Monday, April 23, 2012

Mad Men second thoughts: Give the people what they want

If you read Julia Turner's response over at Slate you'll see that she and I saw the same show. We saw exactly the same show. The only difference is that she liked it.

And her response tells you a lot about the news and entertainment world view that I think made the episode so unsatisfactory. Here's a few quotes with comments.
This was an episode with two marvelous set pieces—Roger’s excellent adventure with Jane, and Don’s Howard Johnson noir—but it was fundamentally about the families you make, and how it feels when they fall apart.
Because they always fall apart? I get the sense that Ms. Turner isn't any more capable of conceiving of a family that doesn't fall apart anymore than the writers of Mad Men are.
The more delightful of the two—and perhaps one of the most delightful scenes in Mad Men history—was Roger and Jane’s brutally honest acid trip.
Ah yes, "the brutally honest acid trip". Because that's what acid is all about people: brutal honesty.  No one who'd ever been around people on acid would ever write such crap. People on acid are often brutal but never honest. Mostly they are boring and stupid because they have ingested a drug that causes their brain to malfunction.

It's an old illusion (think of in vino veritas) but people who use drugs to get screwy don't become more honest, more insightful or play better music. They just get screwed up. Sometimes permanently.

They are almost as dishonest as TV writers who've written themselves into a corner and need some sort of magic trick to get out.

And Turner just loved Megan's despair:
When they reunite after Don’s night of terrified brooding under that garish orange roof, I loved and was crushed by Jessica Pare’s final heartbroken line reading: “Every time we fight it just diminishes this whole thing.”
You have to feel sorry for a generation that grows up thinking like that. No wonder so many of them are such losers.

Back to Turner's reaction to Roger's scene again:
The scene was full of great visual detail—Bert Cooper on the dollar bill, Jane’s midriff-baring let’s-go-tripping getup—and in that final, superbly written conversation, it managed to get Roger and Jane (who became a real character here, as rarely before) where they need to be (and where we need them to be): apart.
Every relationship is a tabloid relationship. Blissful love, marriage, maybe a baby, then on to the recognition that they need to be "apart". That's the "happy" story. The unhappy story is the one where the the couple don't realize they need to be "apart" so they "fall apart"; the only thing you can be sure of is that ends with people apart. That's the way it is in news and entertainment land. And the unhappiness that inevitably comes with this in real life—look up the divorce rate for third marriages if you think a real-life Roger would really be happier "apart"— that unhappiness is all, well, not their fault. It's certainly nothing to worry about.

And note that even Turner knows what is really going on here. "It managed to get Roger and Jane ... apart." She likes the scene because it gets Roger back to where he can be the character we know and love and that is what Turner likes about it. That is why she is willing to stomach the notion that people could take drugs and then work everything out and come back to earth all straightened out seriously.It's just a narrative trick to get us back to normal without actually, you know, actually working things through in the drama.

I kept thinking of an episode on the Simpsons where Lisa looks at the situation they are in and sinks into despair and Bart reassures her by telling her to worry because no matter how weird things get they always are back to normal by the start of the next show the following Thursday. And that is all the writers have done here is to inject a bunch of weirdness so they can get back to normal. Just put the red shoes on, click your heels together and think "there is no place like home".

A friend of mine did a lot of acid his first year at MIT. His only year at MIT. One day he locked himself in his room and the fire department had to break the door down to get him out. It's fun talking to him now. Sort of like talking into an empty box. And then there was my cousin Amy. Life not on drugs was never good enough for her after her first acid trip. She tried a whole lot of different drugs including a lot more acid until one day she went into a diabetic coma because she had been too busy getting high to remember about the insulin and her husband, who watched it happen, was too stoned to dial 911 so she died. That's the kind of brutal honesty that comes with acid.

Even good trips consisted of people standing around and saying "Wow man, that's so deep." If you asked them what "that" was, they couldn't tell you.

It's funny how people criticize the world Mad Men began with. That world was so "racist" and "sexist" and it "had to change". This is why the sixties "had to happen" if you buy into the mythology. Well, the sixties had to change too. If the 1950s were unsustainable, the period from 1967 to 1972 was even more so. (A good argument could be made that the real story of those years will be how everything was put back together again. Yes the world of the 1950s couldn't last but the chaos left after it fell apart was even worse so we elected Reagan in 1980. That's not a popular hypothesis in news and entertainment land but it's more plausible than the 1960s mythology is.)

The people who love these shows often say how novelistic they are. They certainly use a lot of novelistic techniques. But there is no story arc. The story isn't going anywhere.. It just rumbles along until the network gives up and then the writers have to cobble some sort of ending for it all. Which, oddly enough, is exactly how all the marriages in this series play out.

A Martian anthropologist studying the earth with only the radio and television signals that reached Mars would never guess that most first marriages succeed. And neither can Julia Turner or the writers of Mad Men. They may as well be on Mars for all they have in common with the rest of us.

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