Whoo, Chuck is back!

2010 September 28
by kvanaren

Last week I felt it was important to write about Lone Star before I no longer had a chance, and sadly, that fear has turned out to be well founded. Goodbye, best pilot on network television this fall. We hardly knew ye, mostly because too many of us are idiots who picked crappy programming over actual intelligent drama. As Dan Fienberg said, “this is why we can’t have nice things.”

In any event, the result of choosing to write about Lone Star last week was that I didn’t get to the season premiere of Chuck, a show certainly not unfamiliar with the prospect of imminent cancellation. The first two episodes did exactly what they were supposed to – after a brief flirtation with solo spy work, Chuck and Morgan are back on the job with the CIA, Sarah and Casey are on board with the season arc to find Chuck’s mother, the Buy More has been rebuilt, Ellie is pregnant, and as of last night, Jeffster is back in the house. In addition, Chuck has promised Ellie that he’s retired from the spy business, which means his reinstatement with General Beckman also rebuilds the necessary secrecy shenanigans. So yeah, it’s the opposite of Mad Men: everything falls apart at the end of the season, and the beginning of a season is all about putting it back together. The only element missing is Big Mike, who must surely be right around the corner.

Linda Hamilton and Isaiah Mustafa on Chuck

It is a relief to see Chuck and Sarah happily together, although last night’s comments about a relationship Achilles heel make me fearful that it won’t be allowed to remain cheerful for very long. It was also fun to watch the show deal with its many guest stars from the past two episodes, including Olivia Munn, Isaiah Mustafa, Lou Ferrigno and Linda Hamilton as Chuck and Ellie’s mother. I recognize that there are other opinions floating around about guest stars, but my take is generally that they depend on how open the show is to cast experimentation (Chuck being about as open as one could hope for) and how zippy the guest star makes things (not sold yet on Linda Hamilton, but Mustafa did a nice job last night as a far-too-well-trained Buy More employee). I also feel like it’s a little weird to begin a piece on guest stars by comparing them to bed bugs.

My concern about this season is that its central arc feels pretty derivative of what Chuck has done in the past. The search for Chuck’s father was catalyzed by Ellie’s impending marriage and her desire that her father walk her down the aisle. It worked well, and was a good way to keep Ellie and Awesome in the show’s emotional loop. This new search for Chuck and Ellie’s mother was initiated in a different way – the order came from Chuck’s dad, and Mrs. Bartowski’s associations with the evil Russian weapons organization suggest we may be heading for an Alias-esque questionable maternal loyalties situation. Still, I was disappointed by the subplot last night. I have no problem with watching Awesome freak out over Ellie’s pregnancy; that’s just some good old classic TV-fatherhood cliché material, and I’m all for it. The problem comes with the realization that Ellie’s pregnancy may be inspiring a wistful desire for her mother, which feels a little too close to the previous plotline for comfort. Surely a strong, powerful woman like Ellie can experience major life events without allowing her pining for lost family members to kick off an international missing persons investigation.

Happily, any dissatisfaction was at least temporarily displaced by the triumphant return of Jeffster, featuring an awesome Buy More wind machine sequence complete with Morgan working the fan. Man, I’ve missed those guys.

Mad Men – Hands and Knees

2010 September 27
by kvanaren

A while ago, I was writing about procedural narratives, and was discussing the way procedurals work by creating the illusion of change without ever actually changing. A show like CSI can go on forever, with characters leaving and coming back, serial killers rampaging around the office and employees being kidnapped, without anyone showing more than temporary signs of trauma. More importantly, the standard operating procedure (dead body, murderer unveiled) carries on without the slightest hiccup. Maybe the most exciting thing about cable television right now is the regularity with which that model is broken on HBO, FX, or AMC. There are procedurals on cable as well, of course, and I’m happy to admit to loving procedurals just as much as the next person, but it’s hard not to be drawn toward shows with less investment in maintaining a status quo.

I bring all of this up in the context of “Hands and Knees,” and also brought it up after the show’s season three finale, because Mad Men has done a masterful job of both maintaining the possibility that everything could come crashing down, as became frighteningly clear last night, and occasionally living up to that threat, as was the case at the end of last season. It helps that the entire show is built on the instability of Don Draper’s founding lie, because it lets the show flirt with discovery and dissolution every time the dam springs a leak. It started with Don’s picture being printed in Advertising Age in season one, continued through his confession to Betty and their divorce, and finally reached a stage of real threat when the FBI begins to ask questions in last night’s episode. While Mad Men has yet to perform a great unmasking of the So-Called Don Draper, it has obviously been willing to dismantle pretty much everything else in the show, and “Hands and Knees” made it seem likely that a much bigger crash is coming.

The truly remarkable thing about “Hands and Knees” is that by the end, very little has actually happened – the episode begins with Don promising to take Sally to the Beatles concert in Shea Stadium, and ends with the tickets safely in his hand. Nevertheless, by the episode’s conclusion, it’s clear that almost every lie ever told on the show is on the verge of collapse, and the doom is so imminent that it feels as though everything has already fallen apart. Pete manages to stop the investigation into Don’s identity at the price of a major account and Pete’s escalating rancor, while in the meantime, Don has a nervous breakdown and tells Faye everything. Betty toys with the idea of telling Henry Francis, which is where my money falls on how this whole thing actually comes down. Lee Gardner, Jr. tells Roger that the Lucky Strike account is gone, and even though he gives Roger thirty days to patch something together, the future of SCDP is clearly in doubt. Lane Pryce’s evil father arrives from London, wielding domination in the form of corporal punishment. And of course, Roger and Joan’s encounter from the previous episode results in Joan sitting in a doctor’s office in Morristown, contemplating her third abortion. In spite of all of these things, Don’s secretary Megan is able to cheerfully hand him the Beatles’ tickets at the end of the episode and smile that everything worked out, and manage to be both mostly right and terribly wrong in the same moment.

The music playing over the end credits – an arrangement of the Beatles’ “Do You Want To Know A Secret?”, the actual song being prohibitively expensive, I’m sure – was a nice tie in to both the Shea Stadium concert and the episode’s thematic threads. The secret I’d particularly like to know is whether Joan actually had the abortion. The episode left it carefully unspecified, but Alan Sepinwall seems to take it as a given that she had the procedure, while I was left feeling like maybe she didn’t go through with it. Thoughts?

What does one even say about this outfit?

I enjoyed “Hands and Knees.” It was well crafted, suspenseful and surprising, and even funny, namely in the scene when Don and Betty quickly shift into “the government is listening to our phones” mode and in the shape of Trudy’s unbelievably amazing maternity nightgown. But mostly I enjoyed “Hands and Knees” for what it promises about Mad Men through the end of its fourth season, and likely into its fifth. It seemed that with Don’s divorce and Anna Draper’s death, Dick Whitman would fade into the background, but he’s still here, making it possible for Don’s life to further disintegrate. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is not just a replacement of the old Sterling Cooper – its continued existence is no more assured than Don Draper’s.

As funny as getting punched in the nose

2010 September 23
by kvanaren

I cannot even tell you how terrible Outsourced is. Despite my reservations, I felt it necessary for me to watch the first episode: I’ve been prematurely bashing it just because it took over Parks and Rec’s fall premiere slot, and although I feel the trailers were sufficiently off-putting, it does seem a little unfair to go around badmouthing something I’ve never even watched.

After watching the first episode of Outsourced, my primary concern now is that I did not voice my opinion vociferously enough. It manages to cross the barrier from being merely unfunny (admittedly, a cardinal sin for something that’s supposed to be a comedy), into being something that’s actively insulting. It’s like going through a checkout line at the grocery store, except when you hand the clerk your debit card, not only do you not get any food in return for your money, the clerk deducts $100 from your account and then punches you in the nose. In fact, in attempting to come up with an accurate portrayal of watching Outsourced, the best thing I could think of was my husband’s description of the experience of viewing Gone With The Wind, which he suggested was like “eating a candle that’s burning.” I suppose, however, that just illustrating my own reaction to the pilot is probably not enough to qualify this as a useful piece of writing, and so I turn now to why this show actually is so, so bad.

The Mid American Novelties call center

At best, Outsourced’s premise is ill advised. I’m not saying it would be impossible to make a funny show about an Indian call center for an American company, but the obstacles just seem so monumental as to bring the entire undertaking into question. Our protagonist (?) Todd is an attractive, white, all-American kinda guy who gets shipped off to India to manage the call center for the Mid American Novelties company, an organization that specializes in products like fake vomit, America’s #1 mugs, and, of course, Jingle Jugs, a set of women’s breasts mounted on a plaque that twitch in rhythm with Jingle Bells. This is the product Todd holds up in front of his call center and touts as the quintessential American product – sure, he says, no one needs it, but they can’t stop you from making it. The joke here is supposed to be “haha, the quintessential American product is a set of ridiculous novelty boobs that play Christmas carols,” and while that is a barrel of laughs, there are actually even less funny things going on underneath. As Todd holds the Jingle Jugs aloft, one of his employees instinctively reaches to make sure her sari is adequately covering her chest. So not only are Jingle Jugs funny, and the idea of them being an American product is funny, but the mere prospect of actual breasts is even funnier, and so is the idea that a woman would want to cover them up, particularly those crazy Indian women with their foreign ideas of modesty! Oh ho ho! What mirth!

The Jingle Jugs. So, so funny.

Really, the whole thing is built to be as insulting as possible, and manages to enact the racism it supposedly mocks at every turn. One of the classic opening bits is Todd’s introduction to the Indian office, where he goes around asking his employee’s names, only to find each one more incomprehensible or silly than the next. Todd either can’t hear or can’t understand these characters’ names, except for one guy with the name Manmeet, which Todd of course finds hysterical. Not only is Todd exempt from learning his employee’s names (because of course, they are absurd!), the viewer is also granted this exemption. No need to learn details about these people, dear American audience! They’re just here for you to laugh at. You know what else is funny? Indian food. Also Indian accents, Indian ignorance of American customs, and Indian religions.

I do have to be fair, though, there is one thing about Outsourced that made me laugh. Right at the end of the episode, I realized that the cans of soda have been changed to a fake brand, and the props that look like cans of RC cola actually read “PC.” I’ll admit it. I snorted out loud.

Truth and a good story

2010 September 22
by kvanaren

After doing my duty to Lone Star yesterday, it’s time to bite the bullet and write about Boardwalk Empire, which is as stunning as promised. In some respects, it comes off like the standard issue big-drama HBO show: many, many characters, complicated plotlines, distinctive setting, naked ladies, etc. etc. Of course, the previous list of characteristics also describes HBO’s True Blood, so the question is why True Blood was an absurd mess this season and why Boardwalk Empire is amazing.

Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson

To be fair, a show like True Blood is currently coping with a range of challenges Boardwalk Empire won’t have to deal with for a long time, namely, the structure of plot and character development three seasons in as opposed to the fresh slate of brand new narrative. It’s entirely possible that three years from now, Boardwalk Empire will be stretched between seven different unrelated stories and increasingly sloppy characterizations, but at the moment, everything feels surprising and looks gorgeous. Seriously, the Atlantic City boardwalk set is stunning, and I completely understand why Steve Buscemi’s character Nucky Thompson spends time just staring into store fronts: it is a fabulously detailed and persuasive set. And the choreography is…well, what you’d expect when it’s an episode of television directed by Martin Scorcese. There are some particularly great intercuts between toy soldiers falling down and real life violence and between the FBI raid and the liquor delivery hijacking, as well as some lovely shots of Nucky as he contemplates the boardwalk. The image below in particular reminds me of the moment before a silhouetted man in a bowler cap shifts from real life into a surrealist Magritte landscape, something that doesn’t seem far beneath the surface in a place with a preemie hospital/tourist attraction.

The show has so much going for it. Amazing setting and creative design, interesting characters crossing a range of social statuses, great historical moment, and even Steve Buscemi, who doesn’t immediately strike one as a leading man, works really well in the lead role. I was also pleased by the opening depictions of Nucky Thompson’s character and the dilemma that seems to be driving this episode into the rest of the season, because the forces Nucky feels caught between by the pilot’s ending are real questions rather than fake, predictable conflict. His fear of moving too deeply into violence and true gangster tactics is well justified, but so is his desire to take advantage of the obvious opportunity Prohibition offers, both politically and in the black market. The only major downside of the pilot is the deluge of plot and character introduction, which even the most diligent viewer might need to rewind occasionally if you didn’t catch relationship between Big Jim and Johnny Torrio on the first go around.

What I’m most excited about for the show’s future is to watch how it will develop in relation to the history it uses as a foundation. Unlike most big shows that come out of prose source material (like, for example, the aforementioned True Blood), Boardwalk Empire comes out of a non-fictional account of the history of Atlantic City, Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City. What does a long narrative look like when its basis is fact rather than fiction? The pilot seems to proactively offer an answer to that question in Nucky’s insistence that truth never get in the way of a good story, but I’m curious about how far that lenience will extend. Mostly I just want to watch the next episode – I want more Michael K. Williams than the pittance introduction he receives in the pilot!

The (alas, probably) short con

2010 September 21
by kvanaren

I should really write about Boardwalk Empire, which by all accounts is amazing, and has already been renewed for a second season based on its very strong opening ratings. That review will come soon, and I’m sure it’s something I’ll be writing about again in the future, as it seems to be the second coming of The Sopranos, The Wire, and Jersey Shore all rolled into one. But before I get there, I feel compelled to write about FOX’s new show Lone Star, if only because it looks like there may not be many opportunities to do so in the future. Because Lone Star is really quite good – it’s certainly the best new show on network television this fall (yeah, I’m looking at you, Outlaw) – and apparently, no one at all watched it last night. So just on the off chance that someone reading this watches Lone Star next week, and somehow is also chosen as a Nielsen viewer, I fell like it’s necessary to make sure this gets out while it still can: Lone Star is good, and deserves longer than it will likely get.

The premise is not unfamiliar, but is new enough to the stable of well-known television plotlines that the show feels fresh. It’s a con man set-up, where Bob travels around Texas selling shares of an imaginary oil well and touting an equally imaginary new method of harvesting natural gas, and cannily managing to skip town the moment before people figure out his scam. The underlying idea is that while Bob is a talented, successful con man, he also wants to start living on the right side of the law, except he’s unwilling to give up either of the long term cons he’s currently running. Bob’s unwillingness comes not from his reluctance to abandon the get-rich schemes of each con, but because he’s in a relationship with two different women and gets to be two very different kinds of men. In Midland, Texas, he has a lovely girlfriend, a comfortable, relaxed suburban home, and a group of friends who love him. In Houston, he has a rich, attractive wife whose oil-magnate father wants to push Bob up the corporate ladder. Confronted with the necessity of picking one life or the other, Bob chooses both.

James Wolk as Bob on FOX's Lone Star

The pilot episode of Lone Star ends with this crucial decision, ensuring Bob’s continued commitment to both cons despite his grief over tricking honest people out of their money. It’s a slick, well-made episode of television. James Wolk is great as Bob, and manages to look and act a lot like Friday Night Lights’ Kyle Chandler, which could only be a positive thing. In an actual FNL connection, his wife is played by Adrienne Palicki, whose was amazing as Tyra Collette. Some of the pilot’s musical cues were a little overstated, but it’s easy enough to forgive in an otherwise enjoyable hour.

My hope was that Lone Star would have a chance to prove it could pull off the much harder part of its premise – carrying out a con man story over a long narrative, and figuring out how to keep its protagonist appealing while forcing him to continue lying to his loved ones. I have no idea what this plot line would look like eight episodes from now, much less a season from now, but I would love to find out. Maybe if we all pull a Tinkerbell and clap our hands if we believe in Nielsen, Lone Star will stick around for a while.

Mad Men – The Beautiful Girls

2010 September 20
by kvanaren

Thankfully, my prayers were answered and last night’s Mad Men featured none of Don’s Carrie Bradshaw-esque voiceovers. As though it were determined to do a Sex and the City riff one way or the other, however, last night’s episode focused on the women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and all of their different but equally upsetting dissatisfactions. It’s a good thing Mad Men switched from playing with that show’s narrative style to addressing its thematic concerns, because Don makes a poor Carrie Bradshaw, but Mad Men does a great job of exploring femininity, changing social positions, family politics, women in the workplace, and women’s rights as an ongoing social inequality.

It was an episode about the women, and emphasized its focus by eliminating or downplaying the presence of many of the male characters, and by positioning those it retained (Don, Roger and Bert, Peggy’s adversary Abe) as foils for Sally, Faye, Joan, and Peggy. Pete only got an appearance in the Great Ida Blankenship cover-up, and Harry Crane’s one line was a thematically-appropriate quip: “my mother made that!” Faye, Peggy and Joan’s roles in the episode were all variations on the same questions – how can you be a professional woman? How do you negotiate between traditional choices and the nascent possibility for professional careers? These aren’t new questions for Mad Men, but it was fun to watch the show grapple with placing those three women side by side, teasing out their common desires and diverging priorities. I do think that final shot of them in the elevator did a disservice to how complex these characters have become. We see Joan on one side, having chosen marriage and lower status in the workplace, Faye on the other, with no husband or children but a flourishing career, and Peggy in the middle, ostensibly caught between the two choices. It’s true, but it’s a little too black and white, and obvious enough that it’s distracting rather than revelatory.

To my mind, the most interesting and heartrending aspects of “The Beautiful Girls” lay at the opposite ends of the spectrum with Sally Draper and Ida Blankenship, the bookends to Joan, Peggy and Faye’s triptych. Ida’s death is played mostly for laughs, given the macabre game of Hide-the-Corpse and Roger’s wry eulogy (“she died as she lived, surrounded by the people she answered phones for”), but it’s easy to see the tragedy in that statement even without Bert’s far more elegant obituary. But their connection is made explicit by the overt sense of displacement each portrays, and their mutual frustration with the contemporary moment. Ida is a relic who can barely cope with this new workplace environment, and Sally is an unhappy child of divorce in a time when no court would ever grant her father custody. As if to underline their affinity in the most unpleasantly literal way imaginable, Sally and Miss Blankenship are also visually paired in the episode. Miss Blankenship’s dead weight propels her head face first onto the desk with a darkly humorous thunk, and then that image of a lowered head comes back in Sally’s desperate, furious flight from her father’s office and her subsequent wipeout in the hallway. It’s an awful, brilliant correlation between Miss Blankenship’s literal death and the collapse of poor Sally’s hope for freedom as she is strong-armed back to her thoughtless, resentful mother.

It’s a testament to the story’s compelling quality, but also certainly to Kiernan Shipka’s talents as an actress, that although this episode included Joan and Roger’s mugging and public tryst, Peggy’s growing awareness of civil rights, and some excellent verbal sparring between Stan the brutish art director and Joyce the lesbian Life photographer, all I really remember is how terribly I feel for Sally Draper.

Deep sigh, NBC

2010 September 17
by kvanaren

So, I haven’t been watching much of the new TV this week, as I’ve been barreling through season two of Parks and Recreation. (One of my friends is here visiting, and I try to be a very accommodating hostess by allowing my guests to watch whatever television they’d like, taking for granted of course that what they’d like to do most is sit and watch hours of television. I’m quite hospitable.) Obviously, it’s a terrible burden to watch Parks and Rec again, so it’s been a rough few days.

Which brings me to the point – as excited as I am that it’s fall and television is returning, I am so disappointed that NBC has chosen to push Parks and Recreation back to a mid-season premiere in favor of the new “aren’t people from other countries with funny accents funny?” comedy, Outsourced. I haven’t seen Outsourced yet, so it’s not completely fair to write it off, but  re-watching this second season makes it so obvious that Parks and Rec was the strongest comedy on NBC last year, The Office-be-darned.

In other news, Telephonoscope may be spotty this week, as the awesome computer elves are transferring the blog so that it will now live in a brightly lit blue box under my desk. Yay!

True Blood, why?!

2010 September 14
by kvanaren

Listen, I don’t know what to say about the True Blood finale, so I’m just going to complain about it. In my last post on True Blood I did this whole bit about how absurd it was to call such an overly plotted show “boring,” and yet… okay. Uncle.

true blood 312 2

The big ending gesture was that Sookie and all of the as-yet-uncharacterized faeries disappear in a burst of golden light. That whole strange Lafayette plotline ended in a ho-hum declaration that his boyfriend is a witch, nothing at all happened with the Arlene-is-carrying-a-devil-baby story, and honestly, the most emotionally moving bit of the whole episode was that Sookie got mad at Bill. Yeah. They didn’t even leave a little “Is Eric going to live?!” cliffhanger action to propel the audience across the season hiatus. I suppose I do have to give some credit for the horrifying appearance of Russell Edgington burned past the point of recognizable humanity, snickering even as his blackened, flakey skin floats enticingly through the air. Even he was a figure meant to gross you out rather than frighten you – his whole appeal has been his insane invincibility, and by the end, he was barely putting up a fight.

true blood 312 1

So let’s just set this season aside and think about what would need to change for True Blood to return to its former gory appeal. For one, it would be nice to see not quite so many plotlines Maybe we don’t need Nazi werewolves, insane vampire lover, shapeshifter dog fighting, the King of Mississippi, inbred addict werepanthers, an evil fetus, a cute perpetually re-virginizing baby vamp, voodoo gay boyfriends, and long-lost faerie relatives in the same season, mmkay? It would also be appealing to me, from a narrative standpoint, if perhaps the multiplicity of plotlines were to come together in some sort of meaningful relationship with each other by the end of the season. I’m not saying the Nazi werewolves have to kidnap the voodoo gay boyfriends and take them to a long-lost faerie family reunion or anything ridiculous like that, but just maybe, it could appear as though all of these characters actually lived in the same small town and knew each other.

I think that what True Blood needs to learn from this last season is that a small amount of organization and background structure are better support for the crazy aesthetics than a free-for-all in Bon Temps.

Mad Men – The Summer Man

2010 September 14
by kvanaren

I am perfectly fine with one episode of Mad Men like “The Summer Man.” Things have to change up every once in a while, and it’s a good thing. It’s certainly better to try new things and experiment a little than to fall into familiar, boring ruts. In many ways, I liked the tenor and direction of “The Summer Man” – it is a relief to see Don trying to move out of his downward spiral into alcoholism, it’s nice to return to telling stories about Joan, even if they’re stories about how rough her life is right now, and it’s useful to color Peggy’s upward trajectory into power and success with obstacles that come from her own misreading rather than perpetual unfairness from the outside. There’s no question that most of Peggy’s trouble at the office has to do with unstable bosses and idiot asshole co-workers, but Peggy isn’t a genius who sweeps through the hallway confronting injustice. Sometimes, she does things like fire Joey without seeing the bigger problem lurking underneath the outbursts, and while it’s great that Peggy clearly respects Joan, she’s never really understood her. Peggy fires Joey and flushes with her newly attained power, and then proudly presents her action as a gesture of friendship toward Joan. In the process, she completely ignores how hard it must be for Joan to watch Peggy “rescue” her and then expect thanks for doing it.

mad men 408 3

I appreciate “The Summer Man” for returning to this relationship between Peggy and Joan, because it’s always been a touchstone for Mad Men of how much things have changed. Their shifting positions relative to each other are more telling and markedly changed than Peggy’s relationship with Don or Joan’s position inside the company. The first season sets them out as blatant foils for one another, working inside a well-delineated hierarchy with Joan placed firmly ahead of Peggy on the ladder. Peggy and Don may have had the more personal and creatively challenging connection over the past several seasons, but Peggy and Joan are still poised in a culturally illuminating opposition to one another. Much though I might wish it could be otherwise, it seems that they’re meant to remain counterweights – one character rises, and the other one falls.

mad men 408 2

All that said, “The Summer Man” was really about Don, and it’s here that I worry a little about Mad Men straying a little too far from what works. Don’s trying to get sober – great. Don wants to get in shape, and have a relationship with his youngest son – good for him. Don manages to go out with Faye Miller, who would actually be an interesting match for him – all for the best. Don’s journaling becomes a theme-laden voiceover, a la Carrie on Sex in the City, Doogie Howser’s diary, recorded letters to unseen friend Sally on Felicity, the Captain’s Log on Star Trek, etc. etc. etc. – oh please, Mad Men. Let this be a one episode thing.

For my money, one of the most brilliant things about Mad Men is that it dramatizes the most frustrating aspect of any film-based fictional form. We see characters and we watch them interact with each other, but unlike a novel, we ultimately have no way to access to their thoughts. Film and television are perpetually fascinated by and grappling with this problem, which is why we have such a bounty of scenes with therapists, of heartfelt tell-all conversations, and of shows that reach for devices like voiceovers, journals, and other internal monologues to give us an inside view. Rather than fight with its medium, part of Mad Men’s genius has always been to capitalize on this absence of interiority. Instead of attempting to get us inside its characters’ heads, much of the surprise and pleasure of the show comes out of appreciating the gloriously manicured, gleaming surface appearances, and then delighting at how different everything is underneath. Mad Men works best as an anti-Facebook. The pilot episode illustrates this perfectly – first we get the silhouette of Don Draper in the opening credits, then we slowly meet a beautiful, struggling ad man with a bohemian girlfriend, then we realize he’s actually an insightful advertising genius, and finally, we discover he’s married. Mad Men does not begin with a close-up of Don Draper’s face and a voiceover that explains, “My name is Don Draper, but it wasn’t always that way. I have a girlfriend, but also a wife. I may have trouble at work, but sometimes I manage to see everything just a little different than everyone around me. My name is Don Draper, and my life is complicated.” *Cue wackadoo theme song*

Can't get no satisfaction, something you know all to clearly from his voiceover informing you he caught a whiff of perfume

Can't get no satisfaction, something you know all to clearly from his voiceover informing you he caught a whiff of perfume

And yet, this is sort of what happens in “The Summer Man,” complete with the hilariously over-sexified opening scene that features Don posing outside the New York Athletic Club like he’s a Brooks Brothers model. It’s sort of fascinating after all this time and his after oft-repeated distain for self-examination, Don Draper would become a guy with a journal. It makes sense that it would happen at a time in his life when his only remaining connection to Dick Whitman has been severed, his family dismantled, and his career disrupted. It makes sense, but after years of a fiction organized around the surprise of what’s inside, it feels too close and too revealing. My hope is that the episode’s title is a sort of excuse for the voiceover, and a suggestion of its impermanence. Right now, this summer, Don is a guy with a journal who can’t get no satisfaction. That’s fine, but I’d like it to be fall now, please.

Formula Fun

2010 September 10
by kvanaren

Wow, it is a really good week for FX. First, the excellent season premiere of Sons of Anarchy, and last night, the pilot episode of their completely entertaining new buddy cop show, Terriers.

Terriers is a great example of why we have formulas. It’s easy and sort of satisfying to say, “Oh, come on! A buddy cop show? It’s a procedural with potential for long story arc development? Gee, where have I heard that one before?” When they’re at their worst, formulas are repetitive excuses for the absence of creativity, banking on the audience’s inertia. This point is going to be made quite clearly when the full crop of this fall’s new network programming premieres later this month, and you’ll find yourself staring down the barrel of Medical Examiner Solves Crimes (Body of Proof), U.S. Marshals Solve Crimes (Chase), Families Are Funny and Complicated These Days (Better With You), and Lawyers Who Act Like Cops (The Defenders). There’s something pretty sad about the desire to make and watch TV with the sole purpose of being exactly like five other things you’ve already watched. It’s like back when everyone was clamoring for what to read if you liked Harry Potter, and instead of suggesting other imaginative, detailed, epic, funny, young adult friendly fantasy books, you were given five other fantasy series of dubious quality where a special, talented protagonist goes off to a magical school and ends up fighting the super villain. The idea of a formula is that the most basic premise of a show (or novel or whatever) is that show’s most defining characteristic, and that it is also infinitely repeatable.

Donal Logue as Hank on FX's Terriers

Donal Logue as Hank on FX's Terriers

The thing is, though, that sometimes the formula is good. Just because Harry Potter worked doesn’t mean another special protagonist attends a magical school series can’t work, and occasionally, they do work rather well. (See: the Percy Jackson series, which I have heard is…well, like Harry Potter). When formulas fail, they feel like tedious, unsurprising pabulum – like Twinkies, they are made to be consumed without much chewing. When formulas work, they feel like universally familiar stories that build on their well-established cultural foundations to remind us why we liked the formula to begin with. The first job of a buddy cop formula is to have two compelling protagonists who are interesting on their own and better when they’re together. On FX’s Terriers, Hank is a formerly drunk ex-cop who apologizes profusely for not paying his alimony on time and who refuses to drop a battle with the biggest real estate developer in town even after his lawyer warns him that he is too small time to take on the fight. “What if we’re big time, and just didn’t realize it?” he asks, half serious. Britt is the kind of guy who would steal a dog so that he could return it to its former owner, a woman who runs a dry cleaner’s. The woman then promises to do Britt’s laundry for a month, so Britt makes an arrangement with a fancy restaurant to clean their napkins and tablecloths in return for a nice dinner with his girlfriend. “Babe, we can’t afford this,” she says sadly. “Of course we can,” Britt answers, the best boyfriend/minor criminal around.

Michael Raymond-James as Britt (also, Winston)

Michael Raymond-James as Britt (also, Winston)

Together, Hank and Britt form the partnership in an off-the-books private investigation team, and they are alternately charming, morose, childish, and thoughtful. They are also mercifully gimmick-free, a remarkable feat in a show that features two PI partners who drive around in a Gomez Brothers Pool Cleaning truck and spend much of the pilot episode with an adorable bulldog named Winston (the same dog, of course, Britt exchanges for laundry services). The presence of that dog in particular feels like Terriers thumbing its nose at the dominance of formulaic TV as well as the show’s slightly opaque title. How is it possible to have a buddy cop show also featuring a canine sidekick, and not have the whole thing come off as a cutesy retread? Terriers does it by refusing to be a slave to its formula. It can be a show about two private investigators who succeed in fighting the big bully, but don’t always have a heart of gold or a begrudging respect for honor. It can be a show with a dog in the pilot and Terriers for a title, and have little or nothing to do with cute dog humor. Terriers is funny and familiar, and still manages to have high stakes that come off as fresh rather than tired.