miserable men in american pop culture

on the basis of two American tv shows, House M.D. and The Office, i wanted to ask whether or not miserable men have a place in American pop culture.

It first struck me when I saw the Office. In the British original version, David Brent, the British equivalent of Michael Scott, becomes more and more tragic as the show goes on. I noted that Michael would humiliate himself and put himself into awkward situations, but as the show has kept going, he never truly succumbed. He has also proven at least semi-successful in some love relationships. The relationship with Holly even proved that he is not the only one of his type.

House M.D. is an American show also based on a British source - the books about Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Like Holmes, House is a misanthropic character who is extremely skilled in his profession. I have only watched the first season so far, but it took only a few episodes before I came to the conclusion that it will surely surface that House has had at least one relationship with a woman that is his match. This turned true later on, when the show introduced his former girlfriend.
So maybe it is so that miserable men can at least be made human if they are paired with beautiful and intelligent women, as have been the cases on these two shows. Or maybe it is simply that miserable men are not concidered good value for entertainment. What are your thoughts?

This is an interesting topic. I think you’re right to a degree–British pop culture seems to be more tolerant of the idea of a miserable man in the leading role. That’s why The IT Crowd would probably not fly over here, although The Big Bang Theory seems fairly similar. I haven’t seen much of TBBT, though, so I’ll wait for someone who has to chime in. My impression of the show is that the main male characters are “standard nerds” (to quote Deynholm), but are geeky about science and superheroes, not computers and fair use, and that they are Hollywoodized geeks–good looking, poor fashion sense, bumbling/unlucky in love but not creepy or desperate.

This might explain why Coupling never took off in the US, too. IMO, to the extent that the male cast is fundamental to the show’s character, the program relies on Steve’s fear of becoming an old man, Patrick’s emptiness and lack of direction, and Jeff’s utter failure at life in general. (ETA: On the other hand, look at the steamy and generally healthy relationship Jeff developed with his boss.)

Of course, there is plenty of precedent for miserable men as co-stars in American television. George and Newman in Seinfeld were both miserable and truly awful people, although seen through very different lights. Niles in Frasier was deeply neurotic and very unsuccessful in love despite being better-looking than the eponymous star and probably making more money (although he did marry the girl of his dreams later in the series). I’m drawing blanks for more, but that’s probably because I don’t watch a lot of TV.

Then there is Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.

Interesting counter example. In the final episode, the cast even meets the consequences of their actions as they are collectively sentenced to jail. Maybe it is an example of right and wrong. Because while House is an excellent doctor and saves lives, the Seinfeld cast can be pretty hazardous and ignorant. David Brent also have those tendencies (and arguably also faces the consequences of *his *actions), but in his case it usually stems from a kind of insecurity that is completely lacking in the Seinfeld characters.

I have read that the Seinfeld show often alludes to judaism and to jewish culture, apart from several of the main characters being jewish themselves. I don’t know enough about the area to draw any conclusions from that, but maybe it is one of the reasons for the different approach.

I bolded your paranthesis. The events of Niles seem to match those of Michael Scott and Dr. House in that his character is normalized from his misery with a traditional heterosexual relationship.

Well, yeah. Larry David is one of our best Jews (although Jon Stewart is the most important), and the show is definitely peppered with Jewish cultural beliefs. Despite its Christian overtones, the Good Samaritan law, like many other things about New York, is very, very Jewish. Speaking as someone who grew up in Jewish culture, I would think the prevailing view is that most decent Jews should be excited to get the chance to do a mitzvah, a random act of kindness. Note that the final episode reeked of shame (on the main characters); they were disgraced by their failure to do a mitzvah* and immediately sought redemption for their crime first, instead of a sense of understanding and remorse re what they did wrong. To Jewish eyes, these cats had become so disgusting that they were not worth watching or celebrating anymore, thus making it a fitting end to the show. They spent years celebrating their own material and sexual success, and they paid dearly for it in the end. It all seems quite Judeo-Christian to me.

Note that other Jewish characters in the series, like Jerry’s parents, could be quick to shun those who they saw as lacking in morals. The only example that comes to mind is Jerry’s date, who kissed him while they were watching Schindler’s List in the theater. Jerry himself was shamed, but his date was persona non grata.

  • I forget what the specific thing was that they saw happen, so that may affect it.

OK, but Frasier ran as one of TV’s most successful shows ever for years and years before Niles’ redemption. It can be seen as one of the harbingers of the show’s downturn.

My vote for the most miserable man in American pop culture goes to Michael Corleone from The Godfather. The one time he seemed briefly happy was when he got married in Sicily, but even then there was an air about him that said he knew it wouldn’t last.

Don Draper from Mad Men seems pretty miserable, but I don’t know if he’s made it into pop culture yet. Maybe he has, since SNL did a skit about the show.

How about Tony Soprano? And Uncle Jun?

Most obvious miserable person in pop culture: Charlie Brown

This is someone who never succeeded at anything – flying a kite, kicking a football, winning a baseball game, talking to the little red haired girl. Occasionally, there’d be a small triumph, but he’d quickly go back to losing everything all the time and reacting in a dark, yet wistful tone.

Yet the comic strip was massively popular. It helped that there was a Snoopy, who was just the opposite, but Charlie Brown was the star and he was constantly miserable and never changed.

I think Michael is a much more sympathetic character than David Brent. Brent I just want to hit over the head with a pole.

I forgot to add this just now but I guess there’s a difference between a sad loser with some likeable/ redeeming qualities and a character that is a low-life with few redeeming qualities that only gets more pathetic as the series progresses. Without his brilliance and occasionally showing his human side, House would just be a run-of-the-mill asshole. I guess the question remains whether there can be a hit TV show based on a character like that.

Not likely a hit. People want a main character they can sympathize with.

The best example of a completely low-life character with few redeeming qualities* in a US TV show is Dabney Coleman in Buffalo Bill. Bill was a completely self-centered low-life. The show only ran two seasons and was hardly a hit. They show tried to compensate by having a very likable supporting cast (including a very young Geena Davis, Max Wright, and John Fiedler), but it didn’t help.

Hugh Laurie, when reading for House, thought the character was only a supporting character, since it seemed too dark for US TV.

*I can’t see that phrase without thinking about “My Hate Story” from the old National Lampoon.

I’d also include Al Bundy as a runner up for that example. The only people who are allowed to be pretty happy in American sit-coms are the really stupid, i.e. Jim Belushi in According to Jim.

The classic miserable man in U.S. TV is Ralph Kramden of The Honeymooners. A short-tempered bus driver living on the edge of poverty, his dreams of success are always doomed.

Cactus Waltz is on to something with the pairing of the miserable man with the sympathetic wife (or, in the case of House, a boss.) The sympathetic partner allows the male character some humanity, and gives the audience a chance to support him - if only out of support for the female.

Reality Chuck mentioned Dabney Coleman in Buffalo Bill. Dabney Coleman has made a career of brilliantly playing a “completely self-centered low life” and starred in shows such as The Slap Maxwell Story, Drexel’s Class and Madman of the People. That each of those shows can be described as “short-lived” is evidence that a lead character had better possess at least some redeeming quality the audience can support.

Ted Danson tried the miserable man approach in Becker, but his character chose to work in a clinic in a low-income neighborhood, voluntarily passing up opportunities for more success. He wasn’t “miserable,” but came across as altruistic, if grouchy.

Ah, good call!

Another good one!

Anybody watch It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia? I’ve only started watching this season, so I’ve only seen four episodes, but so far it seems like everybody on that show is a twisted, sociopathic, deeply unpleasant, asshole. But they aren’t miserable at all. They all seem quite happy to lead their disgusting and unpleasant lives.

Kevin Spacey in American Beauty and Ron Livingston in Office Space are miserable men who overcome by simply ceasing to care. There are women involved, but only peripherally.

The same is somewhat true for Niles Crane. He escaped “a traditional heterosexual relationship” with Maris, and he found happiness in a relationship that was transgressive of class lines.

Ah, one of my favorite shows. Sure, that’s how every episode starts, but it isn’t usually how it winds up. If you haven’t already seen it, I highly recommend the episode “Dennis and Dee Go On Welfare” for a shining example of this dynamic.

As for the OP: How about Basil Fawlty?

Can’t see any redeeming qualities there (other than he’s funny as hell).

ETA: Oops - just noticed “American” in the title. Nevermind…

Paul Giamatti in *American Splendor *does a great job as a miserablist. I’m not sure how popular that was though. It’s one of my favourite films.

You’re absolutely right–it’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen the show, but I can’t think of a single person in it who has a single redeeming quality

Not to mention his role in Sideways.

Zach Braff always plays a miserable man - Scrubs, Garden State, The Last Kiss.
Steve Carell is a miserable man in The 40 Year Old Virgin.
Edward Norton in Fight Club.

It’s a pretty common theme. People generally relate to hating their job, being stuck in a bad relationship, trying to reconcile societies expectations against our own desires, dealing with life’s disappointments and so on.