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Mad Men the Morning After: Critics Unpack “The Suitcase”

Critics Unpack “The Suitcase”

September 6th, 2010

It’s pretty much consistent across the board: last night’s Mad Men, “The Suitcase,” was a season and even series highlight. As Todd VanDerWerff put it in his must-read review at The A.V. Club,

This is the kind of episode that, years from now, we’ll think of when we try to remember just what it was we loved about Mad Men, an episode that uses virtually every weapon in the show’s arsenal, yet leaves almost all of its moments and scenes unexpected. It’s so good that I want to call off the rest of the TV season and say this is as good as it’s going to get.

That’s generally the consensus, albeit to different degrees of hyperbole, which would make delving further into the episode myself a bit redundant: I already wrote my rave about the episode, and the week’s reviews pretty much cover everything else. So, instead, I want to spend a bit of time dialoguing with the recently returning Maureen Ryan, who is now the lead television critic at AOL Television (which runs TV Squad). She posted two substantial pieces on the season thus far last week, and then jumped back into the review game with “The Suitcase,” so I figured there’s no better way to welcome her back than to delve a bit further into her commentary (which I’ll do after the break).

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Treme the Morning After: Critical Arcs Conclude with “I’ll Fly Away”

Treme the Morning After: Critical Arcs Conclude with “I’ll Fly Away”

June 21st, 2010

In Alan Sepinwall’s fantastic interview with David Simon about Treme’s first season, Simon was particularly animated about those who argue that Treme is a show light on plot. In an amendment to the earlier interview (which Simon requested to add during a subsequent conversation), Simon says the following about the criticism of the show:

When they start to sort of evaluate the arc that they can’t know, the story arcs themselves, even if they’re loving it, I just can’t take it seriously. Nobody knows what we’ve built until the end. In some ways, even though we’ve planned it out and know where we’re going, until we look at the last edit of the last episode and send it off – that’s the only point where we can look at it and go, “This worked really well, this not so much.” Until then, you can’t really tell. That’s what I was trying to say. I was not trying to say I do not take criticism seriously. Obviously, anybody who gets to the end and says, “I don’t think this worked,” that’s entirely legitimate. But I can’t take seriously stuff in the middle. It’s like reading a book report in the middle. Not to say there isn’t valid commentary about the process. Just not about arc.

Writing about Treme has been a distinct challenge (as Scott Tobias mentioned in this A.V. Club Crosstalk with Noel Murray) for those of us who write about television on a week-to-week basis, largely because “arcs” are one of the primary ways in which we evaluate individual episodes. What Simon is arguing is that it’s not really possible to evaluate an arc until it reaches its conclusion, and that while critics can like/dislike certain characters, or moments, or direction, they can’t like or dislike the story arc until they discover how it ends. In the case of Treme, these arcs were elusive on a good day and near non-existent on others, and so their presence or absence became a key part of these reviews despite Simon’s concerns.

I have a great deal of respect for Simon, and I’ll agree that he is in no way suggesting that criticism isn’t a worthwhile venture. However, I think that the “stuff in the middle” has been an important glimpse into how critics, and viewers, have been watching the series. A critics’ analysis of an individual season of television is not unlike the first season of Treme, building momentum and information until eventually reaching a conclusion: at no point do critics use individual reviews to offer definitive opinions on a storyline, their responses to episodes standing as evidence of their emotional and critical reaction to the series which build towards an eventual judgment on how the season has progressed. While a story should ultimately be judged once it has concluded, there is nothing wrong with reacting to that story as it unfolds, and critics have simply documented the ways in which they’ve responded to the series both positively and negatively over the course of a season. Even if those concerns are eventually washed away by a strong finale, or if their opinions change through the course of the year, this doesn’t mean that we should take earlier reviews less seriously: instead, we should see them as a dialogue with the text, valuable not in offering a definitive judgment of particular storylines but rather in terms of capturing the way viewers are experiencing the series as it unfolds week-by-week.

As critics confront “I’ll Fly Away,” they draw back on some of their early misgivings in order to properly elaborate on their perspectives, giving the show credit for pulling some storylines together while criticizing the show for potentially missing some opportunities with others. Simon is right that arcs can be judged prematurely, but I think critics have a responsibility to reflect the fact that watching a David Simon series requires a degree of patience that only monks could pull off without difficulty, and that while they will ultimately wait to pass judgment on the series they will have their moments of doubt which should be reflected in their reviews. While Simon is likely right that Treme (like The Wire) would benefit more from a Sepinwallian post-series rewind to these earlier episodes within the context of the broader story, critical commentary of the experience of watching Treme is valuable insight into how the arc is being read by viewers as it progresses, which is ultimately how we primarily watch television.

So as the internet’s television critics offer their views on Treme’s first season finale, all of those who have been writing about the show with some regularity acknowledge the ways in which their opinions have changed and how arcs have or have not come together, acknowledgements we can understand and see for ourselves in reading their intelligent analysis of the season’s individual episodes. As television become a more collective experience in the internet age, viewers want to be able to become part of critical communities which analyze episodes of a show like Treme and create discussion surrounding its relationship with history, its characters, its direction and, yes, its story arcs. And while writing about the show has at times been a challenge, the “stuff the middle” created intriguing conversations which extended the series’ impact beyond its individual segments, building towards a more thorough and definitive conversation to be held now, after the season has come to a close.

While I will agree with Simon that now is when the real analysis can truly take place (and has been taking place, as you’ll see from the reviews I’ll link to after the break), I wouldn’t want to have lost the dialogues which emerged throughout the season, if only because I can’t imagine how long my already ludicrously long review would have been if I had held it all in – while Simon’s concern is not entirely misplaced, the experience of Treme was better for the discussions which emerged from critical reviews, and so long as critics continue to reserve judgment within their analysis of individual episodes I will continue to take them seriously in the future.

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Betrayal at NBC, Colon, What REALLY happened with my Late Night Show, Question Mark, by Conan O’Brien

Watching Conan O’Brien take to the Tonight Show stage for what might be the final time, I felt emotionally conflicted. On the one hand, I want to be angry that NBC has treated him so poorly, trapping him in the middle of a business dispute and unfairly judging his show far too early for the sake of making other people happy. On the other hand, I want to show support for Conan, and being angry doesn’t entirely reflect how much I appreciate his particular brand of self-deprecation. So when Conan makes jokes about his imminent departure barring some sort of hail mary from NBC, are we supposed to boo to reflect the injustice, or are we supposed to cheer because we want CoCo to know we care?

And then I realized that for all of the emotional conflict I might be experiencing, Conan himself is having to mediate his anger with professionalism, and his sadness with comedy – for all of the verbal gymnastics we’ve been working with over the past number of weeks, trying to figure out how all of this is going to work out, it is nothing compared to what Conan O’Brien has been dealing with inside his head. So it’s that much more miraculous that what emerges in an official statement is pointed but civil, an argument not so much about what is being done to him but rather what NBC is doing to its own reputation, and to the position of the Tonight Show in its late night lineup. And, it’s that much more impressive that he proceeded to go onto his stage and be something that used to be enough to get you somewhere in this business: funny.

I don’t have much further extended thoughts that that, to be honest: while this issue is plenty fascinating, as we see how NBC deals with Conan’s departure and how long it takes Conan to end up at FOX (where it is expected he will be taking over the 11 O’Clock hour), I’m to the point where I simply want to acknowledge the cruel irony that I have paid more attention to Late Night now than I have in a very long time, and to remind everyone that Conan’s money is right on the money: while it might be easy to lay blame at the feet of Jay Leno, the problem here is a network who believes it can turn back time and who is throwing away a potential Tonight Show legacy in the process.

My one goal for the future is ensuring that this doesn’t just become a footnote in the larger story of NBC’s collapse: it is a turning point, a moment where we question the degree to which this network actually wants to craft a new identity, actually wants to climb its way out of the ratings basement. We’ll be debating about this for months, whether in terms of seeing how the network manages its late night situation or discovering just what the network will do with five hours of primetime. And yet at no point in that debate do I want us to forget that this was the time when NBC’s business decisions failed to respect someone who has been with their company for nearly two decades, tarnished the reputation of the man who they rushed out of his job sooner than he wanted in order to respect that person, and managed to end up with a bigger mess than what they started with.

I’m on Team Conan, but I’m also on Team “WTF NBC.” And something tells me that both memberships may be for life.

Cultural Observations

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Season Premiere: Mad Men – “Out of Town”

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“Out of Town”

August 16th, 2009

“Tell me about the day I was born.”

One of the most fascinating elements of Mad Men in its first two seasons was a spin-off of this question, asked by Sally Draper at the end of the show’s third season premiere, “Out of Town.” Birth has played a substantial role in the series to this point, whether it is Peggy’s child at the end of Season One, or the birth of the lie of Don Draper which has been present throughout the first two seasons, and questions of birthright play substantially into the complicated history of Pete Campbell. If we take these three character as our most substantial (which the episode doesn’t, but I’ll get to that in time), we realize that this question is more loaded than it seems.

For instance, the day Sally was born could mean something very different for Betty, who remembers it in the most romantic way possible, than it does for Don, who remembers the experience within the context of what could have been earlier infidelity, or struggles (as we learn in this episode) to reconcile with his own complicated childhood. Don remembers the time, and he remembers the weather, and he remembers what he was doing that day, but he’s blocked out the emotions, the experiences – he starts the story, in its simplest form, but Betty is the one who adds the sentimentality, fills in the details of how they felt (which is what Sally really wants to here in that moment).

What “Out of Town” accomplishes most of all is establishing how various characters, in their response to new pressures in the workplace as well as new personal pressures, are coming to terms with the intersection of the emotional and the social expectation. All of the show’s characters know what they’re supposed to do in these situations, but actually doing it with a straight face and hiding their inner frustration, their inner desire, or even their inner happiness is proving far more challenging. And yet, the way the series structures itself, these people don’t have anyone to turn to, as the British Invasion of Sterling Cooper combined with the secretive and judgmental nature of the period have made this even less advisable than it was before.

It’s created a scenario where, just as with Peggy last year, there are that many more characters who can empathize with what Don has been doing for much of his adult life, although in ways different enough to only add to the show’s diversity rather than creating a sense that there is only one type of conflict the show can truly handle. This is not a series rebirth, certainly, but by allowing individual characters to come to terms with the birth of their own sexual awakening or the frustration of being unable to get to that point of achieving something substantial, the show is yet again reinvigorated by a leap forward in time (to the Spring of 1963) for a new season and a new set of complicated interpersonal circumstances for us to enjoy and, as you’ll soon see, for me to analyze extensively.

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Save Chuck: A Movement with a Message

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Save Chuck: A Movement with a Message

April 25th, 2009

As some of you may know, I found myself caught up in the whirlwind that was the Save Jericho campaign, where fans went nuts and sent nuts, bringing their canceled show back from the dead. Since that show’s success, there have been numerous campaigns to save other shows, and to be honest I haven’t really got behind any of them. I got behind Jericho because it was a true grassroots movement, an example of the power of the internet, of fans, and of expanding the definition of success from traditional ratings measurements; to be honest, the show never really captured me, but the fact that it captured others so strongly was something worth fighting for.

But I can honestly say that this is the first time that I am entering, albeit late thanks to my vacation, a fan campaign primarily because I love the show involved. Chuck was an engaging series last year, but this year it has elevated itself to an entirely new level: this is not the most intelligent show on television, or the funniest, or the most dramatic, but its ability to combine all of these elements into a single package has created a series that myself and hopefully many, many others view as worthy of our time and energy. Saving Chuck is not just some sort of experiment, but something that is necessary for my faith in NBC as a network, and network television as a medium for high-calibre entertainment, to remain intact.

What I want to discuss is how the campaign is operating, and how there are three keys to its success that have given it a real chance of succeeding: I write this, two days before the show’s season finale, without the intention of placing a (Series?) in that post title, or even considering that possibility, and I honestly feel as if this goes beyond wishful thinking. Based on every piece of evidence before us, the campaign to Save Chuck has all of the momentum to overcome the obstacles facing it and send a message to NBC and all other networks that we’re not ready to let a great show go so easily.

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BSG: The Long Goodbye – The Critical Response to “Daybreak”

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The Critical Response to “Daybreak”

March 21st, 2009

[I always write my reviews without reading what other critics have written, not because I don’t respect their opinions (precisely the opposite) but rather because I feel as if I have nothing to add once I finish reading them on occasion, and I want to feel motivated to write and produce blog material. And while I may have gone with the “volume” approach with the Series Finale, this doesn’t mean that other critics haven’t been able to far better focus on some of the issues I really wanted to emphasize myself. So, let’s take a trip through the critical response to the finale as we start our Long Goodbye.]

Critics love Battlestar Galactica, and those that don’t do feel kind of bad about it. This is one of those “events” in the world of television criticism, where it becomes the dominating topic of discussion within critical fields, and while there is a mostly positive buzz surrounding the finale this doesn’t mean that there isn’t some disagreement. So let’s, below the fold so as to not spoil anyone, start sorting through the reviews for some things they made me reconsider, and some things that I want to question.

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The Morning After “The Oath”: BSG Links

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The Morning after “The Oath”

Reviews and Analysis

Since some of you have probably already read last night’s BSG review [which you can read here], figured I’d highlight some links in a separate post instead.

  • Mo Ryan has some of her own thoughts up, but she precedes them with an interview with Mark Verheiden, the writer of the episode.
  • Alan Sepinwall has his review, and there is no greater spot for indepth episode discussion with a legion of loyal commenters; I think he’s a bit too harsh on Baltar, but I think that I know where he’s coming from.
  • Todd VanDerWerff at The House Next Door mediates between his eight-year-old self and his critical side when analyzing the episode, successfully marrying the two (as I think most critics have had to do).
  • Bear McCreary has his blog post about the episode up, where he even insinuates that next week required MORE action cues, which implies it could be even more epic in scale. That’s just plain intense.

So…is it next Friday yet? “Blood on the Scales” can’t come soon enough.

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