What "Mad Men" really means!

Spent this evening (after work) digesting Phillip Maciak’s masterful analysis of “Mad Men”‘s success, its relevance in the contemporary cultural landscape, and the meaning of the apparent shift from episodic emphasis to longer and more complex season- and series-long television plots, indeed the shift from a focus on television as entertainment to a focus on plot recently posted at the Los Angeles Review of Books (which I can’t strongly enough emphasize how badass they are, how every conscious person should be reading the LARB, and everyone with the means — even as meagre as mine —should support them financially if that’s a viable proposition, and no, I am in no way affiliated with LARB, just am impressed by what they’re doing).

As someone who’s currently at work on a television series that takes the long narrative approach over the episodic one, the debate currently raging about the respective value of each approach to a television series is of particular interest (don’t get too excited, it’s still very much in the early stages, though I know where I want to go with it; at least the pilot’s done, though I haven’t the slightest idea or experience with what comes after the words are on paper). It seems that television — like film, pop music, fiction, just to name a few forms of media — is diverging at long last. Long last not in the sense it’s necessarily a good thing, just that television in contrast to the previously-mentioned media held out longer in attempting universal appeal.

Now it would not only be reductionist but frankly foolish to assess the divergence in media from a perspective of pure entertainment to entertainment in one camp and complexity in the other; pure enjoyment and, for lack of a better term, cerebral complexity in the other. Say Jersey Shore or The X Factor compared to Breaking Bad or Mad Men. There’s clearly a qualitative difference between the two camps. I’m a fanatic for good television to the extreme, yet I have also found myself spending hours on end watching Chopped!, Iron Chef America, SportsCenter et al — shows I would lump in the former camp, all of which to say that noting the growing divergence isn’t to disparage the entertainment side of the ledger, just to note that the gap between entertainment and “art” seems to be growing. As someone whose primary media interest is fiction and the novel in particular, I find this encouraging; David Simon famously described The Wire as similar to a realist novel, and it’s an apt description and a point made by many more and savvier critics than I. The realization that serialized television programs can tell a complex and realistic story as well as a novel has both galvanized the industry and provided openings for writers, directors, actors/actresses, producers et al that simply weren’t there previously. The trope of a debate about whether or not we’re witnessing a “Golden Age” of television really misses the point, which is the premier television series today offer something the media hasn’t before: nuanced narrative meant to inspire reflection and unafraid of taking on the messier parts of contemporary life. Walter White, Don Draper, the Dowager Countess, Tyrion Lannister, Lena Dunham, Dexter Morgan —just to name a few— aren’t always admirable characters, in fact they’re often repellent and do horrific things. Yet there’s a realness and self-awareness about each that rings true in a manner which Lucy Ricardo — to use one of Maciak’s examples — never did.

All in all, the focus on the long story is more rewarding than 43 minutes of escapism; I’m quite glad the paradigm is shifting and look forward to its continued development over against the self-contained episode.

~ by Benji on April 25, 2012.

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