Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Matthew Weiner

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.

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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.

Written by nevalalee

May 25, 2015 at 10:16 am

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