Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Matthew Weiner

American Stories #8: Mad Men

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

These days, it’s impossible for me to think about Mad Men without taking into account the accusations leveled against its creator, Matthew Weiner, at the height of last year’s overdue reckoning with sexual misconduct in the entertainment industry. Weiner wasn’t the first or last man whose body of work I’ve admired to be accused of such behavior, but his case is more tangled up than usual with my feelings toward his career. Here’s the most widely reported version of the interaction described by former Mad Men writer Kater Gordon, who won an Emmy for the brilliant episode “Meditations in an Emergency”:

Gordon says she was harassed by Weiner late one night when he allegedly said to her that she owed it to him to let him see her naked. She says she “froze and tried to brush [the comments] off” by continuing to work with Weiner that evening in the office…“I knew immediately when he crossed the boundary that it was wrong,” Gordon told The Information. “But I didn’t know then what my options were. Having a script or some sentences cued up as an arsenal—like a self-defense harassment arsenal—I could have used that in that moment, and it would have saved me years of regret that I didn’t handle that situation differently.”

Gordon was “let go” from the show a year later, and Weiner has contested her version of events. But it’s worth noting how both of them frame the alleged incident in terms of their identity as writers. Gordon speaks of not having “a script or some sentences cued up as an arsenal,” while Weiner’s spokesperson said in a statement: “Mr. Weiner spent eight to ten hours a day writing dialogue aloud with Miss Gordon, who started on Mad Men as his writers assistant.” And it’s that otherwise inexplicable “Miss Gordon”—which makes Weiner sound as if he still thinks that he’s actually living in the sixties—that may be the most revealing detail of all.

After hearing Gordon’s story, Marti Noxon, who served as a consulting producer on the show, said on Twitter: “Anyone with an even cursory knowledge of the show Mad Men could imagine that very line coming from the mouth of Pete Campbell.” Mad Men offers plenty of material for those who want to mine it for insights into its creator’s inner life, and while it’s probably worth resisting this temptation, it isn’t entirely irrelevant, either. This is a show that has meant more to me than just about any other television series. It premiered just one month after my future wife and I started dating, and it aired its finale when my daughter was two years old, which means that it provided a backdrop and a soundtrack to my feelings about adulthood, marriage, and children. And it may not have always been for the best. I’ve noted before how its period setting allowed it to depict attitudes that were ostensibly the object of criticism, while also evoking a twisted, almost subliminal nostalgia, in part because its surfaces were so seductive. Like so many American movies and television shows, Mad Men is a critique of masculinity that undermines its own points by embodying them in a man who looks like Jon Hamm. I suspect that the male viewers who responded to the way Don spoke, dressed, smoked, and drank far outnumbered those who were inspired by his portrayal to ask hard questions of themselves—and this doesn’t even get at his treatment of women. What occurred between Weiner and Gordon, if true, feels like a distorted version of the relationship between Don and Peggy, and if the show itself never took it in that direction, it may only be because Weiner’s instincts were better as a writer than they were in his personal life. But they weren’t infallible. As time goes on, issues like the show’s frequent confusion over what to do with Betty and its inability to tell extended stories about black characters seem less like forgivable shortcomings than lamentably missed opportunities. This is still the best television drama I’ve ever seen, but I wouldn’t want to live in it. And it’s clear by now that it succeeded in part because there are a lot of people who would.

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January 10, 2018 at 8:45 am

Rob and Betty and Don and Laura

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Laura Petrie and Betty Draper

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.

Rob Petrie and Don Draper

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.

Written by nevalalee

January 26, 2017 at 9:05 am

“But some things can’t be undone…”

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"But some things can't be undone..."

Note: This post is the sixty-second—and final—installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering the epilogue. You can read the previous installments here.

How do you end a series that has lasted for three books and more than a thousand pages? To some extent, no conclusion can be completely satisfying, so it makes sense to focus on what you actually stand a chance of achieving. There’s a reason, for instance, that so few series finales live up to our hopes: a healthy television show has to cultivate and maintain more narrative threads than can be resolved in a single episode, so any finale has to leave certain elements unaddressed. In practice, this means that entire characters and subplots are ignored in favor of others, which is exactly how it should be. During the last season of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner and his writing team prepared a list of story points that they wanted to revisit, and reading it over again now is a fascinating exercise. The show used some of the ideas, but it omitted many more, and we never did get a chance to see what happened to Sal, Dr. Faye, or Peggy’s baby. This kind of creative pruning is undoubtedly good for the whole, and it serves as a reminder of Weiner’s exceptional skill as a showrunner. Mad Men was one of the most intricate dramas ever written, with literally dozens of characters who might have earned a resonant guest appearance in the closing stretch of episodes. But Weiner rightly forced himself to focus on the essentials, while also allowing for a few intriguing digressions, and the result was one of the strongest finales I’ve ever seen—a rare example of a show sticking the landing to maintain an impossibly high standard from the first episode to the last.

It’s tempting to think of a series finale as a piece of valuable real estate in which every second counts, or as a zero-sum game in which every moment devoted to one character means that another won’t have a chance to appear. (Watching the Mad Men finale, I found myself waiting for my favorite supporting players to pop up, and as soon as they had their scene, I couldn’t help thinking: That’s the last thing I’ll ever see them do.) But it can be dangerous to take such a singleminded approach to any unit of narrative, particularly for shows that have thrived on the unpredictable. My favorite example is the series finale of Twin Peaks, which wasn’t even meant to end the show, but provided as perfect a conclusion as any viewer could want—an opinion that I’ll continue to hold even after the new season premieres on Showtime. Instead of taking time to check in with everyone in their huge cast, David Lynch and Mark Frost indulge in long, seemingly pointless set pieces: the scene in the bank with Audrey, with the decrepit manager shuffling interminable across the floor to get her a drink of water, and especially the sequence in the Black Lodge, which is still the weirdest, emptiest twenty minutes ever to air on network television. You can imagine a viewer almost shouting at the screen for Lynch and Frost to get back to Sheriff Truman or Shelly or Donna, but that wouldn’t have been true to the show’s vision. Similarly, the Mad Men finale devotes a long scene to a character we’ve never seen before or since, the man at the encounter group who ends up inspiring Don’s return to humanity. It might seem like a strange choice, but it was the right call: Don’s relationships with every other character were so burdened with history that it took a new face to carry him over the finish line.

"And she fears that one will ask her for eternity..."

I found myself dealing with many of the same issues when it came to the epilogue of Eternal Empire, which was like the final season of a television series that had gone on for longer than I’d ever expected. Maddy and Wolfe had already received a sendoff in the previous chapter, so I only had to deal with Ilya. Pragmatically, the scene could have been about anything, or nothing at all. Ilya was always a peculiar character: he was defined mostly by action, and I deliberately refrained from detailing large portions of his backstory, on the assumption that he would be more interesting the less we knew about his past. It would have been easy to give him a conclusion that filled in more of his background, or that restored something of what he had lost—his family, a home, his sense of himself as a fundamentally good man. But that didn’t seem right. Another theme that you often see in series finales, particularly for a certain type of sitcom, is the showrunner’s desire to make every character’s dreams come true: the last season of Parks and Recreation, in particular, was a sustained exercise in wish fulfillment. I can understand the need to reward the characters that we love, but in Ilya’s case, what I loved about him was inseparable from the fact of his rootlessness. The novel repeatedly draws a parallel between his situation and that of the Khazars, the tribe of nomads that converted to Judaism before being erased from history, and I once compared him to the tzaddikim, or the unknown men and women for whose sake God refrains from destroying the world.  Above all else, he was the Scythian, a wanderer of the steppes. I chose these emblems intuitively, but they clearly all have something in common. And it implied that Ilya would have to depart the series as he began it: as a man without a country.

What we get, in the end, is this quiet scene, in which Ilya goes to visit the daughter of the woman who had helped him in Yalta. The woman was a bride of the brotherhood, a former convict who gave up her family to work with the thieves, and her daughter ended up as the servant of a gangster in Moldova, five hundred miles away. Ilya gives her some money and her mother’s address, which he hopes will allow them to build a new life together, and then leaves. (The song that is playing on the girl’s cassette deck, incidentally, is Joni Mitchell’s “Cactus Tree.” This might be the nerdiest, most obscure inside joke of the entire series: it’s the song that appears in a deleted epigraph in the page proofs of Gravity’s Rainbow, before Thomas Pynchon removed it prior to publication. I’d wanted to use it, in some form, since The Icon Thief, and the fact that it includes the word “eternity” was a lucky coincidence.) It all makes for a subdued conclusion to the trilogy, and I came up with it fairly late in the process: as far as I can remember, the idea that there was a connection between the women in Yalta and Moldova didn’t occur to me until I’d already outlined the scenes, and this conclusion would have been an equally late addition. And it works, more or less, even if it feels a little too much like the penultimate scene of The Bourne Supremacy. It seemed right to end the series—which was pointedly made up of big, exaggerated gestures—on a gentle note, which implies that reuniting a parent and her child might be an act of greater significance than saving the world. I don’t know where Ilya goes after this, even though I spent the better part of four years trying to see through his eyes. But I suspect that he just wants to be left in peace…

The air of unreality

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Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer on UnREAL

I’ve often said that a work of art is secretly about the process of its own creation, and that seems especially true of the Lifetime series UnREAL. Reviewing its uneven but compelling first season, which followed a pair of ruthless reality show producers as they manipulated their contestants, their coworkers, and themselves, I wrote:

UnREAL isn’t without its problems, which grow increasingly evident as the season progresses…The love triangle between Rachel, Adam, and her hunky bore of an ex-boyfriend Jeremy never settles into anything more than a gimmick…The plotting is a sometimes uneasy mix of cynicism, soap opera, and narrative convenience…By making [its fictional reality series] into a kind of perfect storm of worst-case scenarios, the show holds our attention for the short term, but it ends up making the entire season less interesting: we don’t want life and death, but the small betrayals and reversals that underlie the shows we take for granted.

I concluded: “At its best, this is a remarkably assured series, with its two halves vibrating against each other in ways that can make you tingle with excitement. But the more it cranks up the drama, the less it implicates us, and it all ends up feeling safely unreal.” And I was especially curious to see how it would handle the transition to its second season.

Having watched the first couple of episodes of its current run, I’m still not sure. But I have the feeling that the show’s co-creator, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, would agree with many of the criticisms I mentioned above. Here are a few excerpts from the remarkably candid profile of Shapiro by D.T. Max that was published last week in The New Yorker:

Executives at Lifetime offered to buy the idea [of UnREAL] immediately. Afterward, Shapiro had second thoughts worthy of a victorious Bachelor contestant: “I was calling 411, asking, ‘Do you have the main number for HBO?’” She couldn’t reach any executives there—this is her story, anyway—and she proceeded with Lifetime…

The studio also asked the writers to expand the role of Jeremy…He fit the aesthetic of Lifetime movies but was not Shapiro’s type…Jeremy, she told me, was “conceived as a one-season character.” Later, she e-mailed me: “I could not get on board with the idea of Jeremy being Rachel’s ‘Mr. Big’ (which was brought up).” Still, the studio had pushed for Josh Kelly to return. “They can ask you to do it, but they can’t make you,” she told me. Like Rachel, Shapiro frequently has to decide whether she is a bomb-thrower or an inside player with misgivings. In this case, she decided to play nice.

Which all leads up to a vivid moment when Carol Barbee, the showrunner, enters the writers’ room and says: “Come on. Let’s put on our big-boy pants and make a story for Jeremy.”

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro

Reading this, I found myself wondering how Josh Kelly, the actor who plays Jeremy, would respond—or the executives at Lifetime itself. (Elsewhere in the article, Shaprio says of Kelly: “All I can say is we employ a veteran, and he’s a good person.” She continues: “Integrating Jeremy was a small price to pay for having a black bachelor and letting Quinn and Rachel go all the way to darkness.”) Every television show, it seems safe to assume, is the product of similar compromises, but it’s rare to see them discussed in public for a series that hasn’t even aired two full seasons yet, and which hasn’t exactly been an invulnerable ratings juggernaut. A hint of backstage conflict doesn’t necessarily tarnish the brand of UNReal, which is explicitly about the tussles behind the scenes of a troubled series, and if anything, it adds an intriguing layer of subtext. Shaprio says of Rachel, her fictional alter ego: “It’s really about ‘I’m savvy enough and smart enough that I know I have to give the network all the frosting and the froufrou and all the titties that they need, and in the process I’m going to slip them this super-important thing.’” Yet if I were Shaprio, I’d be a little uncomfortable with how the article portrayed my relationship with the collaborators who have enabled this show to exist. This includes co-creator Marti Noxon, who says of her partnership with Shapiro: “I don’t think I’ve had as contentious and fruitful a collaboration since I worked with Matt Weiner on Mad Men.”

That quote, in itself, is a small masterpiece of spin, pairing “contentious” with “fruitful” to imply that one leads to the other, and cleverly dropping the name of the one show that ought to silence any concerns we might have about disquiet on the set. But the comparison also works against the series itself. Matthew Weiner, a notorious perfectionist, had contentious interactions with his cast, his crew, and his network, but the result was a show that was staggeringly consistent in tone and quality. You can’t say this about UnREAL, in which the strain of its competing forces is clearly visible: the new season, especially, has struggled to top the delicious toxicity of its debut while keeping the plot wheels turning, and it sometimes verges on shrill. Thanks to the glimpse that we’ve been given of its travails, I’ll be watching the series with even greater interest than before—although I also run the risk of excusing its flaws because of what we now know about its internal tensions. Such justifications are tempting, but flimsy. Every television show in history has suffered from conflict among its collaborators, network interference, competing incentives, and characters whom the show’s writing staff would prefer to forget. When a series is working, you don’t see any of it, as you so often do with UnREAL. Shapiro knows as well as anyone how much of television is an illusion, and most of the fun of this show lies in how it picks the medium apart. But the result would be even more persuasive if it were better about creating those illusions on its own.

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June 21, 2016 at 9:16 am

My alternative canon #8: Down with Love

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Ewan McGregor in Down with Love

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. For the rest of the week, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here

I didn’t see Down with Love when it first came out in theaters, almost exactly thirteen years ago, and at the time, it seems to have puzzled most viewers and critics. By the time I finally caught up to it on video, Mad Men had been on the air for several seasons, which went a long way toward making Peyton Reed’s unlikely gem more comprehensible: on its release, it seemed like an abandoned orphan, or a dead end, while hindsight has transformed it into a necessary transitional stage between The Hudsucker Proxy and the world of Sterling Cooper. As a result, it’s easier to appreciate now, and you don’t need to be familiar with the Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies it’s ostensibly parodying—I’m certainly not—to enjoy its surface delights. The look of the early sixties is reproduced with a precision that Matthew Weiner would have reason to envy, and the film can indulge in the kinds of sight gags that he never could, as when Barbara and her friend Vikki march into a party wearing houndstooth and canary-yellow coats, respectively, and then remove their outer layers in tandem to reveal complementary outfits underneath. (Vikki, incidentally, is played by Sarah Paulson, who is unforgettably funny here a full decade before her big breakthrough.) Its canny visual pleasures, from the smutty use of split screens to the cheerful fakery of the sets, accomplish with seeming effortlessness what One From the Heart, for all its agonized labor, never could. And when the two leads burst into song over the closing credits, it’s a joyous, inevitable climax that I’d take over all of Chicago or Moulin Rouge!

But the real reason I love this movie is because of a pivotal scene that qualifies, I think, as the weirdest and gutsiest moment in any mainstream comedy of the last twenty years. (Please note that a big spoiler follows.) In a static medium shot that lasts an unbelievable three minutes, most of it without any music, Barbara delivers an epic confessional monologue to Catcher Block, her romantic target, explaining that the film’s entire plot was the result of an insanely convoluted plan to get him to fall in love with her, starting with the simple first step of writing “an international bestseller.” At a time when extended takes and tracking shots have become increasingly routine, this is the only one that still fills me with awe. It strands the movie without a backup plan, depending on an irrational faith in the screenplay, in Renée Zellweger’s performance, and, perhaps most crucially, in the cut to Ewan McGregor’s bewildered reaction. A lot of movies pretend to take showy risks, but this is the real thing, a shot that blows up the entire story and can’t be fixed in the editing room. Maybe the lightness of the surrounding material has kept it from receiving its full due; more plausibly, maybe it just didn’t work for a majority of viewers. But it sure worked for me, in large part because it zeroes in, almost by accident, on the ludicrous fallacy of every writer’s life—the idea that the solution to all of your personal problems lies in writing a bestselling book. Barbara’s plan is crazy, but it works. And here’s a related confession of my own: I conceived this whole alternative canon mostly just as an excuse to talk about Down With Love.

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June 15, 2016 at 8:31 am

The reviewable appliance

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Jon Hamm on Mad Men

Last week, I quoted the critic Renata Adler, who wrote back in the early eighties: “Television…is clearly not an art but an appliance, through which reviewable material is sometimes played.” Which only indicates how much has changed over the last thirty years, which have seen television not only validated as a reviewable medium, but transformed into maybe the single most widely reviewed art form in existence. Part of this is due to an increase in the quality of the shows themselves: by now, it’s a cliché to say that we’re living in a golden age of television, but that doesn’t make it any less true, until there are almost too many great shows for any one viewer to absorb. As John Landgraf of FX said last year, in a quote that was widely shared in media circles, mostly because it expresses how many of us feel: “There is simply too much television.” There are something like four hundred original scripted series airing these days—which is remarkable in itself, given how often critics have tolled the death knell for scripted content in the face of reality programming—and many are good to excellent. If we’ve learned to respect television as a medium that rewards close scrutiny, it’s largely because there are more worthwhile shows than ever before, and many deserve to be unpacked at length.

There’s also a sense in which shows have consciously risen to that challenge, taking advantage of the fact that there are so many venues for reviews and discussion. I never felt that I’d truly watched an episode of Mad Men until I’d watched Matthew Weiner’s weekly commentary and read the writeup on The A.V. Club, and I suspect that Weiner felt enabled to go for that level of density because the tools for talking about it were there. (To take another example: Mad Style, the fantastic blog maintained by Tom and Lorenzo, came into being because of the incredible work of costume designer Jane Bryant, but Bryant herself seemed to be make certain choices because she knew that they would be noticed and dissected.) The Simpsons is often called the first VCR show—it allowed itself to go for rapid freeze-frame jokes and sign gags because viewers could pause to catch every detail—but these days, we’re more likely to rely on recaps and screen grabs to process shows that are too rich to be fully grasped on a single viewing. I’m occasionally embarrassed when I click on a review and read about a piece of obvious symbolism that I missed the first time around, but you could also argue that I’ve outsourced that part of my brain to the hive mind, knowing that I can take advantage of countless other pairs of eyes.

Danny Pudi and Donald Glover on Community

But the fact that television inspires millions of words of coverage every day can’t be entirely separated from Adler’s description of it an appliance. For reasons that don’t have anything to do with television itself, the cycle of pop culture coverage—like that of every form of news—has continued to accelerate, with readers expecting nonstop content on demand: I’ll refresh a site a dozen times a day to see what has been posted in the meantime. Under those circumstances, reviewers and their editors naturally need a regular stream of material to be discussed, and television fits the bill beautifully. There’s a lot of it, it generates fresh grist for the mill on a daily basis, and it has an existing audience that can be enticed into reading about their favorite shows online. (This just takes a model that had long been used for sports and applies it to entertainment: the idea that every episode of Pretty Little Liars deserves a full writeup isn’t that much more ridiculous than devoting a few hundred words to every baseball game.) One utility piggybacks on the other, and it results in a symbiotic relationship: the shows start to focus on generating social media chatter, which, if not exactly a replacement for ratings, at least becomes an argument for keeping marginal shows like Community alive. And before long, the show itself is on Hulu or Yahoo.

None of this is inherently good or bad, although I’m often irked by the pressure to provide instant hot takes about the latest twist on a hit series, with think pieces covering other think pieces until the snake has eaten its own tail. (The most recent example was the “death” of Glenn on The Walking Dead, a show I don’t even watch, but which I found impossible to escape for three weeks last November.) There’s also an uncomfortable sense in which a television show can become an adjunct to its own media coverage: I found reading about Game of Thrones far more entertaining over the last season than watching the show itself. It’s all too easy to use the glut of detailed reviews as a substitute for the act of viewing: I haven’t watched Halt and Catch Fire, for instance, but I feel as if I have an opinion about it, based solely on the information I’ve picked up by osmosis from the review sites I visit. I sometimes worry that critics and fans have become so adept at live-tweeting episodes that they barely look at the screen, and the concept of hate-watching, of which I’ve been guilty myself, wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have plenty of ways to publicly express our contempt. It’s a slippery slope from there to losing the ability to enjoy good storytelling for its own sake. And we need to be aware of this. Because we’re lucky to be living in an era of so much great television—and we ought to treat it as something more than a source of hot and cold running reviews.

Written by nevalalee

February 23, 2016 at 7:59 am

Revenge of the list

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Note: A few minor spoilers follow for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

When I try to explain my mixed feelings about the new Star Wars movie, I find myself turning, heretically, to a story about the franchise’s greatest rival. Nicholas Meyer was, in many ways, the J.J. Abrams of his day: a hugely talented, relatively young outsider who was brought in to correct the course of a series that had lost its sense of purpose. He wasn’t a Star Trek fan, but he was able to find elements—like its echoes of the Horatio Hornblower novels—that he could highlight and enlarge. When he signed on to write and direct the first sequel, however, five separate scripts had already been written, and he had to prepare a workable screenplay in twelve days. His response to the challenge resulted in one of my favorite Hollywood anecdotes ever, as Meyer recounts it in his memoir The View From the Bridge:

“Well, here’s my other idea,” I told them, taking a deep breath and producing a yellow legal pad from under my chair. “Why don’t we make a list of everything we like in these five drafts? Could be a plot, a subplot, a sequence, a scene, a character, a line even…And then I will write a new script and cobble together all the things we choose…”

We then made the list. It included…Khan (from the “Space Seed” episode…); the Genesis Project (creating planetary life); Kirk meeting his son; Lieutenant Saavik (Spock’s beautiful Vulan protégée); the death of Spock; and the simulator sequence…All these materials were culled higgledy-piggledy from the five different drafts that I never—to the best of my recollection—consulted again.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I never tire of retelling this story, both as an illustration of the power of lists as a creative tool and as a reminder of how surprising, organic narratives can emerge from the most artificial of beginnings. And it’s as true today as it ever was. In the excellent bonus features for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie says that they began writing the movie with a list of action set pieces, and that important emotional beats—including Ilsa Faust’s motivations and the entire character of Attlee—emerged when they put those scenes in a certain order. Matthew Weiner and his core writing staff assembled a list of possible themes and ideas to revisit when it came time to plot out the final season of Mad Men. In the last few months alone, we’ve seen The Peanuts Movie, of which I wrote: “[It] sometimes plays as if it had been written according to the model that Nicholas Meyer used when cracking The Wrath of Khan…The result is an anthology, gracefully assembled, of the best moments from the strip and specials.” And now, of course, we have Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which struck me when I first saw it as a kind of greatest hits collection from the original trilogy, only to have this confirmed by the same Wired interview with J.J. Abrams that I discussed yesterday: “When we began working on this film, Larry [Kasdan] and I started by making a list of things that we knew held interest for us, the things we wanted to see, the things we felt were important.”

Nicholas Meyer and William Shatner on the set of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Yet the fact remains that The Wrath of Khan comes off as a seamless burst of pure story, while The Force Awakens, for all its considerable merits, still feels like a list. (The best thing that could be said for it, and this shouldn’t be lightly disregarded, is that it’s the right list. ) When you look at the list that Meyer put together for Star Trek, with the notable exception of Khan himself, you see that it consists of ideas that audiences hadn’t seen before. The Force Awakens, by contrast, is a list of things that are familiar, and once we’ve seen a couple of moments or images that remind us of the original movies, we naturally start a mental checklist as we keep an eye out for more. Sometimes, the way it quotes its predecessors is delightful; at other times, as when it gears up for yet another aerial assault on an impregnable planetary superweapon, it’s less than wonderful. As the Resistance prepared for the attack on Starkiller Base, I felt a slight sinking feeling: two out of the first three Star Wars movies ended in exactly the same way, perhaps as a nod to The Dam Busters, and I hoped that Abrams was about to spring some kind of novel twist or variation on that theme. Obviously, he doesn’t, to the extent that he includes a story point—a small group on the ground fighting to deactivate the shield generator—lifted straight from Return of the Jedi. It isn’t hard to imagine a version of this sort of climax that would have given us something new: I’d love to see a full-on Saving Private Ryan sequence showing an infantry assault on the base, or even a naval battle. And if we didn’t get it here, it’s because Abrams and the rest were sticking closely to their list.

But this kind of respectful homage is utterly alien to the spirit of the original movies themselves, which were eager to show us things that we had never imagined. The opening scenes on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, for instance, immediately expand the possibilities of that universe: not only does the ice planet give us a gloriously different backdrop, but the battle with the Imperial Walkers feels like a deliberate inversion of the dogfights that ended the first movie. The entire film, in fact, plays like a deliciously inverted list: it takes the things that audiences loved about Star Wars and then turns them all by a hundred and eighty degrees. The Force Awakens lacks that kind of basic invention, as much I liked so much of it. (Among other things, it makes it unnecessary to watch the prequels ever again. If Disney follows through with its plans of releasing a movie of comparable quality every year, Episode I, II, and III will start to take on the status of The Sting II or Grease 2: we’ll have trouble remembering that they even exist.) It’s possible that, like the first season of Fargo, the new movie’s energies were devoted mostly to establishing its bona fides, and that the next batch of sequels will be more willing to go into unexpected directions. Still, the fact remains that while Abrams and Kasdan made a great list, they failed to add anything new to it—which raises the troubling implication that the galaxy of Star Wars, after six films, isn’t as vast or rich with potential as we always thought it was. I hope that isn’t the case. But now that Abrams and his collaborators have gotten that list out of their system, the next thing they need to do is throw it into the nearest trash compactor.

How to say goodbye

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Jon Hamm on Mad Men

Note: Spoilers follow for Mad Men, The Vampire Diaries, and Game of Thrones.

Earlier this month, in the span of less than a week, I said goodbye to three television shows that had been part of my life for a long time. One farewell, to Mad Men, was an involuntary one, forced by its series finale; the others, to The Vampire Diaries and Game of Thrones, were a matter of choice. And while my decision to bail on the latter two might seem to have clear reasons—namely a major cast change and a repellent scene of sexual violence—it was really more gradual and complicated. When we fall out of love with a show, it’s often like the end of any relationship, where it can be hard to pinpoint the moment when it all went wrong. In many cases, as with Glee, I can barely remember when or why I stopped watching. And even a more obvious trigger might only catalyze a growing sense of disillusionment. At first glance, it might seem that I gave up on The Vampire Diaries because Nina Dobrev, its ostensible lead, was leaving, or that I’m abandoning Game of Thrones because of what it did to Sansa Stark and how it did it. Really, though, I’m bowing out because of a calculation, reluctant in one case and decisive in the other, that neither show is the best use of my limited time. An isolated scene or cast departure isn’t likely to send viewers packing if a series remains rewarding in other ways. But in both cases, sadly, the shows made my choice an easy one.

This becomes all the more clear when we compare it to a show that I loved and savored until the very end. The last scene of Mad Men is fiendishly clever, almost a little too clever, but the more I think about it, the more impressed I am at how perfectly it encapsulates everything the series, and particularly the character of Don Draper, has been building toward for years. Matthew Weiner hit on the one perfect image that both tied a bow on the story and raised countless questions of its own, and it works because of how deeply he understood and identified with Don himself. And it looks even better next to The Vampire Diaries, which muddled through Elena Gilbert’s endgame precisely because it never quite figured out who she was. Elena, at her best, was a compelling, resourceful heroine, but after season after season of personality changes, possessions, and memory wipes—and the inexplicable choices she made just because the story demanded it—we were left with an empty shell. (It’s no accident that Elena is sidelined for most of her own last episode, asleep in a magical coma while the real action unfolds everywhere else.) And if I’m bidding farewell to a show I once really liked, it isn’t because I’ll miss Elena so much, but because a series that can’t decide what to do with its protagonist doesn’t seem likely to make smart choices once she’s gone.

Sophie Turner and Iwan Rheon on Game of Thrones

Any series that runs for an extended length of time will experience a few bumpy transitions, and the real issue is less about any one development than about whether the show can be trusted thereafter to pay back our investment. This is what makes the case of Game of Thrones so interesting, and ultimately so sad. What many of its defenders fail to recognize is that the issue isn’t a rape scene in itself, but its presentation, its context, and what it says about the narrative strategy—or lack thereof—of the series as a whole. For its first two seasons, this was an uneven but masterfully paced show that burned quickly through plots and knew how to balance subversion with payoffs. Later, perhaps as the showrunners realized that they were coming too rapidly to the end of the material in the books, it began, for lack of a better word, to stall: long stretches of inaction or reversions to the same few beats were punctuated by the “Oh, shit” moments that were the only way it knew to hold our attention. Even a year ago, this pattern was becoming grindingly obvious, and using Sansa’s rape as an episode’s punchline only confirmed how mechanical, even lazy, the approach had grown. In particular, the fact that the show’s writers thought that it was a good idea to capitalize on it, after a similar scene had aroused such outrage the previous season, implies that they’re either clueless or don’t care. And neither possibility fills me with much hope that this show will continue to be worth watching.

It all boils down, as I said before, to a question of trust. A show with any narrative ambition asks for some degree of patience from its viewers: when we don’t know where a story is going, we can only hope that we’re in good hands. Game of Thrones has slowly been squandering that goodwill for a long time, and last week’s episode eliminated what little remained. It’s a show that no longer seems to remember that a subversion of the viewer’s expectations can only be justified if the payoff is greater than if it had been played straight, and for too long, this series has been all subversion and stasis without any reward. (Even if Sansa’s arc is “going somewhere,” as I’m sure the writers would insist, it’s a basic mistake to put the scene of her wedding night at the end of an episode, without any sense of what comes next, which leaves us with nothing to anticipate except whether our time would be better spent catching up with old episodes of Deadwood.) I honestly don’t know how I might have reacted to the scene if this season of Game of Thrones had been consistently fantastic, any more than I know if I’d still be watching The Vampire Diaries in Elena Gilbert’s absence if the show had maintained its quality from its height. Both had a good run, but in the end, they lost the narrative trust that Mad Men maintained up to its final minute. And it’s why I watched one show to the very end, and I’m saying goodbye to the others now.

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May 25, 2015 at 10:16 am

Mad Men and the test of time

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Jon Hamm on Mad Men

In the end, all television shows—if they run for long enough, and whether they like it or not—are secretly about time. What sets Mad Men apart is that it understood this from the beginning, despite the fact that its early days were so fraught with uncertainty. Reading the fascinating oral history recently published by The Hollywood Reporter, I was struck by what a gamble it all was: AMC was so desperate to get into the game of prestige television that it financed the pilot out of its own pocket, shopping it around later in hopes of finding a studio that would partner with it on the actual series. Few, if anyone, had any illusions about the show’s chances, as Elizabeth Moss recalls: “I remember standing on the rooftop of Silver Cup Studios with Matt [Weiner] and we just looked at each other: ‘Well, that was really great.’ We had no idea if it was going to go any further than that.” Yet from the very first scene, it was obvious that this was a show about change, both historical and personal, told in a deliberate, incremental fashion. It demanded an internal timeline of ten years, spanning the full decade of the sixties, to tell the story it deserved. And the fact that it succeeded is a permanent miracle of a medium that so often seems designed to frustrate viewers and creators alike.

What’s even more remarkable is that the show survived its entire run on its own terms. We don’t yet know how the series will end, but whatever form it takes, it will be the conclusion that Weiner wanted, not spun out of compromise and the vagaries of ratings and contracts. There were no major cast changes or shakeups, aside from the ones that the narrative itself imposed: we never saw Jon Hamm announce on Instagram, as Nina Dobrev did yesterday for The Vampire Diaries, that he had decided reluctantly to move on. There were some close calls: according to Weiner, the negotiations with the network after the fourth season were so tense that he called up Aaron Sorkin for insight on how to live with his removal from a show he’d created. (Sorkin’s advice: “Don’t ever watch it.”) Preserving that level of independence requires a certain steely reserve, and we glimpse it in the stories of how Weiner refused to relax Hamm’s shooting schedule to free him up to star in Gone Girl. But the result, at least so far, has been the most rigorously organized long game in the history of television, and even a flameout toward the end won’t minimize that accomplishment. Throughout it all, Weiner has treated time like a member of his writing staff, and he’s no more inclined to let it slip out of his control than he is with anyone else.

Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks

And time’s hand can be felt throughout the first episode of the final season. Don Draper looks much the same as always: he’s as unchanging, in his way, as Forrest Gump, even as tectonic shifts are taking place below the surface. But the signs of age are visible everywhere else, and not just in Roger Sterling’s mustache. Part of it is makeup and costuming, along with the natural passage of the years since the pilot was shot, and rather than denying the latter, as so many shows might do, Mad Men embraces it. Its impact is there even as the show briefly withholds its strongest card: the growth before our eyes of Kiernan Shipka from a six-year-old girl in the background to practically the show’s second lead, with traces in her features of her fictional parents as haunting as those in Boyhood. The fact that Shipka turned out to be such an arresting presence is another example of the unpredictable factors that shape all television series: the fate of Bobby Draper, who barely registers, is a window onto a lesser version of the show in which Don’s children were both nonentities. But every character carries a history on his or her face, with Ken Cosgrove’s eyepatch serving as a hint for us to look more closely at everybody else. (Given the show’s love of dream sequences that can’t be distinguished from reality, I’m waiting for it to tip us off to a fantasy by showing us Ken with his patch over the other eye.)

As it happened, I watched the premiere of Mad Men only a few days after David Lynch announced on Twitter that he would not be directing the reboot of Twin Peaks, throwing the show’s revival on Showtime into doubt. I’m still hopeful that we’ll see the series return in some form, with or without him: evidently all of the scripts by Lynch and Mark Frost have been delivered, so the result will at least partially reflect its creators’ intentions. And the prospect of the show returning after twenty-five years, as it once promised, is so deeply, formally satisfying that I still want to see it, even if it isn’t quite what we wanted. (If nothing else, the contrast between how Kyle MacLachlan looks today and how he was depicted on the show as an older man reminds us of how much less interesting makeup can be compared to the real work of a quarter of a century.) Maybe, after a couple of decades, we’ll see Weiner return for another shot, but I doubt it. Few of the characters on Mad Men have ended up quite where they wanted or expected, but the series around them has accomplished everything it set out to do, and with the rise of the Netflix and miniseries models, it may be our last chance to see a show pull it off so beautifully from one week and year to the next. Time is the most fickle collaborator of all, far more than any network. And the fact that Weiner and his team have harnessed it so capably may stand as their most lasting achievement.

Written by nevalalee

April 7, 2015 at 10:02 am

The curated past of Mad Men

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Jessica Paré and Jon Hamm on Mad Men

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What has Mad Men inspired you to seek out?”

Now that Mad Men is entering its final stretch at last, it’s time to acknowledge a subtle but important point about the source of its appeal. This is my favorite television drama of all time. I’m not going to argue that it’s the greatest series ever—we’ll need another decade or two to make that appraisal with a cool head—but from one scene to the next, one episode after another, it’s provided me with more consistent pleasure and emotion than any show I can name. I’ve spoken before, perhaps too often, about what I like to call its fractal quality: the tiniest elements start to feel like emblems of the largest, and there’s seemingly no limit to how deep you can drill while analyzing even the smallest of touches. For proof, we need turn no further than the fashion recaps by Tom and Lorenzo, which stand as some of the most inspired television criticism of recent years. The choice of a fabric or color, the reappearance of a dress or crucial accessory, a contrast between the outfits of one character and another turn out to be profoundly expressive of personality and theme, and it’s a testament to the genius of both costume designer Jane Bryant and Matthew Weiner, the ultimate man behind the curtain.

Every detail in Mad Men, then, starts to feel like a considered choice, and we can argue over their meaning and significance for days. But that’s also true of any good television series. By definition, everything we see in a work of televised fiction is there because someone decided it should be, or didn’t actively prevent it from appearing. Not every showrunner is as obsessed with minutiae as Weiner is, but it’s invariably true of the unsung creative professionals—the art director, the costume designer, the craftsmen responsible for editing, music, cinematography, sound—whose contributions make up the whole. Once you’ve reached the point in your career where you’re responsible for a department in a show watched by millions, you’re not likely to achieve your effects by accident: even if your work goes unnoticed by most viewers, every prop or bit of business is the end result of a train of thought. If asked, I don’t have any doubt that the costume designers for, say, Revenge or The Vampire Diaries would have much to say about their craft as Jane Bryant does. But Mad Men stands alone in the current golden age of television in actually inspiring that kind of routine scrutiny for each of its aesthetic choices, all of which we’re primed to unpack for clues.

Jon Hamm and Matthew Weiner on the set of Mad Men

What sets it apart, of course, is its period setting. With a series set in the present day, we’re more likely to take elements like costume design and art direction for granted; it takes a truly exceptional creative vision, like the one we find in Hannibal, to encourage us to study those choices with a comparable degree of attention. In a period piece, by contrast, everything looks exactly as considered as it really is: we know that every lamp, every end table, every cigarette or magazine cover has been put consciously into place, and while we might appreciate this on an intellectual level with other shows, Mad Men makes us feel it. And its relatively recent timeframe makes those touches even more evident. When you go back further, as with a show like Downton Abbey, most of us are less likely to think about the decisions a show makes, simply because it’s more removed from our experience: only a specialist would take an interest in which kind of silverware Mrs. Hughes sets on the banquet table, rather than another, and we’re likely to think of it as a recreation, not a creation. (This even applies to a series like Game of Thrones, in which it’s easy to take the world it makes at face value, at least until the seams start to show.) But the sixties are still close enough that we’re able to see each element as a choice between alternatives. As a result, Mad Men seems curated in a way that neither a contemporary or more remote show would be.

I’m not saying this to minimize the genuine intelligence behind Mad Men’s look and atmosphere. But it’s worth admitting that if we’re more aware of it than usual, it’s partially a consequence of that canny choice of period. Just as a setting in the recent past allows for the use of historical irony and an oblique engagement with contemporary social issues, it also encourages the audience to regard mundane details as if they were charged with significance. When we see Don Draper reading Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, for instance, we’re inclined to wonder why, and maybe even check it out for ourselves. And many of us have been influenced by the show’s choices of fashion, music, and even liquor. But its real breakthrough lay in how those surface aspects became an invitation to read more deeply into the elements that mattered. Even if we start to pay less attention to brand names or articles of set dressing, we’re still trained to watch the show as if everything meant something, from a line of throwaway dialogue to Don’s lingering glance at Megan at the end of “Hands and Knees.” Like all great works of art, Mad Men taught us how to watch it, and as artists as different as Hitchcock and Buñuel understood, it knew that it could only awaken us to its deepest resonances by enticing us first with its surfaces. It turned us all into noticers. And the best way to honor its legacy is by directing that same level of attention onto all the shows we love.

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April 3, 2015 at 9:33 am

Watching with the hive mind

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Charles Dance on Game of Thrones

Occasionally, when I’m sitting through an episode of Game of Thrones, it’ll cross my mind that I enjoy reading and thinking about this show more than the experience of actually watching it. This isn’t always true: when the series is at its best, as in the back half of this weekend’s season finale, it’s every bit as gripping and emotional as it once promised to be. Still, the past ten episodes have sometimes felt like a slog, with the show’s most compelling character confined to a prison cell for most of the season and endless minutes devoted to the weakest of subplots. As Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club has shrewdly pointed out, the show sometimes feels like a mix tape of big moments and climaxes interspersed at random between long stretches of inactivity, and as much as I admire showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss for making such an unwieldy narrative work at all, I still feel that dividing the third book across two seasons was a mistake. There’s a reason why the second season, which had to make some hard cuts and choices to fit all of A Clash of Kings into ten hours, is by far the show’s finest, and I’d love to see a fan edit that compressed A Storm of Swords into a similar space.

Yet the fact that I’m talking about “fan edits” at all speaks to the degree to which the way we’ve watched television has changed over the past decade. It’s been pointed out more than once that the rise of the golden age of television coincided almost perfectly with the emergence of online fandoms and extended weekly reviews. As in many things, it’s hard to figure out which way the causal arrow runs—it’s possible that the abundance of great television fueled passionate online discussion, rather than the other way around—but there’s no question that the Internet has resulted in fundamental shifts in our viewing habits in at least three ways. It makes it possible for critics to post insanely detailed breakdowns episode by episode, with none of the physical constraints of printed media: it’s difficult to imagine a lovingly obsessive writeup like Tom and Lorenzo’s Mad Style, for instance, existing in any other form. The easy availability of streaming options allows us to regard a television series as one big unit of narrative, which opens up new forms of storytelling. And given all the venues where fans can read and post commentary in real time, what used to be a highly solitary activity is now a collective one, with each show eagerly consumed by something approaching a hive mind.

Jon Hamm and Matthew Weiner on the set of Mad Men

Ultimately, it’s a situation that nurtures and rewards ambitious narratives, both by keeping alive smaller shows that might not have survived ten years ago—even Community lasted longer than anyone could have expected—and by encouraging creators to take greater risks. There’s a sense in which someone like Matthew Weiner has been enabled and liberated by the level of scrutiny Mad Men receives to make the show ever more detailed and complex: it’s easier to drop in small touches and extended payoffs when you know that viewers are paying attention, or at least have recourse to power users who highlight the show’s choices for the benefit of others. I watch Mad Men with about as much care as any viewer can, but when I go online to read the recaps, I’m constantly alerted to tiny details and callbacks I missed the first time around. This doesn’t mean that the show doesn’t work in its own right: it functions, by design, on multiple levels, and there’s no question that it offers plenty to enjoy for viewers who are more concerned with surface pleasures. Yet the conversation and analysis that the show inspires has started to feel like an integral part of the experience, a chance to tap into the headspace of that perfect viewer on which nothing is lost.

And the fact that this perfect viewer exists, if only in the aggregate, is central to the renaissance in modern television. Of all art forms, television was the one best equipped to meet and fulfill a collective increase in narrative intelligence: unlike literature or film, it allows the story and its interpretation to unfold in parallel, and the combination results in levels of complexity that few other kinds of popular entertainment would be able to sustain. (In a strange way, the situation also serves as an unexpected argument for the importance of the weekly episode. Orange is the New Black is as rich as any show on the air today, but because we’re all watching it at different rates, there isn’t the same sense of collaborative viewing and appreciation that we get when a show parcels itself out over time.) Not every show needs to push the envelope, of course, and it’s important to meet the basic requirements of plot, character, and suspense on their broadest levels even as it becomes possible to drill ever deeper. But if every form of art naturally rises, or falls, to the level of its audience, it’s no surprise that television has evolved into such incredible forms. We may not be any smarter as individuals, but together, we’re more than worthy of the best that television can provide.

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June 17, 2014 at 9:44 am

The known unknown

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Elizabeth Moss and Jon Hamm on Mad Men

Over the last three weeks, I’ve had the chance to watch and reflect on three very different season finales. There’s the Community finale, which was obviously intended to set up the prophesied sixth season but ended up serving as an unintentional cap on the whole series. There’s the Hannibal finale, which would have worked beautifully—if devastatingly—as the climax of the entire show, but which gets to lay the pieces for at least one more stretch of episodes. And there’s the Mad Men “finale,” really a sort of pause between two halves, which exists only because of AMC’s protracted scheduling arrangements. All, in their own ways, are effective installments of television, and they fall neatly along the spectrum of uncertainty that all shows are forced to navigate. Delivering seven to thirteen hours of narrative under such constraints is a monumental enterprise, analogous to carrying out an extended military operation, but just as war often hinges on luck and good hunches, working on a show requires no small amount of intuition, an ability to live, as Donald Rumsfeld might put it, with the known unknowns. And it’s a skill that the best showrunners seem to internalize, often based on hard experience of renewals and cancellations.

Few series creators have been through as much as Bryan Fuller, for instance, who has seen three separate shows—four, if you count Mockingbird Lane—canceled before their time. As a result, he’s developed an almost inhuman ability to stick to a plan while keeping his options open, and he’s turned into the best man imaginable to pilot a show like Hannibal, which is obliged to plot a tricky course between the canon of the original novels and the vagaries of its own survival. One of the things that makes it such a fascinating series is that it’s periodically required, based both on its source material and the narrative’s internal logic, to blow up its own premise, usually at the end of each season, which requires even more flexibility than usual. Season three is obviously going to be a very different beast in terms of location and trajectory, and last week’s finale serves to wipe the slate clean, giving Fuller and his team a free hand in terms of who returns next year. (As his walkthrough of the finale on The A.V. Club makes clear, even such critical questions as the identity of the second person in that final shot were left up in the air until the very last minute.)

Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal

And this kind of ability to modify one’s plan in real time, while making the result seem inevitable, is a crucial prerequisite for running a show, in which so much is out of anyone’s control. This may be why television writers, rather than directors, have always been in the positions of greatest power: it requires a creative personality capable of pulling coherent stories out of cast changes, truncated episode orders, and whatever fresh hell the network can devise. Community wasn’t quite able to pull it off, although it struggled valiantly in the attempt, and if Hannibal has done a better job than most, this may due to a few strokes of good fortune. At least one major plot point this season hinged on a key performer’s schedule, and the survival of certain characters may have less to do with the needs of the narrative than with the availability of particular actors. (Otherwise, when it comes to predicting who lives and who dies, I’d like to think that Fuller will follow Lecter’s own rule: “The world is more interesting with you in it.” I feel the same way about Game of Thones, which isn’t shy about killing off its leads, but only if the dramatic weight gained by one bloody incident offsets the loss from the character’s absence. If you’re fun to watch, you’re more likely to make it.)

The ideal case, of course, is one in which that kind of intuition and flexibility, honed over years of uncertainty, is finally given a fixed goal. In some ways, AMC’s decision to split the last run of Mad Men over two years, while frustrating to viewers like me, may turn out to be better for the show in the long term. If recent seasons have grown ever more sprawling, with the story of its ostensible lead often sidelined in favor of its vast supporting cast, this latest stretch of episodes returned the focus squarely to Don—and to a lesser extent to Peggy—and did wonderful things in the process. I know that some viewers have soured on the show in recent years, as Don became increasingly unlikable, but this season slowly and gracefully inched him back, while giving vivid moments to all of its secondary characters. It’s a deeply satisfying half season of television, but it wouldn’t work nearly as well if it weren’t for the skills that Matthew Weiner and company developed over the years when the show’s fate was less sure. Living with seasons of uncertainty has given Mad Men a level of nimbleness that a show like House of Cards will never have, and I can’t help but hear an echo of this in Don’s lovely exchange with Peggy: “That’s the job.” “What’s the job?” “Living with the not knowing.”

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May 27, 2014 at 9:48 am

As tears go by

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Jon Hamm and Kiernan Shipka on Mad Men

I’m not really a crier. I don’t think reading a book has ever caused me to shed tears, although many—from The High King to The Magus—have left me an emotional wreck. And the short list of movies at which I’ve cried is an eclectic one. I almost always tear up a little during The Last Temptation of Christ, although invariably at a different time; I welled up during the first minute of the extraordinary documentary Ballets Russes, as it cuts between archival images of ballet dancers in their prime and the same dancers fifty years later, all of them still beautiful; and the only time I’ve ever really lost it at the movies, I’ve got to admit, is during the last scene of Saving Private Ryan. As different as these films are, all these moments have one thing in common: they take place during or shortly after a scene when the face of a young man is juxtaposed with the same man in old age. If I’m moved, it’s both at the thought of the fleetingness of human life and at the ability of the movies to express it. Cinema can cross enormous expanses of time and space in a single cut, and the ones that we remember are often those that push this ability to its limit: the cut from the match to the desert in Lawrence of Arabia, or the bone and the spaceship in 2001. But it’s especially powerful when it’s applied to something as simple as a human face.

Of the three movies I mentioned earlier, Ballets Russes might be the most haunting of all, because its leaps over time are real. The Last Temptation of Christ uses makeup to effect its changes, much as the intensely moving fantasy scene at the end of 25th Hour did many years later, and Saving Private Ryan simply uses a different actor to convey the passage of five decades. But there’s nothing quite like seeing time itself do the work. You get a glimpse of it at the end of The Godfather Part III, when we cut from Michael’s final tragedy to images of him dancing with the women he has loved and lost—Apollonia, Faye, Mary—and remember, in passing, how young Al Pacino was when the series began. The Up series by Michael Apted is structured around such a miracle, as, in their own way, are the Harry Potter films. And now we have Boyhood by Richard Linklater, shot over the course of twelve years, allowing us to watch actor Ellar Coltrane age from first grade to a senior in high school, and to witness time work more subtly on his parents, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. I haven’t seen Boyhood yet, but I’ve watched its trailer several times, and I’m as excited about it as any movie I can remember: Richard Linklater has always been one of the most inventive and ambitious directors of his generation, while gaining only a fraction of the acclaim of his peers, and this is his most daring gamble yet.

Kiernan Shipka and January Jones on Mad Men

Television, of course, allows us to see the same process unfold, and though it’s usually so gradual that we barely even see it, it can still catch us by surprise. I don’t think there’s ever been a greater stroke of casting luck than when Matthew Weiner selected Kiernan Shipka, then eight years old, to play Sally Draper on Mad Men. When we set the earliest episodes of the series, with Sally running around with a dry cleaning bag over her head, next to its current run, as she takes on aspects of both her mother and her father while negotiating her own adolescence, it reminds us of the creative coups that television can achieve almost by accident. Sally, in a way, has become one of the three or four most essential characters on the show, a visible marker that expresses the show’s themes of change more vividly than its writing ever could. (Comparing Sally to Bobby, who has barely registered as a character over seven seasons, only underlines how much chance is involved.) Television, by its very nature, is about the passage of time, and its presence in our lives lends it an almost unbearable intimacy. Seeing Sally grow up in real time, or going back to watch the earliest episodes of any series that runs for many seasons, informs us that we’re all aging, too.

This may be why I’ve grown more sentimental as I watch my own daughter grow up. It happens so slowly that I can’t see it from day to day, but when I look back at her baby photos from a few months ago, or hold my newborn niece in my arms, I’m amazed by the changes that have taken place right before my eyes. And it’s affected the way I think about the books I read, the movies and television I watch, and the music I play. If I choke up at unexpected moments these days—playing “Two-Headed Boy Part 2” on the ukulele, reading The Lorax aloud—it’s partially because I have another life apart from my own to think about, but also because my subliminal awareness of the passage of time charges everything with new meaning. In The Nature of Order, the architect Christopher Alexander makes a surprising statement, and I’m just going to leave it here:

To set the stage further for understanding unity in a building, I go back to the emotional underpinning of the living structure, its personal character, its rootedness in feeling…What feeling, exactly? What am I aiming for in a building, in a column, in a room? How do I define it for myself, so that I feel it clearly, so that it stands as a beacon to guide me in what I do every day?

What I am for is, most concretely, sadness…I try to make the building so that it carries my eternal sadness. It comes, as nearly as I can in a building, to the point of tears…

What makes it sad is that it comes closest, in the physical concrete beams and columns and walls, as close as possible, to the fact of my existence on this earth. It reminds me of it, it makes me take part in it. So when it happens, it is also a kind of joy, a happiness.

The prop masters

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Harry Hamlin on Mad Men

As I was watching the most recent episode of Mad Men—which I loved, by the way, far more than the season premiere—I found myself oddly fascinated by Jim Cutler’s glasses. Cutler, in theory, is an important character: he’s one of the partners formed by the merger of Sterling Cooper with Cutler Gleason and Chaough, and he’s played by Harry Hamlin, a genuine television star and former sexiest man alive. Yet we only see him for a few minutes each episode, and although these brief appearances are often striking, the show hasn’t had time to give him a scene of his own. We know less about his personal life than virtually that of any other character. In fact, all we really have to go on are his suits and those glasses. Tom and Lorenzo, whose Mad Men fashion writeups are the best criticism of the show anywhere online, say of the suits: “Jim Cutler’s grey suits and silver ties are downright eerie. It’s his signature look. He floats through the office like a ghost.” Surprisingly, they don’t say anything about the glasses, but if Cutler is a ghost, then those square black frames seem to drift disembodied in the air, a deliberate contrast with his silver hair and wispy silhouette.

It might seem excessive to go on about these frames, but for me, as well as for a lot of viewers, Jim Cutler is his glasses. (The glasses, by the way, are made by Old Focals, which supplies all of the vintage and vintage-inspired eyewear to Mad Men, and are apparently based on the frames worn by Martin Scorsese and Yves Saint-Laurent.) Mad Men, of course, has some of the deepest costume design in any medium—Jane Bryant is practically the show’s coauthor, second only to Matthew Weiner himself—and the glasses are shrewdly chosen. They provide a focal point in a wardrobe that deliberately fades into the background, drawing attention to the eyes of a man who always seems to be watching and waiting. Obviously, they look great on Hamlin, with a strong horizontal component lending interest to a character who is otherwise dressed to look like a thinking reed. As with many props and accessories, they’re obliquely influenced by the style of those around him: he’s the only partner who wears glasses, so he stands out as a result. And he needs it. Don and Joan remain at the center of the show; Roger and Bert benefit from five seasons of history; Ted gets a powerful storyline with Peggy; and Jim Cutler gets a nice pair of glasses instead of a subplot.

Schindler's List

And believe it or not, that’s good storytelling. Writers of all kinds know that if there isn’t room to properly develop a character, a memorable physical trait can go a long way, as A.S. Byatt delightfully points out:

If you haven’t got room to make a character, if you give him or her some totally memorable physical characteristic, the character becomes symbolic and stands for itself. Somebody will always come up and say to you, “that is an absolutely wonderful character you created with that great plait down her back.” In fact, the character consisted only of that plait down her back…but it was memorable.

Props and accessories thus become a kind of shorthand, a synecdoche that saves valuable time. Hence the weird physical traits of the Bond villains, which are chosen essentially at fancy to differentiate them from their peers. There’s no particular reason why Christopher Lee needed a superfluous nipple in The Man With the Golden Gun, but it’s the only thing I remember from that entire movie. (Well, I suppose I remember the golden gun—a prop so distinctive that it works its way into the title.)

In a perfect world, we’d have time to develop all our characters to an equal extent, but in practice, these shortcuts and tags get us halfway there with a minimum of fuss. (The crucial line in the Byatt quote above is “If you haven’t got room to make a character.”) A prop or other physical trait distills the problem of character to its essence, which is that we should at least be able to remember that we’ve seen this person before. In On Directing Film, David Mamet sums up the crucial point that governs how an important prop in a movie, in this case a notebook, should look:

Mamet: What [is the audience] going to notice?
Student: That it’s the same book they’ve seen already.
Mamet: So what’s your answer to the prop person?
Student: Make it recognizable.
Mamet: Exactly so! Good. You’ve got to be able to recognize it.

That’s true of characters, too. The girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List has sometimes been seen as an act of directorial self-indulgence, but really, it’s an elegant—and moving—solution to a narrative problem, designed to trigger a moment of recognition that otherwise might be lost. Jim Cutler’s glasses are more modest, but the intention is the same. Cutler may not have much to do now, but we’d better keep an eye on him.

Written by nevalalee

April 23, 2014 at 9:41 am

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

Mad Men and the man behind the curtain

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Jon Hamm and Matthew Weiner on the set of 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.

The Man Men episode "The Crash"

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.

Written by nevalalee

May 21, 2013 at 9:22 am

The Centrifuge

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Jon Hamm on Mad Men

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.

Jessica Paré and Jon Hamm on Mad Men

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.

Written by nevalalee

April 9, 2013 at 9:02 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

January 24, 2013 at 7:30 am

Lessons from Great TV #9: Mad Men

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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.

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July 12, 2012 at 9:43 am

The fractal brilliance of Mad Men

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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.

Written by nevalalee

March 27, 2012 at 10:06 am

Posted in Television

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