On TV, Dentists Are Still Villains

Slate's Culture Blog
June 11 2013 11:53 AM

On TV, Dentists Are Still Villains

parks_jamm
On Parks and Recreation, Jon Glaser, right, plays a villainous dentist. Rob Lowe, left, plays a saintly public servant.

NBC

Is Jeremy Jamm television’s most heinous bad guy? According to Vulture’s Denise Martin, the Pawnee orthodontist, who spent last season as Parks and Recreation’s Big Bad, is the best villain of 2012-13. Over at ThinkProgress, Alyssa Rosenberg agrees, noting that an immature, mean-spirited spoiler like Jamm (Jon Glaser) can effectively rob kinder and more idealistic characters of their dreams, values, and dignity.

In NBC’s Parks and Recreation, which is, among many other things, a celebration of representational democracy, Jamm’s main role is to represent cynical, obstructionist politicians, a stark contrast with hopeful, principled Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler). But Jeremy Jamm isn’t just a city councilman; as far as I’m aware, he’s the only member of Pawnee’s city council who also holds down another job. And he’s a dentist, perhaps the only profession Americans respect less than politician.

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Take a look at Jamm’s Pawnee City Council bio: Instead of celebrating Pawnee, as Knope does, he uses city resources to promote his own business: “Orthodontics is sometimes referred to as an elective treatment, but next time you hear someone say that, do yourself a favor and look at the mouth it's coming out of. Disgusting, right? Don’t let that mouth happen to you.” Shame, blame, an obsession with appearance, and nary a mention of basic oral health.

Jamm isn’t television’s only predatory dentist. In ABC’s Suburgatory, Noah Werner, DDS (Alan Tudyk), once fed beets to a group of teenagers to drive them into his office. Noah wasn’t a total Jamm-style fiend; indeed, his friend George Altman couldn’t have adjusted to life in the ’burbs without his help, but even at his most lovable, Noah’s dental work was always questionable. In Season 1, his friendship with George almost ended over a massive dental bill; in Season 2, after he extracted Tessa Altman’s wisdom teeth, he didn’t supervise her post-surgery pain medicine properly and failed to intervene when she temporarily turned into a tin-foil-hat-wearing paranoiac. Weirdest of all, in the Season 2 finale, he lured a romantic rival into his dental chair by offering him a free cleaning and then proceeded to file the man’s teeth into points. Noah suffered no consequences for this gross violation of professional ethics (and good sense)—at least not on-screen: Noah Werner won’t be returning for Season 3.

I understand why dentists are such appealing TV villains. Dental treatment is often painful, it’s expensive, and it’s rarely any fun. Laughing at dentists is far more satisfying than writing checks to them. But it’s time to put the brakes on the cliché before it becomes a joke in itself. I was glad to see that when The Middle created a dentist to hire newly minted dental assistant Frankie Heck (Patricia Heaton), it went with a sweet, goofy, man-child—played by 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer. It probably helps that Jana Hunter, one of The Middle’s staff writers, is a former dental hygienist. When the show returns next season, I hope McBrayer’s Dr. Ted Goodwin will help shape a new template for the small-screen dentist: kind, concerned, and not too greedy.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

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