10 of the most emotionally admirable workers on TV

Okay, time for a little balance: After Monday’s post summarizing TDYLF‘s worst big-screen employers ever, I thought I’d weigh in with my listing of 10 of the most emotionally admirable workers on the small screen.  Here they are:

Tami Taylor, school counselor and principal, Friday Night Lights — It’s highway robbery that Connie Britton didn’t win an Emmy for her portrayal of Tami Taylor in one of the best TV dramas ever. Originally positioned as wife to high school football coach Eric Taylor (played wonderfully by Kyle Chandler), Tami becomes the moral core of the show, exhibiting role model-quality emotional intelligence at work, home, and in the community. Also deserving: Coach Taylor (Chandler).

Jean Luc Picard, starship captain, Star Trek: The Next Generation — Picard, played by Patrick Stewart, is cool under fire, a man of action and intellect, and as kindhearted as a Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise can afford to be. He’s an excellent leader who maximizes and appreciates the talents of the crew serving with him.

Jane Tennison, police detective and superintendent, Prime Suspect — Yup, Tennison is a mess. She drinks too much and her personal life is in shambles. But she’s managed to retain her dignity while fighting her way up the ladder in this mean, male-dominated world of law enforcement. She is, above all, extraordinarily determined and resilient. Helen Mirren is brilliant in this role.

John Bates, valet, Downton Abbey —  Mr. Bates brings some mysterious personal baggage and an injury that affects his ability to walk (for which he is bullied by other staff) to his work as valet to Lord of the Manor. Hat’s off to Brendan Coyle for giving his character an intensely private sense of dignity. Also deserving: Mrs. Hughes, housekeeper (Phyllis Logan).

Colleen McMurphy, nurse, China Beach — In her defining breakout role, Dana Delany portrays a young nurse serving in an American medical unit during the heart of the Vietnam War. McMurphy is the heart and soul of a deservedly Emmy-winning drama, demonstrating courage, sensitivity, and empathy amidst suffering and death. It’s a shame that China Beach is not yet out on DVD.

Cedric Daniels, police commander, The Wire — Chief Daniels, played by Lance Reddick, must juggle a group of frequently rogue officers, the racial politics of Baltimore, a cutthroat and corrupt government bureaucracy, and a secret or two about his own past. He’s the calm in the storm of this remarkable television series.

Andy Taylor, town sheriff, The Andy Griffith Show — While playing straight man to his lovably bumbling deputy Barney Fife (the brilliant Don Knotts), sheriff Andy Taylor continually mixes a homespun brand of human understanding and kindness. Watch a few episodes on cable or Netflix. You’ll yearn for more folks like Sheriff Taylor in today’s society.

C.J. Cregg, presidential press secretary and chief of staff, The West Wing — Allison Janney created one of the strongest characters among this excellent ensemble cast. Tough and kind, steely and vulnerable, idealistic yet politically savvy — and always very, very smart.  Also deserving: Leo McGarry, presidential chief of staff (John Spencer); and Congressman and presidential candidate Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits).

Peggy Olson, advertising copywriter, Mad Men — She started as a secretary and moved up to a copywriter position at a New York ad agency. What’s next for this mousy but ambitious, outer borough striver — played expertly by Elizabeth Moss — who doesn’t yet understand what her mid-1960s struggles will mean to other women? Also deserving: Joan Harris, office administrator (Christina Hendricks).

Frank Furillo, police commander, Hill Street Blues — Daniel J. Travanti gave a deliberative, quietly on the edge persona to Captain Furillo, in this pioneering TV drama of the 1980s that reset the bar very high for cop shows to come. Alas, only the first two seasons are available on DVD.


I confess! I like cop shows, as long-time readers of this blog may have picked up. They typically are set in dysfunctional work environments, beset by politics, corruption, personal rivalries, and overheated emotions. Great stuff.

Most of the female characters are trying to succeed in a male dominated world, and their emotional intelligence often is exhibited in how they navigate that environment.

By contrast, many of the male characters on this list are relatively comfortable in their leadership roles.

It’s a pretty white group, isn’t it? I’ll punt on whether that says more about my viewing habits or the casting practices of television producers.

There’s only one comedy on the list, The Andy Griffith Show. Is it that sitcoms and emotionally intelligent characters don’t necessarily mix?

What does ABC’s “Revenge” teach us about workplace injustice?

I’ve never been a fan of soap operas, but a very soapy new primetime drama, ABC’s “Revenge,” has been a lock on my DVR this fall.

About “Revenge”

“Revenge” is the title, philosophy, and practice of this weekly guilty pleasure. The story features a young woman, Emily Thorne (played by Emily VanCamp), who mysteriously appears in the Hamptons, New York’s refuge for the ultra wealthy.

Emily is not who she says she is. She’s really Amanda Clarke, and years ago, when Amanda was still a girl, her rich, cutthroat neighbors framed her father for a horrific act of terrorism and essentially destroyed their lives. Emily/Amanda now has returned home to exact revenge on them, in brutally cool and calculated ways. (“Revenge” is said to be loosely patterned after Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, but believe me, you don’t have to be familiar with the book to get into the show!)

Each new episode features intrigue, manipulation, and carefully planned acts of payback. It also highlights an ongoing cat fight, nay, death battle of the tigresses, between Emily and leading Hamptons socialite Victoria Grayson (played by Madeleine Stowe), a key operative in her father’s disgrace and demise.

This could be a giant recipe for an early series cancellation but for the pitch perfect performances by the lead actresses. VanCamp is the ideal cold-blooded avenger masquerading as the sharp, pretty, sweetheart-next-door. Stowe pulls off her Ice Queen of the Hamptons role — one that easily could become a caricature in the hands of a less-gifted performer — with just the right touch. And when Emily and Victoria are in the same room, well, if looks could kill…

Revenge vs. schadenfreude

Are fans of “Revenge” frustrated avengers pining for a chance to inflict payback on those who have hurt them? If so, then there are millions of us waiting in the wings.

Fortunately, I don’t think this is the case. It boils down to the difference between exacting revenge — i.e., taking an active part in the retribution — and experiencing schadenfreude, the German loanword defined as deriving joy or satisfaction from another’s misfortune. The former involves planning and participation, while the latter represents an emotional response.

For some, a successful act of revenge can result in schadenfreude. For others, schadenfreude is more comfortably experienced as the result of a misfortune visited upon someone by another party or initiative.

I believe that most viewers enjoy “Revenge” because it allows us to revel in a fictional version of the latter variety. After all, cutting through the soap, “Revenge” reminds us that plotting real-life payback easily becomes an all-consuming and blackhearted passion. It often requires the same overheated emotion as the act that inspired it, not to mention a heckuva lot of care and attention to detail if one does not want to get caught.

Furthermore, the vast majority recognize that carrying an unyielding need for vengeance can be a dark, heavy, and unhealthy burden. Even if we struggle to forgive our trespassers, we nevertheless understand the personal costs of devoting ourselves to visiting retribution upon them.

And yet, “Revenge” may satisfy some inner craving for schadenfreude, which allows us to eat our cake but not have to answer for the calories. When one of Emily’s brilliantly designed acts of payback succeeds, it’s hard not to say, hah hah, gotcha!

Workplace revenge fantasies

No doubt that when some viewers are relishing Emily’s latest success, they’re thinking about specific bosses or co-workers who treated them poorly or unfairly.

Indeed, some of the “bad boss” books that I’ve paged through over the years are full of revenge fantasies, imagined and realized. People construct, and occasionally act out, these fantasies because they lack the power to use organizational resources to make things right. And when institutions do not embrace fairness and accountability, those on the receiving end of perceived injustices are left to their own devices and coping skills.

These are no trifling concerns, as I hope this blog has demonstrated. Perceptions of organizational justice impact productivity and individual well-being. Careers, livelihoods, and paychecks are at stake, not to mention personal health and dignity.

“Revenge” doesn’t get into the institutional ripple effects; it’s all personal, either in-your-face or behind-your-back. Ultimately, it isn’t psychologically deep enough to teach us anything more profound than the costs of being obsessed with retribution. But that in itself is a valuable lesson, and it’s delivered in marvelously entertaining fashion to boot.


Go here to watch full episodes of “Revenge.”

Work on TV: “Mad Men” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show”


I’m about to sound like a geeky professor, but I’d like us to compare and contrast two television programs, one currently airing, the other a vintage classic.

Here are two American television shows portraying early-to-mid 1960s families, featuring a husband who commutes from Long Island to Manhattan every day to a job doing creative, well-compensated work, a beautiful work-at-home housewife, and adorable children.

We’re basically talking about the same programs, several decades apart, right?

Yeah, right.

Mad Men

First there’s “Mad Men,” AMC’s one-hour drama about the lives of Manhattan advertising executives in the 1960s, currently one of the most talked-about shows on the small screen.

In “Mad Men” you have the tortured, manipulative Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) and his troubled, ice princess wife, Betty Draper (January Jones).

In the world of Madison Avenue advertising, Don Draper and his colleagues create ad campaigns, compete with other agencies for accounts, and spend a lot of time drinking, smoking, and carousing.

The Dick Van Dyke Show

And then there’s the “Dick Van Dyke Show,” a classic sitcom from the 1960s centered on the lives of writers for a television comedy/variety hour, “The Alan Brady Show.”

In the “Dick Van Dyke Show” you have the boyish and klutzy Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) and his wholesome beauty of a wife, Laura Petrie (Mary Tyler Moore).

In the world of producing a network television show, Rob Petrie and his colleagues write comedy sketches, spend time with each other’s families, and sometimes perform at the boss’s parties.

Representations of work and society

Is there an objective truth about the worlds of high-stakes creative work at that time and place, and if so, does either television program accurately reflect it?

“Mad Men” is dark and brooding, both at work and at home. It can be fairly brutal in portraying the experiences of women and other “minorities” (racial, religious, and sexual) in that world of advertising.

The “Dick Van Dyke Show” presents an idyllic world of fun at work and almost picture-perfect suburban bliss at home. Occasionally the show delved into issues of difference, especially the changing roles of women and religious diversity (mainly through the Jewish faith of fellow comedy writer Buddy Sorrell, played by Maury Amsterdam), but almost always with a light touch.

My verdict? Both are brilliant, entertaining shows. But while the world of the “Dick Van Dyke Show” is a happy, fun place to be, the world of “Mad Men” is a lot closer to the truth.


You can watch both television shows via cable networks, DVD sets, and Netflix subscriptions. For “Mad Men” especially, I recommend starting from the beginning of the series to understand all the story arcs.

Work on TV: CBS’s “The Good Wife” highlights worker abuse

Those who are knowledgeable about workplace bullying and abuse may regard this as ho-hum, but earlier this month a network television drama featured a story line involving a lawsuit against a deliberately abusive employer.

CBS’s “The Good Wife” is one of the better network lawyer shows, featuring Julianna Margulies as a Alicia Florrick, lawyer and wife of unfaithful spouse Peter Florrick, a one-time Chicago state’s attorney who is running to recapture his office after serving time in prison for corruption.

The Good Wife features strong acting and fun plot twists, making for a very watchable series.

“Wrongful Termination”

Earlier this month, in an episode titled “Wrongful Termination,” The Good Wife featured a story line built around a workplace suicide and allegations that the employer deliberately created an abusive work environment in order to push workers into quitting their jobs.

Alicia Florrick is part of the legal team bringing a lawsuit against this employer, with the claims grounded in allegations of psychological mistreatment of the workers.

Why this matters

If we want workplace bullying to be mainstreamed as an employment relations concern, then we need dramatic depictions of abusive work environments in the popular media. Putting these narratives before the general public serves as a powerful validating force for this movement.

In short, stuff like this shows us that workplace bullying is coming out into the open. It’s a seemingly modest but important development.


For Comcast cable subscribers, the episode is still available via On Demand as of this writing.

Work on TV: American Idol without Simon Cowell

Two years ago I considered the question of whether Simon Cowell, the famously caustic judge on “American Idol,” was a workplace bully (post here):

Because Simon is the toughest judge, contestants often appear apprehensive when it’s his turn to comment.  If Simon praises the performance, the contestant breathes a sigh of relief and beams with delight.  If he pans the performance, the poor contestant tries to take it in stride.

I concluded that while Simon is something of a bully, many have experienced worse:

I’m not endorsing or defending Simon’s style or practice.  He’s a bonafide jerk, and he sometimes abuses the power his role confers upon him.  His Idol fame makes him a workplace bullying poster boy.  But as some readers can certainly attest, there are many, many bosses out there much worse than Simon Cowell.

Exit Simon

Simon is gone now, having moved on to other (equally or more lucrative) projects. Two other judges from last season, Kara DioGuardi and Ellen DeGeneres, were not retained, creating an opportunity to remake the judges panel.

The corps of Idol judges now includes holdover Randy Jackson and newcomers Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler. The addition of two famous performers obviously was designed to bolster ratings, but both Lopez and Tyler have proven to be solid in their roles.

Kinder, gentler, and still entertaining

The remodeled Idol judging panel also shows the dramatic effect of removing a bully from the workplace. Although I’ve missed several episodes, I feel comfortable saying that the 2011 edition of American Idol is a kinder place, even when the judges issue pointed critiques of less-than-stellar performances.

Both Lopez and Tyler bring a natural sympathy and respect for those who are auditioning and performing.

Tyler, surprisingly, also happens to be a bit of a class clown. Lopez has shed her diva personality and at times plays the role of maternal softie when it comes to dealing with the young performers.

What’s missing is the gratuitous meanness that Cowell often brought to reviewing performances he didn’t like. The palpable apprehension on the faces of contestants awaiting his critique and the deer-in-the-headlights looks as some struggled to react to one of his heavily barbed criticisms are no longer standard parts of each episode.

The effect of Simon Cowell’s departure on ratings is harder to determine. Ratings have been down, but they have been on the decline during the past few seasons, and this may be only a continuation of that trend.

Back to focusing on the talent

This appears to be a talented group of finalists, with a few of the contestants showing real star qualities early in the season. Think what you may about the talent show format, but during its 10 years, “American Idol” has unearthed some genuine stars. Perhaps the focus away from Simon Cowell’s bullying reviews will help to shine a more proper light on the young folks who are trying to make a splash on the Idol stage.

Work on TV: Cop dramas

I love good cop dramas on TV, not only for their entertainment value, but also because they do a great job of portraying the ups and downs of working for a living.  Here are some of the underlying themes that are prominent in many these shows:

1. Pursuing one’s passion (the bad and good of it)

2. Career advancement (triumph and disappointment)

3. Diversity and inclusion (often not a lot of it)

4. Work-life balance (mainly lack thereof)

5. Incivility and bullying (often lots of both)

6. Politics (both in-house and electoral)

7. Ethics (good cop, bad cop)

8. Dispute resolution (from informal chats to murder)

My favorites (alphabetical order)

I’ve written about two of these shows before (The Wire and Prime Suspect), but here’s a longer list of my favorite police dramas:

Blue Bloods — A brand new weekly, it’s among a minority of cop shows built around a non-dysfunctional family. Tom Selleck is excellent as the New York City police commissioner.

Foyle’s War — A treat from PBS, this ongoing series is set in small town England during World War Two, featuring Michael Kitchen as Inspector Christopher Foyle.

Hill Street Blues (*) — Pathbreaking 80s classic set in an unspecified American big city. Hey, let’s be careful out there.

Homicide: Life on the Street (*) — David Simon’s earthy Baltimore, Take 1. Addictive.

Prime Suspect (*) — A gift from across the pond, Helen Mirren is astoundingly good as British police inspector Jane Tennison. Start with Prime Suspect 1 and follow her career and life. Brilliant stuff.

The Shield (*) — You’ll feel guilty for hoping that LA cop Vic Mackey doesn’t get caught.

The Wire (*) — David Simon’s earthier Baltimore, Take 2. Widely acclaimed for its portrayal of life in inner city urban America.

(*) = has completed series run; episodes available on DVD.

But where’s the union?

Even the best cop dramas miss on the realities of being in unionized work settings. Most rank-and-file police officers and detectives are unionized, and collective bargaining negotiations over salaries and benefits have a significant impact on their lives. In most cop shows, however, the union presence is practically invisible, usually limited to calling in a union rep when an officer gets in trouble.

Need tips for coping with work? Watch “Survivor,” says Bay State writer

I remember a conversation from 2000 with Gary Namie, during the early stages of my affiliation with the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying (now the Workplace Bullying Institute). He told me that he had done a radio talk show program devoted to workplace bullying, and callers kept comparing their experiences at work to a new TV reality show called “Survivor.”

Neither of us knew that the show would become something of a small-screen phenomenon, but the parallels that these callers had drawn to work were striking to us.

Fast forward

“Survivor” apparently retains its ability to connect with the experience of work. In a piece for the Southwest Airlines magazine (link here), Massachusetts writer Nathaniel Reade draws upon the lessons of “Survivor” to offer these pieces of advice for coping with the modern workplace:

1. Align yourself with the power person

2. Don’t fight the power—work it

3. Blend in with the crowd .

4. Charm but don’t intimidate your bosses

5. Make it look like you’re working hard  

6. Gripe to your dog

7. Trust no one

8. Choose good over evil

I don’t want to steal Reade’s thunder, so you’ll have to read the full article for his entertaining and insightful explanations on each point. I suggest checking it out, as this guy understands what it’s like to be stuck in a lousy workplace:

Several years ago, I toiled in the most dysfunctional office on Earth. The boss berated and criticized virtually every member of her staff to the point of tears. . . . And No. 2 was even worse: A master of smiley charm and managing up, she undermined anyone who threatened her, which meant most of the best people there.


You also can link to a pdf of the magazine version here.

Hat tip: Lisa-Marie Mulkern

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