Monday, April 16, 2012

Mad Men: Signal 30

"Things feel so random all of a sudden. And time feels like it's speeding up."
To be honest, I couldn't tell you whether it was a good show or not. There was some great acting and some beautiful language but it didn't add up to anything to me. It also had a lot of the worst of the show's bad habits in it. It reminded me of "The Wee Small Hours" from Season 3. Season 3 was the worst Season up until this one. We forget that now because the last three episodes of that year were brilliant but everything up until then was crap. And the writers knew it and they gave it away in by slipping a couple of meta statements into the mouths of characters; by having the characters express the writer's own frustrations about the dead end they were in. The most telling of these was when Suzanne Farrell responded to Don's declaration that he couldn't stop thinking of her by saying,
"Because I'm new and different. Or maybe it's because I'm exactly the same."
Which pretty much spelled out the problems the show was having that year.  And they did it again this episode with young Jenny Gunther delivering the quote above. They are great at creating intriguing little moments but they don't add to anything so everything new ends up being exactly the same tricks again.

They are also falling back too much on history. Whenever this show really tries to connect the characters lives with the history happening around them, it falters. The big limitation here is that Bugs Bunny can't actually discover America because, as he tells Columbus, it would be to much trouble to rewrite all the history books. SCDP can't get the Jaguar account because that is too significant an historical event and we could no longer pretend not to know what we do know.

All we can hope for now is that the writers have a huge shake up like the end of Season 3 in mind again. Otherwise, this show is a dead shark. Only that too would be a problem because how many times can you do major shake ups before that too gets to be like Don having just another affair.

The problem exists on two levels. At the big picture level, what can you say about this part of the 1960s. These years do feel so random. The whole appeal of the show rests on giving us entry into a lost world of glamour. And if there was one thing that the late 1960s and early 1970s did not have it was glamour.

And the actual history requires too big a sweep to work on show that specializes in miniatures. It's only if you telescope the thing out that it seems to make sense. But then you have to ask yourself which sense you want it to make. Ken's fantasy fiction, for example. For some people that is the story of the 1960s. It's all about a bunch of guys laying the foundation for what would eventually become the geek triumph in the 1990s.

But no one at any time in the 1960s, 1970s or even the 1980s would have thought that. And that is a problem because the story the show is telling is in 1966.

And Charles Whitman is also only significant in the larger scope of things. It is only because we are all too familiar with that sort of random violence now that it seems to fit into a story. Read the response from the time and what really throws people about Whitman is that it was so unlike anything they had experienced. Funnily enough, the exact details of his case are less well known now. It was only a few years after this that Joan Didion would retail a line about "living in a  senseless killing neighborhood".

And you can't go anywhere with sex and drugs and rock and roll and all that crap 'cause that is all soooo boring!  And even if you don't agree with me, think about the people who watch this show: Do you think anyone who got hooked on Mad Men wants to here that stupid boring crap about Woodstock and peace, love and understanding one more time? That 1960s had no style at all and this show is all about style. When it works that is—whenever it abandons style it fails.

But the parallel between Whitman and Pete Campbell is much easier to understand in the short run. You can see a similar set of parallels in his life. And he owns a gun. He has frustrations and no  friends. Except Don that is. I'll get back to that. You can see him exploding and throwing it all away. Except we know he won't. And, because we know that, the parallel that the writers spent so much time establishing adds up to nothing.

It seems to me like someone has to go now. At the very least, Lane Pryce has to go. The show would lose all credibility if it tried to pretend that the bad blood between he and Pete Campbell could allow them to work in the same office together. And there was plenty of old-fashioned foreshadowing on the front. Lane telling Joan that she could do his job, for example. And Pete telling Don that he has nothing. I'd get rid of Pete myself for the rather humdrum reason that I don't warm to low level sociopaths. But I think the producers of the show plan on keeping him because they believe (incorrectly) that they have invested a whole lot in his character; it was him and not Lane who was in the elevator with Don at the end.

Or, you could get rid of both of them. Neither Pete nor Lane are, and never have been, interesting characters.

Is Kenny going to? The revelation about the pact between he and Peggy was fascinating. I used to have a pact like that with a woman I worked with. We even had a  cod. We agreed that we'd tell the other right in the middle of a meeting by looking across at the other and say, "It's time." Even Peggy could go at this point. I don't think she will but what has Peggy contributed lately?

And then there is Don. What a bore the new Don is. He shines when he is being a father figure to Pete and in the rare moments the show lets he and Roger do their old magic but his own character has nothing to offer anymore.

The story needs shaking up. The writers are trapped and they need to shake out of it. You could see them desperately falling back on Don, Joan and Roger to make it interesting but that little bit of interest was just them getting back into the old stuff again and the world is changing. That's the thing you can't hide. Everyone knows the optimism of the early 1960s gave way to  something else by the 1970s and the show has to deal with that and, as of right now, it doesn't seem like the creative team putting the stories together have a clue how to do that.

Here is a troubling thought: What, if anything, do the people who make this show know about the era we are entering? They, for example, hate the suburbs and can't imagine anyone having a happy life there? They also don't get marriage. And yet that is what life was really about in that time. Most people were married and most lived in suburbs. And lived happy meaningful lives.

There is a real danger now of this becoming a show not about the 1960s but about the frustrations of entertainment industry creative types trying to make a show about a world they don't understand. One of the laugh lines last night was Bert Cooper talking about Nixon. Just a joke right? Except he calls the future correctly. Nixon did come back.

Think about that a while.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you, they seem to be writing about a way of life or a time in history they have no familiarity with. I'll be honest with you, I grew up and lived in Greenwich until about 30 yrs ago. Cos Cob is a sort of enclave--mostly Italian--in Greenwich with its own zip code. In 1966 I didn't know any man over the age of 18 who did not drive, whether he grew up in Manhattan or not. That part seems a little contrived, but I'll give them that, its not beyond the realm of possibility. Don has become virtuous--and boring. Also, maybe including the Charles Whitman shooting was a misguided nod of the head to Dick Whitman, just a thought. Coming on the heals of the Speck massacre in Chicago the week before, it was a little redundant. Maybe the most profound aspect of last night's show was Kenny changing his pseudonym and continuing to write. When Roger tells him that when the work is good, advertising can meet all his needs--and he can remember that time--he's revealing more than he realizes, and Kenny was astute enough to pick up on it.