Tag Archives: End of Series Report

End of Series Report: Mad Men

20 May

Mad Men

As a television viewer and fan writing a television blog, I’m more or less obliged to write at least a few words about Mad Men and the Mad Men finale.

I don’t have as strong feelings as I’d like to, but that’s not a bad thing. I liked the finale overall, and I think it remained true to everything Mad Men has been for the past seven seasons, with possibly one exception, which I’ll get to shortly.

Some people have claimed the series ended on a cynical note, others on a hopeful, redemptive note; I would argue it was neither. Everybody, more or less, grew as characters while remained true to themselves, which wasn’t always the best thing, but wasn’t the worst either. Objectively, it was a happy, positive ending for the majority of the central characters, but my first instinct, perhaps a cynical one, admittedly, was merely to see the ending as cyclic. For the most part, these characters were just on an up turn in their life’s stories, a high, followed by an inevitable low, to be followed again by an inevitable high. Some may remind up, and certainly higher than some better off than some of the lows we’ve seen them experience, but my experience through watching Mad Men has taught me that happiness, though it exists, is fleeting, a high to be chased after, but only rarely reached, and even more rarely held on to.

Don ran away. Don freaked out. Don got as far away as he could, to the other side of the country (California, which has stood in as the exact antithesis to New York before), in the absolute middle of nowhere, far away from everything he was buried in, all of his demons. California, where, with Anna Draper, he experienced his most pure human relationship, which he tried to recapture with Anna’s niece Stephanie. Then, just when it seemed that maybe he was too far gone and all hope was lost, he, like classic Don, struck gold, inspiration, and like so many times over the course of the series, he was born anew, grabbing victory from the jaws of defeat, and reinventing himself.  He took what he knew to have always been true, his gift for insight into the human soul, and packaged it for a different time. In these final couple of episodes, it seemed like Don had finally drifted too far, maybe to a place he couldn’t come back from, but then with that final smile, and the allusion to the famous Coke “Hilltop” ad, there’s an implication that Don is going to be just fine.

I don’t think Don is ever going to be a great husband or a great father. Those skills are probably just not in him and it’s hard to imagine someone who has that much trouble staying in place changing at this point. But as a peerless ad man his days are not yet numbered.

Joan is many things, but one of her defining traits is that she is a true professional. She takes her responsibilities extremely seriously and finds a way to get the jobs, difficult as they may be, done, In the chaotic culture of Sterling Cooper’s various incarnations, Joan never joins in, and does not care to put up with the hijinks and drinking that envelop most of the firm. Joan puts in her time and hard work and while she understands the unfair world she’s in, she understandably expects to be recognized for her efforts. Unfortunately, at the time, Joan is unable to find a man who respects her and is willing to treat her professional ambitions seriously. Men expect her to be the housewife. And while they may even respect her abilities, once they’re together, the men expect to be the breadwinner, and for Joan to want and to enjoy having nothing to do but sip piña coladas and look pretty. The only man who took her work life seriously was Bob Benson, who was gay and wanted to marry her for his own professional advanced. Joan ended the series entirely in control of her own life, running a new and seemingly successful business, but again, another man abandoned her due to her ambitions.

Pete’s ending is part hopeful and part sad, and I’ve changed my mind back and forth on which is more prominent. Pete came a long way over the course of the show; it’s easy to forget how he was the unquestioned villain over the first few seasons, and with good reason. He came far enough that I was actually rooting for him occasionally in the final seasons, as one of the few, along with Joan, who cared that things got done, and wouldn’t stand for the tomfoolery always going on around him. Pete looks like he’s learned some lessons, wanting to come back to his wife, taking a new job away from the temptations of New York City, talking his brother into not cheating. At the same, we know this pattern, and we know these people. How long until Pete cheats and return to his old ways? And, does Trudy even care if he does, as long as he’s discreet? Things change, things stay the same.

Pete for so long was the anti-Don; frustratingly watching as Don got away with everything he couldn’t. Don cheated for years without consequences; Pete tried it and quickly got caught. Don did half the work and skated on charm and charisma, Pete did twice as much and got hated and laughed at. And yet, Pete’s inability to get away with what Don did could have served him well in the end. When Don’s lies at home finally caught up with him, his marriage was done for good. The fact that Pete was caught and thrown out faster may have been what allowed to him and Trudy to reconcile by the end of the series. Don’s charisma and charm got him far, but allowed him to drift. Pete stayed on point, and though he was as professional at the end as he always was at the beginning, it was now behavior that was rewarded instead of punished in the new company and the new decade. Pete’s way paid off just as well as Don’s in the end if not more so.

Roger turned over somewhat of a new leaf, hitting it off romantically with someone his own age, which was a promising sign. That said, he’s still a cad, and his new paramour seems pretty mercurial herself, so I’m not particularly confident that this marriage will turn out any better than the last couple. Roger will make it through, with a wink, and a joke, and he’ll move on. For better or worse, he’s the same person he was on day one.

Betty was always smarter and more deft than the show, and because of that, often the viewers gave her credit for in the early seasons, and the last season actually gave her a chance to show that.

Putting up with Don and his incessant cheating and patronizing attitude was a huge burden, and because Don was the protagonist and Mad Men often seemed to come from his point of view, Betty, who certainly had her flaws, was even more easily seen in a negative light. After getting out from under Don’s shadow though, Betty was able to flower more as an individual and as a character. The inner fortitude Betty showed displayed after learning her diagnosis was one of the saddest, strongest, and most poignant notes in the entire series and it’s unfortunate that her untimely demise was her ultimate opportunity to show off her strengths.

Last of what I’m arbitrarily calling the Big Six major characters who really make it through the entire run (Don, Peggy, Roger, Joan, Pete, and Betty), there’s Peggy. Peggy and Stan’s romance felt out of place in a way that no other storyline in the finale did. It’s not simply the pairing of Peggy and Stan; they’ve been close for a long time, and while I’m still not sure romance was the right play between the two of them, it definitely felt plausible based on what we knew about their relationship. The way it unfolded though, felt almost like something out of a romantic comedy, as it dawned on Peggy, slowly, after Stan confessed his love that she felt the same way. It’s an unambiguously happy result, and I like Peggy and Stan, and sure, I’m happy for them. But it tonally felt off. The “I hate you, I love you” phone banter was more Nora Ephron than Mad Men.

What did make sense was Peggy considering, but ultimately decide to stay within the confines of McCann. The recruiter she spoke with a few episodes earlier told her McCann was the best possibly place for her to hone her talents and resume, and she knows her goals and that this is the best way to reach them.

The Mad Men characters have come a long way over the course of seven seasons in real life and a decade within the show. They’ve dug deeply, discovered truths about themselves, and faced and overcome difficult obstacles. They change and learn but ultimately remain the same. That sounds like a sad lesson, but I don’t mean it that way, People stray true to the core of who they are, and that is just as often a positive as a negative.

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End of Series Report: The Newsroom

15 Dec

The Newsroom

So, this is kind of a misleading post. I watched The Newsroom finale, but I’ve only seen about five episodes of the show, so this post is actually going to be about Aaron Sorkin. Please though, read on.

I watched the last episode of the Newsroom without having seen any since the first season, and while that admittedly doesn’t make me qualified to talk about the show as a whole, it adds to my body of knowledge about Aaron Sorkin, and continues to make clear what he’s good at and what he isn’t.

Hey, sports fans. You know that basketball player type, like Lance Stephenson, JR Smith, Monta Ellis and others – players who are obviously talented, but not quite talented enough at all facets of the game to be a star. Due to their innate talent, these types of player are just good enough to think they can do more than they can, and want more control of the came they should have, but the whole team suffers due to their increase workload. The kind of player who the right coach can turn into a superbly useful asset, but who, if granted too much power, could poison an entire team, simply by throwing off everyone’s role just a little bit?

Aaron Sorkin is TV’s answer to that archetype, TV’s Monta Ellis. He’s a savantishly brilliant dialogue writer; it’s easy to be jaded and sick of his style, because it’s so ripe for easy parody (Amy Schumer and Seth Meyers have put out exact recent parodies), and sometimes it seems a parody of itself, but if you can, as I try occasionally to, sit back and watch a scene, without looking out every second for one of the many Aaron Sorkin tropes, it’s damn good. When it’s on, it’s quick, sharp, clever, and biting. The problem, unfortunately, is that on TV, Sorkin keeps being hired not simply to write dialogue, but to write an entire show, and this, instead of playing to his strengths, tends to highlight his weaknesses instead; he can write great dialogue, but he rarely writes great stories.

I left in the first season for several reasons. The show’s famed women problem was real; female characters were portrayed in strangely regressive ways, with Alison Pill’s Maggie the poster child for Sorkin women, as clumby, fumbling, and always screwing up certain tasks that are for men. In another show, Maggie might just come off as a bad example, but in The Newsroom’s world she feels emblematic of Sorkin’s difficulty writing women characters the same way he writes males. To be fair, it was also part of a greater character problem; most were uninteresting at best, and grating at worst. Sorkin’s infatuation with love triangles and lingering sexual tension between two people who will incredibly obviously get together is a trope that has been overused and overused and felt forced, primarily with the Don, Maggie, and Jim first season triangle, but also with the fact that from day 1, it was inevitable that MacKenzie and Will would end up together. The single biggest irritant to me, which showed up constantly in the few episodes I saw (and again in the finale), was the self-righteous, smug attitude of The Newsroom characters, who believe their way is the right way, and everyone else’s is wrong;  even when I agree with them, I root against them because of the way they go about it. In the paraphrased words of The Dude, they’re not wrong (well, they are often, but), they’re just assholes.

The dialogue which I just raved about can be occasionally insufferable; people talk too much, too fast, and sometimes I just want to scream “slow down and take a breath.” Still, as someone who has tried to write dialogue on occasion, I have great respect for it even when I want them to slow down – it’s an art form, and when they’re saying dumb things, it’s usually a macro problem and not a micro one.

Aaron Sorkin has a signature style (the walk-and-talk, the repeated lines, the big, passionate speeches, etc.), and the parodies are earned not just because it’s easy to mock but because people like the style for a reason. There’s a little movie called The Social Network that shows the power of a harnessed Aaron Sorkin. When he’s not someone responsible for the entire narrative and characters of a series, but rather is someone who writes a script for a confident A-list directory like David Fincher who knows exactly what he wants and won’t accept anything else. When he’s someone who knows what the story is supposed to be, what the scenes are supposed to convey, and simply needs to get from point A to point B. Under those conditions, Sorkin kills. He just needs to be under those conditions more often.

End of Series Report: Treme

8 Jan

The sounds of Treme

You are about to read a nearly unabashed review for Treme, but before I get to the praise I’ll dismiss with the one caveat I believe it’s important to note.

David Simon’s first masterpiece, The Wire, was rich with occasionally heavy-handed political commentary, particularly in the fifth season, mostly along the lines of power corrupts, bureaucracy is broken, the system no longer works. Treme lays this on fairly thick as well; not quite fifth season thick, but at least as much as the rest of The Wire. It’s not a problem for me, but I can imagine some eye-rolling from those who found that aspect of The Wire irritating after a while. Now, moving on.

Nobody, and I mean Nobody, writes real, honest characters, better than David Simon, and proof is located throughout Treme.  All of our best recent television shows explore humanity in a deep and interesting way, but none of them since maybe Six Feet Under explores just regular everyday people in such an honest and authentic fashion.

Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones are all true to themselves but none of them show real people; they’re exaggerated by their circumstances and place and time; truth through something other everyday life.

Treme deals with characters who are real people facing real problems; on the job, with their relationships, with occasional death and disease (and one pretty big hurricane) struggling to make a difference and just to make it at all. It’s not as grand as all that though. It’s not made out to be more than it is, but you get to know and love the characters that you invest yourself in their lives.

Simon is always putting his characters in difficult situations; when there’s an enemy it’s often some version of the system, which could have been seen as a cheap out but instead just feels true to the reality of the lives that New Orleans residents but even all city dwellers deal with on a daily basis.  Conflict in Treme is authentic rather than forced. Sure, things feel easy compared to The Wire, but not every show needs to have an equally bleak outlook. Like The Wire, Treme celebrates its characters, but unlike the Wire it seems like a couple of them end up in a better place than they started.

A few of the lesser characters don’t really get the screen time to be developed  and stand in more for their roles in other people’s and generla New Orleans stories (Chris Coy’s journalist may be the best example) but even they feel like people, and not stock characters, even with the lack of storyline that they get. A vast majority of the main characters have real in depth character arcs and personalities that resonate strongly whether you like them or hate them, or anywhere in between. There aren’t obvious favorite characters, and when characters get together or break up, the conflicts are complex and not simply one person’s fault or the other (usually). Characters grow, but it doesn’t feel forced. Antoine Baptiste’s ride from occasionally working trombonist to bona fide school band teacher and mentor is tirumpant and feels absolutely earned and true to the character, while Davis more or less ends up right where he started, and that isn’t seen as failure either.

Treme is a love letter to New Orleans in the best possible way. It feels authentic; it’s hard for me to say that with any authority, as a New Yorker who has been to New Orleans once in my life over a decade ago, but everything I’ve read seems to support it. Aside from the authenticity (which I do think matters somewhat in the way Simon is attempting to portray the show but is impossible for me to judge) the show makes me, who has only been to New Orleans once in his life with his family over a decade ago, absolutely fall in love with New Orleans. I don’t particularly care about jazz; it’s one of the music forms I’ve never been able to get into, and many of the forms of pop music featured in Treme aren’t strictly to my taste. Treme is filled with this; music is a huge theme in the show; and if you had described this to me ahead of time, I’d think I’d have no to little interest in the show or at least be bored by the music scenes. But I wasn’t. Instead of my lack of interest in that music turning me off of the show, the show’s sheer love and appreciation of the music won me over. It’s like contagious laughter; the appreciation and love for the music and the rest of New Orleans culture is contagious.

When it comes down to it, the only thing that ties every character in Treme together is their pull and their tie to New Orleans. These aren’t people who are living lives that could just be replicated in any other city. From the musicians, to the culinary world, to the super local Indian culture (that I’ve read about on the internet, watched four seasons of this show and still don’t really get), they spoke to the love-hate relationship of New Orleans residents to their city. They are constantly frustrated about the disappointments of their city, but for most of them (though not all) there’s no other place they’d rather live.

I’m a huge proponent of on-site filming. I admit it’s not always practical or necessary – it wouldn’t make sense or matter for Parks & Recreation to be filmed in Indiana – but it really does make a difference for shows like Treme. Of course, without David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s writing and characters, the setting doesn’t make a whit of difference. But as I’m sure they’d agree, the setting (while not a character – anyone who says the setting is a character should be shot on sight) really places the viewer there into these people’s lives in a way that sets just wouldn’t.

 I’ve made the claim before that people who love Friday Night Lights should love Treme, as they’re both shows that deal with real people helping real people, the good that lies deep inside most people no matter what screwed up things they do, and the strength of the bonds of families, friends, and other relationships to withstand difficulties. I’m unquestionably a big Friday Night Lights fan but sometimes plots felt forced, as if there had to be, say, a steroids arc, because it’s football. Treme does hit on all the obvious big New Orleans post-Katrina subjects, but it never feels forced. The world, one of my favorite parts of The Wire as well, feels so large, as characters fly around in the background; minor characters who would be ignored in other shows get lines that don’t matter for the plot but just make Treme’s world feel bigger. Treme doesn’t feel contained; it feels like the real world, which is one of the highest compliments I can give.

It’s too late, unfortunately for Treme. It’s never coming back, and we’ll never learn more about Antoine and Janette and Ladonna and Annie. Still, I’m thankful I got three and a half seasons of a show absolutely nobody watched.  Please, tell someone you love to watch this show and have the pleasure of enjoying it for the first time..