Archive

Monthly Archives: July 2013

arrested-development-5 (1)

What went wrong with “Arrested Development”?  Why was one of the most widely anticipated shows of the year such a dud — its inexplicable Emmy nominations notwithstanding?  And what does this have to say about making good television shows?

A low-rated black comedy about a dysfunctional family that ran on Fox from 2003 to 2006, “Arrested Development” developed a cult following in the years after it went off the air.  Thanks to the Internet, it eventually became more popular than it ever had been when it was actually on the air, and in a world of remakes and second chances, fans clamored for new shows.

These dreams seemed to become a reality with the announcement that Netflix would fund and distribute a new season.  But when the show finally premiered three months ago, all the talk about binging and viewing parties soon faded.   Netflix doesn’t release viewing numbers, so it’s hard to tell for sure, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the drop-off from the first to 14th episodes was a lot more dramatic than anyone had expected.  Somehow, a show that was fresh and mordantly funny ten years ago had become relentlessly sour. I found myself watching out of obligation, not pleasure, and felt like I was taking my medicine every time I tuned in.

Part of the problem was that showrunner Mitch Hurwitz changed the very premise of the series.  The original “Arrested Development” explicitly told the story of a regular guy and competent businessman named Michael Bluth, played by Jason Bateman, who tried desperately to hold his misfit family together. His parents and siblings were so selfish, greedy and lacking in self-awareness that you wondered why he bothered, but as long as he cared, the show had a certain internal logic, and this gave it a classic sitcom format: a sane central character surrounded by a zany cast.

But in the new episodes, loyal, normal Michael abandoned his quest to keep the family together.  They are now living apart and have minimal contact with each other.  Michael himself, once the center of the show, became just another self-deluded character in a menagerie of losers.

The new approach apparently became necessary because, as the cast had gone on to greater heights of stardom, their busy schedules didn’t permit them to be available at the same time.  This forced Hurwitz to write an intensely elaborate script and shoot scenes out of sequence according to the availability of the actors. He then edited this enormous amount of footage into 15 episodes, each revolving around one of the nine main characters. The action in these episodes occurs during the same timeframe as the other 14 episodes. We thus have a giant “Roshomon” effect, with the same events viewed from nine different perspectives.

In some ways, this is an ingenious solution and the puzzle Hurwitz built is impressive. However, the problem with focusing on the characters one by one is that their individual self-delusions and selfishness, which can be funny and absurd in small doses, are actually pathetic and depressing when laid out in gruesome detail.

My guess is that if Hurwitz had made the series the normal way – producing one episode at a time and putting it through the weekly crucible of the writers’ room rewrites and show rehearsals – he would have noticed and fixed this.  But there’s no fixing a show in which one massive script is written ahead of time and shot out of sequence.

Then there’s the odd decision to lengthen each individual show.  The old episodes, slaves to the network format, were all 22 minutes – but the new episodes are of irregular length, between 29 and 36 minutes.   Consequently, the individual scenes are longer and the show lacks the manic density of scene cuts that made the original series such a wonder to behold.

Is it possible that the problem with this season is that there weren’t enough network hacks giving dopey notes and forcing the show to fit certain arbitrary guidelines?  It’s just a guess, but it seems that the people who make great television work better when they are cosseted by network standards and don’t have a free hand.  Hurwitz certainly faced a lot of obstacles in putting the show together, but it doesn’t look like anyone second-guessed him once he started filming.  The fact that the shows are different lengths suggests a lack of discipline and narrative rigor.

Critical disapproval aside, it appears that NetFlix was happy enough with the result to fund another season.  I still have enough lingering affection for the series to hope Hurwitz learns from his mistakes and insists that the entire cast appears together to shoot a traditional series. AND that he limit each episode to 22-25 minutes. I don’t have the energy or psychological resources to sit through another season like this.  It’s just too sad.

seventh_seal_chess_5978

I recently learned via Facebook about the death of a friend who had fallen out of touch.  He’d stopped sending Christmas cards and changed jobs without sharing a new email address. I probably could have found his home number, but I feared that he’d be distant or sarcastic if I actually got him on the phone.  Instead, I took the easy route and sent him a friend request when I saw that he’d joined Facebook.

About a year later, out of the blue, I received a message that he’d accepted my friend request.  But when I went to his homepage, I discovered a message from his sister that he’d just died.  It wasn’t a complete surprise because he’d had health problems for a long time, but it was still a shock.  And it was hard to see the photos that his sister subsequently uploaded, because they showed a man much older and more fragile than the wiseguy I’d known when we were both starting our careers.

When Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook in his dorm room, he probably never considered that users would one day die or have to deal with death.  Indeed Facebook itself got tripped up on this very issue about five years ago when it started sending reminders to members that they hadn’t been in touch with certain friends in a long time.  Oops, some of those “friends” were dead people with live Facebook pages.  After the requisite outcry, Facebook quickly dumped the reminders altogether.

Facebook is more about beginnings than endings.  It’s about the start of romantic relationships, not their messy conclusions (something I addressed in my previous post “Love and Death In the Age of Facebook – It’s Complicated.”)   And it’s a lot more about births than deaths.

People use Facebook to portray idealized versions of themselves – showing happy vacation photos, sharing videos of the kids playing the piano or humblebragging about how tired they are from their extensive volunteer work.  They never update about the fights they got into with their spouses, their anxieties about money or their erectile dysfunction issues.

But death is not something that can be swept under the carpet.  Over the centuries, society developed certain conventions on how people should publicly acknowledge and manage death (the obit in the paper, the handwritten note, the designated charity, etc.)  Social media is so new, however, that similar conventions are not yet in place for the digitally connected world.

But before we get to some suggested conventions, I’d like to address one irksome aspect of Facebook: the celebrity death.   Whenever someone famous dies, we all feel obligated to comment on it.  Given the outpouring of Facebook responses after Steve Jobs died, you’d have thought the President of the United States had gone to his heavenly reward.  But at least Steve Jobs had transformed the nation’s computer and telecom industries.  When Tom Bosley, the father on “Happy Days,” expired, a lot of people acted like their own father had died.

Here are some suggestions on celebrity-mourning on Facebook:

  1. Don’t say something if you don’t have anything to say.  Being the fourth person to post “RIP Steve Jobs, a great visionary,” is not adding to the conversation.
  2. Try to be original. If you do feel compelled to comment, make an original observation or post a relevant video.  I have developed an aversion to the over-used phrase “thoughts and prayers.”  Don’t say, “my thoughts and prayers are with his family” unless you actually know them.
  3. Keep things in perspective and avoid cheap sentiment.  It’s OK for teenage girls to become hysterical when a celebrity dies, but it’s not really appropriate for adults to get carried away by the death of a TV actor.  It’s worth paying tribute to someone who has made an important contribution to the world, but mere fame isn’t enough to go overboard.  And I say this as someone who wrote an entire column on Cory Monteith.
  4. Minimize the jokes. I know this is hard, especially when a minor celebrity has bitten the dust, but unless it’s a hilariously funny joke, it looks like you’re trying to use someone else’s death top make yourself look funny.
  5. It’s not all about you.  Don’t talk about how this particular passing will leave a “hole in your heart” unless you have a very good reason for having said hole.
  6. If you can’t say something nice, etc.  There’s nothing more annoying on Facebook than reading sentimental tributes to recently departed celebrities and political figures you just can’t stand.  I had to bite my tongue over the weekend as the tweets and Facebook posts rolled in about Helen Thomas, the UPI White House reporter who had just died at 93.  Having once lived in DC, worked in the Reagan administration and seen the press corps up close, there are a number of reporters who made my skin crawl, and she was at the top of the list (I’ll say the same thing about Sam Donaldson when he and his toupee meet their makers). However, there’s no point in upsetting your sensitive Facebook friends with snarky comments about the dead, so keep your vitriol where it belongs – among your ideological comrades.

The celebrity death is a lot easier to deal with than the actual real-life passing of someone close to us.  On the one hand, people don’t want to hear about grim news on Facebook (after all, there’s only a “like” button – there’s no “I’m sorry” button); on the other hand, you want to alert your friends to important news like this so they don’t send you cat videos when you’re in mourning.

To some extent, the following guidelines are driven by the degree of trauma that the death causes; a deeper loss requires a deeper, more thoughtful response.  In all cases, though, I think simplicity is best. Some thoughts on how the bereaved should use Facebook.

  1. For old friends, aunts, uncles, cousins, old bosses, etc. These are losses that don’t send you into deep mourning, but which evoke a certain amount of feeling.  Perhaps someone who was once close but became distant.  It’s OK to post a nice sentiment, tell a cute story and generally reminisce. But don’t act sadder than you really are or have a right to be.  You don’t want to be the guy who’s always in mourning or too aggressively soliciting sympathy messages.
  2. For older parents, siblings, close friends, etc.  These are losses that hurt a lot but don’t send you into existential despair. You might decide to keep it private, but it’s also OK to let people know you have this personal sadness. If you want to post about them or pay tribute keep it short, or link to a eulogy that you or another family member delivered.  You can also post some favorite photos.
  3. For a devastating loss – a child, spouse or young parent.  Fortunately I’ve never seen anyone post about the loss of a child or spouse and I hope it’s because none of my friends have gone through that.  From my own perspective, if you suffer a loss that results in uncontrollable grief, it’s better to stay off Facebook altogether.  At a time like this you need support from your real family and your real friends.  I know that folks sometimes create tribute sites or turn the deceased’s Facebook page into a memorial page, which helps them cope with their grief.  If you do this, my recommendation would be the less said the better. People understand what you are going through.

And now, what’s to be done when someone posts about a death on Facebook?   I adhere to the Miss Manners rule of grieving.  For a major, devastating loss, send a handwritten condolence note.  Dashing off an email or posting on someone’s wall doesn’t show much thought or effort.  If you don’t know the home address, find it.  If the family does create a special Facebook page for tributes, then, sure, write something thoughtful and heart-felt. But show some sensitivity and thoughtfulness.

For other losses, take the lead of the survivors.  If they have posted an obit or photo online and seem to be encouraging feedback, by all means contribute to the tributes.  If not, I think it’s OK to send a private Facebook message that offers sympathy.  On TV cop shows they always say “sorry about your loss” and that seems appropriate if you are expressing sympathy about the death of a person you never knew.

The bottom line is this: it’s dangerous to mistake Facebook for intimacy.  Facebook is fantastic for keeping in touch with a wide circle of acquaintances; it can relieve loneliness and boredom.  But it is not a substitute for the personal connection you need at a time of mourning.  It’s not that Facebook has no role in grieving, it’s that it has a minor role.

Cory Monteith

“Glee” has always prided itself on keeping it real, with “ripped from the headlines” plots such as school shootings and transgender acceptance.  But this past weekend’s death of the show’s star Cory Monteith is one story that is all too real for everyone.

I’m a little ashamed to admit that after hearing the news, it took me less than a minute to start wondering about its impact on the show.  I know almost nothing about Cory Monteith, but I sure felt like I knew his character, Finn Hudson, the quarterback-turned-glee-club-enthusiast who was at the emotional core of the show.

From the beginning, Finn was one of the most complicated characters on “Glee.”  A lower-middle-class son of a dead soldier raised by a single mom, he was also a handsome star athlete and one of the most popular kids in the school. In the show’s origin story, his decision to join the glee club paved the way for other football players and cheerleaders to join, giving the club the critical mass it needed.

Finn was the character who stood in for the audience as the show explored its sexual themes. Although solidly straight himself, he was not a lothario like his buddy Puck; in fact, he was so sexually naïve that he originally thought he had impregnated his girlfriend without having had sex with her. More to the point, though, he acted as the show’s moral force on homosexuality, openly uncomfortable about it at first, but gradually accepting it as he came to understand Kurt, his openly gay Glee club teammate and eventual stepbrother.

As the show evolved, Finn stood in for teenagers everywhere who have made a difficult transition from high school to an uncertain adult world.  Once a high school superstar, Finn came to feel like a loser after he got drummed out of the army, broke up with his one-time fiancée Rachel, and struggled to find a role for himself.  By the end of season four, he was co-coach of his old glee club at McKinley High and seemed on the verge of getting back together with Rachel.

Of course, “Glee” will survive without Monteith.  The series has multiple stars, none of whom appear in every episode.  Finn himself didn’t show up in the first several episodes of season four and he was missing at the end of the season as well.  But even though there are plenty of other characters and storylines to highlight, his absence will be deeply felt.

As the straightest and handsomest member of the cast, he was beloved by the young women who make up the core of the show’s audience.  There’s no one to fill that role.  Also, at a time when scripted television is focused on the highly educated upper middle class, Finn Hudson was one of the few reminders that the American economy is not built for lower-middle-class guys who don’t go to college.

Perhaps more important, though, the real-life death of Cory Monteith punctures the central myth of the show that if you work hard enough, you can achieve your dreams.  The “Glee” characters never shut up about their dreams – and,  despite multiple setbacks, always seemed to be moving in the right direction.

I’ve always found “Glee” to be extremely frustrating.  It’s original, provocative, sometimes funny and sometimes deeply exhilarating.  Yet it’s also didactic, repetitive, cloying, and frequently absurd.  There seem to be no permanent consequences on the show. Characters make and unmake decisions, make heartfelt declarations and then change their minds to no ill effect.  This is not a show with any apparent narrative arc, but instead one that seems to be made up week by week. If a storyline contradicts a plot point from several weeks ago, who cares?

But there’s no undoing Cory Monteith’s death.  Finn Hudson is not coming back, and he will never achieve his dreams.  Presumably the character will die on the show and the rest of the cast will get to show off their acting chops as they grieve his loss.  The show will go on — but it will be sadder, less consequence-free.

It’s fitting that Cory Monteith’s last appearance on “Glee” was the emotional highpoint of season four.  His one-time girlfriend Rachel is auditioning for the lead in “Funny Girl.” She is scared, intimidated and alone on stage as she appears before the producers.  Then she starts to sing the song that personified the show in its first season: “Don’t Stop Believin.” As she gains strength and confidence, her old friends from the high school glee club, including Finn, materialize to back her up. They are not there in reality, of course.  They are with her in spirit, and knowing they have her back, Rachel gives a bravura performance.

Finn is not the focus of the scene, but he’s crucial to its emotional impact, because in the end, the show is about friendships that transcend whatever your relationships might be at that moment in time.  The idea that your friends will always be with you might be the biggest dream on the show — but there was no better friend than Finn Hudson, and the show will be weaker without him.

6a0120a85dcdae970b0120a86d9977970b

My youth was the era of “My Mother the Car,” “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Gilligan’s Island,” and the idea that television could be serious art seemed laughable.  Sure, there had been a “Golden Age” of television in the 1950s, with shows like “Kraft Theater,” “The Honeymooners” and “Your Show of Shows,” but those days seemed long past.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s intellectuals bemoaned the rise of “mass culture.”  This was defined as mass-produced, entertainment commodities like TV and movies, which, according to cultural critic Dwight MacDonald relied on “vulgarity, kitsch, homogeneity and standardization to distract and narcotize an alienated industrial society.”

Yet here we are today in a second Golden Age when it’s possible to argue that the once-derided medium of television has emerged as the most vibrant and exciting art form of the 21st Century.  What would challenge its dominance?  Film has become obsessed with blockbusters, the novel with small, self-absorbed stories, and the theatre with pyrotechnics.  Opera, ballet and classical music are stuck in the 19th century, and most people couldn’t name a living poet even if you promised them a winning Power Ball ticket.

Given Dwight MacDonald’s aversion to capitalism, it’s ironic that free-market competition created the conditions for great television programming.  When there were only three major broadcast networks, each sought the biggest possible audience through the lowest common denominator. But the rise of cable has created a wide-open field for all kinds of programming. Some networks went for trash and others courted discriminating viewers.

In Alan Sepinwall’s book “The Revolution Will be Televised,” AMC President Charlie Collier explains that creating a high-end, must-see show was critical to the long-term health of the network.  AMC knew that without distinctive programming it could not attract high carriage fees or be sure that cable companies would carry it at all.  This straightforward business calculation led directly to the creation of one of the greatest TV shows ever: “Mad Men.”

But even while acknowledging that television has dramatically improved (in some areas), some critics don’t want to consider it “high art.”  In many respects, this is a silly argument to engage in.  Who cares if television is “high art,” “middlebrow,” “mass art” or one of the “plastic arts,” as long as it provides aesthetic pleasure and self-insight to a discerning audience?  Yet critics’ hesitation to label TV as aesthetically serious raises some questions about how we analyze TV drama.

The first argument against TV as high art is the open-ended nature of a TV series.  A producer can’t develop a full narrative arc to match the length of a newly launched show without knowing if it will last one or 10 years.  A work of art needs a beginning, middle and end, but if there’s no way to know when the end is, you are basically making it up as you go along.

Some shows handle this better than others, creating a season’s worth of episodes that can stand on their own as a coherent whole even if the show is canceled at the end of the season. But most can’t plan more than a few episodes ahead, which sometimes leads to a huge whiff when the time comes to end the series (I’m talking to you, “Lost”). This can cast a pall over the entire body of work.  (Although it’s probably fair to point out that the greatest American novel — “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” — has one of the worst endings in literature, because Mark Twain hadn’t fleshed out his ideas when he started the book.)

Television is also said to fail as high art because it has no “author.”  How do you evaluate an artist’s vision when you don’t know who the artist is?  A novel has an author, an opera has a composer, a movie has a director, but a television series has a showrunner, whose job is to wrangle cats and run interference from the network.  A showrunner will write a couple of episodes, direct a couple of episodes, but given how much work is involved in producing a show every week, he or she can’t control every aspect of the production.

It’s no coincidence that the greatest shows have the best showrunners. Vince Gilligan (“Breaking Bad”), David Chase (“The Sopranos”) and Alan Ball (“Six Feet Under”) may not have written every line of dialogue on their shows, but they imposed their vision and are as much the authors of these works of art as any New Wave director is of his films.

In the end, we have to evaluate a work of art by what’s on the screen, not by the creative process.  Would anyone claim that Gothic cathedrals aren’t works of art even though we don’t know who “authored” their creation?  By any definition, television has vaulted into the realm of serious art.  The best shows of the past decade have wrestled with serious and difficult questions in a compelling way.  They’ve been complicated, psychologically insightful, life-affirming inquiries into the human condition.  To me, that seems like high art.

dv1939017

Is there anything more surprising than the continuing lack of surprises in Nielsen’s “Cross-Platform Report”?  This quarterly effort, which compares TV viewing across multiple screens, shows once again that TV habits still aren’t changing all that much.  After all the hype about online viewing, mobile viewing, “cord cutting” and other doomsday scenarios, it seems that most people are still watching television the old fashioned way: on a TV set.

How can this be? I’m as surprised as everyone.  Our house is filled with devices: smartphones, laptops, tablets, an “over the top” Apple TV gizmo and a DVR. We make liberal use of Netflix, VOD, Hulu, and MLB.com.  Except for sports we rarely watch live TV. And we’re hardly the most technologically advanced family in existence.  So my own personal experience tells me that traditional TV viewing is declining.

Yet according to the “Cross-Platform Report,” TV viewing has been holding steady over the past five years.  The average person still watches five hours of live and recorded television per day. Traditional TV still swamps all kinds of other video viewing, with the average person watching 34 hours of TV a week, compared to one hour of online video and 13 minutes of video on a smartphone.

Of course it’s a classic mistake for anyone to extrapolate their own behavior to society as a whole.  And when it comes to TV viewing, there’s probably no audience less representative of the total population than TV bloggers.   We are the cultural equivalent of the “inside the beltway” political commentators who are always shocked by the voters out in the hinterland.

One of the reasons traditional TV remains so popular is that people don’t use other devices and platforms to the extent we sometimes think they do.  Even now, barely half of viewers watch any video over the Internet and only 16% watch video on a smartphone.  And among these groups that do have the technology, usage is not terrible high.  Online computer streamers watch about 22 hours of video a month and smartphone users only watch five and a half hours of video a month.  This compares to 157 hours of TV viewing for the average person.

The ongoing popularity of traditional television seems to befuddle many in the TV industry, many of whom probably watch a lot less actual TV than their customers.  The answer is pretty obvious: Television is the easiest entertainment delivery system in the history of the world.  You can lie down on the couch, flick your wrist and let hundreds of different stories unfold with no effort at all.

Contrast that to watching TV online.  If you have a new TV, you might have an Internet hook-up — if you can figure it out.  The over-the-top devices are not all that hard to set up, but they don’t all give you access to new programming.  Of course you can watch TV on your laptop or computer, but this is a “lean forward” way of experiencing a “lean backwards” medium.  You can attach your laptop to your nice big living room TV, as long as you don’t mind fumbling with the connections in back of the monitor.  And don’t get me started on the aggravations of trying to watch YouTube on the living room TV.

Now that we are more than five years into the Hulu era, which made it easy to stream new network programming, it seems clear that there won’t be a revolution in how people watch television anytime soon.  If anything people are watching more TV through the tube than ever before.

The real question is what will happen when today’s younger viewers, who have grown accustomed to watching TV on laptops and iPads, grow up.  The average 18-24 year old now spends about 7% of his total TV time streaming video.  That compares to 2% for the average 50- to 64-year-old.  Will those teens still be watching TV on their laptops when they have families of their own?

It’s a rule of nature that the older and more sedentary you get, the more TV you watch.  It’s hard to make predictions on what today’s 18- to 24-year-olds will do based on their current behavior, because as they grow up they will almost certainly grow less active and be more interested in staying home at night watching TV. Unless the cable and satellite companies price themselves out of the market, my guess is that tomorrow’s 30-year-olds will, like their parents and grandparents before them, discover the joys of being coach potatoes.

In the meantime, I wouldn’t junk the old TV set.

Marcel-Proust-001 mad-men-don-draper-jon-hamm-season-6-quality-of-mercy

David Chase, the creator of “The Wire,” has frequently complained about the practice of recapping TV dramas as each episode appears, his argument being that you can’t really judge a show’s merits until the season is over since you don’t know where the creators are headed.

Now that Season Six of Mad Men is done, I do see what Chase was complaining about.  Almost from the Episode One, recappers complained about Don Draper’s downward spiral and assumed that the trajectory wouldn’t change.  Grantland’s Andy Greenwald, a critic I very much admire, even made the mistake of declaring this a “disappointing season” before the last episode appeared.  Imagine writing a review of The Godfather without bothering to watch the last 20 minutes!

The season was redeemed, and then some, in the last episode of the season, where Don Draper breaks down and confesses that he was raised in a whorehouse, gives up his chance to move to California in hopes of saving Ted Chaough’s marriage, and generally breaks free of the demons that have been pursuing him throughout the course of the entire series.  It turned out there really was a man with a plan and that man was Matt Weiner.

0628madmen_POSTER2Unfortunately, what a lot of critics didn’t like about the season was the very thing that Weiner was trying to show: that people continue to make the same mistakes again and again.  The whole season was about doubles, doppelgangers, and repetitive behaviors.  The season’s poster showed two Don Drapers headed in opposite directions. At least half a dozen times by my count, a line of dialogue spoken in one context is repeated in a different one (“You like to get into trouble, don’t you?” “Want to get into a little trouble Lieutenant?” “Here come a couple of high fashion models.”)

And of course the very arc of this season was a repeat from Season Four when Don spiraled down in alcoholism and self-loathing, only to pull himself back after he hit bottom. When the season opens, he’s cheating again and generally ignoring his wife, only this time he doesn’t have the excuse that he’s wife’s a cold bitch. Indeed, there is no fault to be found with Megan, except that she won’t be accessible to him 24 hours a day.

The observation that people make the same mistakes is not a new one.  I am now going to make what is probably the most pretentious literary reference I will ever make, and point out that the most highly regarded novel of the 20th century – Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time – is full of nothing but people repeating the same mistakes.  The characters are constantly falling passionately in love only to have their ardor evaporate once they have achieved their conquests.

Still, it’s one thing to understand that a certain kind of behavior is common and another to find it  interesting.  One of the most enervating experiences of my life was plowing through Proust’s “The Captive” and “The Fugitive,” which dealt with the narrator’s on-and-off obsession with his lover Albertine.  Compared to that, Don Draper’s moral zig-zags are a treat.

Here’s the thing. Like everyone else, I did think Don’s story line was a drag this year, especially since he had everything going for him last season.  The essence of drama is to show something new, not the same thing.  It’s hard for an audience to care the second time along.  There was a tremendous pay-off in the season finale, when Don finally spits out the truth, but what a long time we took to get there!

And yet, I can’t really complain about the season.  This remains the best show on television.  To grouse about “Mad Men” is like going to a luxury hotel and beefing that the room service delivered blueberries instead of strawberries.  I loved every single episode this season, all of which I watched and appreciated more on the second and third viewings, and if the overall story line seemed a bit tired, I can live with that.

Perhaps no show since “Lost” has been so scrutinized and talked about.  Almost every line and glance are meaningful and open to interpretation.  But “Lost” was a fantasy and “Man Men” is a hyper-attenuated version of reality.  Probably the most shocking plot development on TV this year was the “Red Wedding” on “Game of Thrones.”  But a close second was Sally walking in on Don and Sylvia’s tryst.  What is harder?  To achieve shock by massacring half the cast of a fantasy or by creating a situation that just might occur in real life?

With just a few tweaks, the entire “Mad Men” series could have ended satisfactorily at the conclusion of Season Six. Don is free of his lies and maybe free of his job and his marriage too.  Matt Weiner appears to have written himself into a corner for the concluding season.  Does Don start over?  Theoretically, he could already be back to work when the season begins since he was only supposed to be on leave for a few months.  Will we see Megan again?  What about Bob Benson in Detroit or Pete and Ted in California?  I hope Matt is already busy figuring this out; I won’t bother to speculate since I am always wrong.

In “A Search for Lost Time,” Proust’s narrator is obsessed with social status when he’s not obsessed with his various lovers.  In the end, though, he comes to realize that the aristocrats he has fawned over are not worthy of his attention.  For six years now, Don Draper has been obsessed with self-pity, unable to rise above deprivations of his youth.  By the end of the season, he seemed to have begun a turnaround and the question is whether, like Proust’s narrator, he will gain the insight and necessary strength to become more than an anti-hero.

Some other thoughts about the season:

Chekhov’s Gun.   The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov promulgated the dramatic principle that if a gun is hanging on the wall in the first act, it needs to be shot by the end of the play.  In other words, there should be no extraneous elements in a drama other than what are necessary to the plot.  It’s hard to think of a writer who has violated this principle more than Matt Weiner. “Mad Men” is full of clues and plot strands that go nowhere. For example: Don is coughing throughout the season, Ginsberg appears to have schizophrenia, Ted Chaough and Jim Cutler seem to be plotting a takeover of the agency, Megan wears Sharon Tate’s tee shirt, Betty tries to rescue a runaway. It’s tempting to chalk these dead ends up to bad writing, but I think Weiner is trying to establish an entirely different principle.  After all, for two seasons now, Pete has kept an actual gun in his office and it has never once gone off – that seems like a deliberate nod to Chekhov’s gun. He seems to be saying that if you’re going to surprise an audience you need to divert them, just like a magician keeps you looking at one hand while the other one is creating the actual illusion.  Of course if that gun goes off next year, I will stand completely corrected.

Megan’s Tee Shirt – Weiner might like to create his little diversions but one of them backfired badly this season. By having Megan wear Sharon Tate’s tee shirt, Weiner seemed to be implying that Megan would be murdered. Viewers quickly found other clues, including Rosemary Baby references, constant sirens and the stabbing of Abe, who was also wearing a blood soaked tee shirt. Speculation became so rampant that Weiner had to do the one thing he hates – he revealed plot details ahead of time.  With two episodes remaining he told us that no one else would die this year (he must have forgotten about Pete’s mother when he said that.).  This was a really smart move because viewers would have otherwise been in a frenzy by the end of the season and bitterly disappointed by the season finale.

Sylvia Rosen – As far as I’m concerned, the major flaw this season was Don’s obsession with Sylvia.  He has always been attracted to strong, original women but it’s not at all clear what he sees in her.  We presume she’s some kind of high-class dame because she gave him Dante’s “Inferno” to read, but because we never saw the original seduction, we can’t see the the traits that attracted him.  Part of the problem is the casting.  In real life, Linda Cardellini  is 38, which is too young to have a 19-old-son (not biologically too young, but socially too young). More to the point, only a dozen years ago she was playing a high school student in “Freaks and Geeks.”  Weiner pulled a similar stunt last year, when he cast Alexis Bledel, the star of “The Gilmore Girls,” as Pete Campbell’s illicit love interest.     Neither of these women were credible as 1960’s housewives.

madmen_finale_family.jpg.CROP.multipart2-mediumFlashbacks – Count me in among those whose heart sank every time we had a flashback to teenage Don in the whorehouse.  I never really found them credible, although I’m sure the period detail is perfect, as it always is.  The real problem – again – is with casting. It’s hard to believe that this sad sack Dick Whitman is going to grow into the handsome, outwardly confident, supremely talented Don Draper. The one good thing about those scenes is that they set up the amazing pay-off in the last scene of the series, when Don takes his kids back there and tells them “This is where I grew up.”  Personally, I hope we’ve seen the end of the flashbacks.  By rights, we should see Don continue to grow into maturity, maybe as an older teenager who enlists in the service, but I doubt Weiner’s ability to pull it off and hope we stick to 1969.

Bob Benson – Here’s another case where Weiner lost control of the narrative this year, but perhaps in a less serious way than with the Megan/Sharon Tate controversy. By slowly introducing Bob Benson to the viewers he created a mystery that reached a crescendo at the end of the season. The Internet nearly melted down with theories about who he was.  Bland, eager to please, omnipresent but apparently never actually working, Bob Benson turned out to be a double for Don – a hick who remade himself, Gatsby-like.  The big reveal, though, was that he was gay, which might have been more shocking ten years ago, but elicited a shrug in 2013.  That’s it?  He’s not Peggy and Pete’s son from the future?  He’s only a lonely gay guy?  I hope Weiner has learned that there’s a danger in building up expectations and then dashing them with run-of-the-mill explanations.

Matt Weiner interviews – Speaking of Bob Benson, Matt Weiner said in season-ending interviews that Bob might not be gay.  Oh COME ON.  Really?! Why would he make a pass at Pete but not Joan if he were straight?  These are the 1960’s, pre-Stonewall. No straight man back then would have pretended to be gay for career advancement.  Also in these interviews Weiner argued that Don’s ad ideas were rejected not because they were bad but because they were too far ahead of their time. Really?! All season long we’ve been assuming that Don has been losing his fastball and been surpassed by younger, more with-it creative types, but Weiner tells us that he’s actually at the top of his game.  I wish he had let us know that earlier. These interviews also illustrate a suspicion I’ve had before, which is that artists don’t really know what they are creating. A lot of times their creations are deeper and richer than they intended, which says something about the power of the human imagination.

Peggy – From the very first episode of “Mad Men” Peggy has been second to Don himself as the most important character on the show.  She is meant to be a stand-in for all the women who struggled professionally in the 1960s. Through hard work and talent she rose from the secretarial pool almost to the very top of her profession (at approximately age 30 no less.) Peggy’s story arc was curiously passive this year, though.  She’s the person to whom things happened – she’s not in the driver’s seat. Professionally she is forced by the merger to return to Don’s sphere of influence.  Personally, she end up living in a house she hates based on a boyfriend’s whim and her love life is decided by the men, one of whom breaks up with her and another who leads her on and then moves 3000 miles to get away from her. As she bitterly says to Ted after he tells her he’s decided to move his family to California, “Well aren’t you lucky.  To have decisions.”  Yet I’m not completely sympathetic.  She was trying to break up Ted’s marriage, after all. And no one forced her to buy that particular piece of crap building on the Upper West Side.  But cheer up Peggy, you did get to wear that awesome (not) pantsuit as you settled in behind Don’s desk.

peggy olsen pant suit

A lot of these observations sound like complaints, but they are really just quibbles about one of the greatest series ever.  I’m looking forward to the final season with a lot of hope and a bit of dread.  It’s hard to wrap up a show like this and final seasons are frequently disappointing. But I believe in Matt. He hasn’t let us down yet.