Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Mad Men Is So Frustrating

Oops, what I mean is that the coverage of Mad Men is So Frustrating.  I enjoy listening to podcasts and reading reviews/recaps of this show and a few others.  Alan Sepinwall and Dan Fienberg, Tim Goodman, and the folks at Grantland are the ones I listen to/read the most consistently.  I, of course, select out and do not listen to folks who are very scathing.  I understand that I identify with that which I like and do not want to have my feelings hurt by listening to stuff that makes me feel bad by association (a lesson Spew Junior should follow).  Also, folks who are really brutal about Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, etc. are obviously wrong, so why listen to them?

Anyhow, I explain my frustration below the break, as I must refer to this entire fifth season of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, the two seasons of Game of Thrones, Sopronos, Friday Night Lights, and Lost.  So, spoilers dwell beyond:

My frustration is this: people are complaining that this season's Mad Men was too "on the nose," to anvilish or chock full of anvilishessness (thanks to Alan and Dan's podcast for that one), that the subtext was not sub-enough.  Well, as the vaunted performer, poet, and screenwriter once said, Excuse Me!  The concern is that the themes of this season and of each episode were too obvious.  I love that Matt Weiner's response is in part: hey, we have themes!  Yes, the show has symbolism and meaning that go beyond the plot and dialogue.  So, my first response is: are we so spoiled by how great this show is that since the characters are so great, that the acting is fantastic, that the dialogue is so much fun, that the production design is terrific, that we have to be picky about the sub-ness of the subtext?  What other show would we be this whiny about the sub-freakin'-text?

Yes, we can ponder whether Joan's decision to, well, sell her body for a share of the firm was true to the character.  Maybe that was hard to believe.  I understand that sometimes the motivations are not always as clearly defined as we would like.  But I dare you to compare this show with any other and ask yourself how well the competitors would hold up!  [I get back to the themes below]

Ok, I dare myself.  To simplify, I want three things out of the best dramas on television: that they entertain, that they engage, and that they educate.*  Let me explain:
  • A show should be entertaining: that it amuses me (a sense of humor is a must); that it surprises me; that an hour goes by very quickly.
  • A show should engage me.  It should make me think/feel.  It should move me, I should get attached to the characters--some of them, anyway.  
  • A show should educate me.  Not in a super-science-y way, but a top drama should be novel in some way.
* Note: This entire assumes that the show has great acting, writing, directing and production values.  That it performed a consistently high level.  We cannot expect perfection so we can forget about season 2 of Friday Night Lights and the serial killer plot of season 5 of the Wire, for instance.  No one seems to be questioning Mad Men's acting/writing/directing/etc beyond some writing quibbles and whether Rory Gilmore can be anything else.

The order here happens to be, by accident, appropriate.  A great show must be entertaining.  A great show should also be engaging.  One can be a great drama without being entirely novel, but the best ones will cause me to re-think a bit.

Let me illustrate with seven examples/exemplars: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights, Sopranos, Lost, Game of Thrones, and the Wire.  People may debate the order (and you will see my conclusion down below), but these are generally considered the best of the best (depends on how you feel about Lost).  I could have included Shield, Deadwood, Justified and Battlestar Galatica, but the 3-D graph (below) is already messy enough.** 
**  Of course, this post suffers from the same recency bias as much of pop culture analysis as Star Trek, Twilight Zone, MASH (which was more drama than comedy as it went along), Homicide, and a few other shows could also be address.  Hint, Star Trek would have hit the top levels in all categories although inconsistency [Spock's Brain!] might mark it down somewhat.
  • Mad Men is clearly entertaining.  The show is often very, very funny.  The usual thought at 10:54 is: "damn, where did the hour go?"  It is quite engaging: you care about Peggy, about Don (even if he is somewhat detestable much of the time), you want Pete to get punched in the face.  The show makes you think--not just "what were they thinking in the 1960's" but about the big questions (see below).  It is educational: it not only shows us how things changed over the course of a decade but how the changes affected different people.  I also have learned much about advertising.  Whether the stuff I learned is accurate or not, I don't know.
  • Breaking Bad is incredibly entertaining--riveting, as much of a thrill ride as one can get on TV.  Just chasing after a fly induced high tension.  Manages to be very funny as well. Engaging?  Hell, yes.  You care about Walt even if he is increasingly despicable, you worry about Jesse, you want Hank to succeed.  Educational?  Well, not quite as much as Mad Men.  Why?  Because it is interesting to watch the decline of a man into evil, and we learn much about the drug business (how to make meth, how to launder money), and it provides a new angle on the classic crime challenges.  But it does not quite inspire the same kind of questions about themes, does it?
  • Friday Night Lights was the best that network TV could do.  It was funny, it was dramatic (although we always knew that our team would win the big games in the last minute), it was touching.  It was not quite as engaging as it made you feel but it didn't make you think that much.  It was nearly all emotion.  In terms of education, perhaps I resist a bit because I didn't need to learn that much about small town Texas life and that of sports.  I think it did not provide radically new information or perspectives, but was far deeper than nearly any other show in terms of how we felt.
  • Sopranos.  Hmm.  Entertaining--yes, the mobsters were funny.  The stories were a bit inconsistent.  I didn't feel as attached to the characters here than in other shows.  But it is a great show for teaching the followers how to do great drama.  It was engaging, just not as engaging as the other shows. It did provide a different angle on the mobster story.
  • Lost.  Funny often, hours and seasons would fly by, thoroughly entertained.  It forced us to think about the possible connections, the endless series of mind-$@#$@# moments, but ultimately did not connect the dots that well.  
  • Game of Thrones.  Very funny at times, great action, the hour flies by.  I care about the Starks, as maddening as they can be, and about Tyrion and so on.  It does not make me think that much except: why are they changing this or that scene from the books?  That separates this show from the others.  I would probably think more about the big themes, but one has to spend most of one's time just paying attention to who the various people are and how their stories relate.
  • The Wire.  Damn.  I came to the Wire late, just catching up over the past few years.  The show was one integrated story that grabs you, shakes you and spins you around.  It is quite entertaining--funny, dramatic, tragic, involving.  It is engaging--you care about so many characters, all of them quite flawed from McNulty to Bunk to Omar to Stringer to Bubs to Kima to Littlefinger Carcetti and beyond.  Oh, the kids in season 4.  Gulp.  It was the finest application of politics and sociology, focused on the decline of the American city.  I learned much about the drug war, the docks, city politics, city schools and more.  It was so powerful in providing a very distinct angle on problems and dynamics we had seen before. 
How does this look graphically?

 I didn't really come up with real numbers, but just wanted to show how the shows varied along these dimensions.  Creating a single score can be quite problematic, so I focused on three dimensions.  As my discussion above suggests, two shows really stand out in my mind: Mad Men and the Wire.  Breaking Bad is third because it is so very, very good but does not make me think nearly has much as MM and the Wire.  Game of Thrones could, in time, challenge these if it forces me to think more.

Ok, back to the question du jour: themes, subtext, etc.  I am fairly dismissive because there are the #firstworldproblems of TV drama.  If this is what people are complaining about, then their complaints are pretty weak.  I like Matt Weiner's perspective:
I've heard that discussion too, except for then when I hear what people say what the theme is, I'm disappointed, because it's so obvious and yet they're wrong most of the time. They say how obvious it is, and yet it's basically not what I was talking about. I'm flattered and pleased to have this unique television show that even deals with theme. If there's any attention to the audience to look at a theme, I don't think it exists anywhere else. It's one of the unique things that the show has to offer.  ....  So people trying to guess what's going to happen versus people trying to allow themselves to experience a meditation on an idea like jealousy or need or friendship — "Signal 30" was one where to say it's about friendship, like there's a test on the episode is a bummer for me. To say, "What does it say about friendship?" is something else.
This reminds me of English class in high school, where I often pondered--are we over-analyzing x or y?  Did the author really have this in mind?

The key is not the theme or the subtext but what do we think of it?  For instance, the second to last episode hammered home in a particularly anvil-ish-ess way the idea that happiness is either temporary or unobtainable.  Don lectures Dow that they cannot be happy with 50% of the market, that they must reach for more.  Glen, Sally's friend (played by Weiner's son), says that happiness is impossible or elusive (I forget the exact line).  So, folks say: damn, the showrunner had his own son deliberately and clearly say what the theme is.  Maybe.  Or not.  Perhaps the fact that these words come from a pretty creepy and flawed kid should give us pause.  That Don is talking about happiness should not be taken completely at face value for two reasons:  (a) he is messed up; and (b) he is making a pitch to a company that needs someone to put a positive spin on .... NAPALM!***
***  I think they might have been a bit ahead of its time since Tet was essentially more than a year later, and I am not sure napalm was a big publicity problem in 1966.  Twitter commenter indicated Napalm already bad publicity in 1966.
There is other subtext as well--that this season happened after Matt Weiner famously drove a hard bargain with AMC about what he needed to make the show he wanted to make--heaps of cash.  But the larger point is this: perhaps happiness is not so fleeting, perhaps ambition can lead to satisfaction--Peggy was happy in her adequate hotel room despite the dogs humping outside.  She's come a long way even if she does not get the Virginia Slims account.  Trudy would be happy if her husband wasn't such a dick.  We shall see if Megan can be happy with a career, with or without Don.  I still need to think more about these themes (as I wasted heaps of words here on lots of other stuff....).

I again agree with Weiner--that we are talking about the themes and subtext shows us something--that we take this show far more seriously than nearly another except perhaps The Wire.  Lost provided similar fodder, but didn't stick the landing--the last season, not just the last episode.  What makes Mad Men, The Wire, and Breaking Bad all great shows?  That they deal with change--that external shocks, internal dynamics and evolving individuals lead to varying responses.  Some people adjust, some adapt, some learn, some don't.  Don has tried to learn and adapt, but he has limits, including not appreciating the Beatles.  Next season, we will find if he returns to his former self or if he evolves.  Peggy evolves.  Joan adapts.  Pete does not learn. 


Erin Jenne said...

Great post, Steve! So Mad Men and the Wire are your favorites... I disagree that Breaking Bad has no educational value. I learned a lot about how to cook meth :)

Steve Saideman said...

Not no value, but less.