Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for June 25th, 2013

Mad Men and the case for shorter seasons

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The Mad Men episode "In Care Of"

On Sunday, Mad Men ended its sixth and penultimate season, leaving me with a mood of mingled gloom and exhilaration. I was transfixed beyond measure by the finale, which more than delivered on the promise of a season that started off shaky but slowly gathered momentum for one of the strongest runs of episodes the show has ever done. And I’m saddened, of course, both by the thought that the season is over and by the fact that we only have one more to go. I’ve simply never cared about a television show this much: for its plots and characters, its tone, and the creative tightrope walk I’ve felt privileged to witness week after week. Given all the potential pitfalls that a series like this needs to navigate, it’s a miracle we’ve come even this far—but part of me can’t help but wish that there were a little more. In particular, there are times when thirteen episodes doesn’t seem like nearly enough, and the season seems to end just as it’s getting started. But the more I think about it, the more I’ve come to realize that many of the things I love about this show arise precisely from the fact that it has fewer hours to tell a story than I might otherwise prefer.

Because the need to compress a season’s worth of plot into thirteen episodes leads to a wonderful narrative density. No one is ever going to confuse Mad Men with, say, The Vampire Diaries—which comes as close as any show I’ve seen to making each episode feel like a season finale—and it’s still a series that likes to take its time. If the pacing of the individual scenes remains contemplative and unhurried, though, the show has increasingly been forced to include more of them, intercutting between the storylines and characters that have been established over the last six years. When the show began, it was easy to find room for Don, Peggy, Betty, Roger, and the rest; now, they’ve had to make room for Joan, Megan, and countless vivid supporting roles, some of whom are lucky to get a minute of screen time per episode. Yet the show has learned under pressure to make each of those minutes count. When you watch Mad Men on its current creative streak, you get a sense that every line or exchange of glances carries meaning, and they’ve been refined in a writers’ room that knows it has only a finite amount of time to move each storyline forward.

Kevin Rahm, James Wolk, and Elizabeth Moss on Mad Men

The result is a show that, rather unexpectedly, has turned into a master class on narrative concision and economy. This is a series that famously indulges in long shots of characters simply thinking, or drinking, but also is also capable of introducing, advancing, and deepening a figure like Bob Benson with maybe fifteen minutes of total screen time over the course of thirteen episodes, to an extent that had much of the Internet obsessed with the result. It can be amusing to read the conspiracy theories that viewers have spun out of such details as Megan’s T-shirt, but if there’s anything this show has taught us, it’s that everything Matthew Weiner and his collaborators do merits our attention. And I don’t think this would be the case if the show were allowed to run for twenty or more episodes each season. Given the additional breathing room, it’s hard to imagine the show adding more plot: it would just fill out the stories it has, or add more scenes of rumination and solitary smoking. I’d love nothing more than to spend extra time with someone like Michael Ginsberg, but that would also rob him of much of his appeal. The way we see him now, in tiny flashes and vivid moments, is far more satisfying than a lengthy subplot would ever be.

And it’s an example that more shows could stand to follow. At the moment, a thirteen-episode block has become the standard for shows on cable, which don’t need to worry as much about syndication, and of course it’s long been the usual model for British television. There are also signs that the major networks are moving in the same direction: Under the Dome, for instance, just aired the first episode of an initial thirteen, and the summer seems like an ideal time to showcase series that fit more comfortably in a more compressed space. It’s certainly a better format for highly serialized, novelistic dramas, which can otherwise start to seem a little padded around the halfway point. The contrast between the first and second seasons of Twin Peaks provides an instructive example: the first run of eight episodes is still close to perfect, but desperation begins to creep in shortly thereafter, before recovering when it was too late to matter. If both seasons had covered about twelve hours of airtime, we’d have been spared a lot of unnecessary filler, and the result might have been closer to Mad Men, which consistently lives up to the promises it makes. Because the best works of art always leave you wanting more.

Written by nevalalee

June 25, 2013 at 8:39 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

June 25, 2013 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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