“Getting some (Critical) Perspective”
December 15th, 2009
[This is Part Three in a six-part series chronicling the television shows which most influenced my relationship with television over the past decade – for more information and an index of all currently posted items, click here.]
When I entered into university, I knew that it was going to change how I approached various parts of my life. A liberal arts degree, by nature, is about developing analytical skills in order to more carefully consider and understand the world around you. And while I really enjoyed my high school experience, I knew that university would shift me even further in that direction, and I was ready for the challenge.
However, something very strange happened, in that concurrent to the development of greater critical analysis skills I started watching a rather enormous amount of television. And at that point, the two worlds started to converge, and I discovered that they were more peanut butter and chocolate than they were oil and water. It would be a number of years until this entirely crystallized, but it became very clear very quickly that I was not a “normal” television viewer.
The serialized shows that I was exposed to during this period are those which helped solidify my critical faculties, driving me to consider them from multiple angles and almost begging for a more careful consideration than most viewers might have been partaking in. And while I won’t pretend that this is the only way to watch television, there is no question that the convergence of my sudden interest in television and the critical analytical skills developed in university is an incredibly important part of how I enjoy this medium today: watching intently, taking notes, and spending as long writing about the episode as I spent watching it.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
That I started watching television in earnest the same Fall that Lost debuted is not a coincidence. As a fan of Alias, the show was exciting in terms of Abrams’ pedigree, but watching Lost was like entering a completely different sort of world. There was something earth shattering about that pilot that went beyond the stunning visual spectacle (at the time the most expensive pilot ever made, after all) to how I was experiencing the series: from the word go, I was along for the ride, and for the first time I was ignoring the safety warnings and hanging out the side of the car and sitting children under 9 in the front seat. There was no passive interaction with Lost, both because the show’s sense of mystery refused to allow it and because something clicked in me that barred me from keeping my distance. There was something in this show that I knew would stick with me for the rest of the decade.
And if there’s a single show of the decade of which I would argue I am unequivocally a “fan” first and foremost, I think it would be Lost. Perhaps it’s that it was the first show I really started obsessing over in earnest, or that I am a noted defender of both the second season (to a lesser degree) and the start of the third season, but I’ve always viewed Lost in an almost reverent sense. In fact, one of my greatest critical challenges has been writing about the show, as a trip back through my blog history (which gets scary at some points, trust me) shows I was trapped between recapping the show and writing brief critical thoughts about it. It wasn’t until Lost made the bold moves towards the end of its third season, switching to a flash forward structure and raising a whole host of new questions about the Island and these characters, that I was able to see the forest for the trees, or the smoke monster for its still and moving images.
This is not to say that I’ve stopped being a fan and started being a critic, but Lost has taught me how to balance the two more carefully. Being a fan to me creates greater expectations, as you both want and expect the show to be great, but for some being a “fan” implies that there are lower expectations that a show needs to meet (that you’ll in some way give it slack). With Lost, and all dramas of this nature, being a critic means having a certain perspective on the series, and while mine is positive (that the show isn’t about mystery, that it’s about the characters and how their fates intertwine with that of this crazy island) overall this doesn’t mean that it’s always going to be that way, and learning how to best place episodes into the show as a whole (or into the season as a whole, or into the journey of a single character) was an important step along my critical journey. In the end, I love what Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have done with this series, and the fact that no other show has successfully tapped into its Lost’s success is a credit to how well they’ve built this mythology, and how excited I am to follow it into its sixth season in the new year.
In terms of shows that have forced me to consider them from multiple perspectives, it’s impossible to discuss a critical perspective without getting into my complex critical and academic relationship with Ronald D. Moore’s reimagining of Battlestar Galactica. And while I’ve written more about this show than perhaps any other, I do want to make note of the fact that I, like many others, was not a believer in Battlestar Galactica when it first debuted. I knew it existed, but up until the mid-way point of its third season I had never seen an episode of the show. This was, of course, a rather unfortunate oversight on my part, but I have never been what you would call “big” into Science Fiction, outside of some residual Star Trek/Star Wars knowledge from my brother’s far more obsessive experience with the genre. And since I was not yet reading the litany of television critics I read today, I didn’t know enough about the show to understand that it was something that went beyond science fiction, or that it would so shape the next three plus years of my life.
I spent about a month before exams making my through through the early seasons, and it was around “Pegasus” that I started to see it. Yes, the show was enormously compelling up to that point, but marathoning the show as I was created this sense of narrative drive which had me blasting by some elements of the show that require something closer to quiet contemplation. It was when I hit that midpoint of Season 2, and eventually the stunning New Caprica arc in Season 3, I started to see something enormously complex and eventually something that would form the basis of my undergraduate thesis. While some have written off the series’ position in the decade as a result of some of the weaker elements of its final season (which I agree with) or its series finale (which I tend to disagree with), the show was unquestionably a turning point for my experience in television this decade in the way it made me rethink an entire genre as well as embrace the involvement of television within my academic career. There are many reasons I started this blog, but most of them became apparent only later on: immediately, however, I knew that Galactica (which I was watching in early 2007 in the blog’s infancy) was certainly a major component of that, and will continue to be with Caprica (no matter its quality) in the new year.
And although it may seem strange in terms of broad generic terms, my experience gaining my critical sea legs with Lost and BSG is what led me to AMC’s Mad Men. It’s odd to think that science fiction could lead to a deep period drama, but Mad Men came at just the right time for me to graduate to Matthew Weiner’s stunning depiction of Madison Avenue during the 1960s. I knew nothing about ad agencies, and only what a few American history courses and pop culture taught me about the decade in question, but Weiner’s series was perfect to effectively intoxicate viewers with its period setting. And just when it seemed like it could be falling too far into its clichés, drawing attention to its period touches with the television equivalent of flashing neon arrows, the show would dial back and show something as starkly human as Don Draper’s “Carousel” speech. It’s a show about selling products, an inherently false form of expression, and yet from the first season onwards it was clear that the show was at times a glimpse into the innermost of human emotions.
The recent trend of television critics moving beyond basic responses to detailed deconstructions is not entirely new, but Mad Men signals a collective understanding: there is no one, as far as I can tell, who watches Mad Men just “for fun” or just because it’s “cool,” which means that often times posts become serious philosophical discussions more than what one would call reviews. However, what I love about Mad Men is that as much as its content fits into that mould (with episodes that feel like historical/social commentary or intense character studies) it also has elements that are actually quite fun and spontaneous. There is nothing I love more than an episode of Mad Men that makes me laugh as much as it makes me think, and this isn’t as uncommon as some outsiders might think. As much as we love Peggy Olsen standing up to Don Draper and asserting her independence, we love even more when she’s using that same backbone to assert her desire to smoke some marijuana, and as much as this season had some dark and thoughtful material about marriage and parenthood it also had a bloody accident and an almost caper-esque finale. For every Don Draper there’s a Roger Sterling, and for every Peggy Olsen there’s a Joan Holloway, and yet none of these characters are so defined by drama or comedy to fit into only one role, creative an enormously diverse show that thrills as it contemplates.
This was perhaps, then, the decade where the fascinating became the exciting, and where the internet has allowed lovers of complicated television to develop their own culture surrounding it. Lost and Battlestar Galactica are designed to be exciting week after week, with their cliffhangers and their space battles and their mysteries. And yet, in the internet age, the anticipation for the next episode of Man Men is just as palpable, as critics write their deconstructions and discuss potential avenues as if Don Draper’s latest campaign were a mysterious hatch or as if Peggy Olsen could be one of the Final Five Cylons. We live in a world where Mad Men, a show winning Emmys and blowing our minds with just about every aspect of its production, is also a social media phenomenon amongst its viewers, inspiring various avatars and Facebook pictures along with some enormously stimulating discussions.
It’s a sign that what I strive for with Lost isn’t unattainable, and that the internet is facilitating both academic and fan-driven responses to all (good – let’s not talk about the bad) shows that appear on our television sets (or our computers, etc.). And while I ultimately have one foot firmly in each, I think that this is necessary for any critic. While it’s important to remain objective and to develop a clear point of view, if I didn’t love these three shows I wouldn’t write about them like I do. I’m sure an occasional 4500 word review makes it seem like I’m “overthinking” these shows, but in reality I like to think that I’m “overappreciating” them. At times I’m sure that’s resulted in something that no decent human being would read, but I guess you could argue that writing a whole lot about shows like these which both confound and delight is as much a personal exercise as it is a professional one (especially true since I’m, you know, not a professional). As much as I want to write things that people will read and perhaps get them to consider an episode in a different light, sometimes I need to write something because it’s going to burrow its way into my brain if I don’t let it escape.
Accordingly, expect more lengthy analysis of Lost and Mad Men in the decade to come (and, considering its influence on my academic career, probably some BSG as well), and hopefully analysis of many more shows that have yet to emerge (or that I’ve yet to watch) in the years ahead.
Your Turn: There’s been a lot of talk about these deeply serialized series (including one that, obviously, will be discussed later in this set of features), but what was the show (or moment in a show) where you realized that there was something different about the type of series emerging in this decade?