I’m not a smart guy. I just play one on the Internet.
Case in point — when I saw the first season of “Heroes” on television several years ago, I actually thought they’d end it in and with one season. Every week was this big playing up toward a cosmic resolution, and I believe them.
How goofball is that? Nobody makes a show for one season. Not on purpose, anyway.
Also, it took me a long time — I mean a long time — to realize “Felicity” was a teen soap, that all medico-legal-cop shows were-are adult soaps, and that “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” was not simply showcasing an interesting approach to police procedurals (Vincent D’Onofrio’s psychological explanations) but actually kinda pushing it.
And I actually liked that one.
For the most part, I don’t think much of TV’s ability to produce quality, because its inherent elements prevent it. On an ensemble show, for instance, it doesn’t make sense for people to “disappear” from several episodes — though we in life might not see a friend for weeks or months. So on TV, everyone has to always be doing something.
But that’s hard to maintain. How often can new and interesting stuff … happen.
I liked “Deadwood” for instance, but we surely understand why it shut down in three seasons. It was hard to have people “doing” things all the time. Stuff gets forced because it must happen — if it doesn’t, we viewers start wondering where so-and-so went.
You run out of stuff.
Wasn’t always like this. M*A*S*H never cared about it and that show lasted five times longer than the Korean War it was ostensibly about. Of course it was really about the Vietnam War, but that’s another essay.
Heck, Gunsmoke lasted 20 years and that was the same thing over and over and over. It had to be. And don’t even get me started on I Love Lucy — the prototypical sit-com was the exact same thing every time and while we might say people didn’t mind so much when TV was new, the fact is, it still happens, all the time.
TV created its own monster here, because if you train us to see resolution in 22½ minutes, we’ll be ticked if you try and make us wait. Like telling a potential convert all they have to do is confess Jesus and not letting them in on the whole sanctification thing.
[I’m confirmed on this point, by the way, by a film and media academic who has begun to look at how expectations have changed over time — how viewers now, first of all, want our excitement from media, and second, how fast we think it should occur.
A book from several years back, Why We Buy, examined what we look for as consumers while shopping. This is the TV equivalent — Why We Watch, let’s say.
Suffice to also we’re not discerning on this. We want more and more and faster and faster. And more. Faster.
This is terribly damaging, says this professor, when we expect it in real life.
TV writers respond to this and shows last far too long — so much so, now we have the term, website, and book, Jumping the Shark. This professor prefers the British system, where individual seasons are shorter, and nobody, not even a creator or producer, hopes the overall show runs forever.
Once upon a time I thought an answer to all this might be the creation of a “universe” a la Tolkien or Faulkner, in which shows set in the same time and place had frequent overlap.
This has happened on a limited basis — Homicide: Life on the Street sent Richard Belzer to NY, to join a Law & Order cast ... Phoebe on Friends had an even nuttier sister, who was on Mad About You — but it hasn’t been as conscious as I mean. Perhaps the goal of syndication (100 episodes has historically been the Holy Grail here) or the real chance that one or more of the shows would be canceled before the others, prevented wider use.]
Or maybe it just wasn’t that great of an idea. Can’t rule that out.
For me a paradigmatic example of shows forcing stuff and making things up (in the bad way) is one from the 80s called Hunter. In it, ex-football player Fred Dryer plays a neanderthal cop, with the hot-and-by-the-book female partner, played by Stepfanie Kramer.
In one episode her character is raped. Couple seasons later it “happened” again.
Kramer later said that’s when she knew she’d leave — and she did, when it only had one season to go. Because … seriously — twice? Aside from a possibly prurient motive, the worse sin was it was simply not true.
So TV by definition cannot excel, in my view.
So what do we do with Mad Men, which recently concluded its fourth season — and which definitely excels.
First, the show eludes the “swift conclusion” by skipping ahead between episodes and entire seasons. Even closing credits music isn’t keyed to the year the episode is set in, often post-dating it, but rather a theme it’s exploring.
This honors Story, and not incidentally caters not one whit to the whims of petulant viewers who want our resolution in easy-open packages. In fact, the worst show of the just-concluded season was where Joan and Roger flang at each again, split again, and she went off to dispose of the child, in the space of about a single episode.
So we neither get a swift conclusion from Mad Men, nor, eventually, do we come to expect it. We respect the tale it wants to tell as it tells it. It even, by this approach and sometimes “just because,” leaves us stuff to figure out — one mark of good storytelling, because the reader (viewer) participates.
Second (and a much bigger deal), in talking with my wife, and that academic, Biola Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Arts Lisa Swain, I’ve come to see and appreciate what Mad Men and its creator/writer Matthew Weiner are doing intentionally throughout.
Without giving too much away — and there are probably already some spoilers in here — it’s about what people do and what that means, for good and ill. In other words, it’s about what all great writing has been about for millennia.
Not all TV shows are like this, mind you. Most are not. I said great writing.
Much of television, the vast majority in my view, is mindless, forced, and untrue. It’s a far more egregious sin to make fun and sport of vital relationships — marriage, for instance — or to show a person, as a character in a tale, doing something for which there are no consequences, or sometimes even results.
Mad Men is, most of the time ... real.
Its people do things and, in the vast majority of cases, must face real effects of their choices.
They must grow or die, change or suffer, love or waste away.
With, according to my information, one season to go, the character calling himself Don Draper is the epicenter of all this, as he has been from the beginning.
Half the time I look at him and think, Dude is going down.
Half the time I think he might … just might … maybe … make it.
When he does something strong and resolute — abandoning tobacco advertising, for instance — I think, YES!
When he talks after sleeping with yet another woman — as clichés tongue off him like spit — I think, Nooo …
He tries to be good. He succeeds sometimes. He fails often.
This is the best ‘story of life’ we can get from television.
It’s not the real story, which involves things like Romans 12 and Colossians 3, but for TV … it’s pretty good.
The last episode of this season was called “Tomorrowland” and involved a trip to Disneyland, which at the time of the show is only about 10 years old. Tomorrowland, the one in the costliest place on earth, was, as we of a certain age know, all about cartoonish ideas of the future.
Like that you can keep sleeping with yet more women and not crash and burn like a priapic Hindenburg.
It’s seemed we’re supposed to root for him in his serial monogamy … and it hasn’t always been monogamous.
But I think we’re to root for him as everyman, as us, and, if we’re really paying attention, as who he is (i.e., not Don Draper, who is dead) and who he is trying to be. That’s the struggle we’re supposed to identify with, and care about.
Not least of which because it is ours.
Thinking of him, and rooting for him, and perhaps even loving him, as an individual, is also crucial.
That, too, is our task on this side of reality.
He’s trying. He’s been journaling, though they didn’t call it that back then, and his analysis of people and life is on-track and more than a little pungent. People and life sometimes are, so writing about them must betimes be.
He also, at the end of this season, announced his re-marriage.
It may change Don Draper / Dick Whitman for the good. After all, that’s what marriage does for men who let it — and participate in that change.
I think his salvation lies in the same place (though it is different every time) ours does: in that full confession and repentance, without which we don’t need God, and an embrace of suffering, without which we can’t be like Him
So far his suffering and losses are of his own making, and those don’t count — though they may prod us to ones that do. But what God deigns, literally, to bring him, Whitman must embrace.
This goes for other characters, too. Now that her ex-husband is getting married, perhaps Betty can stop being bitter. She will have to “dance with who brung her” and stop blaming the dead Don Draper for her troubles. Marriage can help women, too.
Of course, they may all crash and burn. Love covers a multitude of sins, but it’s hard to be saved when you work in advertising.