Sunday, May 17, 2015

the end is near

No one wants to listen to me whine about finishing final grades or the writing of a dissertation, never mind the curve balls life always has in store at the best and worst of times, but checking in with Flixview has been squeezed out for much of my long, slow graduate education. First things first.

So in an hour the end will begin and end for Don Draper and the gang. I won’t be watching, I’m officially a cord-cutter now so I have to wait until tomorrow to buy the last episode. Truth is, with final grades due tomorrow, I still haven’t watched last week’s installment. I know, [spoiler alert!] I heard about Betty, resistance to social media is futile.

Cover stories in Advertising Age and Adweek about the show’s influence, but many of the 55+ students in last year’s Special Topics course, Mad Men & Advertising Culture in the 1960s, did not consider the course ‘enough about advertising.’ Sure it’s a soap opera, and I know George Lois has denounced it, but it is about advertising. Besides, the research done by Matthew Weiner and his creative team has produced countless moments small and large of recognition in this baby boomer who grew up in New York City in the 1960s and wanted to go into advertising.

As loyal fans await episode 714, I can’t help remembering the last moment of The Sopranos, another soap opera Matt Weiner had a hand in. More than a decade later, people are still arguing about that ending. In retrospect, I think it fit the tone of the series and our relationship to Tony, just as the fever-dream narrative structure of Breaking Bad was a good fit. But Mad Men is neither, its pace closer to narrative conventions of the era it represents and its characters more familiar, especially Peggy, Joan, and Betty. I will miss Roger, and I know at least one student who will miss Pete.

I don’t know how Don’s journey will end, but I would be satisfied if it’s similar to the conclusion of episode 212, “The Mountain King,” which left Don wading slowly into the Pacific Ocean.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Mad Men: The Slow Burn

Now that it has been two years since my last post, I thought it best to check in. I am in dissertation purgatory as well as teaching full-time, so I did not see any of the sixth season of Mad Men until this holiday weekend when I celebrated Independence Day by binge-watching all the episodes piled up on the dvr. The list of movies I have missed grows longer weekly, once I am finally done with grad school I hope to catch up. Or not.

Although I mostly avoided spoilers, I did hear that some loyal viewers were not impressed with this latest season, rumblings of too much soap opera and not enough office politics. To be fair, this series has always been a soap opera, but one set on Madison Avenue during advertising’s creative revolution, and also one with emotional complexity, depth, and a mastery of slow-burn storytelling.

As an example, the exchange of glances between Don and his daughter Sally that ended season six reminded me of the glance Don exchanged with a woman sitting beside him at a bar that ended season five. Rough road that Don traveled during the dozen episodes in between, but this parallel may speak to his ultimate redemption – whether or not Don would maintain his fifth-season monogamy was a fun cliff-hanger, but not anywhere near as important as his decision to be honest with his children about his own childhood. He came a long way in one season, sadly much of it seeing double.

Mad Men has always had these moments that link elements of its narrative far apart chronologically, such as the hand-holding between Don and Peggy that linked her departure from the agency in season five with her first day on the job at the beginning of season one. Matthew Weiner, the auteur that created Don and the world he inhabits, is a master of epiphany. These moments of grace or destruction require long hours of attentive viewing to get the full payoff, but when it comes it is sometimes worthy of the last ten minutes of Godfather Part Two, or James Joyce’s earliest narratives (The Dead is my personal favorite). It is for this reason that I trust Weiner the storyteller; when episodes drag I know they are leading somewhere interesting.

Although there has been debate about authenticity since the series premiered in 2007, Weiner and his team have put considerable energy and expense into maintaining a genuine sense of time and place. I certainly recognized the Manhattan of my childhood from the beginning. The costume design, soundtrack, and art direction have always been among the show’s great strengths. The season six poster, created by illustrator Brian Sanders to echo his distinctive work of the 1960s, is a perfect case in point. The surreal airplane in the background was, I believe, the artist’s nod to his own pioneering work for TWA. The memories that style evokes for me are worth a whole lot of operatics, and while the final season is in the works, I get to prepare a possible special topics course on Mad Men and Advertising Culture in the 1960s.

Post script: I have received some thoughtful comments from readers that I haven't responded to for the same reason that it's been 733 days since my last entry. I do appreciate the feedback, and will share some of these insights in a future post.

Monday, July 04, 2011

TREME: America the Beautiful

I Love My Country

Anyone who believes we here in the U.S. of A. don’t actually make anything anymore needs to watch HBO. Let me be more specific: you need to watch Treme. Now. All of it.

Fourth of July fireworks have been cancelled here in Lubbock, as in much of the parched southwest, but my heart swelled with nationalistic pride and my eyes teared up repeatedly as I watched the second season finale of the series about New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Created by television auteurs David Simon, responsible for HBO’s The Wire and NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street, and Eric Overmyer, who worked on both productions with Simon as well as St. Elsewhere and Law & Order, Treme is proof positive that the most interesting narrative work today is being done for broadcast and cable tv, not the movies.

My girlfriend has a low tolerance for menace (having been held up at gunpoint, she’s earned it), so halfway through the first season of Treme she gave up. Amidst the joy of creative people living vibrant lives in a globally and historically unique city, she correctly perceived the constant possibility of unannounced horror. Amidst plenty of examples, the ninth episode of this season suddenly ended with one of the most horrifying murders ever represented on American television. No small part of its horror was its banality, coming out of the blue as such things often do.

But to reach the fifth paragraph of an essay about Treme without mentioning the music is as criminal as some of the worst behavior the series has brought to life. Truly, it is hard to imagine any cultural text paying such consistent, knowing, loving tribute to the vitality of America and its unique cultural gifts as Treme does, episode after episode. The theme song alone (by John Boutté) makes me want to salute the nearest flag, and most episodes are so full of great American music that even a partial list is a cop-out.

New Orleans may be reasonably called the birthplace of American music, and our music, along with democracy and free-market capitalism, may be America’s most enduring contributions to global culture in the broadest sense. Nowhere else has this peculiar set of circumstances and energies produced such irrepressible joy, sorrow, beauty, ugliness, hope, despair, solidarity, and loneliness. Treme captures it all, even more vividly than did The Wire, which was inevitably drawn to the dark side of the American soul.

When Davis (Steve Zahn) leads his band for the last time in a nerd-funk cover of James Brown, or Antoine (Wendell Pierce) gives up his band to lead a bunch of aspiring high-schoolers, or Janette (Kim Dickens, the sexiest actress alive) gives up her high-profile chef in New York to return to NOLA and start over, or LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) recovers her inner fire after being raped by opportunistic thugs, or Delmond (Rob Brown) returns because Dr. John convinces him his father was right, or Toni (Melissa Leo) realizes her daughter Sofia and she will survive the suicide of the love of their lives, we know we will survive too, This is great art.

Which is to say, Treme is the best American television series. Ever.

Happy 4th of July, all.