In the pantheon of television male archetypes there are, from season to season, but one or two standouts who personify the contemporary zeitgeist and claim a piece of mental territory that lives on long past the show’s final episode. These characters which, at their inception, are pure thought contrived by writers and transcribed on parchment take on a living persona when a thespian applies his black arts of transmutation and “becomes” the modern demigod. By way of electricity and the cathode ray gun this model of manhood is projected (shot) into the minds of impressionable humans and form a template which, though impossible to match, serves as a target which aspiring strivers aim to achieve.
James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillion on “Gunsmoke” (20 year run from 1955-1975) is the prototypical example of this modern magic but over the decades there have been a fist full of other larger than life players who live in people’s memory as powerfully as a real-life favorite uncle or inspiring teacher/coach. It doesn’t require a long and successful run (though that helps) or even acting ability (though that helps too) to conjure up one of these TV apparitions and infect the subconscious of sedentary couch spuds entranced by the boob tube. A few notable examples:
- Jack Lord as Detective Stephen McGarrett on “Hawaii Five-O” (1968-1980) - still the greatest opening theme song and credits ever and probably alway will be. How can perfection be eclipsed?
- Don Johnson as detective Sonny Crockett on “Miami Vice” (1984-1990) - another great theme song which, as you will see, is a recurring phenomenon with these shows.
- James Gandolfini as mobster Tony Soprano in “The Sopranos” (1999-2007) - strong opening credits with suitable theme song.
- Michael Chiklis as detective Vic Mackey in “The Shield” (2002-2008) - psychotic opening credits.
- Bryan Cranston as Walter White in “Breaking Bad” (2008-2013) - no credits or theme song.
Each show and corresponding main character capture a particular era in popular culture as follows:
- “Gunsmoke” is post war America - keeping order in a dangerous world.
- “Hawaii Five-O” is Nixon’s America - keeping the hippies in line while enjoying an exotic and dangerous paradise of post 1960’s America (which somehow now includes Hawaii).
- “Miami Vice” is Reagan’s restoration of the shining city on a hill with drugs and prostitutes.
- “The Sopranos” is a brilliant reflection of Bill Clinton’s rule and the pervasive corruption of the Bush New World Order.
- “The Shield” is W’s America and the concept of homeland security in a world of morally compromised (lost) souls and cultural disintegration.
- “Breaking Bad” is the Obama years - it even has an Obama doppelgänger in the character of Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) - and captures the phenomenon of domestic exile and the bitter poison of rainbow stew.
It’s a long painful fall when tumbling from the heights of a heroic Matt Dillon and bouncing, scraping and breaking all the way down to the anti-hero Walter White but that’s what happened over the past 70 years. Well, to be clear, that’s what happened for most American men - but not all.
There is another ethereal identity that burst forth from the small screen and with promethean cunning and bravery (and insolence) set fire to the known universe - by "known universe" I mean the tiny, cramped imagination of materialistic 20th century man. This red blooded American (yes, I said American) man loves the thrill of exploration, the taste of exotic nookie and a goodnatured laugh (sometimes at the expense of others). He is bold, angers quickly and uses his emotive charm and irrational pronouncements to confuse his adversaries and win, win, win. He loves his people but hates evil, sloth and alien enemies - though he will make treaties and honor peace agreements with evil slothful aliens if the negotiated terms of the contract are fair. He plays 4D chess. He time travels. He battles the dragon. I am speaking of none other than the Capitan of the starship Enterprise, James Tiberius Kirk, who's simulacrum was fitted to the nines by a Canadian Shakespearian trained actor named William Shatner on "Star Trek" (1966-1969) - which has a memorable opening theme: "Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before! Aaaah aaaah, aaaah aaaah aaaah aaaah aaaah, aaaah aaah..."
The show "Star Trek" was created by Gene Roddenberry and had an unsuccessful run on Network TV before getting shitcanned by the Diane Christianson types who green light programming designed to brainwash the American people. But there was something about the show that captured the imagination of some dedicated viewers who created a cult around it with a goal of resurrecting the Star Trek Universe through syndicated reruns and Trekkie conventions. It worked and today the Star Trek Franchise is worth billions of dollars despite the efforts of entertainment executives, film critics and other haters to imprison this sci-fi fantasy in the distant regions of our galaxy. Technically the original "Star Trek" was on TV for a paltry 3 seasons creating a library of 79 hour long shows but upon series termination the programs immediately went to syndication and were they were broadcast every day all over America (and the world) from 1969 to eternity which, by my calculations, means it's been on the air for 50+ years for hundreds of thousands of cumulative hours. The appeal, if you can call it that, of the show is not centered on space exploration or rationalized meta-colonization or one-worlder feel-goodism - though admittedly those sentiments are considered positives by Trekkies - but is rooted in the postmodern technocratic corporate office environment otherwise known as The Enterprise. The captain's chair, the big screen TV on the bridge through which the crew views "space", the teleportation room, the glop deposited on the cafeteria food trays, the sleeping pods, the unisex uniform (with insignia), the communicators, tricorders and phasers, the all knowing computer, the Dilithium Crystals and even the elevators, hallways and sliding doors of "The Enterprise" are a representation of the post-war multi-national Fortune 500 corporation and the social/work environment they created for employees. It's a multi-cultural, multi-planetary federation of ecumenical scientific martial wholesomeness on a mission to "explore" superstition and stupidity on strange new worlds but inexplicably the whole shebang is piloted by a swashbuckling renegade named Jim Kirk.
Yes, Kirk! And when I say Kirk I do not mean Shatner. Shatner is a clown. Years ago I was at an enterprise software sales conference and the CEO of the company hired Bill Shatner to come out on stage and give an inspirational talk to the crew of eager salesmen and tech nerds who were ostensibly attending the event to learn something. The actor didn't know anything about software, a fact he quickly admitted to the audience at the outset of his remarks, but that didn't stop him from rambling on for 40 minutes about e-business and the challenge of managing unstructured data. The entire talk was performed behind that bombastic Shatner mask that Trekies, and to a lesser extent non-Trekies, have been forced to endure since the mantle of Kirk fame fell upon this jackass and he monetized it. Talk shows, record albums, comic conventions, TJ Hooker, product spokesman, corporate shill - you write it and Shatner will read it for money in exactly the same stilted style filled with pregnant pauses and urgent inflections that Kirk used in his mighty orations from the bridge of his starship. But it's not Kirk - Shatner is no more Kirk than Brian Cranston is Walter White, which is to say not at all. That's why I write about these characters - Dillon, McGarrett, Crockett, Soprano, Mackey, White and especially Kirk - as a supernatural conjuring of elemental forces because something greater than the man is unleashed when these actors takes on their unique role.
Kirk vs. Picard
Shatner was recently sent to space by a lifelong Trekkie named Jeff Bezos who captains his own powerful enterprise but models his leadership on Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (1987-1994) which is a program I have never watched* but, based upon internet snooping and reviews, appears to be a Kirkless (in spirit) version of Star Trek. In fact, this Picard character is a 180 degree opposite of Kirk in every important way and this difference can be used as a metaphor for what has gone so wrong in contemporary culture, politics and business.
Though Kirk may be the one headed to space, Bezos has never shied away from reminding the world that he prefers Picard — usually on Twitter. “Kirk or Picard? Picard!” Bezos tweeted in March 2018, shortly after walking the red carpet with Stewart at the Academy Awards.
Like I said, Shatner is NOT Kirk. What kind of man listens to a bald nerd billionaire insult one of the greatest - arguably THE GREATEST - television characters of all time, which happens to be a character you brought to life, and declares a snooty, tea drinking continental superior to a mid-western, corn fed American. Then, hat in hand, accepts a ride into the final frontier from the self-same oligarch who insulted the singularly most important professional achievement of ones life. Answer: Someone other than James T. Kirk.
Bezos has not publicly explained why he admires Picard, but let’s venture a modest guess: Picard is a brilliant officer, historian and diplomat who plays a major role in the events of the 24th century. Even Spock was impressed: “He’s remarkably analytical and dispassionate, for a human. … There’s almost a Vulcan quality to the man.”
It's a sickening thought but when contemplating the various reasons why Jeff Bezos would give a golden ticket on his rocket to a 90 year old pretender psychotherapy postulates that it must be something deeper than the marketing and PR benefits accrued to Blue Origin. In Bezos's mind, Shatner is a proxy for the Kirk he can never be - The self assured, passionate happy warrior who wears his manhood like a comfortable garment - and so, symbolically, the skin-head weasel who controls everyone's shopping cart, grocery store and news source needs to blast him off-planet. It's weird and it epitomizes the war of man vs. machine which everyone, knowingly or unknowingly, is fighting to the death (and will be fighting for decades to come). If the protectors of God and Nature are willing to prevail in this epic struggle Frogs must armor themselves in the Kirk nimbus and boldly go where no man has gone before!