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Tag: "television"

The Tudors

[ 13 ] July 8, 2010 |

So, we finally struggled through the final season of the Tudors.  It’s been clear for some time (say, early in season one) that this was not a series that deserved attention in the same family as the best of the HBO and Showtime series, but it’s remarkable how weakly the series ended.  Some thoughts:

  1. Whether because of the writing or because of Jonathan Rhys Meyer’s limitations as an actor, it became apparent by the end of the first season that Henry VIII as depicted in this series was just not a very interesting character.  Comparison with the Sopranos is instructive; we become aware in season six, through Dr. Melfi, that Tony isn’t really going to grow or change as a character in any productive way.  He was a sociopath in season one, and he was a sociopath in season six; the experience and analysis weren’t going to change that.  In Tudors, the deficiencies of the main character become clear pretty early on, and yet the series continues for another three years; unsurprisingly, when nothing of much interest can happen to the main character, the series gets fairly boring.  What we were watching, essentially, was the court of Saddam Hussein; that could be somewhat interesting, but the focus then needs to be on the interesting characters and machinations in that court.  This leads to the second point…
  2. With a few exceptions, the producers were unable to produce any useful supporting characters around Meyers.  Part of this was due to necessity, of course; there could be no Carmela in this series.  Nevertheless, the inability to make the supporting cast interesting is inexcusable.  There were exceptions; Sam Neill did a fine job as Cardinal Woolsey, James Frain did good work as Thomas Cromwell, Sarah Bolger was solid as Princess Mary, and Alan Van Sprang produced a lively Francis Bryan.  Unfortunately, the great bulk of sidekick time was handed to Henry Cavill’s Charles Brandon, who had an almost singular ability to say and do nothing of any interest at all.
  3. The Tudors had an absurd number of side characters and side plots that had no meaningful impact on the course of the overall storyline.  Several times during the series, the wife and I would watch a murder or seduction scene, then openly wonder who the characters were and why we should care what happened to them.  Payoffs for these incidental asides would be rare; who really cared about the saga of Reginald Pole?
  4. For some reason, the producers believed that signing big name actors then giving them nothing to do and failing to integrate them into the storyline was a great idea.  We get Peter O’Toole as the Pope for some reason, and Henry Czerny as the Duke of Norfolk with three lines in an entire season, and Max Von Sydow as some guy who was somewhere for some reason that was utterly peripheral to the main story.  Producers should sign actors with some sense of what those actors are for; nobody watched the Tudors in order to see Peter O’Toole shamble about and make proclamations on a sound stage miles away from the rest of the cast.

I’d like to say that I’m looking forward to the Borgias, which is apparently by the same producers, and stars Jeremy Irons. I’d like to say that..

V Sucks

[ 11 ] May 25, 2010 |

Here’s a thought: If you’re going to make one of your main characters a Catholic priest, try to have a point.  It makes it so much more interesting for the viewer.  You’d think, for example, that the Catholic priest might have some mild qualms about the plan to abort several hundred alien eggs with plastic explosives.  Did the Pope determine that the Visitor unborn don’t have souls?  If so, did the half-human-half-lizard baby have half a soul?

I really wish I could believe that this was a subtle dig at the incoherence of the anti-choice movement, but coming from ABC that really strains credulity…

Debating David Simon’s Brilliance

[ 11 ] March 28, 2010 |

I largely agree.  After buying and watching all five seasons of The Wire last year, I struggled with an internal debate: was it better than Homicide Life on the Street?  While The Wire is justifiably lauded on this island as either the best or very close to the best television ever produced, HLOTS never really made an impact out here, at least one sufficiently lasting enough allowing for discussion and debate amongst my friends and colleagues.

I watched HLOTS unerringly during its seven year run, and while the last two or three seasons could be ignored, have considered it since the best television drama.  The Wire challenged this notion, and it still does.

Saturday afternoon visual rhetoric: more on Mad Men (as well as a brief acknowledgment of the magnitude of my wrongness).

[ 0 ] January 31, 2010 |

In the first comment to my first post on Mad Men, Tom Elrod wrote:

I definitely want an update to this post once you’ve finished the third season. I can’t really respond much to this post until then, because I don’t want to spoil anything[.]

Nor do I. If you plan on watching Mad Men but haven’t seen the third season finale, stop reading now.

In a fit of remarkable wrongness, I wrote:

So Peter and Peggy are not left behind because, over the course of two seasons, they learn to love and accept modernity in their hearts. They still seek Draper’s approval, but they recognize that he’s valuable in a way the world soon stop valuing. When the rapture comes, they know Draper won’t be numbered among the chosen [...] Nor, for that matter, will Joan Holloway[.]

Had Matt Weiner decided to re-shoot “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” after having read my post in order to maximize my wrongness, he wouldn’t have had his work cut out for him. This shot alone refutes much of what I wrote:

There sit Pete and Peggy, toiling into the future alongside Draper and Joan in the temporary headquarters of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Why was I so wrong? I didn’t anticipate that Draper would recognize that he belonged to the past. He admits as much when Pete demands Draper tell him why he’s needed:

You’ve been ahead on a lot of things. Aeronautics. Teenagers. The Negro market. We need you to keep us looking forward. I do, anyway.

In one respect, then, my claim that Pete and Peggy belong to the future is validated; but unfortunately for me, my claim’s being validated by the very person I had claimed was constitutionally incapable of recognizing its validity. My argument went awry because I failed to account for the complexity of Draper’s reaction to Betty divorcing him: without the illusion of a perfect marriage to stabilize his conception of self, Donald Draper is as free to reinvent himself as Dick Whitman had been. I think. More on Draper as a character later. For now I’d like to focus on just how effective Matt Weiner’s direction of “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” was.

Mad Men typically uses the angle and level of framing fairly conventionally. Consider the scene in which Betty leaves for her rendezvous with Henry Francis:

The dominant character literally towers over the subservient one. When the shot shifts to them individually, the angle of framing reinforces their respective positions. Dominant Betty is shot from a slightly lower angle—you can tell the canting of the camera by the fact that the ceiling is almost visible:

But although Draper is shot looking up at her, the camera is framed almost level to his head, meaning it is barely even tilted:

In visual terms, he is only barely the lesser party, which is in keeping with the tone of the scene (if not the season): he may not be dominant, but he is never subservient. Because the camera is level with his head and its angle so slight, Draper appears to be in control of the scene, which leads to friction between its formal composition and narrative content. Note also that in neither case does the angle of framing indicate that shot is from the point of view of either character. Instead of reversing the shot and having them look at the viewer, Weiner organizes the sequence by matching their eyelines: she looks down from the left in an angled shot and he looks up from the right in a level one, almost as if the camera refuses to acknowledge that Draper’s not the dominant one here. Same thing happens when Draper tries to recruit Peggy:

The extremely traditional staging indicates that he’s the supplicant, but even when he resorts to begging, this reverse shot is the weakest Weiner will allow Draper to look:

He looks up from the right in a level medium close-up, although unlike the scene with Betty, he may actually be in control of this scene, meaning the angle of framing would be ironic. He may be the supplicant, as the composition of the establishing shot tells us, but this reverse shot indicates that he already knows how his plea will be answered. This shot is, after all, when he reminds Peggy that they are kindred:

There are people out there who buy things. People like you and me and something happened. Something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is gone. And nobody understands that. But you do and that’s very valuable.

He’s telling her that being knocked up by Pete and almost dying during a delivery that left her clinically insane makes her “very valuable” to him. It is, then, an odd but strong bond he appeals to here, but one which he believed would be effective: he may not be able to assume her allegiance, but he knows he can needle her secret trauma to great effect. As it does. They’re equals by the next reverse shot:

Or not: the partners occupy the foreground, their juniors and the head secretary the background. They’re not equals, but the subsequent camerawork tells us that they’re not as unequal as they were before. When it cuts to Peggy and Pete, the level of the camera jumps up and frames them in a medium shot:

The level then shifts down when it cuts back to Draper:

At least in terms of composition, they are close to coequals. (Especially when compared to the ubiquitous shots of Draper pacing behind his desk and looking down at whichever underling happened to be seated before it.) It is at this point that something really remarkable happens. In my first post on the visual rhetoric of the show, I noted that “[n]o contemporary television show employs a quieter camera than Mad Men.” So how does Weiner choose to end this scene? Dynamically:

The zoom is all the more effective because of the degree of its departure from the conventions of the show.

A first stab at the visual rhetoric of Mad Men…

[ 0 ] January 23, 2010 |

…can be read in its entirety at my place because Blogger is being a child and refusing to upload my screen shots. Here’s everything up to the first image:

Does it strike you as odd that someone writing a book on visual rhetoric has produced two long posts about a television show noted for the sophistication of its formal and compositional elements without addressing them?

Me too. Time to rectify that.

No contemporary television show employs a quieter camera than Mad Men. Its disdain for the Law & Order version of cinematic realism that reached its apogee (or nadir) in Cloverfield is palpable: the camera frames scenes from multiple fixed positions and the shots are spliced together at a pace designed to have a soporific effect on anyone born after 1980. The framing and the pacing are a deliberate homage to the films of the period represented on the show. Though it may seem natural to direct a series set in the early 1960s in the same mode Douglas Sirk shot films in the 1960s, it is anything but.

Most films that aim to be realist depict the past in the dominant contemporary realist mode: Saving Private Ryan looks realistic to us because it panders to what we think looks realistic. Had Spielberg directed it in accordance with the realism regnant in 1942 the film would have looked dated. I point out the obvious here only to highlight the deliberateness of the decision to shoot Mad Men like a Sirk film (from the staid framing to the odd lighting and colors so saturated that even the most mundane act acquires the air of a particularly vivid dream). Mad Men is a show that depicts the seedy underbelly of the early 1960s in the style used in the early 1960s to hide its seedy underbelly. (It’s not for nothing that it took two decades for critics to get that Sirk was being ironic.) The effect is unsettling: the visuals create the expectation that none of the unseemly stuff will appear on screen and then it does.

Repeatedly.

Peggy hits on men in bars. Peter forces himself on his neighbor’s au pair. Sal accepts the advances of a randy bellboy. Joan is raped by her husband. The consequences of these events are seemingly contained by their framing: as if nothing truly terrible can come of something truly terrible because the shot is so tidily composed. One quick example from the last episode I watched (in which Peter and Trudy sit on the couch trying to decide whether to attend the wedding of his boss’s daughter the day after President Kennedy has been shot and Peter learned of his humiliating demotion):

Continue reading…

Don Draper is, of course, never himself.

[ 0 ] January 19, 2010 |

Let me open with a quick clarification about the previous Mad Men post: as to the purview of self-fashioning, we all do it. In blog terms, you know me as this guy, i.e. the one who caught those students, made that other one extremely uncomfortable, is frequently victimized by the library, hid his cancer from his wife, etc. Those are the stories I tell about myself to explain myself to myself. To quote Gertrude Stein from Everybody’s Autobiography:

Identity is funny being yourself is funny as you are never yourself to yourself except as you remember yourself and then of course you do not believe yourself. That is really the trouble with an autobiography you do not of course really believe yourself why should you, you know so well so very well that it is not yourself, it could not be yourself because you cannot remember right and if you do remember right it does not sound right and of course it does not sound right because it is not right. You are of course never yourself.

The phrase “of course” captures the central irony of all self-fashioning: we know, of course, that we are more than the sum total of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and yet we only understand ourselves, and can only be understood by others, through those stories. In case you ever wanted to know why narrative diversity is important, there you have it: the more narrative modes available, the more possible understandings of themselves the people who encounter them can have.

This is self-fashioning at its most mundane, and in terms of Mad Men, this is why Peggy Olson becomes more modern: once she understands herself in terms of the upwardly mobile career-oriented woman, the audience understands her frustrations in terms of the conflict between that meritocratic fantasy and the realities of being a woman in a male-dominated working environment. She becomes more recognizably modern not because the world she inhabits does, but because the way she responds to that changing world elicits a chorus of “of courses.”

Neither she nor Peter Campbell become “more real” as the series progresses—fictional characters, being fictional, can only aspire to escape the fictions they inhabit—but as the stories they tell themselves about themselves in order to understand themselves come to resemble ours, they’ll seem more realistic because they’re telling themselves the same stories we tell ourselves and we, of course, live in the real world. What I meant when I wrote the following, then, is that Campbell is increasingly understanding himself in reference to the same narratives we do, whereas Don Draper is not:

Campbell is, in a sense, becoming us, and we revile his behavior to the extent that we recognize our sins in his actions. Draper, however, is becoming art, and as such we hold him as responsible for his actions as we would Emma Bovary. His self-fashioning was not merely based on literary precedent, it was an act of literature, if you will, and much of the appeal of the show is based on watching an inscrutable literary character interact with actual humans.

Draper’s self-fashioning is not remotely this mundane—it is radical. He envisions himself not in the way a person envisions his or her self, but in the way an author envisions a character, which is why Joseph Kugelmass refers to it as aesthetic self-fashioning. To a certain extent, this is how my blog functions, i.e. as a stylized version of the life I actually live and the person I actually am; but because there are stories central to my conception of myself that have not and will never make it on the blog, the person you associate with my name will always feel, to me, like a persona. If withholding certain core stories so alters the warp and woof of my persona that it aestheticizes my self-fashioning, you can imagine what would happen were I to start inventing those stories whole cloth à la Draper.

The only people who know him on the show are the dead actors in his increasingly frequent hallucinations, because only they have access to his entire allotment of self-narratives—and, of course, they only have that access because they are the stories he tells himself about himself. The audience is privy to some of them, but not the entire store, which is why Draper remains ever at a remove. To the extent that Mad Men belongs to Draper, it is a story about someone will never be able to integrate his stories with the ones he wants told about him even to himself. His hallucinations bully and hector him in order to remind him “that it does not sound right and of course it does not sound right because it is not right,” because the troubled antecedent of Stein’s “it” is even more troubling when the narratives that constitute identity are the convenient inventions of an unsettled soul.

If this conception of self-fashioning seems less modern than modernist, that would be my point: the manner in which Draper is integrating his competing narratives into a semi-coherent sense of self is entirely consonant with the modernist obsession with integrating competing narratives into semi-coherent sense of self. From the unstable “I” in Samuel Beckett’s trilogy to the endless renegotiation of familial roles in Joyce’s Ulysses, literary modernists sought to explode the tidy, reducible self that had been the hallmark of literary realism. Draper is, then, something of an exploded man sifting through bits of himself in search of the core to which all these bits once belonged. However, until he accomplishes this impossibility, his self-fashioning will still be far more aesthetic than that of the other characters on Mad Men, and as such, the show’s literate audience will still be drawn to him more than them.

I keep on meaning for these Mad Men posts to move beyond Draper so I can talk about Joan or visual rhetoric, but I can’t quit Draper quite yet.

Don Draper as an unraptured Emma Bovary

[ 0 ] January 16, 2010 |

As I noted in the comments to this post, it was only a matter of time before I started Mad Men; however, as I’ve studiously avoided reading about the show for the better part of two years now, I’m not sure my insights into it will be all that insightful. Still, I’ll soldier on, with the caveat that I’m about to watch the eighth episode of the most recent season and would rather not have it spoiled. Not, mind you, that I think it could be, as the one of the defining features of the show is the thundering predictability of its characters. That’s not as an indictment of Matt Weiner or his writing staff, merely an acknowledgment of the show’s central conceit: these are people who want to be left behind when the rest of the world is raptured by history—at least at first.

Don Draper and his fellows at Sterling-Cooper aggressively court their own obsolescence by cultivating an aesthetic that appeals to inhabitants of a disappearing culture. In this respect, focusing the show around the Gatsby in the gray flannel suit is an inspired decision: Draper is a man at a remove both from his own history and those of archetypes that shape his character, and as such is constitutionally belated. He does not believe in free love, like his beatnik paramour Midge Daniels, he merely lacks a convincing moral objection to committing serial adultery. His persona is a fashioned response to a vanishing culture, and it appeals—both for the clients of Sterling-Cooper and viewers of the show—to the perpetually recycled nostalgia for a time in which romantic figures of powerful genius were recognized and compensated accordingly. In the decades previous, as evidenced by an article Earnest Havemann wrote for Life in 1958, it had actually been true that

most advertising agencies were started on the strength of one man’s genius and personality. These old giants of the business had an intuitive feel for advertising. Flying strictly by the seat of their pants, they made brilliant guesses as to what would put the public in the mood to buy and planned brilliant campaigns around their hunches. Yesterday’s ad man used to take a look at the product, then go off in a corner to dream up his campaign. Today’s ad man sends for the research on what consumers are thinking about at the moment and often goes out to size up the consumer himself.

Havemann captures, in miniature, why Peter Campbell’s career will inevitably eclipse Draper’s: a person can only have hunches about cultures they know intimately, so the value of a Don Draper is inversely proportional to, for example, market penetration into urban black communities. This is not to say that Campbell’s attempt to identify the desires of black Americans at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement makes him any more sympathetic as a character, or to viewers, as his commitment to equality is as instrumental as Draper’s is to free love.

Campbell is, in a sense, becoming us, and we revile his behavior to the extent that we recognize our sins in his actions. Draper, however, is becoming art, and as such we hold him as responsible for his actions as we would Emma Bovary. His self-fashioning was not merely based on literary precedent, it was an act of literature, if you will, and much of the appeal of the show is based on watching an inscrutable literary character interact with actual humans. Not literally, of course, but as the show moves forward in time, the endgames of everyone except for Draper become increasingly recognizable to the audience as modern types. We know why the black elevator attendent is reluctant to talk to the white advertising accountant. We know why the career woman is undermining gender expectations by sleeping around. These characters are commendable or revolting according to a familiar cultural logic tempered by a little historical knowledge. We may not know precisely how the story of Peggy Olson ends, for example, but we know what will limit her ability to grow and how struggling against the stunt will deform her, because hers is the thundering predictability of unwed mothers and unfair office politics.

So Peter and Peggy are not left behind because, over the course of two seasons, they learn to love and accept modernity in their hearts. They still seek Draper’s approval, but they recognize that he’s valuable in a way the world soon stop valuing. When the rapture comes, they know Draper won’t be numbered among the chosen. They may not know why—Draper himself seems ignorant—but they know. The key item, in this regard, is the note left by the hitchhikers who dose and rob Draper:

In an act of petty kindness, almost pity, they leave him behind with the means to join them because they know he lacks the will to do so. They may not have personally witnessed his days of the locust in the second season, but like Peter and Peggy, they understand that he will not be following them into the future. Nor, for that matter, will Joan Holloway, whose related status I’ll address in a future post should you so desire.

(So long as I’m feeling semi-literary, I should add: if you want to learn why The Dark Knight is actually all about dogs, that’s my beat too.)

Mad Men

[ 0 ] November 9, 2009 |

The classic Sopranos pattern: big events in the penultimate episode, final episode sets up the next season. But the finale was richly entertaining in itself…

Deep Mad Men Related Thought

[ 0 ] October 8, 2009 |

Is it just my imagination, or does the Draper marriage resemble the Soprano marriage in a lot of ways? Discuss.

My Life Now is All CSI, All the Time

[ 0 ] September 17, 2009 |

This is pretty awesome. Via Gary.

Who Would Win in a Fight?

[ 0 ] September 10, 2009 |



Gil Grissom vs. Jessica Fletcher?*

*Infant care=too much daytime teevee=stupid questions

They took our jobs

[ 0 ] August 20, 2009 |

Last winter my fiancee got me to start watching Top Chef, which was my introduction to so-called Reality TV. I confess I really enjoyed it, despite the obviously stagey aspects of the whole thing (and I picked up a few cooking tips in the bargain).

Last night we stumbled onto the finale of a version called Top Chef Masters (as Steve Allen pointed out, imitation is the sincerest form of television), which involved a contest between various well-known chefs. The three finalists were a French guy cooking French food, and Italian-American cooking the food first fed to him by his mother, a native of Calabria, and guy named Rick Bayless whose speciality is the Mexican food he first encountered when visiting Oaxaca as a 14-year-old.

Bayless kept going on about how he saw his mission as introducing Americans to a level of sophistication in Mexican cuisine that is still hard to find in this country. That’s all fine and good, but it struck me that in a country where the actual cooking in high-end restaurants is dominated by Latin Americans in general, and Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in particular, the “celebrity chef” doing the Mexican cooking against his French and Italian-American competitors was a very WASPy-seeming fellow. Nothing wrong with that of course — it’s not like you have to be a member of an ethnic group to be a great cook in that genre — but it also reminded me of the point Anthony Bourdain makes in Kitchen Confidential that almost none of the thousands of superbly skilled Mexican and Ecuadorian and Peruvian etc, cooks manning the lines ever seem to end up as head chefs or sous chefs at the fancy places they work, let alone with TV shows on the Food Network.

Update: Just to be clear, I’m not knocking Bayless, who came across on the show as a guy who was eager to educate people about how much great food there is in Mexico, and how sophisticated the various regional cuisines are (Bourdain also makes this point well in Kitchen Confidential).

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