Tag Archives: Themes

Mad Men – “Hands and Knees”

“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.

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Lost the Morning After: Critics Ponder “What They Died For”

Critics Ponder “What They Died For”

May 19th, 2010

Trapped between perhaps the most divisive episode in the show’s history and a sprawling two and a half hour finale shrouded in mystery, “What They Died For” is a bit tough to “criticize.” Generally speaking, the episode was dramatically strong and effective at providing momentum heading into the finale, but with no guarantees that the payoff will live up to our expectations there is this sense of uncertainty which means that this weeks reviews from critics are sort of hedging their bets.

Normally, you might claim this is in some way counterproductive, but it means that critics are focused on making connections to past episodes and offering their own takes on how the developments in this episode apply to larger ideas within Lost as a whole. It makes for another strong week of Lost criticism, as the setup work done in “What They Died For” is mirrored by critics setting up their own perspectives on the series as we head into Sunday’s finale.

So, let’s take a journey around the internet to see what the critics are saying, shall we?

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Scene-ic Storytelling: Philosophy and Memorability in SyFy’s Caprica

Scene-ic Storytelling in SyFy’s Caprica

March 25th, 2010

I was listening to last week’s episode of the Firewall and Iceberg podcast, where Alan and Dan were explaining how hard it is to pick your favourite episode of a television show. I concur with their evasion of the question at hand, as picking a favourite episode of a serialized television series seems disadvantageous while picking a favourite episode of a comedy is so highly subjective that it’s a bit dangerous, but I have a followup question: could we pick a favourite scene?

I find this, when I think about it, considerably easier. While picking a single episode of The Wire is impossible, picking a favourite scene seems like it’s possible: sure, there’s still too many to choose from (McNuggets, Chess, FuCSI, Co-Op Meeting, etc.), but we’re more comfortable singling out scenes because there’s an expectation that what we select will capture the quality we most admire in the show being discussed without the baggage that comes with an episode of ensemble, serialized drama which goes in various different directions.

There is a lot of power in scenes to tell a story, or to capture a viewer’s attention. The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds, both nominated for Best Picture this year, are effectively a series of vignettes which rely on being making both collective and individual impressions, building character by creating unforgettable tension and suspense from various circumstances. And on the comic end of the spectrum, Noel Murray’s fantastic A Very Special Episode series at The A.V. Club turned its attention on The Simpsons’ “22 Short Stories About Springfield” episode this week, and the wealth of comments on the post demonstrate that its collection of short vignettes are perhaps amongst the most quotable and memorable scenes in the series’ run precisely because they are part of an episode which admits to being a collection of scenes rather than a cohesive episode.

I raise this question because I want to talk about SyFy’s Caprica, a show that has thus far been more successful at creating memorable scenes than at creating memorable characters or stories. Ending the first half of its first season with a finale of sorts this evening on SyFy and SPACE, the show has used scenes with deep philosophical meaning and implication in order to create a lasting impression that makes me want to see more even when I don’t have as much of a vested interest in what I see in the rest of each episode. These scenes, at times single-handedly, have made Caprica into a show I admire a great deal, but at the same time they are doing nothing to alleviate concerns that some viewers seem to have about plot and character in the show’s universe.

Some thoughts on why this is, and why I think this sort of “scene-ic storytelling” is good for the show in the long run, after the jump.

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BSG: The Long Goodbye – The Real Higher Power of Battlestar Galactica

bsggoodbye

The Real Higher Power of Battlestar Galactica

March 26th, 2009

There has been a lot of discussion following “Daybreak” regarding the role of religion in the series, a lot of it claiming that the finale’s use of religious terminology and the concept of a “higher power” was too reductive and problematic to serve as an endpoint, too clean and concise to possibly capture the moral ambiguities and political differences that have plagued the series. I will admit, up front, that I can’t particularly relate to this argument, for two reasons.

First, I feel it is primarily an argument of semantics: while discussing the finale during the special edition of the /Filmcast [Now available for download here!], Devindra Hardawar noted that he viewed the higher power as a “natural order,” something which derives its power as much from nature than it does from anything religious. What he was describing was spirituality, not religion: yes, the terminology of Angels was utilized within the series to describe certain aspects of the finale, but are we really going to take word use as a justifiable argument in a world with fundamentally different values of religion and language that would make such a definitive reading problematic?

Second off, I don’t particularly feel it matters due to the reaction the finale achieved for me personally: while there are various nitpicks that Devindra, Meredith Woerner and I discussed during that two-hour breakdown of the episode, for the most part the finale was designed to provide powerful and dramatic moments for the characters we wanted to see, and for this journey for Earth. Those moments don’t become fundamentally less powerful when they are given a place within a broader agenda as long as that agenda does not supercede the characters involved: since the “higher power” remained vague and unexplained, it allowed the impact to sit where it should sit.

But getting talking about the idea of an omniscient force, or higher power, got me thinking about the individual who is most responsible for defining every single one of those road signs to Earth, of bringing all of those characters to life. Bear McCreary, who has been scoring the series since the show’s first season, has been perhaps the most single-handedly responsible for the series’ emotional success, having had a hand in every episode and having been “in control” of character destinies with pivotal decisions that, up until this season, have been primarily behind the scenes.

But with the advent of his blog, Bear McCreary’s genius has been put on full display, and while he no doubt still plays coy about the role he has played in the show’s overall aesthetic, the fact of the matter is that he is an indispensable part of the series’ identity, and of the various Galactica-related talents moving over to prequel series Caprica he is by far the one who may have the most immediate impact. It is no surprise reading McCreary’s epic explanation of the work he did for “Daybreak” that there was something special about the music in this episode, because my recollection of its finest moments often come through not as images, but rather as music.

So while some are off cursing the series of omniscient powers that apparently solve the show’s problems too easily, I’ll be over here worshipping the real higher power, and problem solver, of Battlestar Galactica.

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