Mad Men the Morning After: “Christmas Comes…” for Critics
August 2nd, 2010
When it comes to critical reviews of AMC’s Mad Men, each week is more about understanding the nuances of the episode than ripping it apart. And this week, with very little from January Jones’ Betty Draper (who is the series’ most divisive character) and a welcome return for a few fan favourites, the critics are largely in holiday spirits outside of their understandable frustration with the actions of one Don Draper.
It may not be quite like Christmas morning, but opening the collection of Mad Men reviews in various tabs is sort of like opening presents, so let’s take a look at what came down the chimney.
“The First Day of School”
August 1st, 2010
Back in June, I wrote my initial response to AMC’s Rubicon, which wasn’t particularly positive. In fact, let’s quote my review for the sake of posterity:
If a show’s pilot is supposed to be a teaser trailer, an aesthetic exercise designed to build hype, then I would consider this to be moderately successful: there was absolutely nothing here which would keep me from tuning into the series in August. However, a pilot needs to be something more than a teaser trailer, and the series’ shortcuts in establishing both its central character and its central conspiracy show a lack of elegance which does little to convince me that this belongs in the same breath as AMC’s other original series.
This is, very clearly, not quite a ringing endorsement of the series, and so I went into “The First Day of School” with a bit of apprehension, apprehension which remains despite the fact that I think the series’ second episode is a vast improvement on its first. Not all of the problems have been wrinkled out, and there’s a big gaping hole where the series’ plot should be, but this episode captured some of the types of ideas which the series is interested in and which I find quite interesting as well. While the premiere relied heavily on mystery, “The First Day of School” shifts its focus from confusing the audience to confusing its characters, capturing how they respond to the puzzles placed before them.
The result is a successful glimpse into how paranoia takes hold of those in delicate situations or particularly challenging workplaces – sure, there isn’t quite a series for it to really relate to yet, but I think there might finally be a television show here if they can build on this momentum of sorts.
“Christmas Comes But Once a Year”
August 1st, 2010
“I don’t hate Christmas – I hate this Christmas.”
When Don Draper sits down to take part in a demonstration of a new form of customer research, he finds a questionnaire which asks him to describe his relationship with his father – the question, according to the Doctor heading the study, is designed to create a sense of intimacy which will then influence a more honest or meaningful answer to the following question about who makes household decisions. Of course, the test is not designed for someone like Don Draper, who has trained himself to shut down at the mere mention of his past – he walks out on the test because he cannot fathom that someone would want to return to their past in that fashion.
“Christmas Comes But Once a Year” is about what happens when people who are still running away from their past run smack dab into the present, people who are either so focused on not repeating past mistakes that other parts of their lives suffer or people who have lived so much of their lives covering up their past that they have no idea how to live in a present which no longer has the same rules. All of them are hoping that what they feel now won’t last forever: they remember happier Christmases, Christmases before their lives were thrown into a state of upheaval, and they hope that those Christmases will come again.
However, Don Draper also seems to think that it will happen without having to actually do anything.
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.
July 16th, 2010
The second episode of any series is often more telling than its pilot, as it represents the writers’ first chance to give an indication of where the series goes beyond the original concept. This is especially true with shows like Haven which rely on a combination of serialized elements and procedural components, as you start to see the balance take shape when freed from the more blatant exposition required in a pilot.
The two tests that I have for episodes like “Butterfly” are the Serial Extension test and the Procedural Competency test: the former looks at how the show expanded its serialized elements in order to keep viewers intrigued to see the series and its characters evolve, while the latter looks at how it constructs its stand-alone case in order to serve both those serial elements and our general entertainment. I wouldn’t say that, at this early stage, one is more important than the other: we may be enticed to stick around longer should the serialized storyline come together in an interesting fashion, but we’re more likely to quit earlier if the show just isn’t engaging in the stories it will tell in the majority of each episode.
I think that “Butterfly” passes the Serial Extension test with some spooky terminology and a sense of history, but it fails the Procedural Competency test: while certainly not the worst hour of procedural television I’ve seen, the dialogue just isn’t capable of selling this material, and the story’s conclusion is unbelievable not because it involves magic, but because the episode failed miserably at engaging me within its resolution, leaving me skeptical that the series can execute on the small tidbits we’re getting on the serialized front.
July 5th, 2010
Huge is definitively a dramatic series, a quality which sets it apart from the rest of ABC Family’s lineup in a pretty substantial fashion. While Greek is an hour-long comedy with dramatic elements, and shows like Secret Life of the American Teenager, Make it or Break It, and Pretty Little Liars fall pretty comfortably into the teen soap opera category, Huge is a series about the “real” life of a subsection of American teenagers. While the title implies a satirical glimpse into the lives of those who struggle with their weight, the show itself is a deconstruction of words like “Huge,” providing a multi-generational portrait of the challenges facing those labeled “obese” or “overweight” in our society. It takes ownership of the word, just as Wil (our central protagonist) takes ownership of her fat, and the result is a really compelling television series.
I wrote a piece for Jive TV discussing my basic response to the series, but since I quite enjoyed “Letters Home” (the second episode of the series), and because I know that there are some who find the series completely uninteresting, I thought I’d expand on those thoughts a bit. What “Letters Home” does so well is how it manages to create character development out of one-way communication, and how that theme extends from the basic letter writing to the personal interactions involved in the episode. While it continues to peddle in cliches, it treats those cliches with a great deal of respect, and looks at them from enough different angles that the show never feels like it is about the cliche but rather about the reality of those who are swept up in those stories.
In the process, it’s becoming the Friday Night Lights of summer camp cliches, which isn’t a bad spot to be in.
The Challenge of Clarity Amidst Chaos
May 7th, 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.
When I say that Buffy the Vampire’s third season gets off to a rocky start, your immediate response should be “of course it gets off to a rocky start.” The show completely threw a wrench into things by having Buffy leave Sunnydale behind for the bright lights of a rundown neighbourhood in an unnamed urban centre we presume is Los Angeles, and the consequences from that event are going to be significantly more damaging than the more subtle psychological impact felt at the start of the second season. You can’t expect “Anne” to feel like just another episode of the show, just as you can’t expect for “Dead Man’s Party” to quickly bring things back to normal now that Buffy has returned to Sunnydale.
However, I do think that there are elements of both episodes which feel just a smidge too convenient; while the situations may be messy and complicated, the metaphors and themes are all clean and concise. They represent necessary parts of Buffy’s journey, and the emotional conclusions to both stories (first Buffy rediscovering part of her identity and then the gang coming to terms with what has changed over the summer) are well played by all involved, but the linearity of this particular course correction feels odd when watched directly after the depth of the second season’s final stretch of episodes.
This doesn’t mean that the show is off to a bad start, but rather that “Anne” and “Dead Man’s Party” wear their purpose in their sleeve a bit too plainly for my tastes.
“The Beast Below”
April 10th, 2010
While Doctor Who effectively transcends our understandings of both time and space, it is generally the former which has had the most impact (at least from my outsider’s perspective): the Doctor is, after all, a Timelord, and the different locations that the Doctor visits tend to be defined more by “when” as opposed to “where,” especially when you consider that location is often dependent on time period. There is always that initial moment, upon the Doctor’s arrival, where the question of “where” becomes immediately important, but it is often superseded by the show’s interest in “when” the Doctor has arrived in order to place the events in question into some sort of new context.
“The Beast Below” is one of these examples, beginning with a really fascinating question of place and national identity before eventually delving into a complex investigation of morality in the wake of great tragedy. In the end, the episode boils down to considerations of time as opposed to any questions about location, but the presence of those ideas is sort of what makes Doctor Who so intriguing to me. While we would normally complain that so many potentially interesting ideas regarding Spaceship UK and its police state are left uninvestigated, their presence makes for a more engaged audience experience – the show may eventually boil things down to a single story, but the presence of that added potential is something for us to chew on, which is at least half of what Doctor Who means to accomplish.
“Caballo Sin Nombre”
March 28th, 2010
“It’s not about taking sides.”
When parents separate, the divisions which emerge are complicated and often resistant to black and white definitions. While one partner may believe that the separation is in fact definitive, the other likely believes it is temporary or just a bump in the road. Children may want to take sides in order to try to bring the conflict to a close, but then they are told that it isn’t about taking sides but rather about being supportive and basically riding it out.
But in the world of Breaking Bad, it’s all about taking sides: the people who succeed in this world, the people who are holding the keys to their future, are those who accept that things can be black and white, and that they are the ones who choose one side or the other. It is those who attempt to sit in between, to act one way but try to live as if they are the other, who end up choking to death, or end up so throwing a pizza onto a roof. By trying to keep one foot in each world, by trying to prove that grey areas are the way to go, these people only hurt the people they love while failing to impress the people that could kill them.
“Caballo Sin Nombre” is a mediation of sorts on this idea, and it continues to establish that the certainty of human agency is integral to the future of Walter White and his black or white life.
“When the Cow Kicked Me in the Head”
February 21st, 2010
At this early stage of The Amazing Race, there are two primary ways for teams to be eliminated. The first is to make a critical mistake, like when Zev and Justin went out early last season over a missing passport, or when teams drive by the Roadblock convinced that it couldn’t possibly be the right location. The second, meanwhile, is not being willing to take some risks to rise to the front of the pack, choosing to remain complacent and basically non-competitive. There is something tragic about the first example, certainly, but at least it was a mistake that was born out of racing too quickly; the latter point, meanwhile, isn’t actually racing at all, and there’s something about that which I consider to be honourable but, well, crazy.
So it’s telling that, despite a fairly substantial bunching situation mid-leg, this week’s leg ended up coming down to what teams made the least critical mistakes, and more importantly which teams were hungry for victory. In the end, despite fairly big mistakes from a couple of teams, the elimination came down to who wanted to race, and who wanted to enjoy their experience.
And while I have a great deal of respect for those who enjoy their time on the race, and wish more people prescribed to that particular mantra, trying to race solely on that principle is maybe the worst Race strategy I’ve ever seen…and I think they’re probably okay with that.