Monday, July 28, 2008

"There has to be advertising for people who don't have a sense of humor.": Mad Men

(Man, it's been so long since I've done one of these, I forgot our house style for naming these things! It's a COLON, not a hyphen! -- ed.)

Mad Men seems sort of gleefully confident in its second season premiere. It doesn't really care if you think it's too slow-moving or if you think that nothing ever happens on it or if you find its alternating positions between nostalgia and deprecation for the period it's depicting to be somewhat frustrating. It's a show that, in some ways, is ABOUT racing up to the precipice of something happening and then stopping just before it tumbles over the cliff. In that way, it seems far more influenced by the final three seasons of The Sopranos (which include the ones that Matthew Weiner worked on) than the first three, when the series was closer to the grimly-paced "a whacking a week" show some of its fans always imagined it to be. That's also why I'd hedge my bets against the show ever becoming a huge hit. It's an appealing world to visit once a week, but a lot of people aren't going to want to live there. Still, the air of confidence Mad Men has in its storytelling prowess overhangs the entire episode, which is a terrific premiere, more interested in the sorts of things that hang around the edges of the frame or performance than in doing anything straightforward. That won't win over the show's critics, but it's manna to fans.

The only character who seems to have changed appreciably in the interim between season one and season two (season one left off on Thanksgiving, 1960, and season two picks up on Valentine's Day, 1962) is Betty Draper, and January Jones (whom I am contractually obligated to give a shoutout to as a fellow South Dakota native) is up to the task of suggesting the ways that Betty is realizing her own power as a very good-looking woman while also being incredibly naive about the dangers of exploiting that power too much (a late scene where a mechanic seems to be hopeful that Betty will pay his bill in a way not involving money is one of many that seems to race toward something exciting happening and then backs off in the way that anticlimactic real life more often does). Betty's a gorgeous woman, but she often seems incredibly flippant or incredibly stupid about the world she lives in (I suspect she just doesn't think about it all that much). She and her husband have sort of changed roles (she's out testing the waters, while Don is trying to stay home and be a good family man -- something he's struggling against) without either really having shifted all that far in one way or another. It's an interesting dynamic, and the fact that Don is having trouble in bed suggests that he compartmentalizes women enough that he can't ever be satisfied with just the one and that his attempts to understand Betty (a woman he's always been more interested in for her image -- check out that sequence of Betty descending the staircase to Don's wry smile) have largely resulted in just more frustration and ennui for the 1960's most ennui-ridden man in many a year.

Don's more or less the same, even though he's dealing with the fact that he's getting older and that his health is not what it was (one of the few times Mad Men makes one of its oft-clumsy "Man, the '60s were different!" jokes is when Don reacts to the news by eating a nice big lunch of steak and eggs). He's also increasingly aware that the world is passing him by, and rather than try to go along with the times, he's fighting against them, reprimanding a lewd kid on the elevator who doesn't remove his hat when a woman steps on the car (I loved the placement of the actors within the frame in this microcosm of a scene), saying that not every ad has to have an ironic sense of humor and rejecting the idea that there should be younger creative people at the agency to land accounts (Don is pretty clearly going to get swept aside by the '60s, and it's part of the genius of the show that we find that both inevitable and kind of sad -- many of Don's attitudes are incredibly retrograde, but there's also a sense of dignity to him that preserves him in our eyes). His pining for something that's slipping away from him -- be it respect for women (which goes hand in hand with subjugation of same) or his own family -- and he's able to trap that pining in a bottle every so often (in this episode, when he and Peggy pull together the airline ad at the last minute), but even he's increasingly unsure of what he's trying to sell. One of the best jokes in the episode is when Don begins to launch into one of those "What are we trying to tell people here" monologues that centered so many episodes of season one, then lets it descend into "blah, blah, blah." He's increasingly sensing that he's lost, and it's one of the best things about the show that it doesn't push too hard on this point, letting us read all manner of things into Jon Hamm's eyes.

In the first season, I wrote quite a bit about how one of the things that drives Mad Men is its sense of inevitability -- it's like a Lost flash forward episode without the flash-forwards. We know that the '60s are just around the corner (footage of Jackie Kennedy showing a camera crew around the White House anchors the episode -- it originally aired on Valentine's Day, 1962, after all -- and it brings a whole host of interesting things to bear -- not only for just how pre-feminist Kennedy seems to us now but for all of the rumblings beneath it of things we know are coming that the characters don't). The show's triumph or failure rests entirely on how much it makes you feel a little sad that Draper is going to get swept aside and yet also manages to make you understand that this sweeping aside was inevitable. To that end, Don reads a little beat poetry, then sends it off to a mystery person (I know everyone says it's Rachel, but I'm going to say it's someone with some connection to his dead brother), while musing on his own mortality and his own end.

At Sterling Cooper, Duck (how excellent to see Mark Moses return) is trying to persuade Roger into talking Don into taking on the young talent that he feels will help the firm land new clients. Roger, in a very typically smarmy Roger move, tries to tell Don the order comes from Bert Cooper himself (Robert Morse sits this episode out), but Don smells through it, even as he does interview some young talent (will he hire any of them? Who knows?). Meanwhile, Pete is trying to conceive a child, even as we know he's not the problem, and failing. The scene where Pete sits with his wife and tries to comfort her is incredibly well-done, a perfectly observed little look at this marriage, where both characters seem to be dancing around each other. The montage of the various characters (including a somehow married Sal) watching the Kennedy footage closes with a great gag -- Pete watching a science fiction movie. Pete's about the only guy at Sterling Cooper who gets what's coming, but he's still a creep and a dork deep down.

The biggest question from last season's finale -- what happened to Peggy's child -- is left hanging, and, in a nice bit of meta-commentary, the people at Sterling Cooper are just as curious about what happened to Peggy during her three-month absence (I'm betting Don knew about the child somehow) as the audience is. What, exactly, is going on burbles along beneath so many scenes that I'm impressed the writers were able to push this revelation back at least an episode (if not more).

All in all, though, catching up with the gang at Sterling Cooper was a great return to this world. It also allows fans to breathe a sigh of relief. Mad Men is not terribly worried by its own success with critics and awards bodies (though it could use a few more eyeballs, thanks). It's going to continue marching along as it always has, and it's up to us to see if we enjoy it or find it ponderous. I'm still in the former camp.


Sunday, July 27, 2008

Welcome to The X-Files Blog-a-Thon!

Updated through Sunday, July 27

Welcome to The X-Files Blog-a-Thon, a weeklong celebration of all things Scully and Mulder as we count down the days to the big, new movie, which will promptly be subsumed by having to go up against week two of The Dark Knight and whatever that Will Ferrell movie is. But, hey, we're the faithful. We'll be there for you, Chris Carter. Sorry for the late start, but this means more concentrated, X-Files-ian goodness for you.

Follow along after the jump for a list of posts involved in the Blog-a-Thon and instructions on how, yes, you, too, can be a part of the excitement.

To add your post to the list, please comment on this post, or e-mail me. If you don't have a blog and/or don't want a blog, please e-mail me an RTF file containing your work, and I'll post it here at SDD (I'll even do a quick copy edit, free of charge). If the link above doesn't work (I can never remember how to do the mail links), just use todd at vanderwerff dot us. I'll be happy to help you out.

This post will be updated throughout the Blog-a-Thon. I'll be updating throughout the week with thoughts on some of my favorite episodes from the show's run. In the meantime, please check out some thoughts I had on season three's Jose Chung's "From Outer Space" back in February of 2006, when my writing sucked a lot more. I'll be rewriting on the episode for this blog-a-thon (I consider it one of the finest in American television history), and I'll also take looks at other favorites like "Beyond the Sea," "The Post-Modern Prometheus" and hopefully a few episodes that DON'T work quite as well.

Settle in and have a seat. And keep watching the skies.

Monday, July 21

Here at SDD, I wrote about The X-Files '70s cop show roots and also made a strained comparison between Lost and The Love Boat. And lo, it was good.

Tuesday, July 22

You know, the rest of you can write something. It just seems odd when I'm the only one writing about Darin Morgan or whatever. But I'll be fine! Go on ahead!

Wednesday, July 23

Well, I apparently picked a good day to be too busy to blog, as Michael over at Patchwork Earth has a few thoughts on what other shows have learned from the way The X-Files became a hit and the way it fell apart. It's a very interesting read.

Thursday, July 24

Again, I'm backed up with work, so I won't have a post up tonight, but check out Bob over at Gee Bobg, who's theorizing about the sudden lack of prominence the X-Files holds in our pop culture (and theorizing about why this is such a sparsely attended Blog-a-Thon, though I suspect that has as much to do with my lack of self-promotion as anything else).

And I was remiss in not linking to Jamie Weinman's thoughts on my post of a few days ago (the one about '70s Cop Shows) over at TV Guidance. Great stuff.

Friday, July 25

So the new movie came out today, and the nation responded with a resounding "meh," if early box office figures are any indication. The critics weren't too kind, but if you want to read a borderline review, check out this one from The House Next Door's Keith Uhlich.

Meanwhile, DW at Ambience of Media has some thoughts on how the show often shortchanges Scully in its arguments and rarely invites the audience into them, as well as some kind words for Jose Chung's (weirdly, I have a lot of the same thoughts on an advance review of Fringe I'm working on for tomorrow).

Sunday, July 27

Here at SDD, Carrie wrote about her first encounter with the final season of The X-Files, even after she spent years telling people it was her favorite show of all time.


"What is the point of all this? To destroy a man who seeks the truth or to destroy the truth so no man can seek it?": The X-Files series finale

If you ask me to name my favorite television show of all time I will, without reservation, tell you
The X-Files. It's become a somewhat rote reply to one of those questions you get asked so many times that you stop thinking about the answer. In fact, I gave this answer even though (before this weekend) I hadn't even seen the final season or even the series finale of the very show I proclaimed to love so much. However, the answer was always a safe one to give. Everyone has heard of the show, so there's no need explaining yourself or sounding like some kind of crazy person defending a show that had no audience. The show had critical acclaim and quite a large following for what would probably only be a more minor cult hit today. I mean, it was a sci-fi show that actually won Emmys! Crazy, right?

As all of my X-Files DVD sets sat languishing unopened on my shelf this summer while I revisited early seasons of Veronica Mars and Alias and started watching Angel from the beginning instead of catching up on my "favorite" show in time for the new movie to open, I decided I needed to figure it out once and for all: is this really my favorite show of all time, or am I just so boring that I never think to change my answer when asked?

When Todd reminded us of the blog-a-thon I knew the only way to truly come to a decision was to finally break down and watch season 9 from beginning to end. Although I had seen every episode from seasons 1-7 and scattered episodes from season 8, having become so disillusioned with the direction of the show and the phasing out of Mulder's character I couldn't even bring myself to watch a single episode of season 9. As I cracked the plastic on my brand new DVD set and started watching, I immediately wanted to do something, ANYTHING, else. (Let's put it this way: to avoid continuing my marathon, I watched all 7 episodes of Swingtown I had wasting away on my Tivo. In a row. And I liked them.) There are so many reasons season 9 doesn't work, but I'm not going to go into all of them here lest I bore all of you and myself in the process. (For a great analysis of at least the first part of the season, check out this entry by blogger Martha Smith.) In short, I was bored almost exclusively throughout the season until Mulder shows up in the finale.

The crux of the problem with continuing the show without David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as the main centerpieces of the action is, as everyone knows, that the reason the show always worked as well as it did and survived the impenetrable mythology throughout the years was the relationship between Mulder and Scully and the energy they brought to the screen together as a team. Fortunately, although the finale is almost nothing more than a box episode with the sole purpose of attempting to wrap up the show's crazy mytharc with a little, flimsy bow, the relationship between Mulder and Scully grounds the exercise and makes it palatable, if not necessarily believable.

The "box" portion of the episode takes up almost an entire hour and is a virtual This is Your Life for Mulder, with almost everyone who has ever been involved in the various alien conspiracies on the show turning up at some point or another to either testify at his trial (for killing a super soldier who technically cannot be killed, and don't even ask about the super soldier project because it makes no sense and in the end is never resolved). Even the people who don't turn up to testify (because they are dead) are seen via several very convenient visions by Mulder that are never explained. Yes, Mulder sees dead people. Specifically, dead Krycek, dead Lone Gunmen, and dead Mr. X. Why Mulder sees these visions is never explained, but it sure was nice to see Krycek. I love that bastard.

After Mulder is inevitably convicted and sentenced to death, Skinner, Scully, Dogget and Reyes break him out of his military holding facility and they go on the run in search of the wise old man that holds the truth, who is of course the Cigarette Smoking Man. Who is supposed to be dead. He tells of a vague prophecy where the world will end by alien hands on December 22, 2012, all while smoking out of a tracheotomy hole in his throat, which is pretty hard core. In the end, the super soldier project people kill him but Mulder and Scully escape, and the show ends with them together and on the run, holding onto each other for dear life.

Series finales are always tricky business because every viewer comes in with different expectations, so some are bound to be disappointed. Just look at the negative fervor the finale of The Sopranos caused (an ending I loved, by the way) and the positive tongue bath the ending of Six Feet Under received (an ending which I loathed). Having nothing but nostalgia working for me while watching, I didn't have specific expectations. I will say it was nice to have them attempt to line up and explain the mythology of the show into something resembling a linear arc, but remembering what they did and didn't decide to include in the mix still let me know the entire thing was always sort of a house of cards, waiting to fall at the mere sign of a breeze. It was a successful finale, but not an outstanding one. Now, having watched the finale and the 18 episodes that preceded it, I have to ask myself the big question. The next time someone asks me about my favorite show of all time, will my answer change?

To answer that definitively, I first need to analyze why I ever gave the answer to begin with, and it's this: The X-Files was totally my first. The first show I ever obsessed over. The first show that I made sure I was home to watch every week. The first show I started taping with my VCR when I knew I wouldn't be home. The first show I discussed and analyzed with my friends who were fans. The first show where I felt any notion of "shipping," however gag-worthy that may seem now. The first (and only) show I ever wrote a major paper about in graduate school. In short, it's the show that made my love for TV move from the realm of "enjoyable way to spend a few hours being lazy" to an exercise that I felt I could make a significant portion of my life. Just because didn't end up the same quality level as when it started, is that any reason to discount the impact it had on my life and shove it over for one of my other TV loves, like Freaks and Geeks, Veronica Mars or The Wire?

And the answer, as short and sweet as it may be, is no. Although I can quote more lines from Veronica Mars, or track the story throughout the seasons better on The Wire, or feel more emotion when I watch Freaks and Geeks, I can't give up the space in my heart that The X-Files has carved out. It's sort of like why The Princess Bride is still my favorite movie: no matter what else comes along, you never forget the one that changed you. I'm just glad the one that changed me was this one and not, say, Dawson's Creek. Because as much as I love Pacey, The X-Files is a far more acceptable answer to that age old question: "What is your favorite television show of all time?"