Ubercompetence & Gaze

I’ve been thinking about TV lately. It’s the defining storytelling medium of our time. At least, I think so. I think we’re going to look back at the early decades of this century as the golden years of TV. For better or for worse.

That’s all been said and done before, though. I want to talk about something different. I want to talk about the kind of heroes and anti-heroes we’re making for ourselves.

I want to talk about Breaking Bad.

Sort of.

Walter White isn’t a hero. So why do we want to watch him? He’s not a good man. He’s at best a decent man who stumbles a bit and then runs swiftly downward.

We watch him because he’s fascinating. And he’s fascinating because he’s in control. His manipulation of his family, his enemies, his friends, his circumstances…

It’s like he’s a little puppet-master. Maybe even a little god. He bends the world to his will.

I call this ubercompetence. And TV is full of ubercompetence. People who are so good at something that anything can be forgiven.

I can forgive Breaking Bad. It has some redeeming qualities, despite its protagonists focused ubercompetence.

But then there’s Suits.

The problem with labeling something like ubercompetence is you can’t stop seeing it. And when you can’t stop seeing it, it starts to get annoying really quick, unless done really well.

Suits does not do it really well.

It doesn’t really do anything really well, actually. It’s every other USA show with a slightly different location. Have you seen White Collar? You’ve seen Suits. The same can-do-no-wrong with a the same smirk.

Week after week these characters win the day through sheer manipulation. Then, at the end of the episode, or if you’re lucky, at the end of the story arc, they smirk off to victory. They’ve turned the tables.

Now there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with watching this show. Or even with enjoying a series centered around the ubercompetent man or (rarely) woman.

The problem is when you start identifying with them.

I have this theory that we become what we behold. Or let me put it a different way, one that’s a little more personal. I become like what I look at. And I mean “look” as in “gaze”. What I fix my eyes on, as it were. I gaze at something because I admire it. So in a sense, I become like what I admire.

Which athlete isn’t inspired by great athletes? Which leader isn’t inspired by great leaders?

But of course reality is at once much stranger and much more prosaic than TV could ever imagine. There are few people who can warp the world to their will. It seems like life enjoys breaking those who try.

All great people eventually fall. They fail or they die or their imperfections are exposed. Which is why we don’t build our empires or our organizations or our families around a person.

So where do we direct our gaze? Who can we admire?

I think you might know the answer.