TV: Ambition as a Character Trait

“Even though success is a reality, its effects are temporary. You get hungry even though you’ve just eaten. […] But what is happiness? It’s the moment before you need more happiness. I won’t settle for 50% of anything. I want 100%.” – Don Draper, Mad Men 5×12, “Commissions and Fees”.

“I want everything too much.” – Rachel Berry, Glee 1×08, “Mash-Up”

There’s something really powerful about looking at a television character and seeing yourself. It’s a powerful feeling, of being recognised and legitimised by something greater than you. It goes right down to basic representation of minorities and women, sure, but it effects every viewer whose life is depicted, represented, on screen. How those traits are expressed are a reflection of societal attitudes of people, and what they mean for those being depicted.

So in the wake of the most recent Mad Men, which had lots to talk about, I’d like to talk about the element that worked like a mirror, showing me a reflection of myself, and how that trait is depicted in television: ambition.

Ambition, as a character trait, seems to be rare in scripted television. I don’t mean ambition towards power, or money, or status. Those are a big part of television, but that’s a journey distinct from what I’m talking about. I mean, in terms of craft. Of getting better at what you do, until you’re the best. Characters are typically too noble to want to be the best in their field; typically, they just are, and thus have the room in their lives to focus on being heroic. Temperence Brennan of Bones is the perfect example of this. She doesn’t work to become the best, though she has plenty of that in her backstory. As of the beginning of the show, she just is the best in her field, and uses those skills to solve crime.

Even when they aren’t noble, these protagonists use their skills to seek something else. Gregory House’s skills in House are never in question, and he never strives to improve. His goal is to solve mystery after mystery, the satisfaction of finding the answer. But the show ignores the idea of House improving. The show is utterly static, as are his own abilities. It is the individual cases that progress, not House’s skill set.

I can think of few characters who are openly ambitious, and all of them balance between being sympathetic and verging on villainhood. Christina Yang of Grey’s Anatomy is clear about her desire to become the best in her field, and the show delights in questioning whether or not she’s got her priorities in order. Rachel Berry of Glee is another who is focused on being the best, and she vacillates between likeable and grating from scene-to-scene, let alone episode to episode. And Don, well, one of the major themes of Mad Men is whether anyone can truly be happy, and Don himself has gone to some very bad places in order to escape the ennui underneath his ambitions.

There’s also this weird obsession with reminding ambitious people that they need to balance their ambition with their talent, as if those two things are morally opposed. I can’t help but feel like Christina and Rachel are reminded time and time again that friends are more important than ambitions, or not to ignore friendship in favour of your work. They are given choices: pursue your dreams or honour your friends, as if that’s how it plays out in real life. The first season of Damages drew on this, too: as Ellen Parsons works to become a great lawyer, she inevitably finds herself out of sync with her own life, friends, fiancée. This ignores the fact that ambitious people rarely have to make this choice, and that friendship and career are not diametrically opposed. You can have a dream and friends, after all.

One thing television shows seem to do right, which I appreciate, is reminding us that these characters are hard workers. Even in the pilot episode, Christina is practicing her sutures on bananas while her co-workers chat about their romantic entanglements. Every plotline involving the hard work involved in practice, including skills labs plots (which are sadly rare, because they are so fun), Christina digs into with joy. The pilot of Glee lays out Rachel’s strict training regimen, including practice, exercise and diet. Her body, particularly her voice, are her weapon with which to wage war against her competition. And we see Don doing what he does every episode, rejecting bad ideas and sharpening new ones until they gleam with potential.

I also like the inclusion of the need for mentorship for ambitious characters. Grey’s Anatomy actually follows this line pretty extensively with Christina: she has a strong mentor for the show’s first two seasons, which becomes entangled with an emotional relationship and then the breakdown of boundaries with regards to responsibility; then, she struggles to grow in an environment wherein mentorship is withheld from her; and finally, she finds a mentor whom she flourishes under because of their strong professional relationship. I particularly loved the scene where Christina’s desire for a mentor is played as equal to the various romantic storylines on the show: for Christina, the ‘race to your beloved to speak your heart’s truth while dramatic music plays’ was about not losing her professional mentor, not a love interest, which I found really unique.

In fact, Glee suffers partially because of this. Will Schuester, the teacher of the titular glee club, is a terrible mentor. He seems to come up with big ideas on the spot, never seems to show much in the way of technical know how for training them musically, and mostly speaks in Hallmark card aphorisms. This fits in with the show, where Rachel’s attempts to bolster her resume for her dream school are painted as selfish, just because she is competing with a friend for a place in the student government. Not for sabotaging him, but for competing with him. It’s also a show that bounces between if you want it the most and have the purest heart, you will win no matter what, and life isn’t about winning, but trying. In the former, the show practically rewards the glee club rarely having a performance ready six hours before their respective competitions; in the latter, hard work and preparation pay off, and the tragedy falls to those who are crushed not to succeed without ever working for it. The sympathy lies with the ones who lose, rather than those who worked the hardest to create a fantastic performance. In a show constantly criticised for inconsistency, this is possibly the most egregious failing: the story doesn’t know what it’s about.

Ultimately, what the quote as the top of this post is about, at least to me, speaks to the heart of what it’s like to be this type of person: success doesn’t stagnate. Being in one place for too long is unhappiness, because the only place we can truly be happy is when we’re moving, forward and upward. The rewards of success – the money, the power, the fame – are a nice side dish, but what we’re really after is the movement itself.

If we stop, we die.

What ambitious characters do you see on television? How do you feel like they’re represented in TV and media? What kind of characters do you see yourself in.


3 responses to “TV: Ambition as a Character Trait

  1. Jackson Tyler June 6, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    May I interject: Pokemon.

    • R. Lackie June 6, 2012 at 1:20 pm

      Ha! Too true. I had the theme song for that show in my head the entire time I was writing it, and wasn’t sure whether to discuss the show or not. It was a very early example for my (our?) generation of what healthy ambition looked like in a lead character! Maybe I should have.

  2. Jackson Tyler June 7, 2012 at 6:19 am

    Healthy? Dude wants to be the Pokemon master so hard that he leaves his home and his mother, goes out into the wild with little to no training, in situations that should likely result in his death, but somehow ends up on top because he *is* the main character. Ash is the first example in television of an unhealthy ambition, obsessive and destructive, his good fortune coming mostly from luck :P.


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