Clear eyes, full hearts

2009 October 30
by kvanaren

In a post several weeks ago I mentioned a few of the shows I was most excited about for this new fall season, and among that list I included Friday Night Lights. Truth is, that entry was slightly misleading – although there are new episodes of Friday Night Lights this fall, airing every Wednesday night, the chances you’re actually able to watch them are very slim. Facing the commonplace reality of terrible ratings for a stellar show, NBC made the unusual decision to seek outside assistance in order to keep Friday Night Lights alive. As a result, the show is co-funded by DirecTV, and NBC doesn’t get to air the episodes until well after DirecTV has had exclusive access to the whole season. Which means that if you have DirecTV, congratulations, you can watch the new season of this fabulous show. If not, wait until next spring and be thankful (as I am) that somehow this deal is lucrative enough to keep the show in production. All of which is to say, a new episode of Friday Night Lights aired this week, and I’m loathe to write about it because I’m sure no one has seen it. I’ll probably write about it in detail once it starts to air on NBC, but for now I think I’ll hold off. I do want to take this opportunity, however, to describe in a little more detail why the show’s great and why you should take the time to catch up for the new season next spring.

Yes. I am in love with a show about football.

Yes. I am in love with a show about football.

The first thing I feel I have to mention about Friday Night Lights is that it is a show about football, and I assure you, in normal circumstances, there are few things I care about less than football. I have no particular issue with the sport, but have never found it at all intriguing – large men smash into each other on an otherwise lovely, manicured green field, and I am pretty much hollow inside. I am the embodiment of “meh.” I think it’s necessary to emphasize the full extent of my indifference, because I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to dismiss the show thinking that it’s merely a show about football. I dismissed it for several years under that very same impression, and if I could, I would time travel back to my four-years-ago self and attempt to knock some sense into me.

Truth be told, it is a show about football, but it’s also about American images of masculinity, poverty and betrayal, bodily power and bodily weakness, Texas landscape, youth, and maturity. In the beginning of the show, protagonist Coach Eric Taylor becomes the head coach of the Dillon Panthers, the single bright spot in an otherwise ramshackle and struggling Texas town. Several of his football players become fascinating, problematic, charismatic figures, as Coach Taylor’s wife Tami and his daughter Julie. Many of the excellent plotlines come from the players’ lives, the most heartbreaking of which include Tim Riggins, whose only caretaker is his drunken buffoon of an older brother, and the achingingly sweet quarterback Matt Saracen, who lives with and cares for his ill grandmother. The show revolves around the classic, cliché storylines that any sports fiction must – winning and losing, struggle and heroism, underdogs who pull through – but after witnessing Matt Saracen remind his grandmother yet again that he is her grandson, not her son, winning on the football field pulls an entirely different emotional punch.

Eric and Tami Taylor

Eric and Tami Taylor

The players are excellent, and supply Friday Night Lights with the persistent drama and tears of a high school narrative. But players come and go, and the show’s core will always be Eric Taylor and his family. If nothing else, watch Friday Night Lights for one of the best and most moving depictions of marriage I have ever seen on tv, and the amazing performances by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton that make it possible. Eric and Tami disagree with each other, at times to the point of electric, wordless anger. They deal with problems that face any marriage, especially when Tami makes the decision to go back to work after working primarily in the home for many years. No matter how frustrated, though, they approach each other, quietly apologize, and move forward. Every day brings new stressors and obstacles, and they move through it with confidence that they will remain whole.

Even setting aside Friday Night Light’s gorgeous aesthetic, pleasantly melancholy score, and rich storytelling, I would watch it just to watch the Taylors be married to each other day after day. Do I sound like I want to be them? I do, a little bit. I’d probably try to do it without the football, though. In my minimal real life experience, it’s never as interesting as it is on Friday Night Lights.

In which an uncharacteristic inability to express a complete thought drives me to the bullet (point)

2009 October 29
by kvanaren
  • Halloween is this weekend! There will be many Halloween themed episodes on TV tonight, including Community, Parks and Recreation, The Office, The Mentalist, FlashForward (okay, not positive the episode actually has any Halloween in it, but the title is “Scary Monsters and Super Creeps” – that totally counts!), and of course, The Vampire Diaries. If you’re into that sort of thing. (I could include Supernatural, but every week is Halloween on that show.)
  • Although most of the themed programming will be on tonight, Monday night’s episode of Castle took advantage of the holiday as well as Nathan Fillion’s rabid Firefly fan base by dressing him up as Captain Mal Reynolds for the show’s opening. The scene was riddled with ridiculous call-outs – “What are you supposed to be?” “Space cowboy!” (cue Firefly banjo twang) and also “Didn’t you used to wear that, like, five years ago?” Firefly fans everywhere lost their minds with excitement. And also wept, because, you know…they’re Firefly fans.
Space cowboy, complete with suspenders and period firearm

Space cowboy, complete with suspenders and period firearm

  • There will also be Halloween themed episodes of Ghost Whisperer and Medium on Friday night. I don’t really care, and you probably don’t either, and now’s when I’m forced to admit that I wrote this entire bullet point so that I could mention the title of Friday night’s new episode of Law and Order. “Human Flesh Search Engine.”
  • Levis has been airing an ad for their new campaign that features what some consider to be a recording of Walt Whitman’s voice. It’s a beautiful short film, but I agree that its aesthetics are undermined when at the end you realize it’s just trying to sell you a pair of pants.

Dollhouse – Belonging

2009 October 28
by kvanaren

Ahh, Dollhouse, you’re killing me! Just after FOX makes the decision to remove you from the Friday lineup during November sweeps, you’ve gotta go and give me a completely amazing episode like last week’s! This is just like last year, where you announced you had this post-apocalyptic thirteenth episode, and then never actually aired it! AHH.

Sierra's tell-tale dark and twisty artwork

Sierra's tell-tale dark and twisty artwork

Yes, I’ve been writing fairly frequently about Dollhouse because even when it’s not doing so well, I think it still deserves attention. And even though there are episodes that fall flat or otherwise fail to satisfy, sometimes (too rarely, but sometimes) there are episodes like last week’s “Belonging.” It worked on so many important levels – first and foremost, “Belonging” developed the mythology of the show rather than introducing a new creepy Dollhouse client whose engagement (spoiler!) will inevitably go awry. The show began to deal with what happens when someone becomes a doll against her will, and that allowed the writers to finally present the Dollhouse from a sociopathic, deeply evil perspective. Unlike so many previous installments, where we listen to Paul Ballard rail against the cruelty of dollhood but then also watch Adele Dewitt calmly justify the Dollhouse as a willing, consensual service, there was no mistaking the underlying immorality here.

Topher: from mad scientist to something resembling a human

Topher: from mad scientist to something resembling a human

Topher was really the key to the moral core of “Belonging.” For so long, he’s been an obnoxious, one-note asshole who can’t even hit his evil laughter in a believable register, and suddenly, “Belonging” transformed him into a fully formed human being. Once he discovered that Sierra had been drugged into insanity and entered the Dollhouse against her will, Topher stopped drinking the Kool-Aid. Watching him develop from evil mad scientist into a guy retching as he saws apart a body was thrilling, and moving, and it felt just. Topher deserves to deal with the consequences of his thoughtlessness, and this episode was a good start.

When they learn to read, you know you're in trouble

When they learn to read, you know you're in trouble

The thing about “Belonging” that pushed it over the edge for me, though, was that all of the parts were really working. If the episode had just dealt with Sierra’s past and Topher’s dawning humanity without any of the many smaller moments that surrounded and contexualized that plotline, it would still have been a good episode. Enhancing the action with Echo’s growing personhood (through my all time favorite signal of rebellion – she reads!), Victor’s incredibly endearing loving gestures, and The Awesomeness of Boyd made the whole hour excellent, not just the main plotline. The Awesomeness of Boyd, by the way, includes discovering Echo’s hidden book, slipping her the access card, and most of all, his Sopranos-esque body removal skills. (“Look, I’m gonna need da Goose, is he around? Yeah, I need someone…disappeared.”)

The word around the internets is that the next episode is just as good if not better. Too bad it won’t air until December.

White Collar, Blue Skies

2009 October 27
by kvanaren

Last week USA debuted a new original program, adding to its successful lineup of shows that carefully modify a very specific formula. USA has Monk and Psych, shows about quirky detectives who aid the police in investigating crime, it has Burn Notice and Royal Pains, about quirky men who have to fly under the official radar of their given professions and use their particular skill sets to help people, and it has In Plain Sight, about a quirky female U.S. Marshal who bends the rules to protect witnesses. The shows all have a meticulously calibrated tone, a thoughtfully balanced mix of humor, thrill, mystery and poignancy meant to satisfy every possible dramatic desire. Just when it’s starting to seem too serious, someone cracks a stupid joke. Just when the main character starts to act too strange or un-relatable, he (it’s mostly he) does some goofy heart-warming thing to remind us why we care. Just when you start to feel pretty comfortable and the formula starts to get predictable, something exciting happens and shakes things up just enough to be unexpected. It’s television designed to satisfy, beginning with the pleasantly odd main character and carrying through to the aspirational luxury settings (Miami, the Hamptons, Santa Monica, etc.)

Straight guy on the left (you can tell by the gun holsters), wacky guy on the right (you can tell by the skinny tie)

Straight guy on the left (you can tell by the gun holsters), wacky guy on the right (you can tell by the skinny tie)

Wow, that weird Spanish bond issued during WWII *does* look fake!

Wow, that weird Spanish bond issued during WWII *does* look fake!

The newest iteration of this formula is White Collar, a show about an FBI agent who investigates white collar crimes and his new partner, a felon he releases from prison to help solve a particularly stubborn case. Together they fill every requirement for a buddy cop show – one is a straight arrow (and married to Tiffany Amber Thiessen of Saved by the Bell fame), one is downright wackadoo. One lives reasonably within his means; the other has managed to wiggle into the guest room of a completely implausible mansion, in spite of his telltale GPS ankle bracelet. Although my intellectual response to the pilot was something along the lines of “oh look, he’s got an oddly quirky partner now!” and “gee, how funny for the felon to live in a gorgeous mansion,” it would be dishonest of me to discount that it was also an effective, satisfying hour of entertainment. The two main characters are charismatic and appealing. The crime, an elaborate historical forgery scheme, was totally ridiculous and twisty. I’ll admit it, I laughed. And I like a good fake Spanish bond with a Goya printed on the top, issued during World War II and now worth a quarter of a million dollars, as much as the next gal.

White Collar succeeds largely because it works from a premise that hits USA’s entire branded checklist of programming in an especially pleasing way. The main characters on In Plain Sight and Royal Pains do jobs that are exciting and dramatic (U.S. Marshal, doctor), but contain little fantasy. Burn Notice has been much more successful because its main character is a spy, which allows the writers to explore a world of absurd plots and characters fully in keeping with the over-the-top, luxurious, glamorous spray-tanned background of Miami. White Collar fiddled with the formula a bit – divide the protagonist spot between two characters, let one of them be fairly normal, but investigating white collar criminals gives the writers a free pass to spin out endless, exciting Oceans Eleven scenarios. And although the show is set in grittier, colder New York City, the weather has been remarkably obedient to USA’s rule about blue skies.

What a lovely rooftop you have, recently released felon. And what fetching topiaries.

What a lovely rooftop you have, recently released felon. And what fetching topiaries.

I may scoff at USA’s rigid, cookie-cutter method for producing new shows. But if the cookie cutter makes entertaining cookies, who am I to judge?

Mad Men – The Gypsy and the Hobo

2009 October 26
by kvanaren

Well, that was one of the most riveting hours of television I’ve seen in a long time. It’s hard to know how to start, except to quote the beginning of Alan Sepinwall’s blog post on last night’s episode:

Damn.

Damn.

Damn damn damn damn damn damn damn.

Damn.

Agreed. “The Gypsy and the Hobo” started with a familiar pace and familiar scenes – Don at work and with Suzanne Farrell, Roger and an old love interest, Joan and her horrible husband. Then Joan cracks a vase over the idiot’s head, Betty has a confidential discussion with the family lawyer, and the pace begins to accelerate; things feel tighter and more meaningful. Even given those signals, the moment when Betty orders Don to open his desk drawer and the scenes that followed were heart-stopping. Narrative time seemed to be infinitely still, with every thing coming to a sudden halt while Don wept over his dead brother. At the same time, it was like watching every hint about Don’s past from the previous two seasons all collapse into one five-minute stretch, and it was all the more effective because he was so unexpectedly truthful. And Suzanne’s presence, hovering just outside the door, added a thrumming, unspoken note of tension underneath the entire proceeding. There’s a ton to say about those scenes and the rest of the episode, but if nothing else, I want to make sure I mention how completely amazing it is that Matthew Weiner and the rest of the writing staff made the decision to enact this turn of events with two full episodes left in the season. Any other show I know would have made this episode the season finale, leaving us with a giant, revelatory cliffhanger. Instead, the aftermath of Don’s exposure will drive the show to this season’s conclusion. It’s great writing.

My favorite of these images is the bottom left, with pieces of Halloween costumes strewn in the foreground

My favorite of these images is the bottom left, with pieces of Halloween costumes strewn in the foreground

This episode was also perhaps the most blatant entry in Mad Men’s ongoing fascination with holidays and the way they structure time. Season one ended with Thanksgiving and Don’s poignant speech about memory, family and nostalgia. This season has been downright riddled with appropriate festive metaphors and notable days of the calendar year – there was the Kentucky Derby party, the eclipse, and the British invasion on the 4th of July. Now, on Halloween, Don’s costume gets stripped away while his children dress up as figures from the impoverished, misunderstood, marginalized social strata Don once occupied. Betty calls up ghosts from Don’s past, and as he weeps we realize how much Adam’s death has haunted him. Halloween also provided us with the episode’s concluding moment, that thoroughly routine question now laden with new significance: “And who are you supposed to be?” The thematic consistency would almost be too tidy if it weren’t so completely shocking. And of course, these ghosts won’t disappear the next day.

mad men 311 3

It can’t be an accident that this episode, containing one of the most significant moments in the series to date, was also explicitly aware of its own fictional impact. First, we had Roger and his Casablanca-themed youth. His former lover directly compares their lives with that film, and in her memory at least, the young Roger was already an extra-fictional figure. He boxed, and spent all his money, and basically wandered around Paris “hoping to be a character in someone else’s novel.” Here is Roger now, thirty years later, a prominent but unmistakably supporting character in The Life of Don Draper. Then, there was the Caldecott Farms subplot. The ad campaigns at Sterling Cooper have always had a strong thematic relationship with the rest of the episode, but this one was particularly apropos, especially the focus group scene. Don’s line that he’s “not saying a new name is easy to find,” was the most overt, but there was also that great line from Peggy Olson. As everyone’s gathered in the darkened viewing room in front of a window that looks very much like a screen, Mrs. Dog Food snaps at the ad execs to “turn off” the unpleasant focus group, and Peggy says wonderingly, “I can’t turn it off, it’s actually happening.” For any other television show, that line would have to be some joke about TiVo and the death of destination viewing. On tonight’s episode of Mad Men, though, the scenes between Betty and Don completely achieved that remarkable, all-absorbing fictional suspense that creates a sensation of relentless immediacy for the audience. Who could turn off the television as Don actually fumbled his cigarette? And then, to everyone’s amazement, told his wife the truth?

mad men 311 1

Twenty-three days until the Kennedy assassination. Two episodes to go.

Chef Wars

2009 October 23
tags:
by kvanaren

It’s been a while since I’ve written about any reality television, which has been a conscious decision. I find myself wanting to write about NOT BELIEVING what Tyra DID this week on America’s Next Top Model or WOW is that one girl on The Biggest Loser SUPER ANNOYING OR WHAT? And this, I feel, does not usually make for the most insightful or enlightening reading material.

Despite that, one reality show I do watch regularly and like talking about is Bravo’s Top Chef. It has a lot of the characteristics that has made Project Runway a successful reality show in the past (although there are those who doubt its current quality): the participants are talented people who demonstrate passion for their chosen field, the competition is intense and appears challenging, and the show has garnered some respect from well-respected culinary icons. A reality show about cooking has a lot more credit when people like Eric Ripert, Jacques Pepin, Hubert Keller, Daniel Boulud, and Rick Bayless agree to be guest judges. The caliber of chefs on the show leads to a little bit of hero worship and contestants quake a little while serving the food, but it also leads to some amazing and devastating criticism. Which, of course, makes good television.

Top Chef kitchen at the M Resort, Jennifer begins to freak out over dinner service

Top Chef kitchen at the M Resort, Jennifer begins to freak out over dinner service

This season has lived up to my Top Chef entertainment expectations. Several of the contestants appear truly talented, which makes the final outcome more difficult to predict (and more exciting to anticipate). The favorites are Kevin, Jennifer, and this season’s powerhouses, Michael and Bryan Voltaggio. Including a pair of brothers in the same season seemed at first like a classic reality show casting stunt. On a previous season, two women in a serious relationship were both cast, and it was just a matter of time before one went home and the drama began. Not so with the Voltaggios – as this season goes on, it has become clear they’re both extremely talented chefs with completely opposite personalities, and the result has been some great clashes in and out of the kitchen. This week’s episode was one of Top Chef’s favorite challenges, Restaurant Wars, where the contestants are divided into two teams and given a day to open a restaurant. Michael Voltaggio won the challenge with a chicken dish, but not before some snarky editing juxtaposed his feel good interviews (“I’m just a nice guy, you know?”) with footage of him in the kitchen (“F*ck, Bryan! No, I’ll fry ‘em myself, don’t touch ‘em”).

This Voltaggio brothers quarrel brought to you by the Glad family of products

This Voltaggio brothers quarrel brought to you by the Glad family of products

With plenty of talented people to root for and more obscenity bleeps than an episode of Jerry Springer, this season of Top Chef has been consistently entertaining. Occasionally the incessant product placement feels particularly clunky (“Okay, guys, let’s go to the M Resort!”) or the drama appears unnecessarily staged, which is the only plausible theory about how Robin could still be around. Even then, it’s still fun to watch people who are really good at what they do take pleasure and competitive pride in doing something well.

Does it get any better than Sue Sylvester in a zoot suit?

2009 October 22
by kvanaren

I think not. Yes, Glee was actually quite good last night, and although I’ve talked somewhat disparagingly about the show in previous weeks, I think it’s only fair that I continue to talk when it manages to overcome some of its weaknesses.

In my book, the best thing about last night’s episode was that something happened. I know, it’s a revolutionary and totally unexpected development, but there it is. Ken forced a choice between football and glee club, and although that choice ended up resolving itself, at least there was some interesting tension for a few minutes. In more lasting news, Ken and Emma finally came to their senses about a marriage that was beginning with a mash-up of “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “The Thong Song.” Fresh from her broken relationship with the anchorman, Sue kicked Quinn out of the Cheerios. And of course, Puck attempted to rediscover his Judaism by hooking up with Rachel, only to accept that each of them were too obsessed with other glee club members to move on. Also, there was not a single ounce of fake pregnancy plot! Whohoo!

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The episode also made some decent musical choices, numbers that complemented the plot without interrupting it (as has too often been a problem in the past). Puck’s “Sweet Caroline” mash-up was adorable, and it was a nice way to highlight the added narrative punch of giving another minor character some first person narration. “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “The Thong Song” were necessary inclusions as well as important narrative developments. The least effective was Mr. Shue’s “Bust a Move,” included for no obvious reason other than to allow Matthew Morrison some show-off time. Despite my desire to praise Glee for its success last night, I cannot ignore its faults – in this case, the choice to make Mr. Shue rap about snuggling up to his honeys while snuggling up next to the high school girls he teaches. No one on the production staff saw that and thought, “Huh, that’s a little creepy?” I’d also like to go on record as being slightly annoyed by the joie de virve of last night’s product placement. (“Thanks for the slushies, Finn. They’re delicious.”)

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glee 108 3But let me not stray too far from my initial intent. It was a good episode. And as my title suggests, it reached its best moments during Sue Sylvester’s intense, abbreviated courtship with anchorman Rod Remington. Never before has a game of Battleship been so loaded with sexual tension. Never before has the mere silhouette of a zoot suit been so hilarious. Keep it up, Glee.

(By the way, Joss Whedon seems to be on board to direct an episode of Glee some time in the future. I promise that even though I know Dr. Horrible and the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer by heart, I will not set aside my critical integrity. I mean…I’ll make an effort. Probably.)

The medium is the message

2009 October 21
by kvanaren

There are shows that get a lot of attention, shows like FlashForward and House and Gossip Girl and The Biggest Loser. They’re new, or lots of people watch them, or dramatic things happen to sexy people. And then there are shows that are older, about older and less sexy people, that exist in the background, the broadcast workhorses. And sometimes, they’re actually quite good.

Medium is just such a show. It was on NBC for several years and did reasonably well, until NBC in its infinite wisdom decided that Jay Leno would be a much better use of 10pm. (Insert standard grumbling here). I was afraid Medium would be cancelled, as is usually the case, but thankfully CBS decided they could find an audience for well-written television and scooped it up. The premise of the show is the standard crime drama crossed with a little supernatural flair – Allison DuBois begins as a normal, middle American housewife until she starts to have dreams about people dying. As it happens, Allison’s dreams are real, and allow her to help the district attorney’s office find and convict criminals, and even occasionally to prevent future murders. The show is like a grown-up version of the standard young adult fantasy plotline: you discover you have magical powers that can be used for good, others learn about your powers and initially reject you, eventually you use your powers to save them in an awesome and heroic way, you are the super amazing chosen one.

The real life of Allison DuBois: make school lunches, discuss her husband's work project, wake up after dreaming about a serial killer, interview suspect

The real life of Allison DuBois: make school lunches, discuss her husband's work project, wake up after dreaming about a serial killer, interview suspect

At least, that’s how it would go in the young adult fantasy novel. What makes Medium so great is that Allison’s life continues to look a lot like yours or mine. She still does laundry. Her kids forget to do their homework, and she has to drop it off at school, which makes her late for a meeting. Allison’s husband Joe initially doubts her gruesome visions of the future, but learns to accept them and supports her career in any way he can. One thing about the show that has gotten some attention is Allison herself, played by Patricia Arquette complete with a realistic, mother-of-three body type. You’re not going to believe me, but it turns out her husband still finds her sexy even though she is larger than a size four. Even weirder, despite years of typical financial stress, three daughters, and a wacky, prophetic REM cycle, Allison and Joe still love each other and work hard to maintain their marriage. There are many scenes that take place at night, when Allison and Joe are in bed. The scenes usually involve them talking about their days. I know! It’s downright odd!

The brilliant thing about Medium is that the show has actually hit upon a rhetorical technique that makes for some extremely effective storytelling. The realism of Allison and Joe’s life, down to the tedium of making breakfast every morning and the perpetual question of who takes the kids to school, pulls the supernatural elements of the show out of fantasy land and well into the realm of plausibility. Sure, we don’t really believe that a woman could speak with ghosts or dream about the future, but when it happens and Allison then forgets to get groceries and they have to get pizza for dinner, the whole thing feels reasonable. It feels scarier when Allison gets caught in a dangerous situation, and it feels more satisfying when she catches the bad guy. Allison DuBois’ surprisingly mundane fictional life is both the most persuasive and surprising aspect of the whole premise. So yes, we can all talk about how Chuck Bass kissed a boy on Gossip Girl this week (insert Katy Perry joke here). I was more impressed when Allison remembered where she put her daughter’s permission slip.

Nerdy

2009 October 20
by kvanaren

I am a nerd. I am a big giant nerd covered in nerd sauce, with a light dusting of nerd flakes on top and a side of nerdy fries. Over time, this character trait has come to manifest itself in some very specific and seemingly unlikely ways, largely through a love of spaceships, aliens, time travel, Star Wars, Doctor Who, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Neil Gaiman that manages to coexist with my simultaneous distaste for, say, math and physics. My parents undoubtedly knew about my affinities from a fairly early age, and were surely confirmed in their suspicions when my choice of leisure pursuit was playing with my AT-AT while wearing an oversized tshirt with a giant airbrushed snake on the front. Oh sure, I survived middle school and learned to pass as a normalish adult who speaks in reasonable, calm tones about Joss Whedon, but my nerd streak remains.

My feelings toward fictional depictions of nerds, therefore, are perhaps stronger than a critic should admit. I love the show Chuck, which I think depicts a nerd hero in a way that enables Chuck Bartowski to be both relatable and admirable. He hid his awesome secret plans on the back of his Tron poster. He is smart, friendly, and socially competent while also appreciating video games, computer systems, and the finer points of science fiction trivia. Chuck is impressive and lovable. He is also a giant nerd. So on the one hand, you’ve got a fictional nerd-hero like Chuck…

read more…

Mad Men – The Color Blue

2009 October 19
by kvanaren

In one of my favorite, if slightly predictable, scenes from last night’s episode, Paul Kinsey manages to inspire intelligent ad copy despite his drunken late-night office escapades. The pleasure of the scene comes both from Peggy and Don’s surprisingly sympathetic responses to a familiar writer’s tragedy (“I hate when that happens”) and, of course, from Peggy’s impressive on-the-fly thinking. Trying to find the benefit of telegrams over phone calls, Peggy hits on Paul’s wistful Chinese aphorism, “the faintest ink is better than the best memory” and turns it into copy for Western Union. A telegram, unlike a phone call, leaves a permanent physical trace that can be framed and kept as a memento. After railing against Peggy’s use of her gender, which Paul views as an unfair advantage, it’s deeply satisfying to watch him gape at Peggy in amazement when she turns his own idea into the concept for a great ad campaign.

Eat your heart out, Paul Kinsey

Eat your heart out, Paul Kinsey

mad men 310 2The scene is about Peggy earning her male peer’s respect in the workplace, something she deserves and has often been denied. But as is so often the case on Mad Men, the shallow, manipulative ads, which appeal to our basest instincts and unthinking emotional responses, also provide important subtext for other aspects of the plot. The many plot threads were so thoughtfully, subtly entangled in this episode that it’s almost a shame to pull them out and set them against each other in a comparative way, but nevertheless: thanks to Betty finally submitting to curiosity and breaking into her husband’s locked desk drawer, we now understand that the faintest ink may be better than the best memory, but it’s also far more dangerous.

What, after all, is Betty examining as she sifts through the documents in Don’s shoebox, his tombstone for Dick Whitman, but pages and pages of faint ink? She finds pictures that say “Dick and Adam, 1944” on the back, a deed to a house in California under the name Anna Draper, and most damningly, a decree of divorce between Don and Anna Draper. The documents are dangerous because they live in a permanent, physical place outside Don’s ever malleable, ever playacting identity, and for some reason he can’t bring himself to destroy them. (What’s more, he’s even continuing to create them, giving Suzanne Farrell’s little brother his business card.) The ink is also dangerous because it forms an incomplete narrative. Sure, you have the telegram to permanently remind you of the message you received, but it can only retell the message’s content, not its context.

Dick Whitman's papery remains

Dick Whitman's papery remains

From the beginning, that’s what Mad Men was striving to be – a retelling of more than just our surface assumptions about the 1960s. It’s easy to grow distracted from that initial intent, because as the show progresses we get all caught up in the singularity of Don Draper and the whole cast of characters. The earliest episodes, though, were more about showing us both the typewriter – the physical reminder of the period, the newfangled ink-slinger – and then also showing us Joan Holloway reassuring Peggy Olson that the typewriter would be simple enough for a woman to use. We saw the faint remnant ink, but we also got to see its surprising, forgotten context. It was lovely to see that early intention return, now carefully embedded inside an ad campaign and a character’s plot line.