Tag Archives: Matthew Weiner

Mad Men – “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”

“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”

August 22nd, 2010

Ted, the Don Draper-equivalent over at rival agency CGC, is not in Don Draper’s league: he is neither visionary nor genius, and yet by virtue of his insistence that he is a competitor he has been elevated to Don’s level. It’s the ultimate example of self-definition, of putting something out there (in this case, to the New York Times) and then turning it into reality. It doesn’t matter that Jai Alai went with another agency because its owner is delusional, or that Clearasil was a conflict rather than business lost: as it would appear to the outside world, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce lost two accounts and CGC (under Ted’s leadership) gained both of them.

“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” is filled with various examples of situations where appearance becomes reality, to the point where it even becomes a meta-narrative when the series’ positioning of Betty as a child-like figure becomes rendered in three-dimensions. It’s not the most pleasant or subtle of episodes, but it ends up making some fairly interesting observations regarding Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as an agency, as well as the series’ general approach to simulating the past.

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Mad Men – “The Good News”

“The Good News”

August 8th, 2010

I spent a good half hour stumbling over how to start confronting this episode before eventually deciding to sleep on it, and upon waking up this morning I discovered why. “The Good News” is a tremendous episode of television, but it’s an episode of television which confounds how I normally confront these reviews. It’s difficult to write about, for me, because its continuities are largely unrelated to the season thus far: while parts of Don’s story theoretically connect with his behaviour thus far this season, it connects even more with his past as Dick Whitman, and since Joan Holloway and Lane Pryce are getting their first showcase of the season we’re required to dig back into the third season as if this were their premiere.

There are connections between the two sides of this story, but the episode is so clearly divided by Don’s time in Los Angeles (or Dick’s time in Los Angeles, more accurately) and Don’s return to New York that it’s not unlike two entirely different episodes – that it still feels cohesive is a definite accomplishment, but it’s something that makes tackling every minute detail of the episode as I tend to do more challenging.

However, it also makes it entirely possible to address it more briefly while leaving some material for a “Mad Men the Morning After” later today or tomorrow, so let’s get to “The Good News.”

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A Phantom Menace: Weiner’s Mad Men Spoiler War Misses Target

A Phantom Menace: Weiner’s Mad Men Spoiler War Misses Target

July 27th, 2010

Last week, I wrote at length about how Matthew Weiner’s concerns regarding spoilers speaks to the awkward place of pre-air reviews, which are forced to avoid spoilers, in a climate in which post-air analysis is far more successful and prevalent in the online critical community. My basic point was that the real value of critical analysis came after the episodes aired, which is why I was looking forward to the reviews of the episode (which were great) and the subsequent reviews throughout the season.

However, those reviews have been handicapped by a decision from Weiner and AMC, covered by Variety, to no longer send episodes to critics early, which is an enormously frustrating decision. It’s not a question of entitlement: I’ve never received screeners from AMC, and screeners are ultimately a privilege which networks are not required to offer critics in general, so that is not my point of concern. It’s also not a question of whether all critics should be punished for one person who didn’t adhere to Weiner’s spoiler guidelines: that was that critic’s call to make, just as this is Weiner’s call in terms of pulling the screeners. Rather, what frustrates me is they’re entirely ignoring how online criticism actually operates: no mainstream critic does pre-air reviews of individual episodes beyond the premiere and perhaps the finale, which means that Weiner’s concern about “spoilers” is woefully misplaced in this instance.

Critics use these screeners in order to prepare their post-air analysis ahead of time, meaning that the discussion regarding the episode is able to begin as soon as it ends, and critics are able to do the proper research for cultural references or series continuity ahead of time rather than rushing to meet a deadline either to grab their slice of the SEO pie or to allow their community of readers to start the discussion of the episode. Rushing leads to reviews which fail to capture the nuance of each episode: critics could often watch an episode twice if necessary, and their reviews reflected their dedication to offering an informed perspective that helped create discussion. Now, it’s possible that my concern over this would suggest that Mad Men is a show which confounds that post-air analysis review structure, but the fact is that there are more critics than ever reviewing each individual episode, and it’s both an issue of the quality of the show and the demand from the show’s audience to have these sorts of discussions. And considering that demand, people are going to keep writing about the show, but it’s going to come late, and it might likely lack the sort of depth which critics were able to offer when they had a number of days to prepare their articles.

This likely seems like a bit of a strange argument for me to be making, since I’ve only rarely received screeners from networks, and have been watching each episode of Mad Men “live” with everyone else since the beginning. However, it’s maddening to see how much Weiner and AMC don’t understand the critical community they’re limiting in this instance. It’s entirely logical to no longer send out review copies for season premieres or season finales: not only is there some value to critics experiencing them with the general audience, but they would also likely be writing season previews, or season-in-review pieces surrounding those episodes in which the spoilers Weiner so fears may emerge. However, on a week-to-week basis, those same expectations don’t exist, and writing about the series is confined to post-air analysis and perhaps a harmless “This episode is really great” tweet or something like it. Instead of fixing the actual problem they had (a problem which I am also concerned about), they’ve fixed a problem which has never really existed, a phantom menace fabricated in order for Weiner to send a message to those critics who dared cross his path.

The way in which Weiner sent this message, attaching a note to copies of the second episode saying that the screeners are being nixed due to “inevitable spoilers,” communicates a message of distrust: critics are no longer capable of upholding his strict desire for no future details to be revealed, and so they will no longer be receiving episodes in advance. I almost respect Weiner for being so willing to come right out and say that this is entirely reactionary: he could have easily made a note about how he wanted critics to experience the episodes with the rest of the audience, a legitimate point, in an effort to limit the bluntness of the message. That he chose not to indicates that this is less about a legitimate concern over week-to-week spoilers, which I’d argue have never existed for the show to any degree beyond what AMC’s cryptic promos reveal, and more about sending a message.

And considering that this message means that the real Mad Men criticism which matters has been impacted negatively is a real shame. I should be excited, really: suddenly, I’m on the same page as everyone else, which means that my reviews will no longer be as “late” as they have been in previous seasons. However, I don’t just write about Mad Men for the stats: I write about it because I am a fan, and so I love reading others’ thoughts on each episode after finishing my own review. To know that those reviews may no longer be there when I finish, for no real reason beyond paranoia and spite, is an unfortunate state of affairs.

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Mad Men the Morning After: Critics Relate to “Public Relations”

Mad Men the Morning After: Critics Relate to “Public Relations”

July 26th, 2010

When I was somewhat incredulous about why anyone even the least bit afraid of spoilers would read pre-air reviews of a show like Mad Men, part of that response came from the fact that I think pre-air reviews are a horrible medium for capturing the complexity of a show like Mad Men. I am a firm believer that the best analysis from television critics comes after, and not before, an episode airs, and so while I avoided reviews before “Public Relations” aired I spent the morning (or, more accurately, the early afternoon) reading some really intelligent thoughts from the critical community.

And, as I’ve done in the past with other shows, I figured the intelligence of those comments warrants some further discussion, so let’s take a look at what the critics are saying about Mad Men’s “Public Relations.”

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Television, the Aughts & I – Part Three – “Getting some (Critical) Perspective”

“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.

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Mad Men – “The Gypsy and the Hobo”

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“The Gypsy and the Hobo”

October 25th, 2009

“Where do you want me to start?”

Writing these reviews has been a strange experience this season, as the critics are all receiving screeners which means that by the time I get to the episode on iTunes (no cable/satellite provider in my province carries the channel) I’m invariably late to the party. As such, you see that I resisting using perhaps the show’s most  “on the nose” final line in its history, as Carlton asks Don who he is supposed to be for Halloween as he takes Sally and Bobby out trick or treating. It’s the kind of line that everyone has already jumped on, to the point where I will simply acknowledge it was a clever reminder of the act he’s been playing for the better part of his adult years and move on.

What’s interesting about “The Gypsy and the Hobo” is that we’re now at the end of October, which means that the series’ handling of the single most important event of 1963 is just over the horizon. What’s most interesting at this point is how concerned the show is with the past during a time when we, as the audience, know how concerned they should be for the future. What the episode depicts is how it is only at a point of desperation, when you see everything in front of your eyes melting away, that you truly turn to the past in a way that is both vulnerable and enlightening. It is only when you see no future ahead of you that you’re willing to open the pandora’s box of the past, or in this instance unlock a drawer.

It makes for an enormously compelling episode that demonstrates how moments you thought would be explosive turn out to be the exact opposite, while moments which may have normally been handled with grace turn into a vase over the back of the head. Such is Mad Men, and such is a pretty damn fine episode.

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Hard-Boiled or Sunny-Side Up: The Divisive but Satisfying 2009 Primetime Emmy Awards

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Hard-Boiled or Sunny-Side Up:

The Divisive but Satisfying 2009 Primetime Emmy Awards

How do you like your Emmys?

Oh, don’t pretend as if you don’t have an opinion. Anyone who is reading this column has some sort of an opinion about the award show and its brethren, lavish ceremonies designed to recognize the very best in a specific industry. However, the Emmys are not a universally accepted success story, and while there are some who view the awards as a valuable institution for recognizing talent others see them as an antiquated and slow-minded organization hellbent on refusing to accept that which is different in favour of more traditional “awards” fare.

As such, Emmy producers really have two entirely different bodies of viewers to be concerned with (throwing out those who would never watch the show in the first place). On the one hand, they have those people who believe in the dignity of the Emmy Awards, who highly respect the work of the Academy and believe quite strongly that this is a serious occasion meant to honour the very best in television. On the other hand, you have those who are angry that Battlestar Galactica never won a major award, and that The Wire and The Shield got snubbed for their final seasons, and who are convinced that any time the Emmys do make a good decision it was by some sort of fluke.

What host Neil Patrick Harris and producer Don Mischer put together for the 61st Annual Emmy Awards was what I would considering to be the Sunny-Side Up version of the Emmy awards. With a charming and self-deprecating Harris at the helm, and a sarcastic and rarely serious John Hodgman playing the role of announcer, they staged a show which spent nearly every moment not taken up by awards being self-deprecating or dismissive of something, whether it’s the future of broadcast television or Harris’ own bitterness over his loss in his own category.

For those who have little to no faith in the Emmy institution, this was an ideal point of view which gave them an entertaining show that one almost feels joins in on their frustration, if not directly. However, for those who look for a more hard-boiled and serious awards ceremony, chances are that they viewed this year’s Emmys as an ill-conceived attempt to pander to younger audiences.

Me? I’m just happy they weren’t scrambled.

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Cultural Learnings’ 2009 Primetime Emmy Awards LiveBlog

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2009 Primetime Emmy Awards LiveBlog

September 20th, 2009

For Cultural Learnings’ complete review of the show, CLICK HERE. For the full live blog, read on below.

I was kind of on the fence about liveblogging the Emmys this year, I really was. Twitter has provided an outlet for quippy remarks and observations that I might have while watching the event, and I ultimately end up writing a huge 2000-word rundown when the show ends so it’s not as if a LiveBlog is going to stand as my only coverage of the big event here at Cultural Learnings.

However, ultimately I want something to be able to refer to when piecing together my final rundown of the night’s festivities, and a LiveBlog seems like the kind of setup that will capture my reaction to the various winners/moments in the ceremony for those who want to know how everything is going down as it’s going down.

So, if you want to follow along with the show or check back later to see my subjective take on a particular moment in the show, here’s where you’re going to want to be. Meanwhile, if you want things elaborate and substantial, check back later tonight for my full analysis of the evening’s winners, losers, and everything in between.

7:20pm: As we wait for the show to begin, feel free to check out my predictions for the big night (the acting categories all link to long analysis pieces of each category): Cultural Learnings’ Full Emmy Predictions.

7:54pm: Enjoying Christine Baranski’s guest spot in a pre-Emmys airing of The Big Bang Theory – an omen for Jim Parsons? Baranski was always going to lose to Tina Fey, but she was damn good in this episode.

8:00pm: And we’re off and running. Television: useful science of the electronic age, indeed. Making fun of Wipeout as “Unsophisticated” is a bit low of CBS, but I guess they don’t have anything quite as lowly…except for Big Brother. Anyways, time for NPH.

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Mad Men – “The Arrangements”

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“The Arrangements”

September 6th, 2009

I can relate to Betty Draper.

I, too, am not a huge fan of the discussion of the inevitability of death. I’m not in denial, of course, but I’m not the kind of person who enjoys talking about it, or who can look past the morbid nature of it all to see the value of the conversation. This isn’t to say that I ignore what is being said in such conversations or anything of that sort – rather, I let the piece be said and then carry on, storing it away while pushing it out of the picture since, of course, it will not matter for a very long time. However, life’s sheer uncertainty means that any moment can be a last, and some people won’t get to make their arrangements and everything will become more complicated than perhaps it needed to be.

“The Arrangements” is very much a companion piece to Season Two’s “The Inheritance,” another episode that dealt with both Gene’s worsening dementia as well as the idea of parents and their role in the lives of their children. However, if “The Inheritance” was about children being haunted by the memory of their own childhood and its impact on their own lives, “The Arrangements” is the opposite side of the coin. This is an episode about children breaking out from within the confines of the family in an effort to make a name for themselves and be able to prove their parents right or wrong about them.

What makes the episode work, despite some reservations about its bombardment of less than subtle thematic connections, is that it more sly in how it relates to the season’s recurring image of Don Draper, barefoot and vividly reliving his own birth. There’s a single scene in the episode where Don pulls out a picture of his parents, and that is all we need to see that perhaps the worst fate is having changed one’s name and entirely disconnected one’s self from one’s family, and being surrounded by events which make you question that entire relationship and remain haunted by its memory. While the other characters are able to talk about their situation with siblings, or spouses, Don has no one to talk to.

And in a show about secrets, that’s perhaps the grimmest fate.

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The 2008 Television Time Capsule: Mad Men – “The Mountain King”

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“The Mountain King”

Season Two, Episode 12

Airdate: October 19th, 2008

There are a lot of problems with choosing “The Mountain King” as the episode of Mad Men to enter into our 2008 Television Time Capsule. There are a lot of subtleties you lose in such a decision: you lose the slow escalation of Don Draper’s emotional distance, the subtle dissolution of Don and Betty’s marriage, and the various nuances that define the series’ ability to take a season and make it feel like a lifetime in the best way possible.

But I feel as if “The Mountain King” is the best example of Mad Men’s best qualities: the inner turmoil of Don Draper, here revisiting his past and the woman who helped him assume the identity of his fallen comrade, was never more vulnerable than it was here. If he was lost in a world he didn’t understand in “The Jet Set,” this episode finds him in one that feels almost too comprehensible: it has simple tasks, simple pleasures, and there is a moment or two where we actually question whether Don is going to return to his old life, and there is not a single moment where we question that Don is at the very least going to return to Sterling Cooper with a different outlook on life.

The episode makes this list, though, because of both its thematic consistency and a single moment of stunning television. For Peggy, this was the episode wherein she made her big move: she closes the Popsicle account with a healthy dose of religious imagery (one of the season’s recurrent themes with the introduction of father Gil), moves into Freddy Rumsen’s office, and achieves a triumphant victory, it seems, for the role of women in the show’s universe.

But what Matthew Weiner makes very clear in the episode (co-scripted by Robin Veith) is that the show isn’t about blanket statements: in contrast to Peggy’s success, Joan (a fantastic Christina Hendricks) is trapped in an impending marriage that in this episode turns violent, and Betty feels so devalued by Don’s departure that she lords her moral superiority over others and shares her grief with her daughter. If Peggy takes control of her own destiny, we discover at episode’s end that Joan has lost control of her own, as her fiancée rapes her on the floor of Don’s office, and that Betty doesn’t even know where to begin.

It was perhaps the most human we had ever seen Joan, in particular, and it’s a sign of the show’s diversity: as we ponder Don’s future, celebrate Peggy’s success, and enjoy the comic stylings of Bertram Cooper’s marvelous sister, we nonetheless depart the episode in absolute disgust at Joan’s fate. While the show is often more subtle than what we saw in the season’s penultimate episode, it was never more powerful in my eyes.

Related Posts at Cultural Learnings

[For more details on the Cultural Learnings 2008 Television Time Capsule, click here!]

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