Saturday, September 26, 2009

It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad (Men) World

Every now and then I'll hear some reasonably intelligent media critic say that "television these days is probably better than movies." Some of you may know my opinion of television drama. It has not been high. To be fair, I haven't bothered to delve much into the cream of the supposed crop. Never saw The Sopranos. Haven't caught The Wire. I have heard they are fine shows. Anything else I've seen tends to pale in comparison to even a marginally competent feature film. But a year ago someone loaned me the first season of Mad Men. By Jove, I enjoyed it. While I did not feel it was not as strong as the best in contemporary cinema, I had to admit that it was actually better than most of the movies that end up being released in the theater these days. In short, I decided it was worth my precious time (and that's saying a lot).

I was not able to catch the second season, but cable has now made its presence known in my apartment and I have been watching episodes of the third season when they happen to be on. Part of me initially wondered whether I should dare watch episodes of the third season without having seen the second season beforehand, but the other part of me just said "Screw it."

Here is what I like about Mad Men and why I think it is stronger than other television dramas:

1) In addition to being a drama, it's also a historical and sociological study. I feel like I am actually learning about the early '60s when I watch the show. How many shows in the history of television have not been set in the present? Little House On The Prairie? M*A*S*H? That '70s Show? Not quite the same sociological study thing going on there. I heard the Mad Men creator talk about the decor on the set, and he said, "We have decor that is from the '30s and '40s and '50s, because not all of the buildings in the early '60s were brand new." Hmm, good point. Hadn't thought of that. See, this guy really knows what he's doing.

2) The characters are, for the most part, rather unsympathetic and morally ambivalent. I like that a television drama has the balls to make so many of its characters unlikeable. But the show also does a nice job of making some of the characters occasionally likeable every now and then; otherwise it would probably just be too draining. To tell you the truth, I may find the characters on Mad Men more likeable than other supposedly "likeable" characters such as Jack Bauer or those cretins from Sex And The City.

3) The show is not afraid to include odd pauses and scenes that do not seem to make an obvious point. We the viewer are allowed to wonder why exactly we are seeing a particular character do a particular thing.

4) Attention is paid to cinematography, editing, and set design. Many people who say that "television is as good as movies" don't watch movies in the same way that I do. They simply watch the plot. I watch more than the plot. There is not a high demand for creative cinematography from most television shows' target audiences. Thus, most television shows simply point the camera at the action. The makers of Mad Men are much more creative and thoughtful. They generate extra meaning through the choice of images they present to us. Mad Men's cinematography is not as good as, say, The Conformist's, but it is better than Sorority Row's.

Some people might be inclined to say that a show like Mad Men is simply "a great movie broken up into hour-long pieces." I would not go that far. Here are, in my opinion, some of Mad Men's limitations:

1) Because the length of the show's run is indefinite, I think it suffers from a symptom that all television shows, in my experience, tend to suffer from: the show doesn't know where it's going. Frequently I get the sense that the writers are making up the plot as they go along. Now, I have learned, after many years of puzzlement, that a work is usually stronger when the author knows how the story is going to end when he or she commences the writing. There is a certain unity that cannot be concocted on the fly. Often while I'm watching Mad Men I feel like the writers are throwing a bunch of crazy plot twists at us, knowing that they don't make any sense, but they figure, hey, we'll have plenty of time to make more sense of them later. Great movies never do this. But I suppose, given the nature of the television medium, such a shortcoming is hard to avoid.

2) Even the best episodes of Mad Men don't really "lift my spirits" the way my favorite movies do. I think this is because the target audience of the show (middle-class Americans) probably sees itself in the characters all too well. Most of the characters on Mad Men are searching for money, status, power, influence, alcohol, and consequence-free sex. I would say that most middle-class Americans are, sadly, searching for the same things. Although most of the show's viewers are watching and laughing and saying to their family members, "Oh God, isn't that terrible what Don Draper did?," I'll bet that deep inside they are so much like Don Draper it is not even funny. I imagine corporate executives watching Mad Men with their buddies and thinking, "Yeah, I know this show is ostensibly supposed to be dark satire, but come on, these people understand what life is really about." And, I'm sorry, I'm just not that cynical.

But, hey, it's better than CSI:Miami.


Herr Zrbo said...

Hey, don't knock Sex and the City until you've tried it.

I haven't seen Mad Men yet, but everyone seems to be raving about it, maybe I'll give it a watch after I'm done with the Wire (I'm on the last season).

As for the dark side of television, me and Amber are addicted to VH1 reality shows, which are actually quite hysterical. Rather than taking themselves seriously, they seem to mock most reality TV conventions. Just watch this clip of the ladies singing from 'Real Chance of Love 2':

Animals are Awesome

Now THAT is some quality television.

Deniselle said...

I loved your analysis. I think most of these points could also be said for/against The Sopranos.

Just like TS, Mad Men has too many characters to keep track of and that might become a problem in the future, if they span into too elaborate B stories.