“Hands and Knees”
September 26th, 2010
“Everybody has bad dreams once in a while.”
In a Twitter discussion, Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall had a discussion about the role of theme in Mad Men: to boil it down for you, Seitz suggested he was on the fence about “Hands and Knees” due to it being a “theme episode,” while Alan argued that every episode is a theme episode (while acknowledging that this may be simply because he, as a critic, looks for themes to inform his review).
The distinction I offered is that there is a difference between “theme episodes” (which I would argue “Hands and Knees” is) and “episodes with themes” (which is the majority of Mad Men’s run). The series is too thematically rich to go without themes in any particular episode, but “Hands and Knees” stands apart in terms of actively tying nearly every single story into that theme: instead of one bad dream, it’s a collection of bad dreams that happen simultaneously (insert Inception joke).
What makes it, and all good “theme episodes,” work so well is that the episode itself acknowledges that the consistency of this theme is ridiculous: everything that could go wrong does go wrong in the episode, as if every worst case scenario and everything they want to keep secret rises to the surface. The episode asks us to join Roger in laughter when we realize just how screwed these people all are, while emphasizing that everyone has a good reason to go on pretending as if none of it has actually happened.
It’s a very straightforward thematic episode, though, and writing out the same thing as everyone else seems like a waste of my time – as a result, I’m going to outline my thematic read of the episode very briefly before discussing some of the more ancillary elements of the story which may not clearly connect with the central theme.
Mad Men the Weekend After: Critics accept “The Rejected”
August 20th, 2010
I was without access to a television on Sunday evening, and in the chaos of moving I wasn’t able to get to this week’s episode of Mad Men, “The Rejected,” until yesterday. It was a bit nerve wracking to be in the dark regarding the episode, but this was a particularly strange episode to experience this with: I kept getting cryptic tweets about pears showing up in my Twitter feed, and every time I went shopping I had people asking if I had purchased pears at the store. It created an intriguing sort of mystery, a clue which I figured must be pretty important to have resonated so much with the audience.
Of course, the pears were an oddity, resonating with the audience because of how abstract that final scene seems in relation to the rest of the episode. This is actually one of the most thematically consistent episodes of the series in recent memory, leaning heavily on broad thematic material (in the form of a consideration of the value of marriage) and on our knowledge of previous events (in the form of Pete and Peggy’s divergent paths). It was an episode which rejected the series’ traditional sense that past and present relate to our own time and the nostalgic view of the 1960s, instead reclaiming past, present and future for these characters and their glimpses into the future.
And now, before I end up reviewing the episode in its entirety, let’s get onto “The Rejected” in a bit more detail and see what some critics thought about it.
July 25th, 2010
“It was going great until it wasn’t.”
Mad Men has always been a series grounded in duality, logical since Dick Whitman’s double life represented the central conflict within the series. Very rarely did the series ever move beyond the existential, largely avoiding direct action in favour of short glances, conversations with unintended prescience, and the growing sense that the balance could no longer hold. At the end of the third season, that duality was broken: Don’s secrets were revealed, Betty ran off with Henry Francis, and even the identity crisis at Sterling Cooper – caused by PPL’s influence over the company’s holdings – was eliminated when the pending purchase led to the formation of the independent Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
The third season was Mad Men’s two worlds finally colliding, and the fourth season premiere, “Public Relations,” demonstrates how that collision has never truly stopped. The direct conflict the series has always avoided has become something these characters fetishize and desire, and unfortunately something that has become untenable within the new business world in which they operate. Before, Don Draper was a sly yet self-destructive force operating with what he considered a safety net, and now he’s a sly yet self-destructive force who refuses to change his behaviour despite the newfound risk. And so his entire life becomes a collision, sometimes to his benefit and most times to the detriment of his business, his sanity, and his personal relationships.
However, the benefit of a collision is that you ask yourself important questions, wondering what went wrong and re-evaluating just what you want from the world around you. “Public Relations” is Don Draper seizing the day, choosing to stop running into the same brick wall at every turn and steer the car in a new direction – it’s possible that a collision waits just the same down this new path, but it’s a collision he can control, manage, and perfect.
And until it isn’t, it has every chance of being great.
A Manipulated Medium: Warehouse 13, Covert Affairs and White Collar
July 21st, 2010
Television is by and large a manipulated medium: whether it parcels a larger story into smaller segments, or presents a series of smaller stories, there is a point where craftsmanship is dictated more by convenience than by sheer artistic merit. Writers take shortcuts, use shorthand, and do everything in their power to make sure that the forty minute running time of an episode manages to do everything it needs to do to service the larger story, or create a satisfying conclusion to the standalone narrative being constructed.
I don’t think this is an inherently negative notion, and do not use “manipulators” as some sort of slur toward television writers, a group of individuals I have a great deal of respect for. However, when it comes to this manipulation, there is a time, a place, and a methodology: there are some situations where writers should simply let their show breathe, where manipulating the story in a particular direction will only damage the series’ momentum, and there are also some ways in which you can manipulate your series which transfers the manipulation from the series’ characters to the audience, something that all writers should avoid at all costs.
While manipulation is a problem with high-concept procedurals (like Lost, Heroes or the upcoming The Event on NBC), it’s also present in the light-hearted cable procedurals which have become so prolific, and I want to use it as a theme for addressing last night’s episodes of SyFy’s Warehouse 13 and USA Network’s White Collar and Covert Affairs, as they each represent a different approach to manipulating the trajectory of a television series.
“Time Will Tell”
July 6th, 2010
Warehouse 13 ended its first season on one of those cliffhangers that I generally despise – like White Collar’s mid-season finale late last year (where it seemed like Peter was the series’ big bad), the show ended on a note which implied a huge change in direction (in this case that Artie had been killed in the explosion at the Warehouse’s entrance, and that Leena was in league with MacPherson) but which in reality was entirely inconsequential. Any uncertainty you have about Artie being legitimately dead is ended within a few minutes, and any concerns about Leena are erased when she continues to appear in the main credits.
I’m fine with the fact that a sci-fi procedural isn’t going to make these sorts of huge changes, but my response to the second season was very much dependent on how they used the uncertainty surrounding the finale to its advantage. While it may be cheap storytelling in a lot of ways, Warehouse 13 has the unique ability to explain away sudden twists under the guise of expanding its catalogue of artifacts with inexplicable powers – while I thought White Collar took a few episodes to recover from the bait and switch, Warehouse 13 uses its pre-existing rules in order to leap frog over the initial uncertainty to confidently map out the season to come. “Time Will Tell” is a strong premiere, although in a different way than I had expected, giving viewers one last glimpse at the first season’s highly personal conflict between Artie and MacPherson before replacing it with a more generic, but also more inventive, narrative.
It’s a decision I think works in the show’s favour, going against the common logic of these types of procedurals by through simplification rather than complication while continuing to embrace the quirky, charming potential within the series’ premise.
“I Do Do”
May 20th, 2010
I haven’t written about 30 Rock in a very long time, so you’d think I’d have a lot to say: after all, “I Do Do” actually had a “Previously on 30 Rock” sequence, which is rare on a show that is usually so off-the-wall that it doesn’t need to worry so much about continuity.
However, this was an aggressively plot-heavy conclusion for the series, so it makes sense that we might need a refresher on why Liz is going to three weddings, and why she would go anywhere with Wesley Snipes, and how smart the show was to have Jack dating two celebrity guest stars so that you really don’t know who he’s going to pick. This being said, however, “I Do Do” isn’t really plot-heavy at all – rather, it just sort of revels in the situation that has already been created, introducing new elements and providing conclusions that do a pretty good job of boiling it down to characters.
There are jokes, and there are plots, but even with some fairly ridiculous star power there is no point in time where all of it overwhelms the ways in which the episode plays out as a story about Jack, Liz and Kenneth, which makes it a successful conclusion to both these storylines and the season as a whole.
“Beauty and the Beasts”
May 9th, 2010
You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.
Due to more Mother’s Day related traveling than I had anticipated, I actually ran out of time to watch enough of Buffy to make today’s piece as expansive as I wanted it to be. I watched “Beauty and the Beasts” earlier in the week when I went through the first disc of the season, but then I haven’t moved on since that point as a result of more excursions than usual. Accordingly, you’re stuck with a small capsule review rather something something a bit more substantial, but I do have a few points to make (as if running out of things to say is ever really my issue).
While not quite as momentous as “Faith, Hope & Trick,” this episode nonetheless plays an important role in starting off the season’s story arc. While it’s not the most subtle episode the show has ever done, the various parallels do a nice job of handling the reintegration of a certain character both in terms of the character himself and Buffy’s response to their return, and they have some fun with a couple of television clichés in the process.
“The Importance of Communicationizing” and “The Long and Winding High Road”
January 12th, 2010
It might just be that we’re reaching the home stretch of Better Off Ted’s rushed second season, or that news this morning that ABC isn’t officially cancelling the show just yet has provided a false sense of hope, but tonight was the first set of episodes where I rarely felt myself comparing the show to its finest moments, or feeling like the show was missing opportunities. I don’t think it’s because “The Impertence of Communicationizing” and “The Long and Winding High Road” were perfect episodes, but they had a nice rhythm to them that didn’t create dead zones which could make them feel complacent, and they dealt with concepts (word play and one-upmanship) that the show has always gotten some great mileage out of.
In fact, if you were going to levy a single criticism of the double-header, you could perhaps argue that the episodes were almost too similar to one another, placing Ted as the moral centre amidst an environment more willing to engage with the low road. However, the show never places too much of each story on Ted and Ted alone, which allows the comedy around him to remain the star, and on that front the episodes offer enough diversity and hilarity to come out a winning pair.
November 1st, 2009
There’s been an ongoing debate amongst Mad Men viewers about how the show should ideally be handling the intersection of its fictional characters and the historical events that happen around them during the 1960s. Some have argued that the uncontrollable impact of history is almost too powerful for the show, overwhelming its characters and distracting from the more interesting elements of the show, but others have indicated that the cultural upheaval is integral to understanding how these characters are acting and how this decade is changing them. If I had to place myself within these two camps, I’d probably place myself into the latter, although admittedly I take the point of the former group in regards to the third season’s penultimate episode.
Harmed both by our prior knowledge of the episode’s central tragedy, young Margaret Sterling’s wedding falling the day after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and by a lack of a connection between that tragedy and the character motivations on display, “The Grown-Ups” works perhaps too well to capture the chaos that surrounded these November days. Rather than the chaos disrupting a clear sense of order, it came amidst a false sense of stability that crumbled suddenly, yes, but not as subtly as it needed to. This isn’t to suggest that the episode was a failure, or that it didn’t offer a stark depiction of these tragic days, but the combination of an oft-dramatized moment in history and a lack of character actions that felt distinctly of this show’s universe ended up making this one a bit less exciting than perhaps it seemed in theory.
October 15th, 2009
There has been a lot of talk about a backlash against 30 Rock as of late, with numerous critics taking time out of their schedules to less review the new season and more place it on an axis of television comedy. The question is not so much about whether 30 Rock is funny, but whether it is consistently funny, and whether it is funny in ways that imply long-term development or ways which rely too heavily on quick cutaways and an almost sketch-comedy aesthetic. Whether VanDerWerff or Holmes, Sepinwall or Weinman, everyone seems to agree that 30 Rock is a flawed show capable of occasional genius, and there are certain things that it could do to improve.
In my relatively short time as a TV critic, I’ve spent more of my comedy analyzing time with The Office, a show which features far more nuance than 30 Rock in terms of its characters. On that show, the actions of Michael Scott need to be finely tuned to (in my view) connect with the right level of comedy, or else risk throwing the entire show out of whack. However, with 30 Rock, the show is inherently out of whack which is kind of the point of the whole thing. I don’t shy away from criticizing 30 Rock, nor do I feel that it deserved to steamroll The Office at the Emmys as it did (as the latter show had the better season, in my eyes), but at the same time I don’t feel that criticizing the show is the same as condemning it. 30 Rock, like all shows, isn’t critic-proof (that’s not a thing), but it is a show that manages to make me happy even when it isn’t quite living up to its full potential.
As such, I thought the cheekily titled “Season 4″ was largely satisfied with cheeky as opposed to substantive, and that its commitment to that value resulted in an engaging half-hour of television that didn’t reach high enough but nonetheless had me eating out of the palm of its rough-skinned hand. Helped by airing after a less than fully-realized episode of The Office, the start of the fourth season gives almost no indication of what’s to come, but embodied enough of what makes the show work for me to be pretty excited about it anyways. I missed this show, and I’m glad to have it back, flaws and all.