Welcome to AVQ&A, where we toss out a question for discussion. HBO’s Barry premieres this Sunday, March 25, in which Bill Hader’s hitman-turned-actor finds an unlikely mentor in Henry Winkler’s Gene Cousineau. As we await the first season, we’re asking an important question:
You can keep your Dumbledoreses and your Obi-Wans Kenobi; if I get my pick of personal pop-culture pedagogues, I’ll go with Columbo every single day. Can you even imagine what it would be like to be taken under his rumpled, grandpa-smelling wing, getting your education in all the most important Columbo arts? You know, stuff like how to do a good “I’m just thinkin’” forehead rub, or how to tell distractingly rambly anecdotes, or the proper timing for the perfect “One more thing…” Columbo’s not just the world’s most successfully garrulous detective, either; I have it on good authority he tells a pretty great bed-time story, too.
As we emotionally prepare ourselves for the final season of The Americans, I’m going to pick Keri Russell’s Elizabeth Jennings for my mentor. Sure, she can be a little too steadfast and unwavering in her beliefs, but she’s also an undisputed badass whose mentorship would surely help me overcome being startled at so much as a co-worker tapping me on the shoulder. Not that I have any use for them, but I wouldn’t mind learning some light surveillance techniques or, as she taught her protégé/fledgling KGB informant Hans, how to notice and memorize the tiniest details in an instant. I’ve heard that learning the martial arts is great for your self-confidence, never mind the backbone it takes to befriend your enemy, who just so happens to live across the street. It’s true that a lot of people around Elizabeth—including at least one former protégé that we know of—ends up dead, but as long as I can mostly learn in the Jennings’ garage, along with Paige, and not on actual espionage missions, I should be able to avoid being chopped up and put into a suitcase or shot from behind.
Leia Organa is a phenomenal lesson in subverting hoary old tropes; despite her character originally written as a princess—a princess in need of saving—Leia’s nerve, daring, and ultimate leadership of the rebellion make her one of the best characters in the Star Wars universe, and one of the best characters in pop culture. I want her for my mentor because she never stopped fighting the good fight, and I could use a dose of her persistence and optimism in face of the odds. It doesn’t hurt that she could teach me any of her long list of skills: piloting, sharp-shooting, and pithy quips among them.
I’m not a methodical person by nature. My desk is littered with scrawled notes on upcoming deadlines that I’m perpetually racing to meet; meanwhile, I’m constantly getting sidetracked by anxieties about what lies down the road two, even three months from now. So I could use someone like The Wire’s wise, patient Lester Freamon to keep me focused on the trail, to teach me to take pleasure and humbly quiet pride in the work and in the doing. Even more importantly, I could use him to give me the kind of sagacious perspective that he lays on McNulty when he reminds him that his work isn’t everything, and that life is “the shit that happens while you’re waiting for moments that never come.” Maybe he could even teach me how to make some dollhouse furniture in my downtime.
I’m going to go ahead and rule out my actual answer, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of rock critic Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, because as perfectly mythological as he seems in that film, picking a real person who really mentored other real people seems like cheating. So instead, I’ll go with the most obvious and completely impractical answer there is: Yoda. I don’t know what kind of wisdom he’d have prepared for a slovenly culture critic, but if he can push Luke Skywalker to lift a spaceship with his mind, I’m sure he could help me become a better whatever I am. He’s the quintessential movie mentor, after all: an unfathomably skilled hermit who’s led a life of both great success and great tragedy. He’s also a delightfully mischievous little asshole, which might be infuriating in the moment but would at least give me a little levity to look back on among all the discipline.
Although a pop-culture dork like myself would perplex him, I’d still take Coach Eric Taylor from Friday Night Lights as my mentor. I don’t need another person in my life to debate the merits of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; I need no-nonsense, stop-your-fretting-and-get-moving kind of person to help shake me from my anxiety and general trepidation. And if I still blow it after he does that, he’ll help me improve for next time. Who wouldn’t want him to be their mentor? And hey, we’re both from Texas, so we’d have something in common.
Look, if you’re going to have someone take you under their wing, they might as well be loaded. That’s why I’d choose as my mentor a man with whom I’m ideologically opposed on a number of issues: 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy. Sure, he’s a good ol’ boy, hyper-capitalist neocon, but that doesn’t stop him from taking a liking to his ideological opponent, Liz Lemon. And besides, in softer matters—like whether or not to follow a hippy to a second location, or the fine differences between being rich drunk and business drunk—he’s remarkably sage-like. He may end up turning me into a suit-wearing lizard person eventually, but he’d bankroll whatever weird shit I want for awhile, and I’d certainly get to hang out on rich-people boats more frequently.
As the anchor keeping Orphan Black’s universe of sisterly bonds and shady science from spinning out of control, Siobhan Sadler—better known as Mrs. S—seems like she would make a great mentor, in sci-fi adventures and life more generally. It should tell you something about Mrs. S that creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett based the character on Patti Smith, and Maria Doyle Kennedy inhabits the role with tenderness and grit. Driven by Kennedy’s quiet poise, Mrs. S is low-key the most gangster character on the show, stealthily deflecting or absorbing drama on behalf of her family (all clones included), even when the consequences are fatal—and often they are. She’s intensely loyal and demanding, and perpetually two steps ahead of everyone else.
Don Draper is the polar opposite of me: Silent where I am uber-chatty, mysterious where I am completely forthcoming and obvious. Is it any wonder I watched Mad Men as a kind of blueprint for my romantic and work personas? Granted, none of it really took, which is why I could still use Draper’s mentorship on how to control an entire room without saying a word, always working everyone to his advantage without anyone even suspecting. Sure, he made some bad choices, and I wish he wouldn’t have treated Betty so heinously and hung out with his kids a bit more. But I would gladly buy Don an old-fashioned or seven to find out his secret for commanding attention and always seeming so confident, sometimes when we knew he was anything but. Under his tutelage, my pitches at meetings would no longer be met with co-workers’ snores but uncontrollable weeping as I pull off something as beautiful and thoughtful as “The Wheel.”
The most important part of a mentor/mentee relationship is the training montage, so I’d have to choose the mentor who appeared in one of cinema’s all-time great montages: Gene the cook from Wet Hot American Summer. Oh sure, the character (played by Christopher Meloni) has been through some rough stuff and has some weird tastes, but he managed to turn things around for Michael Showalter’s heartbroken Coop after just a few minutes of jogging, weirdly emotional dancing, pebble-snatching (a mainstay of any good montage), and tearful group therapy. Throw in that amazing song, which I imagine I’d hear constantly while absorbing Gene’s bizarre wisdom, and I know there’s nobody I’d rather have teaching me a new way.
Although I could admittedly benefit from a more disciplined routine, I’m not sure I could handle the tough love of a traditional martial-arts mentor like Priest Dokai, the monk who pushes our young heroine down the side of a mountain as part of her training to become Lady Snowblood. So I’m going to go with a gentler, if equally disciplined, choice: Professor X. Everyone wants to think that they’re special, but if you catch the eye of Professor Charles Xavier, then you know that you are. Professor X has the power to control and potentially even kill people with his mind, but he doesn’t—at least, not for his own selfish reasons. Instead, he’s devoted his life to taking scared, lonely mutants under his wing and teaching them that they have a responsibility to use their powers to protect humans, even the ones who hate them. He’s a model of altruism and self-control who’s chosen to use his extraordinary intelligence to enhance his students’ powers alongside his own and always strive for the greater good. Well, most of the time.
I have some fundamental differences of philosophy with Ron Swanson, but clearly that had no bearing on his relationship with Leslie Knope. And, like Kyle and Coach Taylor, I could probably use a gruff figure like Ron to shove me out of my comfort zones and into a place of self-reliance where I could tighten my own valve stems into their valve shanks, replace their handles, and then tighten the set screws that will hold them in place. And if it turns out we don’t get along (and we almost certainly wouldn’t), I’d still have the Swanson Pyramid Of Greatness to guide me.
HBO’s Barry, starring Bill Hader and Henry Winkler, premieres Sunday, March 25, 10:30 p.m. Eastern.