Monthly Archives: December 2015

Jon Hamm as Don Draper - Mad Men _ Season 7B, Episode 14 - Photo Credit: Justina Mintz/AMC

Maybe it’s a coincidence, but three of the best dramatic series of 2015 (“Mad Men,” “The Americans” and “Fargo”) were not only set in the recent past, but pivoted around that strange ‘70s and ‘80s phenomenon some called the encounter group.

In the pop psychology history of the world, American culture entered the 1960s buttoned up and conformist, with the women frigid and unfulfilled, and the men out of touch with their feelings and repressed.  Then along came the pot, free sex and rock ‘n roll of the ‘60s — and the next thing you know, we had disco, divorce and self-actualization.

This is the narrative refrain we see time and again when TV looks back at those tumultuous decades.  And as a symbol of how American society radically changed, nothing quite beats the encounter session, where people sat in groups and bared their souls to complete strangers.

Consider these great dramas from 2015 (some spoilers, so proceed with caution):

— In the“Mad Men” finale, set in 1970, ad man Don Draper is at the end of his rope when he attends a week-long retreat at The Esalen Institute at Big Sur.  While there, he gets his head on straight and is inspired to create Coke’s famous “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” ad.

— In “Fargo,” set in 1979, Peggy Blumquist, a trapped Minnesota housewife and hair stylist, uses the family’s savings to fund a weekend at Lifespring, thereby denying her husband the money he needs to buy his boss’ butcher shop.

— In “The Americans,” set in 1983, Sandra Beeman, the wife of FBI Counter-Intelligence agent Stan Beeman, gains the strength to leave her husband after attending an est seminar.

In all three shows, the est, Esalon and Lifespring sessions are sought out by desperately unhappy women to the befuddlement of the men in their lives.  The men are either emotionally blocked (Don Draper and Stan Beeman) or just plain dim (Ed Blomquist).  Both sexes need some jolt to begin communicating, but it’s an open question whether encounter groups are enough.

The way these shows treat the encounter group industry ranges from bemusement to grudging respect.  In “Mad Men,” the Esalen Institute, with its constant refrain of “How did that make you feel?” seems vaguely absurd and mildly comical, especially since the participants range from self-indulgent to judgmental. On “The Americans,” est’s promise to help people become the people they were born to be, not the role they were assigned, is no joke, especially to the show’s protagonist, the undercover Soviet spy Philip Jennings, whose  whole life is about playing a role.

As for Peggy Blumquist in “Fargo,” she never does make it to the Lifespring session — but it eventually becomes clear that going on the lam from the cops and stabbing a vicious criminal is actualization enough.   Like Jack Kerouac and Bonnie and Clyde before her, being on the road, fleeing from her humdrum life, is what she really needs.

Television shows set in the past work best when they help us understand what we’ve become by showing us what we used to be.  To succeed as works of art, they need to have characters who not only dress differently from us but think differently.  This is what makes “Mad Men,” “Fargo” and “The Americans” so successful.  Their characters are both familiar and strange.  As we watch these people come to grips with changing mores and values, we can see the past evolving into the present before our eyes.

Only a small percentage of the population attended encounter sessions in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but their impact on the culture at large was huge.  Prior to the self-encounter movement, if you wanted to confess your sins you went to church.  Then all of a sudden you could go to a hotel conference room and confess to people you’d never met before.

Today there’s no need for encounter groups because we have television.  First there were confessional talk shows like “The Phil Donahue Show” and “Oprah,” and now there is reality TV, where people are prodded into committing and then confessing to sins they might not have come up with on their own. The idea that you might want to keep your feelings to yourself is laughable these days.  It even seems dangerous — as if bottled-up emotions are a recipe for an explosion.

But in the end, “Mad Men,” “The Americans” and “Fargo” seem to argue that the true heroes are not the ones who feel the need to articulate their feelings, but the ones who actually do the right thing. This is especially true on “Fargo,” where the Solversons, the moral core of the series, go out of their way NOT to verbalize their love for each other. Externally they seem repressed —  but love is doing, not saying, and all the encounter sessions, reality shows and confessional talk shows will not change that.



Last Saturday, I went out to the driveway, picked up my home-delivered copy of The New York Times, removed half an inch of inserts and catalogues, and deposited them in the recycling bin before I even returned to the house. I felt slightly bad about all those advertisers who’d paid the Times for access to my mind space, but I just couldn’t bear the thought of sorting through all that paper on the off chance that I might find a useful $5 coupon.

Several hours later, I drove to our local mall. When an ad came on the car radio, I hit the change button and switched to a different channel.

Later that afternoon I watched a YouTube video with an ad that counted down the seconds to the moment when I could proceed directly to the Web site. At the very instant the countdown reached zero, I clicked on the “proceed to your content” link and got out of that ad.

In other words, modern life is turning into one long attempt at commercial avoidance.  And no wonder, since the prevalence of ad-supported media is increasing — while the ability of advertisers to develop interesting ads is not.

A lot of the discussion about commercial avoidance tends to focus on television — but it’s a lot worse in other media (and here I’m going to speak anecdotally rather than rely on self-reported studies that may or may not be accurate).

I can’t remember the last time I noticed a newspaper or Web site banner ad.  Occasionally I’ll notice a magazine placement with a particularly unlikely celebrity endorser (like Tom Brady and that watch), but usually I just page through to the next article.  On podcasts, I fast-forward through the commercial endorsements if they’re more than 15 seconds long.

Meanwhile, the online world, the supposed medium of the future, has turned into one long game of digital whack-a-mole.  You’ll be reading an article and an ad will suddenly pop up.  How fast do you click that off?  Pretty fast. Or you’re trying to click through to content you actually want to see, but  the cursor lingers too long on a particular part of the page, which results in another pop-up that you’ll immediately click off.  In all cases, the website will get credit for delivering an ad view even though you only looked at it long enough to find the “X” that will get out of it. And yet The New York Times reports that digital ad spending is expected to surpass TV advertising soon.

Sometimes, of course, online ad avoidance is impossible. Several months ago I purchased razor blades from  The blades are fine, and I will buy some more when I run out of that supply. But can’t wait that long.  Harrys’ ads stalk me everywhere I go online. I understand the concept of online targeting but am not impressed that the collective power of Facebook, Google, Twitter, the Drudge Report, and have teamed up to harass me about a product I’ll buy when I’m good and ready.

Television, which was once thought to be the most vulnerable to commercial avoidance, has actually survived the best. In the old days, commercial avoidance was called “going to the bathroom,” but today it’s called “timeshifting.” There was a time when the television industry clutched its chest in collective fear at the introduction of TiVo. Then it turned out that viewers were not as fast on the trigger finger as everyone thought they’d be. We all swear that we fast-forward through all the commercials all the time, but Nielsen’s numbers have consistently shown that someone out there is watching recorded commercials, particularly in playback that happens on the same day the show is recorded. (This is classic example of why you can’t ASK people what they do — you have to SEE what they do.)

The current fear is that viewing will transfer from the traditional television to a mobile device.  If that were to happen, it would probably spell the end of ad-supported video content, because people cannot stand to sit through a lot of commercial video on smartphones and tablets.

There is no way the enormous cost of producing scripted television could be borne by the handful of ads that can appear in a show that is primarily played back on a smartphone.  (I have a theory, supported by no research other than my anecdotal personal experience, that the bigger the screen, the more commercial video people can tolerate:  I can happily sit through a two-minute Coke commercial in the movie theater, but start going crazy when even a 30-second cut of that same ad appears on my iPhone.)

Fortunately, the era when most television will be shown via apps is still far in the future, despite all the media hype. Nielsen’s recent Comparable Metrics Report shows that the average American still only watches 16 minutes of video per week on a smartphone. This compares to more than 32 hours of regular television per week.  And according to Nielsen’s Total Audience Report, the vast majority of TV viewing is live. That’s a lot of TV commercials that people are failing to avoid.

The TV commercial might not last forever, but it’s taking a long time to kill.  The Internet has been around since the 1990s, TiVo was introduced in 1999, the iPhone debuted in 2007 — and yet still we watch a lot of TV commercials.  Like every other Baby Boomer, I’ve spent my entire life trying to avoid them — but I just can’t.