Posts Tagged ‘Mad Men’
As I’ve said here perhaps more often than necessary, television is a very strange medium, and the fact that it occupies such a familiar place in our lives can blind us to how weird it really is. It creates characters and stories that can feel as vivid as our own friends or memories, and it’s like real life in another way: sooner or later, it ends, and nobody—including the creators—ever really knows how. Even the best narrative plans have a way of going sideways, and much of the fascination of a great television show comes from how it deals with the unexpected, whether in the form of a cast change, a creative departure, or an unexpected extension or cancellation. Television can be as unpredictable and uncontrollable as life itself, except that we know, or think we know, who really pulls the strings. While it’s true that many viewers probably don’t care much about where television comes from, in recent years, there’s been a greater degree of engagement than ever before between the audience and the men and women behind the curtain. And it inevitably changes the way we experience it.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot ever since watching “The Crash,” the latest episode of Mad Men, and reading Todd VanDerWerff’s thoughtful—if somewhat bewildered—review on The A.V. Club. (Its opening sentence: “What the ever-loving merciful fuck?”) VanDerWerff is one of my favorite writers, and I’ve been reading his articles and criticism with pleasure for years, but I was particularly struck by one observation:
A lot of the core conflicts on this show are the sorts of core conflicts one might find in a TV writers’ room, and to a degree, for the people who follow this show obsessively, its true protagonist is Matt Weiner. The question for many of us obsessive fans isn’t what Don Draper will get up to next but what Matt Weiner will get up to next.
I think VanDerWerff goes a little too far when he says that the episode seems like Weiner’s “dare to the weekly review culture,” but otherwise, his analysis is right on the mark. Weiner is the secret hero of his own show, which more than any other series in history is about the process of writing itself: Don Draper writes ads, but he’s also the author of his own life, and it’s fascinating to see how the show continues to exercise the same chilly emotional control even as Don’s story spins apart.
Every week, after watching the latest episode of Mad Men, my wife and I will play the short featurette that accompanies it on iTunes, in which Weiner and members of the cast share their thoughts on the latest installment. These videos presumably began as an easy promotional extra, but they’ve evolved, at least to me, into a weirdly exegetical part of the show itself: as soon as the closing credits roll, I just want to know what the hell Weiner was thinking. Weiner seems aware of this, too, and there’s a teasing quality to many of his comments, which are lucid and reasonable, but which also seem to explain a lot more than they actually do. They’re a little like T.S. Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land, which are less a way of clarifying the poem than an integral part of the text. Sophisticated readers and viewers know that you should never take a writer’s statements about his own work at face value, and although Weiner comes across as a smart, ordinary, entirely earnest guy when he explains himself to the camera, there’s something Nabokovian in the way he elucidates a few select points while leaving the rest of it shrouded in mystery.
And it’s made me reflect about the ways in which television is an ongoing dialogue, imaginary or not, between a creator and his audience. This isn’t true of every show, of course, and it’s never more clear than when it’s no longer there. It’s fair to say that Community‘s new showrunners are highly conscious about how the series is perceived, and they’ve been good—almost to fault—about honoring the show’s history and giving fans what they think they want. Yet that old sense of interchange or possibility is missing: you never catch the show in a moment, as you often did in the old days, in which you could almost hear Dan Harmon thinking out his next move. The result feels a lot like the second season of Twin Peaks, after the departure of David Lynch and Mark Frost: it was still weird, but in a calculated way, as if strangeness were simply a part of the premise, rather than something that the show’s creators found themselves doing while trying to tell a story in the only way they could. Mad Men is both the best and the strangest show on television, and it’s dazzling in the way Weiner lays out the pieces and dares us to put them together. He even gives us a few helpful hints. But I’m not sure if I entirely trust him.
At this point, it’s a cliché to say that Mad Men is clearly one of the greatest television shows of all time. Yet it’s hard to pin down why. I’ve said before that the show displays a kind of fractal brilliance, in which each component stands beautifully on its own while adding up to a greater whole, and for both casual and devoted fans of the show, it’s easy to focus on those stunning pieces: the performances, the art direction, the music, the costume design, any one of which can serve as an entry point for the show’s deeper meanings, as readers of Tom and Lorenzo know. Still, this doesn’t explain why all these elements happened to coalesce in this particular series. We could chalk it up to Matthew Weiner’s genius, but that simply begs the question. And the more I watch Mad Men, the more I begin to suspect that Weiner and his collaborators stumbled across a richer vein of material than even they realized at first. It might have been intuition, luck, or a shrewd sense of what would make for a great extended narrative, but whatever it was, it has shaped the series in ways that none of us could have anticipated at the time, and which become all the more clear as the show strays further from its original conception.
At its heart, Mad Men isn’t a show about advertising, but about change. From the very beginning, this was baked into the premise: every episode of the series benefits from the best kind of historical irony, as we already know more about how the world of these characters will change than they could ever guess for themselves. And the fact that the show’s creators knew that all of its characters’ lives would be altered simply by the passage of time—at least if it was allowed to run for long enough—has granted them an unusual degree of freedom in systematically breaking down and rebuilding what this show is all about. When Mad Men premiered, it was about Don’s marriage and the people he saw at work every day. Today, Don has divorced and remarried; the agency that we came to love over the first three seasons is gone; and many of the employees of Sterling Cooper have dispersed, died, or vanished. As consistent as the show’s tone has remained, it’s hard to think of another series that has so relentlessly given up what it has laboriously established, and not simply because of a star’s departure or another external event.
And the effects of this can clearly be seen in this season’s premiere, which I finally had the chance to watch last night. Even by the standards of Mad Men, which rarely rushes to get to the point and often assembles its stories with a kind of narrative pointillism, this was a slow, scattered episode, although never less than absorbing. It follows four major plotlines that rarely intersect, and it has a particularly striking way of introducing new members of the ensemble: either they’re presented as important players we just haven’t seen yet, like Don’s neighbor or the teenage girl that Betty has befriended, or they’re given a few scenes with only the slightest hint of a later payoff, like the bookkeeper on the second floor who seems so insistent on ingratiating himself with the staff downstairs. Part of this is thanks to the fact that Weiner, for once, isn’t operating without a fixed end point in mind—he knows that the show is going to run for exactly two more seasons, and he’s methodically laying in the pieces for the endgame. But it’s also a reflection of what the show’s style has become. Everything is in flux, people appear and disappear, and even the ones we’re pretty sure will stick around are spiraling off on their own courses.
The result isn’t an episode that I’d show anyone who was encountering the series for the first time, but as an indication of where Mad Men will go next, it’s riveting. There’s a moment in the episode where Don and Megan show slides from their trip to Hawaii, which inevitably evokes Don’s famous speech at the end of the first season:
This device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the Wheel. It’s called the Carousel.
But Mad Men isn’t a carousel, either. It’s a centrifuge. When the show began, the characters were all suspended in the same solution, with a shared culture and set of values. As the show spins on its axis, they’re being separated out, by death, divorce, or time. I don’t know yet how the show will balance its centrifugal forces with the needs of televised storytelling, but if this weekend’s premiere is any indication, the results will be problematic and fascinating. Don remains at the show’s center, but as we draw closer to the end, the wheel continues to spin, and the people he loves will be taken away one by one.
First, a confession: I’m not a gamer. Like most members of my generation, I spent countless hours on the original Nintendo console, and I’ve already expounded at length on my mastery of Tetris. Later, however, my knowledge of new platforms and games diminished, and it’s only recently, with the help of the invaluable Virtual Console on the Wii, that I’ve begin to fill in the gaps in my gaming education. One of these days, I’m finally going to tackle Ocarina of Time, but for now, I’ve been working through most of the landmarks in the Mario series. Other games have come and gone, but Mario is the modern equivalent of the movies that Disney released in the golden age of animation: he represents the collective resources of an entire studio, lavished on a character who will always serve, for better or worse, as the face of the company. As a result, the Mario games tend to be playgrounds for innovation, as channeled through the demands of a flagship franchise that sets the tone for the industry as a whole. And any consideration of video games as art really needs to begin with this humble little plumber.
In some ways, the fact that I’m little more than a gaming dilettante allows me to look more objectively at the question of whether such games can be regarded as an art form. Generally, discussions of the artistic value of gaming have centered on elaborate open world titles like Heavy Rain or Red Dead Redemption that require enormous patience to fully explore. For an outsider, the prospect of investing hundreds of hours on a game can seem daunting, for much the same reason that many of us hesitate before committing to the full run of a novelistic television series like Mad Men or Breaking Bad, which really needs to be experienced from beginning to end. For the members of any obsessive fanbase, the object of their adoration always seems, by definition, like a form of art that demands attention and respect, to the point where it isn’t worth debating. But just as there are television shows that can delight and surprise a casual viewer without feeling like homework, it’s worth singling out those games that reveal their pleasures at once, while also rewarding an extended period of engagement.
This is all by way of preface to saying that the two games in the Super Mario Galaxy series have provided me with more sustained joy than just about any work of art I’ve encountered over the last few years. They’ve also given me new insights into storytelling, which might seem strange for a pair of games that consist of little more than a string of fascinating puzzles built around the rescue of a thinly defined princess. I’ve spoken before about the fractal nature of a show like Mad Men, which can be appreciated on the level of an entire series, a single season, or an individual episode. Galaxy has some of the same granular quality: with few exceptions, any stage of any level is a delight to play, and they add up to a universe of dazzling richness and invention. As a review of Super Mario Galaxy 2 in Edge puts it: “It reuses assets, but almost never recycles ideas; you’ll never see another title so thrifty, or so gratuitous.” “Generous” would be the word I’d use: these games change radically at every turn, but also work as unified wholes, thanks to their gorgeous art direction, character design, and music, as well as a relentless focus on the player’s experience. For all their complexity, we’re never lost for long, and the challenges are scaled and introduced with a grace that can only be achieved through endless testing and refinement.
And if this isn’t art, I don’t know what is. At this point, it seems clear that video games are what animation was eighty years ago: the great collaborative art form of a new century, overseen by a handful of geniuses, that innovates in ways that will inevitably trickle down to other media. That said, the hoary predictions that video games would lead to a revolution in interactive storytelling strike me as misguided: a great novel or movie doesn’t gain much from viewer participation, and any attempt to push them in that direction usually ends up feeling gimmicky or worse. But just as the great Disney movies shaped the look, technical effects, and narrative choices of countless other arts—you can see their influence on everyone from Thomas Pynchon to Powell and Pressburger—it would be equally careless of contemporary artists to ignore the contributions of a major creative industry that occupies the bleeding edge of coordinated, large-scale storytelling. Their impact is bound to be indirect and unpredictable, and so transformed in the process that their influence is hard to see. But at their best, they’ve raised the bar for all of us.
Earlier this year, while watching the entire run of Breaking Bad for the first time, I finally saw “Fly,” which is generally considered to be one of the show’s definitive episodes. It takes place almost entirely in the secret meth lab, as Walt and Jesse go to increasingly elaborate—and dangerous—lengths to kill a pesky fly that ends up symbolizing everything that has gone wrong with both of their lives. And while the conceit was divisive at time, I think it’s easily one of the strongest episodes of the series, and more riveting than many of the show’s busier, more conventionally plotted installments. Part of this is because it focuses squarely on its two most compelling characters, without the digressions to relatively weaker players like Skyler or Marie who tend to sap the momentum. But it’s also a reflection of the inherent strength of one of the most fascinating conventions of episodic television, a form of storytelling that, at its best, offers us nothing less than a distilled version of the shows we love: the bottle episode.
A bottle episode, as viewers of the “Cooperative Calligraphy” episode of Community or the nerds on TV Tropes already know, is an episode of a television series that takes place mostly on one set, and often with only the show’s regular cast. Bottle episodes are usually a budgetary measure, born out of a need to save time or money, but as is often the case when constraints are imposed, the results can be remarkable. My own favorite example is the X-Files episode “Ice,” which, aside from a couple of establishing scenes, takes place entirely in an abandoned research base in Alaska. The result seems designed to economize in more ways than one—the plot is essentially an extended riff on The Thing—but it’s also the first great episode of the series, and one of the best the show ever did. It established the fact that the show’s true strengths had nothing to do with elaborate conspiracies or special effects, but with the ingenious working out of tense, surprising premises. And it’s no accident that the show’s storytelling became immediately more confident after “Ice” established what the series could really do.
In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’d argue that the ability to deliver a great bottle episode is a measure of a show’s quality. Only a show with supreme confidence in its cast, its premise, the technical qualities of its writing and direction, and a willingness to embrace constraint and simplicity can pull off an episode like this. And if we apply this hypothetical test to an actual show, the resulting thought experiment tells us a lot about the series in question. It’s hard to imagine a show like Glee, for instance, with its obsession with burning through ideas and plotlines as quickly as possible, generating the necessary focus to keep its primary cast in a room for forty minutes while still keeping our attention. (“Blame It On the Alcohol” is a great example of a potentially promising bottle episode that chickens out halfway through.) Conversely, while Mad Men has never done a true bottle episode—“The Suitcase” probably comes closest—the prospect of keeping these characters in a single location is undeniably enticing.
Which only demonstrates that part of the appeal of the bottle episode is that it’s really an allegory for the act of making television itself. Any television series, after all, really amounts to a bottle episode being played out in real life over the course of many seasons: it involves a group of actors, writers, and other professionals thrown together on a few standing sets, often without a lot of advance preparation, so that it’s anyone’s guess what will come next. This is especially true of comedy, in which the dynamics present in the pilot will often evolve in ways that nobody could have anticipated at the time: a secondary character will turn into a breakout star, supporting players will fall flat or rise to the occasion, and unusual pairings and combinations will arise under the endless pressure of producing new stories. The more interesting the ensuing collisions, the better the show will be. And none of this would happen if the process weren’t already taking place in a bottle—and unfolding before our eyes.
It’s generally agreed that the two greatest dramas on television today are Mad Men and Breaking Bad, two consistently fascinating shows that air on the same network and appeal to similar demographics, but which in other respects couldn’t be more different. Mad Men, as I’ve said before, is almost fractal in its simultaneous commitment to fine detail and shapely storytelling, and it comes off as a seamless piece of narrative that could go on serenely forever. Breaking Bad, by contrast, is a lumpier, shaggier, messier show that often seems on the verge of coming apart entirely. It has narrative problems that I don’t think it ever truly solved—notably involving the character of Skyler White—and it didn’t really come into its own until halfway through the third season. It can feel contrived, and its seams often show. But at its best, it reaches greater heights than any other recent show, Mad Men included. And much of its appeal comes from the fact that creator Vince Gilligan and his writing staff clearly don’t always know what will happen next, but are willing to follow the characters into strange, dark places.
I’ve been a big fan of Gilligan ever since I first saw “Pusher,” my favorite episode of The X-Files, and one of the great pleasures of Breaking Bad is the chance it affords to watch Gilligan and his writers think in real time. Breaking Bad is all but unique among important television shows in that its underlying conception changed radically after its first season, as the writers began to honestly examine the story’s implications. The series began as a finely crafted but somewhat facile black comedy about an essentially decent family man forced into a life of crime to pay his medical bills. As the show went on, however, it became increasingly clear that this premise, which made for a great elevator pitch, was unsustainable over the course of many seasons—at least not without a radical shift in tone. The result is a show that has become increasingly bleak in ways I don’t think even Gilligan anticipated, but to his credit, he has remained fully committed to the show’s new direction, based on a simple concept of dazzling audacity. As Gilligan said to the New York Times Magazine: “Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a show that takes the protagonist and transforms him into the antagonist?”
Which is exactly what Breaking Bad has done. The fact that it has succeeded so completely is a testament to the strength of its cast, especially Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, but also to the power of committing fully to the logic of the narrative, even if you don’t know precisely where it will lead. This applies to individual story arcs and episodes as well as to the shape of the series as a whole. In a wonderful series of interviews with Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club, Gilligan admits that his writing staff will generally begin each season with only a vague idea of where it ends, and often plot only three or four episodes ahead. This is very close to how I write my own novels, with detailed outlines taking me a third of the way through the story at a time, and it’s a thrilling way to write fiction, since it allows you to control the narrative to a certain extent while still being unsure of where the characters will ultimately go. The difference, of course, is that Gilligan and his team are doing it in public, with each season airing before they move on to the next, and it’s especially fun to see the show revisit elements from earlier seasons—like the sinister figure of Tio Salamanca—in ways that nobody could have anticipated.
And it’s also careful to keep its options open. Gilligan notes that even the writing staff doesn’t know much about the mysterious background of Gus Fring, the icy antagonist played so brilliantly by Giancarlo Esposito. This is partly because Gilligan feels, and rightly so, that certain characters “are sometimes more interesting the less you know about them,” but also because they don’t want to commit themselves without reason. Similarly, they’ve never said anything about Walt’s mother, or even shown us her picture, in order to keep certain possibilities alive. Whether or not these elements will ever pay off is an open question, but Gilligan and his writers have proven themselves experts at playing the long game, even if they aren’t entirely sure what the next move may be. It’s that constant play between constraint and possibility—between honoring the rules that the show has established while also leaving a few things in reserve—that makes the series so riveting from episode to episode. And it’s a measure of the show’s mastery that even as Walter White’s options continue to contract, the show’s own options seem limitless.
Earlier this year, David Simon, the creator of The Wire, made headlines by arguing that critics and viewers should wait until an entire season of a television show is complete before picking apart individual episodes. While Simon’s position wasn’t entirely consistent—he also seemed to think that audiences weren’t paying enough attention to the finer points of the story—he raises a fair point. With the rise of the great serial dramas, it can be hard to tell where a show is going with a character or a subplot, and it’s often true that you don’t see the full shape of a season until the last episode airs. One could even say that it’s meaningless to talk about self-contained episodes at all, any more than you’d review an individual chapter of a novel: when a show is operating at a high enough level, it all feels like one seamless web of narrative, and aside from the occasional striking experiment, like the “Fly” episode of Breaking Bad, it’s often hard to remember where one episode leaves off and another begins. (Incidentally, as far as the recent debate over binge-watching is concerned, I can only say that watching this past season of Mad Men one week at a time gave it a cumulative power that I don’t think would have existed if I’d seen it all in a couple of sittings. Viewing it over the course of three months made me feel as though I’d lived through something real with these characters, and it only made the final episode—and final shot—all the more powerful.)
Perhaps the best recent example of a show’s conclusion putting the rest of the season into perspective is the final episode of Mad Men’s third season, “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” While the rest of the season had been far from uneventful—among other things, it included both the Kennedy assassination and an unfortunate incident with a riding lawn mower—the series also seemed more willing than ever to take its time, building long sequences around a mood, a sense of place, a hint of things to come. Yet all the while, the show was assembling its narrative pieces in plain sight, as methodically as a game of Mouse Trap, and in the season finale, the trap was sprung. There’s a dazzling succession of plot turns, the lead characters make some irrevocable choices, and before we know it, the show has blown up its own foundations—Don’s marriage and the offices of Sterling Cooper—and left us with a fresh start. It’s thrilling to watch even now, and as creator Matthew Weiner observes on his commentary track, it’s closest thing you can have to an action movie that consists entirely of scenes of people talking in a room. There’s something peculiarly satisfying about seeing the show indulge in the sort of meaty payoffs and gags, like Joan’s big entrance or Pete’s exchange in the elevator with Harry, that it often eschews as too straightforward. And none of this would be nearly as effective without the slow build of the episodes that came before it, which the finale retroactively clarifies, illuminates, and justifies, all to the strains of “Shahdaroba.”
Tomorrow: Television’s brightest timeline.
As the triumphant conclusion to the fifth season of Mad Men recently made clear, we’re living in an age of great television, at least for those willing to seek it out. It’s also a time in which the role of the television writer has achieved greater prominence in popular culture than ever before. This is partly because of the shows themselves, which are increasingly eager to engage in layered, serialized storytelling; because writers have a much wider range of platforms to discuss their work, whether in the media, at conferences, or on commentary tracks; and because of the emergence of highly articulate fandoms that have made cult heroes out of showrunners like Joss Whedon and Dan Harmon. In my own case, television has inevitably played a large role in my life—everything I’ve ever gotten paid for writing owes something to The X-Files—but it’s only more recently that I’ve begun to think about the specific lessons that television has for writers in any medium.
Over the next two weeks, then, I’m going to be talking about ten episodes of television, in chronological order, that have shaped the way I think about writing. This isn’t meant to be a list of the greatest TV series of all time—unless my plans change, I won’t have a chance to discuss such recent high points as The Wire or Breaking Bad. Rather, these are episodes that illustrate what television has taught me about such important matters as telling complex stories over time; dealing with constraints; managing a large cast of characters; and, crucially, finding a way to end it all. The shows I’ve chosen reflect the haphazard nature of my television education, which was first informed by Nick at Nite and resumed in real time in the early nineties, right around the time Twin Peaks and The Simpsons premiered only four months apart. In short, it’s inseparable from the rhythms of my own life. For the next couple of weeks, I’m going to do my best to explain what the effects have been.
On Monday: Why I wanted Rob Petrie’s job.
It’s hard to believe it, but Mad Men has been off the air for the entire time I’ve been writing this blog. (The finale of its fourth season aired on October 17, 2010, or just over a month before my introductory post.) In the year and a half since, I’ve discovered a lot of good and bad television: I fell out of love with Glee, dove headfirst into Community, Downton Abbey, and Breaking Bad, and apparently even watched a few episodes of Smash. But in all that time, I haven’t really had a chance to talk about the show that, more than any other televised drama of the past few years, has changed the way I think about storytelling in any medium. And while I don’t expect to start posting episode recaps anytime soon—that way lies madness, as Rich Juzwiak of Gawker recently pointed out—the show’s return gives me a chance to reflect on what is already starting to look like the best chance we’ve had in a long time to watch a great extended narrative reach its conclusion. And even if the show doesn’t manage to sustain the level of excellence it has maintained for so long (although Sunday’s premiere was a very encouraging sign), it’s still going to be fascinating.
Mad Men has been discussed endlessly, of course, but I’d like to focus on two related narrative aspects of the show, one immediately visible, the other only apparent over time. Let’s start with the latter. I’ve spoken before about the single greatest difficulty in making good television: the fact that a show’s creator doesn’t know whether he’ll have a single episode, or one season, or five years to tell a story. (Hence the predicament of a show like Twin Peaks, which burns off all of its best ideas in its first ten episodes and is left scrambling for more.) Mad Men, to an extent that I think is unique in recent television drama, has managed to remain shapely and satisfying no matter how you slice it. Its pilot is a perfect short movie with an unforgettable final shot, and if the show had simply ended there, with Vic Damone’s swelling rendition of “The Street Where You Live,” many of us would have been left with fifty minutes that we’d never forget. Yet the first season, ending with “The Wheel,” found a perfect shape as well, as has every subsequent year, as the show moves effortlessly through a series of ascending narrative climaxes. (Just the titles of each season finale are enough to give me the chills: “Meditations In an Emergency”; “Shut the Door. Have a Seat”; “Tomorrowland.”)
The result, to put things in as nerdy a way as possible, is what I can only describe as a sort of narrative scale invariance—that property, common to fractals and other self-similar objects, in which each part is similar to that of the whole. And this applies to individual episodes as well. Mad Men benefits from a glorious fineness of detail, in which the smallest touches resonate with the largest overall themes, so that a single shot or moment can encapsulate an entire season. The first thing that catches anyone’s eye about Mad Men is the show’s design: it’s one of the most visually seductive series I’ve ever seen. And while this certainly hasn’t hurt its popular appeal, it isn’t a superficial factor, but an essential part of the show’s composed storytelling, in which art direction, costume design, and music are inseparable parts of the narrative. When Betty Draper descends the stairs in “For Those Who Think Young” to the strains of “Song of India,” it’s an image that ties up everything the show has been about up to that point, only to be ironically echoed when the same song recurs ten episodes later in “The Jet Set.” To dismiss these pleasures as incidental is to miss the point entirely: this is a show in which the glossiest effects can turn around to blindside you with emotion.
All of these qualities were on display in last night’s season premiere. Above all else, the show continues to be a model of swift, facile storytelling, with small gags and throwaways nicely interspersed with the big dramatic moments. (I especially liked Lane Pryce’s little dance, and Pete’s wistful line: “Maybe just a beagle to scare off gophers.”) Jessica Paré’s instantly iconic scene reminds us that the show, like most great works of art, has no qualms about giving the audience what it wants, even as it surprises us with the consequences. That fine, fractal quality of detail remains, as the show closes in on unexpected images—a shaving brush, a lost wallet, a baby’s behind—and uses them to hint at larger themes. And it continues to benefit from its great cast, which taught me a lot about the power of ensembles, and which grows in richness with every season. At this point, the show’s ambition is matched only by its control: the premiere is spaced at a capacious ninety minutes, taking us through everything from racial politics to racy burlesque, yet there isn’t a wasted moment, and it’s all one piece. Where Matthew Weiner and his collaborators will take the show from here is anyone’s guess, but I know I’ll be watching closely. And taking notes.
Over the past few weeks, my wife and I finally caught up on DVD with the first season of Community, a show that absolutely lives up to its reputation—it’s the fastest, smartest, funniest television comedy I’ve seen since Arrested Development. There’s a lot to talk about here, and I hope to dig in more deeply as soon as we’ve finished the rest of the series, but today, I’d like to focus on just one element: the genius decision to confine the action, at least in the first season, to the campus of Greendale Community College. The vast majority of scenes take place in one of a handful of sets—the study room, the cafeteria, Señor Chang’s classroom—and far from limiting the stories the show can tell, it makes the world in which it takes place seem all the more real. After only a handful of episodes, Greendale becomes one of those places on television that you believe in, and want to visit yourself, like the bar on Cheers, the offices of Sterling Draper, or even Downton Abbey.
It’s a brilliant illustration of a powerful tool that I’ve wanted to talk about for a long time, which is the idea of a narrative home base. I can’t find the reference now, but I believe it was Terry Rossio who talks about how, in a screenplay, it’s nice to have a single set or location to which you return repeatedly over the course of the story: for one reason for another, the audience likes to find itself in a familiar place. This is obviously true in television, which often depends on a handful of standing sets, but it’s also true of works of art that aren’t necessarily limited by such constraints. Looking at my own favorite movies, it’s startling to realize how many are built around the repeated use of the same location, with dramatic variations: Rick’s Café Américain, Hannibal Lecter’s cell, the apartments in Chungking Express and Blue Velvet. Returning to the same place gives the action a fixed backdrop to play against over time, allowing the audience to get its bearings and ground itself in the story.
The same thing applies to literary works. The most famous address in all of literature is, of course, 221B Baker Street, but it’s instructive to stop and ask ourselves why. With a few exceptions, notably “The Adventure of the Empty House,” it’s rarely the setting for any dramatic incidents; it’s simply where Holmes and Watson hang out. Yet it’s impossible to imagine the stories without that drawing room, with its cigars in the coal scuttle and Persian slipper full of tobacco, and fans have imagined its location and furnishings with astonishing degrees of obsessiveness. Eventually, it comes to feel like home. And it took me far too long to understand how useful a home base can be for immersing the reader in the plot. The Icon Thief jumps from place to place, and I think it works, but I prefer the approach in City of Exiles, with its repeated use of several key locations. And it’s no accident that I learned this from Mad Men.
This may, in fact, be one of the two great lessons—along with the power of ensembles—that television has to teach us. Setting most of your action in a fixed number of places is a constraint, yes, but it also allows you to focus on what really matters, a form of writerly discipline that will hopefully pay off in the narrative itself. Imagine how much more interesting Smash would be, for instance, if it took place, like Community, entirely in a few locations—the theater, the dance studio, the writers’ office—with details about the characters’ offstage lives sketched in on the fly. That way, we’d pick up information in passing, instead of cutting away to tiresome subplots, and the focus of the series would stay where it belongs. Because focus is what the narrative home base is all about: storytelling is really about creating places to explore, so it’s all the more important, when possible, to stick to the places that count.
On Friday, my wife and I finally caught Bridesmaids, which is a classic example of energy and a star-making performance (by the sensational Kristen Wiig) bringing out the best in a formulaic, if nimble, script. It also benefits, like most films from the Judd Apatow factory, from a remarkably deep bench of supporting actors, including Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Ellie Kemper, Jill Clayburgh, and Jon Hamm. The ensemble is so good, in fact, and has the potential to pair off its actors in so many surprising ways, that it’s something of a disappointment when the movie starts to focus exclusively on Wiig. We’re given a couple of scenes with the bridal party as a whole, but they all occur in the movie’s first half, and we’re never given the sort of inspired, inexorable comic set piece that the chemistry of the cast might have led us to expect. (Perhaps that will have to wait for the inevitable sequel.)
The movie’s decision to shy away from its supporting cast—the characters played by Ellie Kemper and Wendi McLendon-Covey, in particular, all but disappear in the third act—is a puzzling one, both because of the thrust of the marketing and because ensembles, especially in comedy, can result in unforgettable moments. Many of the recent films in the Apatow universe have revolved around putting a bunch of funny actors onscreen, rolling a lot of film, and hoping that something great happens. And occasionally it does. This is especially true of in television: even a mediocre episode of The Office, for instance, is usually worth watching for the sake of the cast, which retains a lot of viewer goodwill and still yields unexpected combinations. And as I’ve said before, it was Mad Men that opened my eyes to the potential of large casts of characters and the possibilities they provide.
Ensembles are particularly useful in television, where the various arrangements of characters can supply material, hopefully, for years of stories. To put it in the nerdiest terms possible, it’s an instance of Metcalfe’s Law, which states that the value of a social network is proportional to the square of connected users (n2, or, more precisely, n(n − 1)/2). A cast of characters is a peculiar kind of social network: it’s assembled by a producer, set into motion by the actors and writing staff, and its value lies in its connections, as various characters collide in interesting ways. The number of dramatically useful interactions also tends to increase over time, which is why the second and third seasons of a good television show are often the most interesting, once actors have had a chance to discover their most fruitful combinations. (Which is also why it’s sad that so many promising shows never get the chance to find this rhythm.)
Of course, there are limitations to such a model. Too many characters, and the show may never get the chance to adequately establish its supporting cast, so the pairings seem forced or arbitrary. (See: Glee.) But if exercised judiciously, it’s a useful tool for all kinds of narrative fiction, including the novel—and particularly for writers who otherwise tend to overlook such possibilities. As I’ve mentioned in previous postings, my first novel was a fairly focused story, with a limited number of important characters, largely because the plot itself was already so complicated. The sequel has a much larger cast, partly because I wanted to put some of Mad Men‘s lessons to use, and because I hoped that an expansive supporting cast would take me to interesting places. And I’m not the only writer to recognize this. In one of the notebooks he kept while writing Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann writes:
Nothing yet has been done about staffing the book with meaningful subsidiary figures. In The Magic Mountain these were provided by the personnel of the sanatorium, in Joseph by the Bible; there it was a question of realizing the potentialities of the Biblical figures…The characters will have to be supplied out of the past, out of memory, pictures, intuition. But the entourage must first be invented and fixed…
More than almost anything else, a rich entourage of characters, if it arises naturally from the plot and setting, can take the story in unexpected directions. A large cast isn’t always a good thing. But if you’re looking to expand the world you’ve created, there’s no better way than to select two characters at random, put them in a room, and see what they have to say.
Yesterday’s posting on the lure of bad movies, like Birdemic, raises the obvious question of whether the same allure clings to certain trashy books. At first glance, it might seem that the answer is no, at least not the same way: while a bad movie can be polished off in ninety minutes, even the junkiest novel usually requires a somewhat greater commitment, which raises the question of whether this is really the best use of one’s time. Life, it seems, is too short to knowingly waste on bad books, especially when so much good stuff remains unread. (Whenever I read a bad book, I feel as if I need to apologize personally to William Faulkner.) And yet I’ve learned a lot from bad fiction as well. As a writer, it’s useful to know something about every kind of literature, especially when you’re trying to make your mark in a genre that has generated its share of junk. And if you don’t read some trash, as well as better books, you’ll have no way of knowing if you can tell the difference.
The trouble, of course, is that one man’s trashy novel is another man’s masterpiece. The early novels of Thomas Harris, for instance, are hugely important to me, but diminishing returns set in about halfway through Hannibal, and by Hannibal Rising, there’s barely a single interesting page. But this, of course, is a judgment call, and some might draw the line much earlier or later. The same is true of Frederick Forsyth, Stephen King, Michael Crichton, or any other prolific popular novelist. Discriminating between the good (The Day of the Jackal) and the bad (The Negotiator) in a single writer’s body of work is an important part of developing one’s own taste. And sometimes a novelist will surprise you. I’ve repeatedly tried and failed to get into Tom Clancy—The Cardinal of the Kremlin nearly put me to sleep on a recent long bus trip—but I was delighted to discover that Without Remorse is a real novel, vicious, compelling, and with bravura set pieces that recall Forsyth, or even James Ellroy.
And sometimes even literary fiction can benefit from a touch of trash. I love John Updike, and believe that the Rabbit novels are among the essential cultural documents of the last century, but if I could own only one Updike novel, it would be Couples, which even his greatest fans seem to think he wrote at least partly for the money. And yet there’s something weirdly exhilarating about seeing Updike’s extraordinary prose and observational skills applied to blatantly commercial material. Updike can’t help being an artist, even when he’s writing a big sexy novel, and I’d argue that Couples, which isn’t that far removed from Peyton Place, was the novel he was born to write. (His later attempt at a “thriller,” in the form of Terrorist, is much less satisfying, and only comes to life whenever Updike revisits his old adulterous territory.)
But have I ever deliberately set out to read a novel that I knew was bad? Sure. While I haven’t managed to make it through Still Missing, for one, I love reading the bestsellers of yesteryear, embodied in the rows of yellowing paperbacks that line the shelves of thrift stores. The 1970s was a particularly rich era for trash. During my move from New York last year, the only book I kept in my empty apartment was a battered copy of Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, which I enjoyed immensely, especially when I mentally recast all the characters with actors from Mad Men. And I’m a little embarrassed to admit how quickly I plowed through Irving Wallace’s The Fan Club—a terrible book, and much less interesting than Wallace himself, but remarkably evocative of its era in popular fiction. Such books may not be great, but they’re an undeniable part of a writer’s education. (As long as they aren’t all you read.)
Much of the dialogue one encounters in student fiction, as well as plot, gesture, even setting, comes not from life but from life filtered through TV. Many student writers seem unable to tell their own most important stories—the death of a father, the first disillusionment in love—except in the molds and formulas of TV. One can spot the difference at once because TV is of necessity—given its commercial pressures—false to life.
In the nearly thirty years since Gardner wrote these words, the television landscape has changed dramatically, but it’s worth pointing out that much of what he says here is still true. The basic elements of fiction—emotion, character, theme, even plot—need to come from close observation of life, or even the most skillful novel will eventually ring false. That said, the structure of fiction, and the author’s understanding of the possibilities of the form, doesn’t need to come from life alone, and probably shouldn’t. To develop a sense of what fiction can do, a writer needs to pay close attention to all types of art, even the nonliterary kind. And over the past few decades, television has expanded the possibilities of narrative in ways that no writer can afford to ignore.
If you think I’m exaggerating, consider a show like The Wire, which tells complex stories involving a vast range of characters, locations, and social issues in ways that aren’t possible in any other medium. The Simpsons, at least in its classic seasons, acquired a richness and velocity that continued to build for years, until it had populated a world that rivaled the real one for density and immediacy. (Like the rest of the Internet, I respond to most situations with a Simpsons quote.) And Mad Men continues to furnish a fictional world of astonishing detail and charm. World-building, it seems, is where television shines: in creating a long-form narrative that begins with a core group of characters and explores them for years, until they can come to seem as real as one’s own family and friends.
Which is why Glee can seem like such a disappointment. Perhaps because the musical is already the archest of genres, the show has always regarded its own medium with an air of detachment, as if the conventions of the after-school special or the high school sitcom were merely a sandbox in which the producers could play. On some level, this is fine: The Simpsons, among many other great shows, has fruitfully treated television as a place for narrative experimentation. But by turning its back on character continuity and refusing to follow any plot for more than a few episodes, Glee is abandoning many of the pleasures that narrative television can provide. Watching the show run out of ideas for its lead characters in less than two seasons simply serves as a reminder of how challenging this kind of storytelling can be.
Mad Men, by contrast, not only gives us characters who take on lives of their own, but consistently lives up to those characters in its acting, writing, and direction. (This is in stark contrast to Glee, where I sense that a lot of the real action is taking place in fanfic.) And its example has changed the way I write. My first novel tells a complicated story with a fairly controlled cast of characters, but Mad Men—in particular, the spellbinding convergence of plots in “Shut the Door, Have a Seat”—reminded me of the possibilities of expansive casts, which allows characters to pair off and develop in unexpected ways. (The evolution of Christina Hendricks’s Joan from eye candy to second lead is only the most obvious example.) As a result, I’ve tried to cast a wider net with my second novel, using more characters and settings in the hopes that something unusual will arise. Television, strangely, has made me more ambitious. I’d like to think that even John Gardner would approve.
Back in December, I wrote a post called “What I’ve Learned from Glee,” where I expressed the wish that the most infuriating show on television might one day transcend its wildly uneven beginnings. My point, briefly, was that Glee had established a cast, setting, and premise that allowed it to deliver big, unforgettable moments, but which also encouraged its three creators to indulge in their worst creative impulses. At the time, I held out the hope that the show would continue to draw on the goodwill of its characters, while imposing more structural discipline and keeping its eye on the long game.
Three months later, where do we stand? Well, the characters, if anything have regressed, turning into vehicles for whatever the writers feel like doing that week. (The exception is Chris Colfer’s Kurt, who seems to have benefited from his removal from the main body of the cast, as if he’s been placed in quarantine.) Structural discipline? You’ve got to be kidding me. And yet, after a dire few months, the show seems to be gradually improving. The past few episodes have been reasonably strong—although I admittedly missed the Super Bowl installment—and at the moment, as the show takes a few weeks off, it’s in as good a position as it’s been for a long time. (And as much as I hate to say it, I’m looking forward to seeing more of Gwyneth Paltrow.)
Of course, a television show’s quality is a relative thing, and it’s especially fitting that Glee is taking a break just as the fourth season of Mad Men is coming out on Blu-ray and DVD. Watching these two show back to back, as I’ve occasionally done, is like being confronted with two different art forms entirely. While Glee burns recklessly through plot lines and treats the idea of sustained narrative coherence as a joke, Mad Men is magnificently of a piece. Each season feels like a perfect piece of a novel, and even if the plots aren’t planned in advance—and creator Matthew Weiner has implied that they aren’t—they still manage to build in ways that feel as inevitable as they are surprising.
On some level, then, it seems ridiculous to compare these two shows. After four extraordinary seasons, Mad Men clearly has its sights set on being one of the greatest shows of all time, while Glee seems happy to get through the next five minutes. And yet I can’t help seeing these two shows as some kind of twisted pair, perhaps because they’re the only narrative TV shows that I’m watching these days. (Throwing Top Chef into the mix would only confuse the issue.) And there’s no denying that both have changed my preconceptions about extended narratives—whether as shining example or cautionary tale. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking a bit more about the unexpected ways in which these two shows, and television in general, have shaped the way I think about storytelling.
The other night, my wife asked, with genuine curiosity: “Why do you like Glee?” Which, honestly, is a really good question. I don’t watch a lot of television; I’m not, as far as I can tell, anything close to Glee‘s target demographic; I know that Glee is fundamentally flawed, and often disappointing; and yet I find it fun to watch and, more surprisingly, interesting to think about. But why?
My only answer, aside from the fact that I like musicals, that that I enjoy Glee because of its flaws, because it can be frustrating and horrifically uneven, because it regularly neglects its own characters, and because an average episode can get nearly every moment wrong—and yet still remain a compelling show. For a writer who cares about pop culture, it’s the most interesting case study around. (As opposed to, say, Mad Men, which is the best TV drama I’ve ever seen, but much less instructive in its sheer perfection.)
Here, then, are some of the lessons, positive and negative, that I’ve tried to draw from Glee:
1. Do follow through on big moments. Howard Hawks defined a good movie as having three good scenes and no bad scenes. The average episode of Glee has maybe three good scenes and eight bad scenes, but the good stuff is usually executed with enough conviction and skill to carry the audience past the rest. The lesson? Every story has a few big moments. No matter what else you do as a writer, make sure those moments work.
2. Do invest the audience in your characters as early as possible. Glee‘s pilot, which now seems so long ago, did an impressive job of generating interest in a massive cast of characters. Since then, nearly everything the pilot established has been thrown out the window, but the viewer’s initial engagement with Will, Rachel, and the rest still gives the show a lot of goodwill, which it hasn’t entirely squandered. (Please note, though, that a cast of appealing actors goes a long way toward maintaining the audience’s sympathy. In a novel, once your characters have lost the reader’s interest, it’s very hard to win it back.)
3. Do push against yourself and your story. A.V. Club critic Todd VanDerWerff has done a heroic job of arguing the “three authors” theory of Glee: that the show’s creators—Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan—each have distinct, and conflicting, visions of what the show should be, and that this inherent tension is what makes the show so fascinating. Similarly, much of the interest of an ambitious novel comes from the writer’s struggle against the restrictions and contradictions of his or her own story. (Of course, if you don’t give yourself at least some constraints, such as those of genre, you aren’t likely to benefit from this.)
1. Don’t neglect structure. Remember the importance of constraints? The trouble with Glee is that it doesn’t seem to have any. Early on, the show established a tone and style in which almost anything could happen, which is fine—but even the most anarchic comedy benefits from following a consistent set of rules. In Glee‘s case, a little more narrative coherence, and a lot more character consistency, would go a long way towards making it a great show, rather than a fascinating train wreck.
2. Don’t take your eye off the long game. Glee rather notoriously went through four years’ worth of plotlines in its first season, and as a result, the second season has seemed increasingly aimless. Obviously, it’s hard for most TV shows, which hover precariously between cancellation and renewal, to plan much further ahead than the next order of episodes, but a novelist has no such excuse. A writer has to maintain the reader’s interest over hundreds of pages, so as tempting as it is to put all your best ideas up front, it’s important to keep a few things in reserve, especially for the ending.
In terms of not giving people what they want, I think it’s a mandate: Don’t give people what they want, give them what they need. What they want is for Sam and Diane to get together. [Whispers.] Don’t give it to them. Trust me. [Normal voice.] You know?
Glee, because it was so successful so early on, and with such a devoted fan base, has repeatedly succumbed to the temptation to give viewers exactly what they want, whether it’s more jukebox episodes, bigger musical numbers, or a romance between two of its leads. (And fans don’t like it if the show takes one of these things away.) This approach might work in the short term, but in the long run, it leaves the show—as is becoming increasingly clear—with nowhere else to go. Remember: once your characters, or your readers, get what they want, the story is essentially over.
Of course, none of these issues have hurt Glee‘s success, and judging from the last few episodes, the show is making an effort to dial back the worst of its excesses. And I do hope it continues to improve. As much as I enjoy it now, a show can’t work as a case study forever. Because a show like Glee is always interesting…until, alas, it isn’t.