Archive for the ‘Television’ Category
A few days ago, Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor of The New Yorker, devoted his weekly email newsletter to the subject of “The Great Clichés.” A cliché, as Mankoff defines it, is a restricted comic situation “that would be incomprehensible if the other versions had not first appeared,” and he provides a list of examples that should ring bells for all readers of the magazine, from the ubiquitous “desert island” to “The-End-Is-Nigh Guy.” Here are a few of my favorites:
Atlas holding up the world; big fish eating little fish; burglars in masks; cave paintings; chalk outline at crime scene; crawling through desert; galley slaves; guru on mountain; mobsters and victim with cement shoes; man in stocks; police lineup; two guys in horse costume.
Inevitably, Mankoff’s list includes a few questionable choices, while also omitting what seem like obvious contenders. (Why “metal detector,” but not “Adam and Eve?”) But it’s still something that writers of all kinds will want to clip and save. Mankoff doesn’t make the point explicitly, but most gag artists probably keep a similar list of clichés as a starting point for ideas, as we read in Mort Gerberg’s excellent book Cartooning:
List familiar situations—clichés. You might break them down into categories, like domestic (couple at breakfast, couple watching television); business (boss berating employee, secretary taking dictation); historic (Paul Revere’s ride, Washington crossing the Delaware); even famous cartoon clichés (the desert island, the Indian snake charmer)…Then change something a little bit.
As it happened, when I saw Mankoff’s newsletter, I had already been thinking about a far more harmful kind of comedy cliché. Last week, Kal Penn went on Twitter to post some of the scripts from his years auditioning as a struggling actor, and they amount to an alternative list of clichés kept by bad comedy writers, consciously or otherwise: “Gandhi lookalike,” “snake charmer,” “foreign student.” One character has a “slight Hindi accent,” another is a “Pakistani computer geek who dresses like Beck and is in a perpetual state of perspiration,” while a third delivers dialogue that is “peppered with Indian cultural references…[His] idiomatic conversation is hit and miss.” A typical one-liner: “We are propagating like flies on elephant dung.” One script describes a South Asian character’s “spastic techno pop moves,” with Penn adding that “the big joke was an accent and too much cologne.” (It recalls the Morrissey song “Bengali in Platforms,” which included the notorious line: “Life is hard enough when you belong here.” You could amend it to read: “Being a comedy writer is hard enough when you belong here.”) Penn closes by praising shows with writers “who didn’t have to use external things to mask subpar writing,” which cuts to the real issue here. The real person in “a perpetual state of perspiration” isn’t the character, but the scriptwriter. Reading the teleplay for an awful sitcom is a deadening experience in itself, but it’s even more depressing to realize that in most cases, the writer is falling back on a stereotype to cover up the desperate unfunniness of the writing. When Penn once asked if he could play a role without an accent, in order to “make it funny on the merits,” he was told that he couldn’t, probably because everybody else knew that the merits were nonexistent.
So why is one list harmless and the other one toxic? In part, it’s because we’ve caught them at different stages of evolution. The list of comedy conventions that we find acceptable is constantly being culled and refined, and certain art forms are slightly in advance of the others. Because of its cultural position, The New Yorker is particularly subject to outside pressures, as it learned a decade ago with its Obama terrorist cover—which demonstrated that there are jokes and images that aren’t acceptable even if the magazine’s attitude is clear. Turn back the clock, and Mankoff’s list would include conventions that probably wouldn’t fly today. Gerberg’s list, like Penn’s, includes “snake charmer,” which Mankoff omits, and he leaves out “Cowboys and Indians,” a cartoon perennial that seems to be disappearing. And it can be hard to reconstruct this history, because the offenders tend to be consigned to the memory hole. When you read a lot of old magazine fiction, as I do, you inevitably find racist stereotypes that would be utterly unthinkable today, but most of the stories in which they appear have long since been forgotten. (One exception, unfortunately, is the Sherlock Holmes short story “The Adventure of the Three Gables,” which opens with a horrifying racial caricature that most Holmes fans must wish didn’t exist.) If we don’t see such figures as often today, it isn’t necessarily because we’ve become more enlightened, but because we’ve collectively agreed to remove certain figures from the catalog of stock comedy characters, while papering over their use in the past. A list of clichés is a snapshot of a culture’s inner life, and we don’t always like what it says. The demeaning parts still offered to Penn and actors of similar backgrounds have survived for longer than they should have, but sitcoms that trade in such stereotypes will be unwatchable in a decade or two, if they haven’t already been consigned to oblivion.
Of course, most comedy writers aren’t thinking in terms of decades, but about getting through the next five minutes. And these stereotypes endure precisely because they’re seen as useful, in a shallow, short-term kind of way. There’s a reason why such caricatures are more visible in comedy than in drama: comedy is simply harder to write, but we always want more of it, so it’s inevitable that writers on a deadline will fall back on lazy conventions. The really insidious thing about these clichés is that they sort of work, at least to the extent of being approved by a producer without raising any red flags. Any laughter that they inspire is the equivalent of empty calories, but they persist because they fill a cynical need. As Penn points out, most writers wouldn’t bother with them at all if they could come up with something better. Stereotypes, like all clichés, are a kind of fallback option, a cheap trick that you deploy if you need a laugh and can’t think of another way to get one. Clichés can be a precious commodity, and all writers resort to them occasionally. They’re particularly valuable for gag cartoonists, who can’t rely on a good idea from last week to fill the blank space on the page—they’ve got to produce, and sometimes that means yet another variation on an old theme. But there’s a big difference between “Two guys in a horse costume” and “Gandhi lookalike.” Being able to make that distinction isn’t a matter of political correctness, but of craft. The real solution is to teach people to be better writers, so that they won’t even be tempted to resort to such tired solutions. This might seem like a daunting task, but in fact, it happens all the time. A cliché factory operates on the principle of supply and demand. And it shuts down as soon as people no longer find it funny.
In his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, which was first published in the late seventies, the author Jerry Mander, a former advertising executive, lists a few of the “technical tricks” that television can use to stimulate the viewer’s interest:
Editors make it possible for a scene in one room to be followed instantly by a scene in another room, or at another time, or another place. Words appears over the images. Music rises and falls in the background. Two images or three can appear simultaneously. One image can be superposed on another on the screen. Motion can be slowed down or sped up.
These days, we take most of these effects for granted, as part of the basic grammar of the medium, but to Mander, they’re something more sinister. Technique, he argues, is replacing content, and at its heart, it’s something of a confidence game:
Through these technical events, television images alter the usual, natural imagery possibilities, taking on the quality of a naturally highlighted event. They make it seem that what you are looking at is unique, unusual, and extraordinary…But nothing unusual is going on. All that’s happening is that the viewer is watching television, which is the same thing that happened an hour ago, or yesterday. A trick has been played. The viewer is fixated by a conspiracy of dimmed-out environments combined with an artificial, impossible, fictitious unusualness.
In order to demonstrate “the extent to which television is dependent upon technical tricks to maintain your interest,” Mander invites the reader to conduct what he calls a technical events test:
Put on your television set and simply count the number of times there is a cut, a zoom, a superimposition, a voiceover, the appearance of words on the screen—a technical event of some kind…Each technical event—each alteration of what would be natural imagery—is intended to keep your attention from waning as it might otherwise…Every time you are about to relax your attention, another technical event keeps you attached..
You will probably find that in the average commercial television program, there are eight or ten technical events for every sixty-second period…You may also find that there is rarely a period of twenty seconds without any sort of technical event at all. That may give you an idea of the extent to which producers worry about whether the content itself can carry your interest.
He goes on to list the alleged consequences of exposure to such techniques, from shortened attention span in adults to heightened hyperactivity in children, and concludes: “Advertisers are the high artists of the medium. They have gone further in the technologies of fixation than anyone else.”
Mander’s argument was prophetic in many ways, but in one respect, he was clearly wrong. In the four decades since his book first appeared, it has become obvious that the “high artists” of distraction and fixation aren’t advertisers, but viewers themselves, and its true canvas isn’t television, but the Internet. Instead of passively viewing a series of juxtaposed images, we assemble our online experience for ourselves, and each time we open a new link, we’re effectively acting as our own editors. Every click is a cut. (The anecdotal figure that the reader spends less than fifteen seconds on the average web page is very close to the frequency of technical events on television, which isn’t an accident.) We do a better job of distracting ourselves than any third party ever could, as long as we’re given sufficient raw material and an intuitive interface—which explains much of the evolution of online content. When you look back at web pages from the early nineties, it’s easy to laugh at how noisy and busy they tended to be, with music, animated graphics, and loud colors. This wasn’t just a matter of bad taste, but of a mistaken analogy to television. Web designers thought that they had to grab our attention using the same technical tricks employed by other media, but that wasn’t the case. The hypnotic browsing state that we’ve all experienced isn’t produced by any one page, but by the succession of similar pages as the user moves between them at his or her private rhythm. Ideally, from the point of view of a media company, that movement will take place within the same family of pages, but it also leads to a convergence of style and tone between sites. Most web pages these days look more or less the same because it creates a kind of continuity of experience. Instead of the loud, colorful pages of old, they’re static and full of white space. Mander calls this “the quality of even tone” of television, and the Internet does it one better. It’s uniform and easily aggregated, and you can cut it together however you like, like yard goods.
In fact, it isn’t content that gives us the most pleasure, but the act of clicking, with the sense of control it provides. This implies that bland, interchangeable content is actually preferable to more arresting material. The easier it is to move between basically similar units, the closer the experience is to that of an ideally curated television show—which is why different sources have a way of blurring together into the same voice. When I’m trying to tell my wife about a story I read online, I often have trouble remembering if I read it on Vox, Vulture, or Vice, which isn’t a knock against those sites, but a reflection of the unconscious pressure to create a seamless browsing experience. From there, it’s only a short step to outright content mills and fake news. In the past, I’ve called this AutoContent, after the interchangeable bullet points used to populate slideshow presentations, but it’s only effective if you can cut quickly from one slide to another. If you had to stare at it for longer than fifteen seconds, you wouldn’t be able to stand it. (This may be why we’ve come to associate quality with length, which is more resistant to being to reduced to the filler between technical events. The “long read,” as I’ve argued elsewhere, can be a marketing category in itself, but it does need to try a little harder.) The idea that browsing online is a form of addictive behavior isn’t a new one, of course, and it’s often explained in terms of the “random rewards” that the brain receives when we check email or social media. But the notion of online content as a convenient source of technical events is worth remembering. When we spend any period of time online, we’re essentially watching a television show while simultaneously acting as its editor and director, and often as its writer and actors. In the end, to slightly misquote Mander, all that’s happening is that the reader is seated in front of a computer or looking at a phone, “which is the same thing that happened an hour ago, or yesterday.” The Internet is better at this than television ever was. And in a generation or two, it may result in television being eliminated after all.
Note: Spoilers follow for the series finale of The Vampire Diaries.
On Friday, I said goodbye to The Vampire Diaries, a series that I once thought was one of the best genre shows on television, only to stop watching it for its last two seasons. Despite its flaws, it occupies a special place in my memory, in part because its strengths were inseparable from the reasons that I finally abandoned it. Like Glee, The Vampire Diaries responded to its obvious debt to an earlier franchise—High School Musical for the former, Twilight for the latter—both by subverting its predecessor and by burning through ideas as relentlessly as it could. It’s as if both shows decided to refute any accusations of unoriginality by proving that they could be more ingenious than their inspirations, and amazingly, it sort of worked, at least for a while. There’s a limit to how long any series can repeatedly break down and reassemble itself, however, and both started to lose steam after about three years. In the case of The Vampire Diaries, its problems crystallized around its ostensible lead, Elena Gilbert, as portrayed by the game and talented Nina Dobrev, who left the show two seasons ago before returning for an encore in the finale. Elena spent most of her first sendoff asleep, and she isn’t given much more to do here. There’s a lot about the episode that I liked, and it provides satisfying moments of closure for many of its characters, but Elena isn’t among them. In the end, when she awakens from the magical coma in which she has been slumbering, it’s so anticlimactic that it reminds me of what Pauline Kael wrote of Han’s revival in Return of the Jedi: “It’s as if Han Solo had locked himself in the garage, tapped on the door, and been let out.”
And what happened to Elena provides a striking case study of why the story’s hero is often fated to become the least interesting person in sight. The main character of a serialized drama is under such pressure to advance the plot that he or she becomes reduced to the diagram of a pattern of forces, like one of the fish in D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form, in which the animal’s physical shape is determined by the outside stresses to which it has been subjected. Instead of making her own decisions, Elena was obliged to become whatever the series needed her to be. Every protagonist serves as a kind of motor for the story, which is frequently a thankless role, but it was particularly problematic on a show that defined itself by its willingness to burn through a year of potential storylines each month. Every episode felt like a season finale, and characters were freely killed, resurrected, and brainwashed to keep the wheels turning. It was hardest on Elena, who, at her best, was a compelling, resourceful heroine. After six seasons of personality changes, possessions, memory wipes, and the inexplicable choices that she made just because the story demanded it, she became an empty shell. If you were designing a show in a laboratory to see what would happen if its protagonist was forced to live through plot twists at an accelerated rate, like the stress tests that engineers use to put a component through a lifetime’s worth of wear in a short period of time, you couldn’t do much better than The Vampire Diaries. And while it might have been theoretically interesting to see what happened to the series after that one piece was removed, I didn’t think it was worth sitting through another two seasons of increasingly frustrating television.
After the finale was shot, series creators Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec made the rounds of interviews to discuss the ending, and they shared one particular detail that fascinates me. If you haven’t watched The Vampire Diaries, all you need to know is that its early seasons revolved around a love triangle between Elena and the vampire brothers Stefan and Damon, a nod to Twilight that quickly became one of the show’s least interesting aspects. Elena seemed fated to end up with Stefan, but she spent the back half of the series with Damon, and it ended with the two of them reunited. In a conversation with Deadline, Williamson revealed that this wasn’t always the plan:
Well, I always thought it would be Stefan and Elena. They were sort of the anchor of the show, but because we lost Elena in season six, we couldn’t go back. You know Nina could only come back for one episode—maybe if she had came back for the whole season, we could even have warped back towards that, but you can’t just do it in forty-two minutes.
Dobrev’s departure, in other words, froze that part of the story in place, even as the show around it continued its usual frantic developments, and when she returned, there wasn’t time to do anything but keep Elena and Damon where they had left off. There’s a limit to how much ground you can cover in the course of a single episode, so it seemed easier for the producers to stick with what they had and figure out a way to make it seem inevitable.
The fact that it works at all is a tribute to the skill of the writers and cast, as well as to the fact that the whole love triangle was basically arbitrary in the first place. As James Joyce said in a very different context, it was a bridge across which the characters could walk, and once they were safely on the other side, it could be blown to smithereens. The real challenge was how to make the finale seem like a definitive ending, after the show had killed off and resurrected so many characters that not even death itself felt like a conclusion. It resorted to much the same solution that Lost did when faced with a similar problem: it shut off all possibility of future narrative by reuniting its characters in heaven. This partially a form of wish fulfillment, as we’ve seen with so many other television series, but it also puts a full stop on the story by leaving us in an afterlife, where, by definition, nothing can ever change. It’s hilariously unlike the various versions of the world to come that the series has presented over the years, from which characters can always be yanked back to life when necessary, but it’s also oddly moving and effective. Watching it, I began to appreciate how the show’s biggest narrative liability—a cast that just can’t be killed—also became its greatest asset. The defining image of The Vampire Diaries was that of a character who has his neck snapped, and then just shakes it off. Williamson and Plec must have realized, consciously or otherwise, that it was a reset button that would allow them to go through more ideas than would be possible than a show on which a broken neck was permanent. Every denizen of Mystic Falls got a great death scene, often multiple times per season, and the show exploited that freedom until it exhausted itself. It only really worked for three years out of eight, but it was a great run while it lasted. And now, after life’s fitful fever, the characters can sleep well, as they sail off into the mystic.
By now, you’re probably sick of hearing about what happened at the Oscars. I’m getting a little tired of it, too, even though it was possibly the strangest and most riveting two minutes I’ve ever seen on live television. It left me feeling sorry for everyone involved, but there are at least three bright spots. The first is that it’s going to make a great case study for somebody like Malcolm Gladwell, who is always looking for a showy anecdote to serve as a grabber opening for a book or article. So many different things had to go wrong for it to happen—on the levels of design, human error, and simple dumb luck—that you can use it to illustrate just about any point you like. A second silver lining is that it highlights the basically arbitrary nature of all such awards. As time passes, the list of Best Picture winners starts to look inevitable, as if Cimarron and Gandhi and Chariots of Fire had all been canonized by a comprehensible historical process. If anything, the cycle of inevitability is accelerating, so that within seconds of any win, the narratives are already locking into place. As soon as La La Land was announced as the winner, a story was emerging about how Hollywood always goes for the safe, predictable choice. The first thing that Dave Itzkoff, a very smart reporter, posted on the New York Times live chat was: “Of course.” Within a couple of minutes, however, that plot line had been yanked away and replaced with one for Moonlight. And the fact that the two versions were all but superimposed onscreen should warn us against reading too much into outcomes that could have gone any number of ways.
But what I want to keep in mind above all else is the example of La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz, who, at a moment of unbelievable pressure, simply said: “I’m going to be really proud to hand this to my friends from Moonlight.” It was the best thing that anybody could have uttered under those circumstances, and it tells us a lot about Horowitz himself. If you were going to design a psychological experiment to test a subject’s reaction under the most extreme conditions imaginable, it’s hard to think of a better one—although it might strike a grant committee as possibly too expensive. It takes what is undoubtedly one of the high points of someone’s life and twists it instantly into what, if perhaps not the worst moment, at least amounts to a savage correction. Everything that the participants onstage did or said, down to the facial expressions of those standing in the background, has been subjected to a level of scrutiny worthy of the Zapruder film. At the end of an event in which very little occurs that hasn’t been scripted or premeditated, a lot of people were called upon to figure out how to act in real time in front of an audience of hundreds of millions. It’s proverbial that nobody tells the truth in Hollywood, an industry that inspires insider accounts with titles like Hello, He Lied and Which Lie Did I Tell? A mixup like the one at the Oscars might have been expressly conceived as a stress test to bring out everyone’s true colors. Yet Horowitz said what he did. And I suspect that it will do more for his career than even an outright win would have accomplished.
It also reminds me of other instances over the last year in which we’ve learned exactly what someone thinks. When we get in trouble for a remark picked up on a hot mike, we often say that it doesn’t reflect who we really are—which is just another way of stating that it doesn’t live up to the versions of ourselves that we create for public consumption. It’s far crueler, but also more convincing, to argue that it’s exactly in those unguarded, unscripted moments that our true selves emerge. (Freud, whose intuition on such matters was uncanny, was onto something when he focused on verbal mistakes and slips of the tongue.) The justifications that we use are equally revealing. Maybe we dismiss it as “locker room talk,” even if it didn’t take place anywhere near a locker room. Kellyanne Conway excused her reference to the nonexistent Bowling Green Massacre by saying “I misspoke one word,” even though she misspoke it on three separate occasions. It doesn’t even need to be something said on the spur of the moment. At his confirmation hearing for the position of ambassador to Israel, David M. Friedman apologized for an opinion piece he had written before the election: “These were hurtful words, and I deeply regret them. They’re not reflective of my nature or my character.” Friedman also said that “the inflammatory rhetoric that accompanied the presidential campaign is entirely over,” as if it were an impersonal force that briefly took possession of its users and then departed. We ask to be judged on our most composed selves, not the ones that we reveal at our worst.
To some extent, that’s a reasonable request. I’ve said things in public and in private that I’ve regretted, and I wouldn’t want to be judged solely on my worst moments as a writer or parent. At a time when a life can be ruined by a single tweet, it’s often best to err on the side of forgiveness, especially when there’s any chance of misinterpretation. But there’s also a place for common sense. You don’t refer to an event as a “massacre” unless you really think of it that way or want to encourage others to do so. And we judge our public figures by what they say when they think that nobody is listening, or when they let their guard down. It might seem like an impossibly high standard, but it’s also the one that’s effectively applied in practice. You can respond by becoming inhumanly disciplined, like Obama, who in a decade of public life has said maybe five things he has reason to regret. Or you can react like Trump, who says five regrettable things every day and trusts that its sheer volume will reduce it to a kind of background noise—which has awakened us, as Trump has in so many other ways, to a political option that we didn’t even knew existed. Both strategies are exhausting, and most of us don’t have the energy to pursue either path. Instead, we’re left with the practical solution of cultivating the inner voice that, as I wrote last week, allows us to act instinctively. Kant writes: “Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law.” Which is another way of saying that we should strive to be the best version of ourselves at all times. It’s probably impossible. But it’s easier than wearing a mask.
[The West Wing episode “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail”] is an example of the half dozen or so times I’ve worked backwards. You need to write next week’s script and you don’t have any ideas because if you did, they’d have been in last week’s script. You go out driving in your car and turn on music because that’s sometimes worked for you in the past. You hear the Don Henley song which you’ve heard a hundred times before, but this time it puts you in a certain mood, and you want to write something that has that mood. More specifically, you want to write something that earns that lyric as a title. You actually have a title before you have a story, but at least you have a title, and that’s something. And something, when you’re writing, is always better than nothing.
In the opening seconds of the series premiere of Riverdale, a young man speaks quietly in voiceover, his words playing over idyllic shots of American life:
Our story is about a town, a small town, and the people who live in the town. From a distance, it presents itself like so many other small towns all over the world. Safe. Decent. Innocent. Get closer, though, and you start seeing the shadows underneath. The name of our town is Riverdale.
Much later, we realize that the speaker is Jughead of Archie Comics fame, played by former Disney child star Cole Sprouse, which might seem peculiar enough in itself. But what I noticed first about this monologue is that it basically summarizes the prologue of Blue Velvet, which begins with images of roses and picket fences and then dives into the grass, revealing the insects ravening like feral animals in the darkness. It’s one of the greatest declarations of intent in all of cinema, and initially, there’s something a little disappointing in the way that Riverdale feels obliged to blandly state what Lynch put into a series of unforgettable images. Yet I have the feeling that series creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who says that Blue Velvet is one of his favorite movies, knows exactly what he’s doing. And the result promises to be more interesting than even he can anticipate.
Riverdale has been described as The O.C. meets Twin Peaks, which is how it first came to my attention. But it’s also a series on the CW, with all the good, the bad, and the lack of ugly that this implies. This the network that produced The Vampire Diaries, the first three seasons of which unexpectedly generated some of my favorite television from the last few years, and it takes its genre shows very seriously. There’s a fascinating pattern at work within systems that produce such narratives on a regular basis, whether in pulp magazines or comic books or exploitation pictures: as long as you hit all the obligatory notes and come in under budget, you’re granted a surprising amount of freedom. The CW, like its predecessors, has become an unlikely haven for auteurs, and it’s the sort of place where a showrunner like Aguirre-Sacasa—who has an intriguing background in playwriting, comics, and television—can explore a sandbox like this for years. Yet it also requires certain heavy, obvious beats, like structural supports, to prop up the rest of the edifice. A lot of the first episode of Riverdale, like most pilots, is devoted to setting up its premise and characters for even the most distracted viewers, and it can be almost insultingly on the nose. It’s why it feels obliged to spell out its theme of dark shadows beneath its sunlit surfaces, which isn’t exactly hard to grasp. As Roger Ebert wrote decades ago in his notoriously indignant review of Blue Velvet: “What are we being told? That beneath the surface of Small Town, U.S.A., passions run dark and dangerous? Don’t stop the presses.”
As a result, if you want to watch Riverdale at all, you need to get used to being treated occasionally as if you were twelve years old. But Aguirre-Sacasa seems determined to have it both ways. Like Glee before it, it feels as if it’s being pulled in three different directions even before it begins, but in this case, it comes off less as an unwanted side effect than as a strategy. It’s worth noting that not only did Aguirre-Sacasa write for Glee itself, but he’s also the guy who stepped in rewrite Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which means that he knows something about wrangling intractable material for a mass audience under enormous scrutiny. (He’s also the chief creative officer of Archie Comics, which feels like a dream job in the best sort of way: one of his projects at the Yale School of Drama was a play about Archie encountering the murderers Leopold and Loeb, and he later received a cease and desist order from his future employer over Archie’s Weird Fantasy, which depicted its lead character as coming out of the closet.) Riverdale often plays like the work of a prodigiously talented writer trying to put his ideas into a form that could plausibly air on Thursdays after Supernatural. Like most shows at this stage, it’s also openly trying to decide what it’s supposed to be about. And I want to believe, on the basis of almost zero evidence, that Aguirre-Sacasa is deliberately attempting something almost unworkable, in hopes that he’ll be able to stick with it long enough—on a network that seems fairly indulgent of shows on the margins—to make it something special.
Most great television results from this sort of evolutionary process, and I’ve noted before—most explicitly in my Salon piece on The X-Files—that the best genre shows emerge when a jumble of inconsistent elements is given the chance to find its ideal form, usually because it lucks into a position where it can play under the radar for years. The pressures of weekly airings, fan response, critical reviews, and ratings, along with the unpredictable inputs of the cast and writing staff, lead to far more rewarding results than even the most visionary showrunner could produce in isolation. Writers of serialized narratives like comic books know this intuitively, and consciously or not, Aguirre-Sacasa seems to be trying something similar on television. It’s not an approach that would make sense for a series like Westworld, which was produced for so much money and with such high expectations that its creators had no choice but to start with a plan. But it might just work on the CW. I’m hopeful that Aguirre-Sacasa and his collaborators will use the mystery at the heart of the series much as Twin Peaks did, as a kind of clothesline on which they can hang a lot of wild experiments, only a certain percentage of which can be expected to work. Twin Peaks itself provides a measure of this method’s limitations: it mutated into something extraordinary, but it didn’t survive the departure of its original creative team. Riverdale feels like an attempt to recreate those conditions, and if it utilizes the Archie characters as its available raw material, well, why not? If Lynch had been able to get the rights, he might have used them, too.
Mary Tyler Moore was the loveliest woman ever to appear on television, but you can only fully appreciate her charms if you also believe that Dick Van Dyke was maybe the most attractive man. I spent much of my youth obsessed with Rob and Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, which I think is the best three-camera sitcom of all time, and the one that secretly had the greatest impact on my inner life. Along with so much else, it was the first show that seemed to mine comedic and narrative material out of the act of its own creation. Rob was a comedy writer, and thanks to his scenes at the office with Sally and Buddy, I thought for a while I might want to do the same thing. I know now that this wouldn’t be a great job for someone like me, but the image of it is still enticing. What made it so appealing, I’ve come to realize, is that when Rob came home, the show never ended—he was married to a woman who was just as smart, funny, and talented as he was. (Looking at Moore, who was only twenty-four when the series premiered, I’m reminded a little of Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain, who effortlessly kept up with her older costars under conditions of enormous pressure.) It was my first and best picture of a life that seemed complete both at work and at home. And the fact that both Moore and Van Dyke seem to have been drinking heavily during the show’s production only points at how difficult it must have been to sustain that dream on camera.
What strikes me the most now about The Dick Van Dyke Show is the uncanny way in which it anticipates the early seasons of Mad Men. In both shows, a husband leaves his idyllic home in Westchester each morning to commute to a creative job in Manhattan, where he brainstorms ideas with his wisecracking colleagues. (Don and Betty lived in Ossining, but the house that was used for exterior shots was in New Rochelle, with Rob and Laura presumably just up the road.) His wife is a much younger knockout—Laura was a former dancer, Betty a model—who seems that she ought to be doing something else besides watching a precocious kindergartener. The storylines are about evenly divided between the home and the office, and between the two, they give us a fuller portrait of the protagonist than most shows ever do. The influence, I can only assume, was unconscious. We know that Matthew Weiner watched the earlier series, as he revealed in a GQ interview when asked about life in the writers’ room:
We all came up in this system…When I watch The Dick Van Dyke Show, I’m like, Wow, this is the same job. There’s the twelve-year-old kid on the staff. There’s the guy who delivers lunch. I guarantee you I can walk into [another writer’s office] and, except for where the snack room is, it’s gonna be similar on some level.
And I don’t think it’s farfetched to guess that The Dick Van Dyke Show was Weiner’s introduction, as it was for so many of us, to the idea of writing for television in the first place.
The more I think about it, the more these two shows feel like mirror images of each other, just as “Don and Betty Draper” and “Rob and Laura Petrie” share the same rhythm. I’m not the first one to draw this connection, but instead of highlighting the obvious contrast between the sunniness of the former and the darkness of the latter, I’d prefer to focus on what they have in common. Both are hugely romantic visions of what it means to be a man who can afford a nice house in Westchester based solely on his ability to pitch better ideas than anybody else. Mad Men succeeds in large part because it manages to have it both ways. The series implicitly rebukes Don’s personal behavior, but it never questions his intelligence or talent. It doesn’t really sour us on advertising, any more than it does on drinking or smoking, and I don’t have any doubt that there are people who will build entire careers around its example. Both shows are the work of auteurs—Carl Reiner and Matt Weiner, whose names actually rhyme—who can’t help but let their joy in their own technical facility seep into the narrative. Rob and Don are veiled portraits of their creators. One is a lot better and the other a whole lot worse, but both amount to alternate lives, enacted for an audience, that reflect the restless activity behind the scenes.
And the real difference between Mad Men and The Dick Van Dyke Show doesn’t have anything to do with the decades in which they first aired, or even with the light and dark halves of the Camelot era that they both evoke. It comes down to the contrast between Laura and Betty—who, on some weird level, seem to represent opposing sides of the public image of Jacqueline Kennedy, and not just because the hairstyles are so similar. Betty was never a match for Don at home, and the only way in which she could win the game, which she did so emphatically, was to leave him altogether. Laura was Rob’s equal, intellectually and comedically, and she fit so well into the craziness at The Alan Brady Show that it wasn’t hard to envision her working there. In some ways, she was limited by her role as a housewife, and she would find her fullest realization in her second life as Mary Richards. But the enormous gap between Rob and Don boils down to the fact that one was married to a full partner and teammate, while the other had to make do with a glacial symbol of his success. When I think of them, I remember two songs. One is “Song of India,” which plays as Betty descends the hotel steps in “For Those Who Think Young,” as Don gazes at her so longingly that he seems to be seeing the ghost of his own marriage. The other is “Mountain Greenery,” which Rob and Laura sing at a party at their house, in a scene that struck me as contrived even at the time. Were there ever parties like this? It doesn’t really matter. Because I can’t imagine Don and Betty doing anything like it.