspapers called “Fatherhood” while raising two daughters, before he struck the big time.

The Biggest Loser tips the scales when it comes to bad taste

bathroom-scale-psd39515I confess. I watched the last two seasons of MasterChef religiously.

And yes I found all the plugs for Coles and cooking products and restaurants and celebrity chefs annoying but at its heart MasterChef was a show about people showing or developing a skill and demonstrating so under the immense pressure of knowing you are being watched, over boiling pot and sizzling pan, by a nation of eager foodies.

I don’t like Australian Idol or The Voice or The Block or even the Amazing Race, but at least contestants on these shows demonstrated some kind of ability or skill or talent, even if it’s just being able to read a map or choose colours to paint a bedroom.

On the other hand, the Biggest Loser is nothing more than exploitation for commercial profit without any redeeming qualities.

I happened to catch part of an episode the other night.

In between ads for Coles $3 pizza (Could you advertise a more inappropriate product?), I watched every contestant humiliated to the point of sobbing after being chided in video messages for being fat by family or friends.

I could only stomach (excuse the pun) a few minutes and at risk of hurling the remote control at the television, I changed channels.

The bald facts are that the Biggest Loser is a contrived freak show around which advertising is sold to make Channel Ten a lot of money.

And it all appears during prime time television, when the entire family can gather round to watch the “fattest people in Australia” run until they think they are going to have a heart attack or until they are literally throwing up in a bucket.

The show is based around three things: exploitation, humiliation and money.

The contestants are exploited because of their size and inability to do something about it.

They are humiliated by tortuous training regimes and verbal abuse if they don’t try hard enough (not to mention those half-naked weigh-ins).

And money is the incentive to get them on the show and for Channel Ten to air it.

As a prime time show, the Biggest Loser needs an audience, a feat it accomplishes with ease because Australians are obsessed with obesity, one of the biggest health issues facing the nation.

But The Biggest Loser is not about confronting this issue, despite Channel Ten’s ridiculous claim that it is not a game show but a “social movement that aims to break the vicious cycle of generational obesity”.

If you’re wondering what sort of impact the Biggest Loser has had on changing eating behaviour or encouraging people to lose weight since it first aired in 2006, the answer is zero.

According to the most recent figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 63.4% of Australians were overweight as of 2011-12 with 70.3% of men obese or overweight and 56.2% of women obese or overweight.

In 2008 the rates of obesity and being overweight were 62.8% for males and 47.6% for females.

And in 2005, one year before the Biggest Loser first aired, obesity rates were 61.6% for men and 44.6% for women.

So since the show started airing obesity rates have risen, not fallen.

There was recently an excellent article written by News Limited journalist Petra Starke for the Adelaide Advertiser where she neatly summarised the real point of the show:

“It’s for people like you and me to plant our ample buttocks on our cushy sofas and watch other people being humiliated while we eat whatever fast food they’re selling us in the ad breaks.”

“The Biggest Loser is like one big schoolyard bullying session, and we’re all complicit in it,” Starke goes on to say.

I also like this summation from Fairfax’s Ben Pobjie:

“The Biggest Loser, the show for everyone who believes being overweight makes a person worthless, and that anyone who refuses to lose weight deserves loneliness, derision and an early death. And that anyone can get into shape, as long as they have a personal trainer working on them full-time and cameras on them 24/7 to prevent them ever straying from their prescribed diet. But I’m sure most people can manage that.”

Starke and Bopjie are not the only ones shaming Channel 10 for airing this disgraceful show.

The complaints and accusations are flying from all corners.

Eating disorders advocacy group Fed Up NSW Health is demanding the show be pulled from the airways, with one of its chief concerns being that for the first time it features contestants as young as 15.

One woman, Ella Graham who is involved with Fed Up NSW and has battled eating disorders for 11 years, recently told The Age newspaper that personal trainer Michelle Bridges shouting at contestants makes her “shudder”.

Graham has written to the producers of the show, Shine, warning that it is negligent because research shows that the biggest risk factor for developing an eating disorder is a restrictive diet and excessive exercise (the basic premise of The Biggest Loser).

Nutritionist Rosemary Stanton calls the show “totally unrealistic” and “done for entertainment”.

Child and adolescent psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg says there can be fewer shows more toxic than The Biggest Loser warning that “young viewers may be negatively influenced, setting them up for a lifetime of body-image issues and an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise”.

Another advocacy group, Eating Disorders Victoria has condemned the show.

The list goes on and on.

Australia is getting fatter and the Biggest Loser is just entertainment, though of the most exploitative and unredeeming kind.

One hundred years ago they used to have freak shows at the circus where you could see the world’s fattest man or the world’s hairiest woman – in the modern age of reality television, you can tune in between 7.30 pm and 8.30 pm Sunday, Monday and Tuesday on Channel 10 to get your fill, can of coke in one hand, pizzas slice with extra toppings in the other.

And sure someone will win and make a lot of money and go on chat shows and the radio and maybe perhaps host a show of their own. And perhaps they’ll even keep the weight down, for appearance sake of course, (otherwise they can kiss those lucrative media contracts good-bye).

But as for the rest, it will be back to doing it for themselves; but with the added bonus of knowing what their families really think, having already humiliated themselves on camera for the nation.

A few weeks ago I turned on the television to a promotion for an upcoming television show.

A very large woman sits down and opens a two litre tub of vanilla ice-cream.

She takes a bottle of chocolate sauce and spreads it liberally over the top of the ice cream.

She starts to eat from the two litre tub of ice-cream.

There is a time-lapse.

The tub is empty.

Then come the words: “The Biggest Loser: The next generation starts this week.”