“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.
August 6th, 2010
The best compliment I can pay Friday Night Lights right now is that I left its fourth season finale wanting so much more than I received.
I know this is normally considered a negative statement, in that the show was somehow lacking in something that I desired, but that’s sort of the point of the ensemble drama: by showing us the lives of so many characters, there will inevitably be plots we don’t get to follow, relationships we don’t get to spend time with, and stories that could have had broader implications. The mark of a good ensemble drama is that we actually wanted to fill in those gaps, and the mark of a great one is that even with those gaps we are enormously content with the story that has been put on screen and want to see more.
Friday Night Lights hasn’t had a perfect fourth season, trapped between interesting new characters and paying service to those who came before, but the world of Dillon, Texas remains as vibrant and empowering as ever before. “Thanksgiving” is neither a definitive goodbye to original cast members nor a defining moment for the new characters who arrived earlier this season, but rather a series of moments that define this ensemble and the world in which they play football and, more importantly, live their lives. And while some part of me wanted a three-hour finale, giving us the scenes that it felt like we needed before the various stories came to an end, the selective gaze which Jason Katims adopts in the episode feels satisfying as a whole, bringing to an end an uneven but affecting season of network television’s finest ensemble drama series which bodes well for the final chapter this fall on DirecTV.
January 27th, 2010
Friday Night Lights is a show about convergence.
Really, all ensemble dramas end up driving towards climaxes which tend to bring various story elements together, so this may not seem overly remarkable. However, as the show heads towards the conclusion of its fourth season, the show is doing a lot to bring together stories, simplifying in some instances and complicating in others.
And while some of the tension created by this convergence is engaging, what I tend to enjoy more is the sort of indirect effects: this is the first time in a while where the show actively demonstrated the show’s central dilemma of ignoring the football in order to service the characters on a personal, non-football level, and that tension (when used, as opposed to simply created and elided) is part of the show’s tragedy.
“Injury List” is about capturing the tragedy of stories converging at the worst possible time, although the show manages to keep (most of) that convergence from seeming too convenient in the show’s late season push.
January 20th, 2010
If you’re one of the people who are holding off watching Friday Night Lights until it debuts on NBC, you received good news this week: the show returns on April 30th. And I’m going to be really interested to see how viewers respond to “I Can’t” when it airs in early July, because the episode has the show headed in some potentially controversial directions in terms of both cultural and narrative taboos.
It’s perhaps no surprise that the latter are my only real concern, as the show continues to demonstrate a deft hand when dealing with sensitive subjects. However, I don’t know if the same kind of sensitivity could possibly rescue the show from itself in its other major storyline, which is creating some compelling television now but is creating far more concerns than I would like heading towards the end of the season.
“The Lights of Carroll Park”
January 13th, 2010
The problem with episodes of Friday Night Lights which feel overrun by homicide or criminal elements is not that those stories are inherently terrible, but rather that they feel incongruous with the show’s world. This is purposeful, meant to manufacture tension, but I don’t think it’s entirely necessary. It’s entirely possible to confront these types of issues within the show’s particular worldview, demonstrating the consequences of crime in ways which feel less contrived and disruptive of the show’s natural order. The show can be about the conflict between the criminal and law-abiding without the show becoming defined by that conflict (or by characters flirting dangerously between the two worlds), and “The Lights of Carroll Park” is a good example of how that can be accomplished.
It’s a slightly more problematic example, however, of how the show can confront the question of abortion. While I am not judging that storyline too quickly, as I’m sure it will be given more time to develop over the weeks to come (and perhaps into next season), the show sort of stretched the believability of its characters’ maturity in dealing with the situation. While I’m all for level-headed approaches to these kinds of storylines, as it’s one of the show’s strongest qualities, I also feel as if there are certain character who should be responding in ways that aren’t mature, and in ways that reflect how challenging these kinds of moments can be.
I guess me distinction is that I want the show to be challenging as opposed to challenged, and while the revonation of Carroll Park naturally fit into the first category I think the teen pregnancy sort of forced its way into the same position.
August 10th, 2008
After a busy day of moving, there’s nothing better than sitting down with one of the most satisfying dramas on television and just letting its quality suck you in. But, to be honest, it wasn’t grasping me at first: maybe it’s being tired, maybe it’s just that the show is finding a slower pace after a couple of really quick episodes, but there was something about “The Benefactor” that wasn’t clicking.
But then all of a sudden everything starts clicking – what seemed like a strangely slow subplot for Harry Crane turns into a sudden revelation of its broader impact on his life (And Peggy’s for that matter). It’s one of those examples where something initially so isolated has this ripple effect, showing in tiny small moments how one thing impacts everyone else.
And even though the episode is slow to start for Don and Betty Draper, they end the episode both with extremely twisted views of their current marital detente of sorts: as they both continue to struggle with embracing their new roles, it is clear that their expectations for happiness are quite different. When Betty cries in the car on their way back from dinner, they’re inexpicable tears of happiness, her bar set so low that being used to flirt with an unruly comedian is her new calling.
But, I guess this is normal: for her, Don is really just a Benefactor, although a slightly more benevolent one these days.