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TV: Why We Love Mad Men: Ambiguity in Character and Plot August 18, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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ORIGINAL at Ronebreak.

UPDATE: Check out my comparison of Mad Men with True Blood. The theme: guilty pleasure of watching naughty conservatives.


Yes, critics love Mad Men; anyone who doesn’t watch the show must be confused and annoyed at all the hoopla over this great show. I hear you. Hype is dull. Still, critics love lots of shows — anyone watch Friday Night Lights? Damages? Breaking Bad? (I do) — and not all of them are hits. Mad Men, on the other hand, has never been more popular. Nielsen ratings released today showed a total of four million people watched the premiere Sunday night, 2.8 million in the first hour. That’s a series high and comes close to being a top cable TV show on a very niche network, depending on how you slice the numbers.

Why Mad Men?

Short answer: Mad Men is smarter than your average TV show. Longer answer: Mad Men bucks a long-held television tradition of making a character’s development and emotional state clear and relatable. Over the last ten years there have been two dominant trends in television programming. 1) Treating viewers like adults. 2) Treating viewers like children. You can explain #2 through the rise of reality television. The first trend starts, for me, with the West Wing, but that’s probably my age showing. It continues with Lost, 24, The Sopranos and The Wire, but you can name any number of shows really. (This is not to say TV has always been stupid; there’s always been smart TV: MASH, Hill Street Blues, Twin Peaks…)

Mad Men is so popular because it takes the smartening up of television to a ridiculous degree. It’s an extremely intellectual show. How? Because it’s a very subtle puzzle. The hallmark of television has always been emotional accessibility: unlike in Oscar-winning film drama, characters are pretty clear about their views and actions. They say or show exactly how they feel. TV is the land of emotional clarity. Close-ups tell us who is sad, angry or happy and why. Even when the plot is confusing, characters typically aren’t.

Mad Men’s characters are mostly puzzles. Half the time we have to debate why they do what they do. Don is the biggest puzzle of all, shifting from family values to philandering bachelorhood within the course of minutes. He literally has two identities. Like Tony Soprano, he is both endearing and infuriating. He makes strange allies and is at times oddly empathetic. The third-season opener showed him — SPOILERS AHEAD — completely nonjudgmental of a coworker’s homosexual indiscretions.

I realized this while reading Slate’s discussion over the premiere, which showed how easy it is to debate simple facts about what Mad Men’s characters do. Why did Joan give her British counterpart, a presumed enemy, his own office? It could be burgeoning attraction, her belief in gender roles, a way to shut him up, or a way to set him up for disappointment. Why is Don back to cheating, or, did he cheat reluctantly? A pre-coital moment with him and a stewardess only hinted at his psychology. Or, what’s the deal with Ken Cosgrove? Is he cocky, self-content, nonchalant, or an idiot-savant? He’s bright, but doesn’t show it. Why?

On Mad Men, we rarely get speeches about how characters feel — I feel this because…I’m mad at so-and-so because… — like we do on Grey’s Anatomy, Brothers and Sisters or most network TV dramas. Even better-written critical darlings like Friday Night Lights are guilty of this. Part of Mad Men’s economy of emotion, maybe most of it, is 1950s restraint. But part of it is just grown-up television.

That a TV show has enough faith in its audience to figure out for themselves why each character acts the way he/she does, where they’re heading and whether they are good, evil or a mix of both, is very refreshing. And loads of fun.

TV: “Community” Needs to Do Better in Class August 17, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Original at Splice Today, also see my thoughts on what Community‘s premiere on Facebook means for YouTube.

Facebook | Community

A good test of whether a show is great is if, at the end of the episode, you cannot help but replay every scene in your mind. I get this feeling after Mad Men, True Blood and a few other commercial and critical darlings.

If a show is good but not great, you might not think about after it’s over, but you’re excited to see the next episode; it’s how I feel about Royal Pains.

If a show borders on mind-numbing mediocrity, however, you forget about it almost immediately after it’s over. You can’t remember the jokes or the dramatic moments. The past is fuzzy. The future is empty.

I got that feeling when I watched Community, NBC’s anticipated comedy for this fall starring Chevy Chase and The Soup‘s Joel McHale, of whom I’m huge fan. In a creative but inevitable marketing move by a broadcast network, NBC premiered the pilot show for a limited time on Facebook, hoping to harness the force of social networking to build a cult base around the show. Facebook’s features allow viewers to easily recommend shows to friends, and personal recommendations are the best drivers of TV viewership. People want to watch what their friends are watching. It’s why I consistently feel compelled to watch The Office (no judgment!; it’s a good show).

I had high hopes for Community. It follows several characters as they embark on their journey to graduate from Glendale Community College.  The show is really about Joel McHale’s Jeff, a lawyer disbarred for falsifying his academic background by lying about his undergraduate degree. McHale is a fast talker and non-worker. He says the problem is if you’re smart you can get away without doing much work. He fits in at Glendale, but doesn’t want to be there. By the end of the pilot he has a love interest, an average-looking blonde with a quick tongue, and a throng of quirky, ethnic friends.

The reason I was optimistic about Community is that it concerns a relatively unexplored aspect of American life, even though millions attend community college every year. Think of all the shows and movies about life at universities and try to think of more than two about a community college. The experiences are different, the most obvious of which is that community college graduates are not really a community at all: many students have jobs, families or live at home and have their own friends. Community seems at least somewhat aware of the irony in its name, and when Jeff christens his fake Spanish study group a “community,” it sounds as ridiculous and sad as it should.

The problem with Community? Like many new television shows, it lacks the hardest things to manufacture: relatable characters and compelling storylines. I certainly don’t care about Jeff, or his paramour-to-be, Britta. His backstory hardly endears us to him, and we don’t really know hers. Even if Jeff is supposed to be an anti-hero, Joel McHale certainly doesn’t look like one. We love him on The Soup, so we’re left in a bit of a void. Some of the side characters have compelling stories: a working mother and a football player who missed out on a scholarship due to an injury are fine on paper but on screen only serve as punchlines for Jeff’s quips. Chevy Chase’s Pierce appears to be someone who once had money and has either lost it or has kept it and is bored. That’s kind of interesting.

Nor does Community, written by a veteran of The Sarah Silverman Show, incorporate the best of what makes hit comedies develop impassioned fan bases today. It wants to be wacky and quick like 30 Rock, but doesn’t make it, and awkward like The Office but comes up short. But the writing does sound conscientious and thoughtful, and that alone might fuel Community to a second season. Mostly, though, the show gives us a glimpse of potential, if not greatness. Maybe this is the next 30 Rock, or maybe it’ll be canceled. Judging from the pilot, I can’t tell either way.

YOUTUBE: The End of YouTube? August 10, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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CLICK for article.

No website stays on top forever. So in the tradition of reckless speculation, in an article over at Ronebreak, I lay the case for YouTube’s demise, just for sport.

The Most Popular (Random) Block on Screen? August 6, 2009

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155 Riverside Drive from Google Maps155 Riverside Drive from Google Maps

Why does Riverside Drive between 87th and 89th always show up in movies and TV?

When you think of famous city streets in film and TV, only a few come to mind: Park Avenue, Fifth Avenue, Sunset Boulevard, Broadway, Hollywood. I might be missing a few, but certainly absent from yours and other people’s list is Riverside Drive in New York. But as I watch some of my favorite TV shows and movies, I’ve noticed a few isolated Riverside cameos.

What’s weird is that all of these examples — written by different writers/producers at different times — use the same block!

152 Riverside

Wikipedia has three of them: Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon, of 30 Rock, lives at 168 Riverside Drive, but used to live at 160 Riverside; Tom Hanks’ Joe Fox lives at 152 Riverside Drive in You’ve Got Mail (it is, of course, a plot point; his AOL handle is NY152), and Will and Grace reside in a condo at 155 Riverside Drive on Will & Grace. Recently, however, in the second season of Mad Men, discerning viewers noticed another occurrence: in directing a taxi to take home the laid-off lush Freddy Rumsen, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) tells the cabbie to take him to: 152 Riverside Drive!

Why this block (Riverside Drive between 87 and 89th Street)? I’m sorry to say I don’t have a good answer. From what I can gather, 152 is not an actual apartment building, at least not anymore (although old Harvard alumni directories from the early half of the century have 152 as an address). 155 is, however, and one Flickr user says the building’s doorman has seen W&G crews there. (“155 Riverside Drive. Oppenheimer’s childhood was spent here. Plus it’s where they film Will and Grace occasionally, so the doorman says.”) 160 has several listings online, so it’s real and appropriately expensive, though not excessively so for Manhattan — $1.5 million for 2 bedrooms? Liz Lemon is doing alright. For her part, Tina Fey lives a few blocks down on West End Ave.

Liz Lemon used to live at 160 Riverside Drive, but in season four she “moved” to 168 Riverside. Why the show changed it is beyond me.

Is there anything nearby that would draw a Hollywood crowd? I don’t think so. There’s a prominent monument down the street, which is somewhat iconic and has been used in at least one movie that I can remember (Parting Glances?). The only other building of note is a rabbinical school.

Similarly I can’t find any substantial ties amongst the crew members of these shows and movies.

A still from You've Got MailA still from You’ve Got Mail

Certainly the upper west side has its own allure as a setting. The stereotype of the New York Times-reading professional who, as a fan of the arts, is more likely to read about it than create it, still has traction. Liz Lemon, Kathleen Kelly and Grace Adler could and probably would be friends. (I smell a movie!) Obviously, Mad Men, set in the 60s, is a different case, making its use of the address all the more random.

Riverside Drive itself, moreover, is one of the prettiest streets in Manhattan. Lined with a long park and overlooking the Hudson, it houses quaint, yet urban, apartment buildings that seem to conform to the island’s contours. It’s “pretty Manhattan” without the forced hipness and bustle of downtown and the snobbery of the east side.

I’ll be on the lookout for more Riverside drive instances, and you should be too!

FILM: Does Judd Apatow Really Hate Women? August 3, 2009

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Over at Ronebreak, I unpack whether Judd Apatow, whose Funny People opened this past weekend at number one at the box office (but below his previous movies), is really the sexist misogynist Katherine Heigl suggests or whether something else is at play in her critique. It doesn’t seem to matter either way, since Apatow has signed a three picture deal with Universal. We’ll be watching his movies for many, many years to come.