Homer Simpson, Don Draper, and other sociopaths

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Adam Kotsko discusses his new book today at 57th Street Books
  • Adam Kotsko discusses his new book today at 57th Street Books
A recent survey of 500 financial executives in the U.S. and UK yielded results that will probably shock no one. Twenty-four percent of the senior execs reported they may have to engage in unethical or illegal activity in order to succeed, and only 41 percent said that their staff had "definitely not" engaged in such activity. Sixteen percent said that they would commit insider trading if they knew they could get away with it. This kind of behavior has pissed off plenty of people, as the Occupy movement proves, but more importantly, it's affected our TV schedule. A certain trope has become extremely popular on the small screen: the sociopath.

In his book Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television, Adam Kotsko argues that audiences are obsessed with the man with no scruples, emotions, or human ties to prevent him from ruthlessly pursuing his goals. These sociopaths range from relatively innocent, like Eric Cartman (South Park), to charming, like suave Don Draper (Mad Men), to out-and-out vicious, like reality TV show contestants. As Kotsko eloquently puts it:

"The sociopaths we watch on TV allow us to indulge in a kind of thought experiment, based on the question: 'What if I really and truly did not give a fuck about anyone?' And the answer they provide? 'Then I would be powerful and free.'"

As popular as they are, Kotsko claims that TV sociopaths reflect a deep frustration with society. When "the people who destroyed the world economy walk away with hundreds of millions of dollars in 'bonuses' and we're all reduced to the pathetic stance of fuming about how much we hate that asshole," people begin to wonder: What if I really do need to be a heartless bastard to get what I want in life? Doesn't everyone really want to be the one percent? But I wouldn't really be happy then, would I? And so people become fascinated with the brilliant, ruthless manipulator who flaunts the rules and still manages gets everything he wants.

Not all of Kotsko's sociopaths are amoral (or men—women can be manipulative schemers too, ya know). All of them are psychologically complex and often sympathetic characters, and some work on the side of good. He calls the ruthless careerists "climbers," but he also has a category of sociopaths dubbed "enforcers." Classically, an enforcer is a rogue cop who's not afraid to get his hands dirty in the name of justice. Take for example Jack Bauer (24), who feels no remorse about breaking the law and torturing suspects in his quest to prevent terrorist attacks.

This type of sociopath reflects our frustration with broken systems and stifling bureaucracies. It's manifested every election cycle when the obligatory outside-the-Beltway maverick announces that he'll, as usual, change politics as usual.

Kotsko's third category, the "schemer," is the weakest part of his argument. Schemers are usually cartoon characters like Peter Griffin (Family Guy) and Homer Simpson. The utter mayhem they engender in their pursuit of harebrained schemes, and the abuse they heap on their long-suffering familes, borders on true insanity. It's true that Eric Cartman is actually psychotic (he once tricked an enemy into eating a chili made out of his own murdered parents), and it's also fascinating to think about why people love such obnoxious behavior. However, saying that Homer represents our dissatisfaction with the crumbling capitalist social order is a bit of a stretch.

Perhaps our obsession with sociopaths indicates not so much a lament of the broken social order but a more morally ambiguous age, and a more sophisticated—or jaded—television audience. Comedians must always become more shocking and vulgar to get a rise out of their audience, while the dramas must wade thornier and thornier moral territory. Morality is relative, but up to what point? Can I sympathize with a meth dealer? A mob boss? A serial killer? When it comes to their ethics and worldview, TV viewers want to be challenged.

Kotsko discusses his book Monday, July 16, at 6 PM at 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th.

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