Saturday, October 9, 2010

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: Mad Men

This one's been on the to-do list for a while now: the show everyone's talking about, the show kazekage has been urging me to watch for months - and that counts for a lot, given how much I enjoyed the last series he recommended (Gargoyles).

So, just to start things off properly: sorry, love. Couldn't make it past six episodes.

I give the creators of "Mad Men" due praise for their recreation of 1960's New York: every detail radiates authenticity, even though I'm sure some liberties have been taken in terms of historical accuracy. And, as predicted, I've developed a major crush on Jon Hamm.

(Take note, CW bleach-babies - this is what a real man looks like!)

But frankly, my problem with this series has less to do with style and more to do with substance.

I'll preface the following review by admitting that my standards of evaluation aren't what they were a year ago; back then, if a somewhat-flawed series caught my interest, I'd stick around for at least a full season to see if things got better. I'm still watching (and enjoying) "The Vampire Diaries" because it's improved significantly since its initial mediocrity.

Unfortunately, I find myself sitting on a rather intimidating pile of books, movies and games at the moment, all of which I'd like to check out (and possibly review), which means I have considerably less patience for stories that don't hook me after a reasonable amount of time.

So I gave "Mad Men" six episodes. Is that fair? I'd like to think so - six hours is more than enough to present one of the two things I need in order to stay invested in a narrative: interesting characters or an entertaining story. (Years of substandard television have taught me never to expect both at the same time, but to be highly appreciative if they do show up hand-in-hand.)

Part of the problem may be hype backlash - more than any series I'm currently aware of, "Mad Men" has gained near-unanimous praise from critics and viewers alike. And yet, the one word that springs to mind when I try to describe this series is "joyless": taking into account that the whole point seems to be ridding its viewers of any nostalgic idealization of the period, there just isn't any fun to be had here.

It's the story of an ad agency, at a time when advertising was on the cusp of transforming into what it is now. And the entire cast is deeply screwed up, somewhere between Jackie Peyton and Nancy Botwin on the Arkham Asylum Scale of Batshit Lunacy.

Except that with Jackie and Nancy (and Tara Gregson, and Dexter Morgan, and Abed Nadir) there's so much more to the characters than just their idiosyncratic craziness. Dexter has his sardonic narration, Nancy has her equally crazy family and so on. With "Mad Men", there's no getting away from all these unhappy people being unhappy. There's no humor, no adventure, nothing but a sense of gravitas so immense and overwhelming I can practically feel myself being pulled towards the screen. For example: watching Pete squirm in episode 4 probably would've been gratifying if I found Roger or Don to be even mildly likeable. But of course, they're as miserable as everyone else.

On a final note, I don't think this problem has anything at all to do with the writing per se - the dialogue is crisp, story developments make sense, and there's enough characterization to give me a fair-to-decent grasp of the main cast in a relatively short amount of time. It's a well-told story, but that story doesn't appeal to me as a viewer. And while it's entirely possible that the atmosphere becomes a bit more balanced at some later point, I'm not going to drag myself through the depths of abyssal angst to get there.




You're totally forgiven. The biggest obstacle to Mad Men--and I should have said this before now--is that the structure of the seasons tend to be these little vignettes that don't seem to move the overplot forward that much and then things speed up crazy-like for the last few episodes.

And yeah, not really any of the characters aren't screwed up or glum--Jon Hamm makes sadness into an art form, but with all that darkness (liven up by Roger's occasional sniping) can be a bit oppressive and if you can't find the groove, then it's not gonna work for you, and that's OK.

For my recommendations, I'm . . .1-1, now? Could do worse. :) No worries about it not working for you--If everyone liked everything because everyone liked it, we'd be writing glowing testimonials about OMIT and really, who wants that? ^_~



I stopped at the same spot you did.

And then I started again, and it was so worth it.

I can't exactly explain why. Partly because I don't want to spoil it, and partly because I don't really understand it myself.

What you're experiencing is the Wire phenomenon: you haven't really watched it until you've watched all of it.

But once you have, all other shows will be found wanting.

And there may also be some Buffy paradox in there as well: season one isn't that great, but the following seasons are so damn good even the first will be viewed more fondly.

Trust me. Trust us.

Mad Men is the best show on television.

Finish the season.

Diana Kingston-Gabai


kazekage: It's not the structure that bothers me per se, it's the fact that the vignettes don't do enough character work to maintain my interest. For example, we find out Don's having an affair, but so is Roger, and so was Pete before he got married, and apparently Helen's husband had a few before the divorce, etc. Intellectually, I understand that the point is to underscore how disillusioned these people are, and how the institution of marriage is starting to crumble... but emotionally, because these situations are already underway when the series begins, I don't feel connected to any character's struggles. And in lieu of a captivating storyline (the tradeoff works: "Primeval" is very light on characterization but it had an intriguing Myth Arc and a fantastic villain) it just doesn't work for me.

Actually, it's 3-1 in your favor. Though that last one might not count since you were actually warning me away from it at the time. ;)

Diana Kingston-Gabai


j: I might go back to it at some point in the future, after I've cleared some of my backlog. But it's interesting that you mention the first season of "Buffy", as - while it's certainly true the show didn't hit its stride until the following year - I can tell you this much: by the end of the pilot episode, I liked Buffy, thought Willow and Xander were adorable, enjoyed the Whedonistic dialogue and found myself very intrigued by the whole Slayer mythos.

And that's what I'm looking for, really; I can look past warts and imperfections, but there has to be some point of attraction for me. And waiting 13 episodes for that to potentially emerge just seems like a waste of time for me right now, especially when I've got a six-page to-do list and every time I knock something off five more items are added. :)



Holy cow, you've got Mad Men fans? I am stunned!

You're right in that there disillusionment is a bedrock element of the show, but in the early days we're getting to know them and the most immediate drive of the story is the praradox that they "sell happiness" (Is Don's speech on that in those first six episodes?)and they are so far removed from happiness that they don't even know what the word means. As to the driver of this season's worth of plot, it's the slow burn revelation of Don's double life (or triple or quadruple life life, if we're counting both affairs he has in the first years) that gets kicked off by Adam showing up in ep. 5 and what comes from kicking that up.

I would say there are some interesting struggles going on, but it's hard to really "get" immediately. Don is good at his job because his entire life is artifice, but he suffers from being unable to have a genuine connection with another human being. Peggy is going to luck into opportunities that Joan didn't have (the first series plays up the contrast between them) and Pete, even though he spends most of his time being a slimebucket, genuinely and surprisingly wants to be a better person, only it's hard for him to do because it's so contrary to his character.

But the first series mainly concerns itself with setting all that up with only the mystery of Don Draper's identity really kind of buttoned up at the end. So while we join most of this in medias res, there are some beats that gets resolved.

3-1? Oh that's far better than I thought. :) I'd forgotten about a couple of those. I hope Babylon 5 & Harbinger works a bit better for you, but if you're looking for a kill-switch point, if you're not hooked by "Signs and Portents" and "And the Sky Full of Stars," that'll indicate whether or not to go forward. :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai


They're everywhere. :)

See, I think I would've preferred getting to know the characters before the Misery Conga took off - it was a bit too exhausting to have them start low and dig themselves even deeper.

I must say, those are excellent insights into the major players. :) To be fair, it's abundantly clear that these are complex, well-written characters - my problem stems not from oversimplicity but from my inability to connect with any of them. I mean, who do you root for in this series? Where do your sympathies lie?

I'll keep those potential jumping-off points in mind. :)



Obviously. I thought I was the only one, as the last couple people I've tried to sell on Mad Men it hasn't clicked (and yet . . .every recap on the Prattle posts HUGE pageviews--my life is nothing but paradoxes) so . . .I was feeling like an island unto myself here for a bit.

Well, I think they start low and gradually we learn why they are as they are, which can be, admittedly, like chucking someone in the deep end of the pool and saying "now swim!" I suppose. ;)

Well, that's about as early as the real bricks of the show's mythology start being laid, so if it's not clicking by then . . .

Diana Kingston-Gabai


Well, there's no question that it's an incredibly popular show - and popular for the right reasons at that, since the audience seems to stick around for the story and the characters, rather than some cheap gimmick. It may not appeal to my preferences, but I can certainly respect its accomplishments...

It's a question of context, really. I mean, you have that bit with Pete and Peggy in the very first episode - she has no idea who he is and yet they're having an "Affair To Remember" two hours later. At which point he gets married anyway.

And now that I'm finally done with "Dragon Age" (and there is a bloody gargantuan post/review about that in the works) I can at last get back to other things. :)



Well, I suppose, and it is a bit of a muted phenomenon (It's no LOST)and I think people come for the gimmicks--the smoking, the drinking, the genteel racism and sexism of the olden days, and stay for the deeper character stuff . . .I'm just amazed anyone runs to see what I have to think about it.

I think the whole reason she wants to rub bellies with him comes down to the fact that she's too young and too Catholic to know better and even though he's a reptilian little creature, he is more powerful than she and power, like the man said, is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

I have no sense of Dragon Age at all, so I'm eager to read it!

Diana Kingston-Gabai


I'm not - intelligent insight is a rare enough find online. :)

That explains her involvement, but why does Pete fixate on her specifically? Is it because she's the only one at the agency who doesn't know him (and therefore immediately dislike him)?

Still working on it. Quite a lot of ground to cover. :)



Awww . . .talk like that is gonna turn my head, Diana. :)

Could be. They continue to gravitate towards each other (I mean, they obviously have a connecxion) through the series. A good deal of it is that Peggy represents an escape hatch to Pete's live--he's going to marry, settle down, have a family, attempt to live up to his Famous Name . . .but when you look down the barrel of a life that circumscribed, sometimes the urge to make a run for the emergency exit is hard to ignore.

Sounds awesome!

Diana Kingston-Gabai


Just as long as you don't pull a Linda Blair and turn it 360 degrees. :)

See, that could've made Pete the slightest bit sympathetic - it's easy to relate to someone who feels trapped by the circumstances of their own lives. But add his slimy behavior to the fact that the last time I saw Vincent Kartheiser he was whining about Angel not being his real daddy who didn't really love him for real and I just. can't. do it. :)



Nahh, never happen. Neck's too stiff. :)

Well, and his response is less to do anything about it and stew about it for some time . . .it takes a few years for him to even approach something resembling humanity.

I had forgotten that he was on Angel, actually. Seems like decades ago.