(Just hear me out, guys.)
Last night on Mad Men, viewers learned conclusively that endlessly eager-to-please Bob Benson really is too good to be true. For starters, there’s no such person as “Bob Benson”; the name is a total fake, as is his résumé. “Bob” doesn’t have any true experience in account management – as the intrepid Duck Phillips discovered, before bluffing his way into a job at SCDP (and subsequently SC&P), the imposter worked as a “manservant” to a Senior Vice President at another firm. He’s a conniving liar, a charming con artist, a handsome but hollow self-made man … and a clear analogue of Don Draper himself, Mad Men’s original corrupt embodiment of the American Dream.
Almost everything about Bob, from his alliterative pseudonym to the way he got his current job (by waltzing into the building and pretending he had actually been hired) to the way his true identity is revealed during a tense confrontation with Pete Campbell hearkens back to the saga of Dick Whitman. The only real differences between the two are that Don stole his identity wholesale, while Bob made his up from scratch – and Bob’s fluid, ambiguous sexuality is a far cry from Don’s machismo. Also, Don doesn’t speak Spanish.
Perhaps Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner has given us a younger, more smiley Don doppelgänger because he wants to steer the show back to its polished but soapy roots. Maybe this is his way of commenting on the increasing emptiness of corporate culture as the ’60s give way to the Me Decade. Maybe he’s running out of ideas as his celebrated series gears up for its seventh – and probably final – season. (It’s also possible that Weiner is just a big Lone Star fan.)
But even though any of those options is more plausible than this one, I prefer to think that Bob is actually an example of a classic TV type: the expy, or exported character. As TV Tropes defines it, an expy is “a character from one series who is unambiguously and deliberately based on a character in another, older series” – or an older incarnation of the very same series.
That’s where Degrassi comes in. The Canadian teen franchise is the gold standard of expy-based television: Degrassi Junior High, which debuted in 1987, focused on a core group of students, including sensitive bad boy Rick Murno, rebellious first-generation immigrant Voula Grivogiannis, and earnest, socially conscious Caitlin Ryan (who had a thing for Rick). When a spinoff series called Degrassi: The Next Generation premiered in 2001, nearly all its characters were mirror images of characters from the first generation: Rick became Sean Cameron. Voula morphed into Manny Santos. Caitlin was revamped as Emma Nelson (who had a thing for Sean).
And as those carbon copies left the show for college or heaven or the Canadian army or whatever, they were in turn replaced by third- and even fourth-degree copies: K.C. Guthrie and Campbell Saunders (the new Seans), Alli Bhandari (the new Manny), Clare Edwards and Maya Matlin (the new Emmas, who date their respective new Seans). The original Caitlin Ryan would be proud to see so much recycling.
When expys aren’t the result of writers plagiarizing their earlier work – see the collective animated offerings of Seth MacFarlane – they’re typically introduced in order to extend the life of a long-running show; think of Glee supplementing its graduating class with a series of déjà-vu-inducing characters, then pointing out their derivative nature by having older characters wonder who will be “the new Rachel.”
But this reasoning doesn’t seem as though it would apply to Mad Men. As a prestige show, it’s not built to last as long as AMC keeps renewing it. Instead, Weiner and Co. are aiming to wrap up the show in a satisfying manner, building up to a big ending that’s worthy of fans’ obsessive dissection.
If that’s the case, why bother introducing an expy of Don Draper (or an expy of Roger Sterling in Harry Hamlin’s Jim Cutler, for that matter) this late in the game? Perhaps it’s simply Weiner’s way of acknowledging his own show’s formidable history – and of showing how his characters have grown and changed over the past eight years by examining how they react to an old type in a new way. (1960 Pete Campbell wouldn’t let Don get away with his deceit; a shrewder, eight-years-older Pete dealt with the new Don using a different route.)
Then again, there’s always the possibility of a Bob-based spinoff that extends the Mad Men brand. Sterling, Cooper & Partners: The Next Generation?