Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Mad Men, Glee, and me

with one comment

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.

Written by nevalalee

March 16, 2011 at 9:09 am

One Response

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  1. I’m hoping for some WIRE love.


    March 16, 2011 at 10:40 am

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