Hanging One’s Hat: Haberdashery as TV Criticism

Last Sunday, sandwiched between the juggernaut of the NFC/AFC championships and the surprising resilience of Once Upon A Time, NBC elected to burn off the two remaining episodes of their beleaguered drama Prime Suspect. The decision came as no surprise to anyone, given that it was essentially a dead show walking for weeks: it had ratings that were abysmal even by NBC standards, a poorly received pilot that obscured the fact that the show improved, and a general apathy from fans of the original British series. At the Television Critics Association press tour earlier this month, NBC president Robert Greenblatt offered his condolences, saying that under different circumstances (i.e. on his old cable network) it would have been a hit and earned a five-year run.

In an effort to close the book and reorient to NBC’s hopefully brighter future, Greenblatt offered a brief joke, based on some of the show’s more controversial wardrobe choices: “Maybe I should just blame the hat and move on.”

Leaving aside my own personal feelings on Prime Suspect (most of which I share with The A.V. Club in that I thought it was a good-not-great cop show with a very strong core in Maria Bello), Greenblatt’s comments raised a point I’ve been meaning to talk about for some time: hats. Or more to the point, hats and the role they play in television. I’ve heard the argument several times that people don’t want to watch shows where men wear hats – typically in reference to the failure of such period pieces as Pan Am – and I consider that a cliché that unfairly impugns what a good hat does for a show. As a devoted fan of and sporter of hats (I typically sport a C-crown style brown felt fedora for those of you who are curious) I thought I’d take a little journey through some of television’s contemporary chapeaus and offer my take on just what a good show can do with them.

So, let’s begin with Detective Jane Timoney’s hat: a black straw trilby with a small brim and a white and grey band. This hat was maligned by most members of the press in the original promotional materials for the show – with “silly” being the most commonly uttered word – but I don’t think it deserved that attention because it did exactly what it was supposed to. Jane w/as set up at the start as an outsider in her department, and the hat gave a visual approximation to that to make her stand out against the dark-suited detectives who traded jabs with her. Additionally, Bello (who called it “her magic hat” in at least one interview) also did an admirable job using the hat as a prop, taking advantage of its crushable nature to make her seem more assertive: gesturing forcefully at a crime scene, or tossing it onto her desk with feeling when the occasion called for it.

If I had a problem with the hat, it’s that the type of hat itself doesn’t really lend itself to the sort of character. It certainly did the job of setting her apart from the rest of the squadroom, but it almost went too far. That particular style seems a bit too hipster for the character of Jane, and seemed as equally out of place in the comfort zones of her apartment or her father’s bar. Personally, I think it’d have been better served as a more traditional felt fedora or homburg, something that made her at least seem professional even if her behaviors didn’t go along with it. It probably wouldn’t have saved the show, but a little bit closer tailoring to character could have improved the perception going forward.

So that’s a hat that didn’t quite do what it needed to, but if I need an example of a hat that does in spades, I don’t need to look any further than FX’s Justified and its leading man Timothy Olyphant as U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. Olyphant obviously sported an assertive cowboy hat on Deadwood, but the wide-brimmed tan Stetson Raylan sports puts that one to shame, and tells us at first glance what sort of person he is. Raylan’s core character trait is that he’s spiritually a lawman from the Old West – “born a hundred years too late” as his boss Art observed in the short story that inspired the pilot – and seeing him walk into a room with a hat like that perfectly projects that level of confidence to simultaneously impress and unsettle a room. It might not be the businessman’s Stetson that Elmore Leonard originally assigned to the character – a point that made for an excellent inside joke in the season three premiere – but by this point it’s hard to imagine him wearing anything else.

More to the point, the hat has become so intricately tied to Raylan that not only do we notice it when it’s vanished, its absence seems to change the whole dynamic of the show. Season one’s “Hatless” was certainly the best personification of it, with Raylan already off his game as a result of a week’s suspension, and losing the hat following a bar brawl just pushed him further off the path. The whole episode turned into Raylan trying to find his momentum again on a case for his ex-wife, and it was almost fitting that he not have the hat while off the reservation. Plus, his search for the hat wound up being as much a part of his character’s rejuvenation, particularly as he sparred with those who could help him in wonderful Leonard-esque style: “Wouldn’t it be easier just to go and buy yourself a new hat?” “Probably. But it ain’t easier I’m after.” Since then, the show hasn’t made as big a deal of the instances where he’s without his hat, but there’s always a clear feeling in installments like “Bulletville” and “Bloody Harlan” that not having it means Raylan’s nowhere near in control as we’d like him to be.

In other instances, hats might not only add something to the performance but go a step farther, serving as a transitional prop for the character. On AMC’s Breaking Bad, Walter White began wearing a black porkpie hat very early in the show’s run, combining it with a black windbreaker and fit-over sunglasses when he had to make public appearances as his “Heisenberg” persona. Starting out, the hat wasn’t taken seriously, much as Walter himself wasn’t taken seriously – he even tried using it as a prop for a weak joke with his wife following a three-day disappearance, which was as uncomfortable for her as it was for those of us who knew where he’d really been.

But as time went on, the porkpie became synonymous with Heisenberg, beginning at the start of season three when the only identifying image of Walt the Cousins had available was the now iconic pencil drawing of a man in hat and glasses. What started out as a somewhat silly piece of camouflage started to become almost menacing, and you could see Walt start to use it as an excuse to embrace his darker nature. That particular moment at the start of the season three finale “Full Measure,” when he puts on the hat and strides from his car to meet the vengeful Gus Fring was the clearest indication it had become a shield – the impotent scientist now carried himself like a criminal, and could finally articulate his points without an visible instance of fear. (They later tried to recapture that imagery in “Thirty-Eight Snub,” but it was too close to the original scene to feel truly impactful.)

Of course, this doesn’t mean to say that a hat needs to be at the forefront of a show. More often than not, you can use hats or hat-oriented discussion in limited doses to make a better point about both the character and the setting of the show. On Mad Men for instance, the topic came up in the discussion of the Nixon-Kennedy presidential race, and Pete made the observation that neither Kennedy nor Elvis wore hats – a point quickly shot down by the old guard of the firm. It’s a throwaway detail at first glance, but one that gets to the core of what Mad Men‘s about: the times they are a-changin’, and not everyone’s going to be able to move fast enough to keep up, even if it’s only starting with headgear.

And of course, as one of those old guard Don Draper’s hat is an important part of his image, even though it’s understated. He’s got no need to be flashy with it, it’s simply a piece of the armor and the image he’s built up for himself as the man in the gray flannel suit. To him, it’s the symbolism that matters, and in the second season premiere “For Those Who Think Young,” he proved just how much when two younger employees didn’t think to remove their hats in an elevator as a woman entered. He told them to take them off, and when they didn’t he did it for them. For a character whose career is littered with disrespect to women, it was a very respectful moment, even as it betrayed he’s likely not to be on the more progressive side of society.

For the lighter side, take a look at the Doctor from Doctor Who, more particularly his eleventh and current incarnation, who not only wears the most outlandish of the hats but has the best excuse for doing so: fezzes are cool now. It’s both a nod to some of the past Doctors, and a move that proves despite centuries of wandering and war there’s a childish ebullience buried in his personality that can never truly be suppressed. If he thinks it’s going to be fun, important or simply a new experience, he’s going to do it, societal norms and companion disapproval be damned. And even when his companions try to keep him from wearing one, he simply moves onto a Stetson and wears it almost as well as Raylan Givens. Why’d he pick that one? Same reason: Stetsons are cool now.

Finally, in using hats well there’s the complete opposite of using it sparingly: the shows where everyone wears one the time. Usually reserved for the period pieces (hence the cliché I mentioned at the start of this piece) this is even more challenging to pull off because not only do you have to pick the hat that matches the character but you also have to do it with the knowledge that you’re doing the same thing for at least a dozen other characters, and the caveat that they’ll be wearing it virtually all the time.

It’s difficult to do right, but not impossible, and in contemporary television HBO’s Deadwood is the clearest example of doing it right. Gunslingers like Wild Bill Hickock and the aforementioned Seth Bullock wore assertive cowboy hats (all the better to squint from under in a threatening fashion) while business types like E.B Farnum and Charlie Utter went for the more unassuming derby hats. A rough-and-tumble sort like Dan Dority would naturally need a more workman-like cowboy hat, while legally minded Silas Adams kept a tall top hat – unsurprisingly, the two’s personalities were as dynamically opposed as their chapeaus. If you didn’t have a hat in Deadwood, you needed to be able to back it up with something else – and in the case of Al Swearengen, his charisma was so potent and threatening no other prop was necessary.

HBO’s latest period piece Boardwalk Empire still hasn’t gotten to the point where it can truly call itself a spiritual successor to Deadwood, but in terms of knowing how to use its hats it’s at least gotten to the point that it can match the former. Indeed, Boardwalk treats its hats like status symbols: protagonist Nucky Thompson typically sports a pearl-gray homburg hat*, a dignified affair that gives him a sense of being untouched by the criminal elements he increasingly connects himself with. Professional gangsters “Lucky” Luciano and Meyer Lansky sport assertive fedoras, Chalky White switches between homburg and fedora depending on what side of the tracks he does business, middle manager Mickey Doyle has a quiet derby, and lower-level enforcers like Richard Harrow and Owen Sleater sport anonymous watch-caps. Many of Boardwalk‘s characters are clearly of the belief that clothes make the man, and the wardrobe department knows how to get the point across.

*And it also gives the show a spiritual connection to Brooklyn author Gilbert Sorrentino, for those of us who like that sort of thing.

But what’s really impressive about Boardwalk‘s hat choices is that it knows how to use them to illustrate character evolution and adaptation. Perhaps the best illustration of this was in “The Emerald City,” when still up-and-coming mobster Al Capone had a brief chat with an elderly Jewish man during a bar mitzvah, where not only was he told keeping his hat on was a sign of respect but that he was wearing “the cap of a boy.” In tandem with some harsh words from his superior Johnny Torrio he took the words to heart, and the next time we saw him he was in the snap-brim fedora that would be associated with his criminal empire. Jimmy Darmody made a similar change as he rose in the ranks of Torrio’s organization, and Agent Nelson van Alden made an inverse move after being forced into exile from his role as a Prohibition agent.

I really could go on and on with other examples – or even go old-school with J.R. Ewing’s assertive hat on Dallas or Gilligan’s floppy white cap on Gilligan’s Island – but I think by now the point’s been made. For all the talk about how people don’t want to watch a show where men wear hats, there’s a lot of instances where the hat can say as much as the performer can. NBC’s apparently picked up a bewildering slate of pilots for next season, and I do hope that if one of the ones that gets order to series has a conspicuously hatted protagonist, they won’t be turned away from featuring that in the promotion.

Because really, if done right, everyone should wear a hat. Hats are cool now.

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About Les Chappell

The Mad Hatter of media criticism. Co-founder of This Was Television, contributor to The A.V. Club, founder of A Helpless Compiler and The Lesser of Two Equals.
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3 Responses to Hanging One’s Hat: Haberdashery as TV Criticism

  1. Pingback: Previewing the Week: 5. bis 11. Februar « tvaddictfromgermany

  2. hey great site, i enjoyed reading it. keep up the good work

  3. Pingback: Review: Prime Suspect, Series 1, Part 1 « This Was Television

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