Just a few things

2010 October 21
by kvanaren

It’s a busy time of the quarter for me, which is both fun and time consuming. Thoughts in brief:

  • Lane Kim definitely gets the short end of the stick at the end of Gilmore Girls. Sure, everything gets rough around the edges in that final episode, but Lane has to waddle around for nearly a full season with the most ridiculous, enormous pregnant belly. And then, her husband goes off to be the lead guitarist in Vapor Rub, and Lane has to stay home with her twins, Steve and Kwan, who have purposely silly names and now, a mother who resents her premature domestication.
  • Law and Order:UK is infinitely better than any of the current American versions of the Law and Order franchise.
  • I cannot believe NBC gave a full season order to Outsourced. I only watched the first episode. Does it get better? Am I missing something?
  • I haven’t been writing about it, because Mad Men has always taken up my Monday blog post, but Boardwalk Empire has been stellar. The world is appealing, there are many fabulous minor characters, and I have a weakness for well-read women who do crazy things like report powerful men to the authorities because they didn’t accept a loaf of homemade soda bread. At this point, my biggest stumbling block is actually Nucky Thompson. I love the character, but I still look at him and say “Oh hey, it’s Steve Buscemi!” The acting is strong, the costuming and writing are excellent… maybe I just need more time.

On commitment, television’s variable quality, and why I have a hard time quitting

2010 October 19

So we’re watching Chuck last night, and the going gets pretty rough. The plot holes are so enormous, you could set up camp and build a small colony of frontierspeople inside of them, except they are barren wastelands of plot uninhabitable by even the heartiest frontiersperson. I’m feeling pretty nervous about it because I know it’s a very thin line, and when he picks up the iPhone and spends the rest of the episode reading it rather than watching the TV, I know what’ll be coming once the episode ends – my husband is no longer interested in Chuck. You are a quitter, I tell him, a narrative deserter, and just because a show has gotten bad (as, oh boy, Chuck certainly has recently), it does not mean it can’t get better. His counter argument is that once most shows get bad, they do not come back, and there’s no use waiting around on the barest hope of a brighter future to come.

There are obviously examples of shows that get bad and for whatever reason, do not recover. We all know the tragic stories, the sad shambling corpses of formerly entertaining programs lingering on long past their prime like miserable shark-jumping zombies. Gilmore Girls season seven. Prison Break, Heroes, Alias, Entourage. There are a number of reasons things can go wrong, including changes in the creative staff, pressure from networks, a resistance to imaginative or risky storytelling, a concept that’s meant to be small saddled with the burden of far too much time (oh, Prison Break, you poor bastard). But I would argue that some shows can and do get better, even in the face of some dismally low points.

Friday Night Lights – This is obviously the premiere example of how rough things can get on a show and still come back for an amazing third and fourth season. It’s also a good example of how quickly terrible subplots can completely derail the rest of a show (see also: the Coma Baby plot of Veronica Mars season two). The Landry/Tyra murder plot is so, so awful and was so thoroughly panned as soon as it happened, FNL spent much of the rest of the season trying to get through that damn subplot as quickly as possible and then force everyone involved to forget it ever happened. Not only did the show manage to exit out of that dark hole of implausible violence as gracefully as one could imagine, the show has since had the excellent judgment to avoid anything similarly out of character.

Battlestar Galactica – Sure, sure, it’s great when you can get a science fiction show to speak to topical issues of morality and terrorism in a way that forces people to talk about the intellectual potential of pulp genres. But for the most part, Battlestar’s New Caprica episodes were just treading water until the characters could get back into space (and back into shape, in the infamous case of Tubby Apollo). Even worse, although the explicit references to insurgency, colonialism and prisoners of war brought the show attention for being so politically relevant, it was some of Battlestar’s most heavy-handed thematic work. Those New Caprica episodes were about as subtle as poking out an eye (whoops, sorry Colonel Tigh), but once the show got back into space and Lee Adama lost all that weight, things were back on track.

The West Wing – This one is a complicated example, but worth thinking through. The show suffered one of the worst, most irrevocable changes a show can experience – the departure of its idiosyncratic, driving creative force – and that kind of departure is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s a change any fervent fan will declare to be the End of the World, and when a show then immediately proves to be much worse than it used to be, it’s easy to write off the show entirely. I understand the argument, and I also believe that post-Sorkin West Wing never reached the same heights as it did in the Sorkin years, but I also think season seven of that show was a vast improvement. It could never go back to being a Sorkin show, but it did grow into its new identity as the Santos-Vinick race overtook the final Bartlet years. It would never be as fizzy or fascinatingly idealistic as the first few seasons, but it was still miles better than the dark days of Leo’s heart attack and the overt Macbeth references, and it was entertaining television.

Dollhouse – A different kind of improvement narrative from the previous examples, but one that probably happens more frequently. Shows begin, and they’re bad. Gradually, with practice and hindsight and feedback, they get better, and the change can be so drastic that the show is nearly unrecognizable. Dollhouse falls in this category, though like so many shows, the change came too late. I’d also list Cougar Town here, as well as Parks and Recreation, Community, Fringe, Sons of Anarchy, and of course, the troublesome Chuck.

I’m not trying to argue that Chuck may not be in trouble – from what I’ve seen so far this season, things look dubious. But the beauty of television’s episodic structure is that new beginnings and fresh starts happen all the time, and no matter how serialized or intricate a show may be, the very concept of an episode promises that things can change. It’s a whole new show every week, with different writers and directors, different guest stars and returning characters, new plots and character arcs. It seems to me this is a reason fans hold onto television shows even after they’re long dead (oh Smallville, you keep on keepin’ on), because the distinct separation of each piece of narrative means it’s easier to believe that the start of the next episode is also the start of a different, better version of the same show you’ve been watching for so long.

I don’t want to chide my husband if he doesn’t want to watch Chuck any more. Maybe it won’t get better, and he’ll have saved all of that time for Boardwalk Empire or The Walking Dead or (one day, because he loves me) Veronica Mars. But I do want to explain why I’ll keep watching, and why that choice makes sense to me.

Mad Men – Tomorrowland

2010 October 18
by kvanaren

Is it possible that Don is marrying Megan just because she taught his kids how to sing a song in French and can mop up a milkshake without flipping her lid?

Given his history with Betty, those qualities may already put Megan ahead of his previous marriage, and could even mean something like a healthy relationship, but it’s Don’s conversation with Peggy that really points to how misguided he is about this engagement. He tells her that she reminds him of Peggy, and that she has the same spark in her eye. And yet, Megan’s face does not read as particularly engaged or knowing – she expresses concern and affection, she appears competent and balanced, but her gaze has never held the same piercing quality we see in Peggy, Joan, or even Betty. I was astonished by that last scene in the Francis house, because I would never have expected to come away with an impression of Betty as experienced, resigned, or wry, but there she was, smiling knowingly up at Don. I suppose Betty has always managed to appear shrewder than she actually is, but it’s only with the added lens of Megan’s straightforward, untarnished youth that Betty actually comes off as worldly.

Of course, some of Betty’s world-weariness comes from a new pragmatism about her second marriage, and her smile reflects her and Don’s shared history of marital imperfection. Betty in fact appears all the more sophisticated because she has been forced to confront the realities of a hasty, escapist wedding, and she’s doing it at the same moment that Don has managed to forget almost every lesson he might have learned from his first marriage. Don’t get me wrong – Betty is still Betty, totally flummoxed by her inexplicable feelings about Glen, vindictive and unfeeling toward Carla, obviously upset by the news of Don’s engagement – but it’s an odd turn of events to watch Betty cope with introspection while Don looks innocently toward a new beginning.

The episode’s title reflects the one thing Don does seem to be taking into consideration about this sudden leap into re-marriage. For all his failures as a parent, Don is committed to choosing a wife who will give his children more stability and affection than Betty ever could, and we retrospectively understand the significance of Sally’s office meltdown. Don comforted Faye and told her it didn’t matter that she isn’t good with children, but in the end, all of Faye’s independence and career savvy couldn’t endear her as much as Megan’s unflappable milkshake cleanup skills. This engagement, however mistaken and hurried it might be, is a testament to Don’s optimism about the future and the life he wants for his children.

The Tomorrowland of Don’s optimism is distinctly different from the Tomorrowland of Peggy’s ambition. Don’s bright new future looks remarkably like his past, and however much he may claim to value Megan’s intellectual “spark,” if this were actually his main priority, he would have proposed to Faye long ago. Instead, it’s hard to imagine Megan continuing to work at SCDP, and I’ll be very surprised if a pregnant Megan quietly takes pride in her empty new job title the way Joan obviously enjoys hers. Don goes into season five looking to move forward, but only as long as moving forward is a more effective do-over of what came before. Meanwhile, as Peggy makes clear in that fabulous scene with secretly pregnant Joan, Peggy’s ideal Tomorrowland does not entail substituting a personal life for professional success, and she scoffs at Joan’s rejoinder that Peggy not make work her entire source of satisfaction as “bullshit.”

At the end of the season, then, we’re left in the same place Mad Men loves to inhabit – a space that yearns for the past even as it hurtles into the unknown. On one end, we have Don’s obsession with childhood, nostalgia, and a blissful, unblemished ignorance about the world that he obviously admires even as he finds it impossible to accomplish for himself. On the other, Peggy charges into the Topaz pantyhose office and unblinkingly pulls brilliant ad campaigns out of thin air even though the male executive can’t even bother to remember her name. To Mad Men’s eternal credit, though, every time we reach this familiar place, it changes. Season one ended with just this same balancing act, as Don idealized the happy nuclear family and Betty took her first steps toward their eventual divorce, and Bob Dylan’s reflective guitar picking hinted at the coming cultural shift. Now, with Sonny and Cher belting “I’ve Got You, Babe” over the closing credits, Don’s turn to the past looks less like a loving portrait of a lost family, and more like a hopeful but clearly desperate attempt to glue the pieces back together. I wish him luck, but I doubt he’ll succeed.

Well, no wonder I like Terriers

2010 October 14
by kvanaren

Proposal: Terriers is a buddy cop version of Veronica Mars.

Setting: Sleazy, sunny Southern California. Potent combination of both the very rich and lower-class criminal, navigated by protagonist(s) capable of communicating with and traveling through both sides of society, despite noticeable distain for the rich.

Protagonist(s): Scrappy, fearless, close relationship with some family, motivated by moral action regardless of legality. Formerly working on the side of the law, now turned to a less above-board career as a private eye. Grudge against the privileged plus a need for money fuels risky, intricately plotted schemes, occasionally accompanied by a revenge motive.

Plot design: Small episodic mysteries and private eye jobs become entangled with larger season arc mystery, initially spurred on by the investigation of a good friend’s death.

Dialogue: Jokes and snark sporadically pierced by sincerity, often when expressing anger at the forces that be.

Tropes and gags: Uses old police access to aid investigation, occasional appearance of adorable dog, prominent ex-significant other, mad skillz as burglar, car thief, impersonator, all-purpose criminal, foul-mouthed lawyer brings in business and advises in case of trouble, personal lives play a prominent role in plot development.

Obvious differences: While Veronica Mars’s first season long plot is clearly driven by personal vindication (restoring her family’s reputation and identifying her own rapist), Terriers’s Mickey Gosney/Robert Lindus plotline has less direct impact on Hank and Britt, allowing them to step back and consider how involved they want to be. Because it doesn’t have the “high school sucks” agenda, Terriers can be looser and less stereotypical in its representations of minor characters, but its lack of a strong underlying scheme also deprives it of the consistent, coherent force of Veronica Mars’s neo-noir aesthetic.

Still, I think the broad similarities outweigh the specific stylistic differences, although I’m willing to consider opposing arguments.

Chuck versus the awkward cute

2010 October 12
by kvanaren

Chuck has been kind of…odd lately. Any show that builds its major conflict around a will-they-won’t-they relationship and then resolves that conflict has to find a new way to create forward momentum, and for a while, Chuck was floating around in a giddy honeymoon period. I’m thinking in particular about the train episode from last season, when the fight sequences were all about taking advantage of two prime fighters working in sync, and the whole thing was fueled by happiness.

The interactions between Chuck and Sarah lately has lost some of that giddiness, which is perfectly fair, but it’s been replaced by My Silly Boyfriend Thinks We Should Read This Stupid Self-Help Book bad-sitcom level comedy. It’s as though having put Chuck and Sarah together, the only thing the show can think to do is pluck at the superficial flaws, unwilling to either push them forward meaningfully, break them apart irrevocably, or just leave them alone for a while.

It’s not as though last night’s episode fell flat, especially with Armand Assante and an enormous marble Captain Awesome statue – something about the absurd affairs of Costa Grava appeal to me, as does the opportunity to say the word Generalissimo as often as possible. Still, it’s frustrating to see that the most creative thing Chuck has been able to do with its two main characters now that they’re in a relationship is reduce them to awkward miscommunication humor. It’ll be Mr. and Mrs. Smith but without the exciting assassination plotline, and what is the point of that?

Step back for a moment. These are two characters who have both experienced an immense amount of familial trauma relating to unreliable or absent parents, and that has to affected both of their perspectives on monogamy and trust. I know this is a spy caper. It would be unrealistic and inappropriate to watch Chuck and Sarah sit down and have a thoughtful, heartfelt conversation about their mutual abandonment issues. Because they have both completely sidestepped any kind of acknowledgment of those issues, though, all of the practical emotion (anger, concern, nostalgia, regret) gets funneled onto poor Ellie, who comes off as nearly schizophrenic in her attempt to encompass the show’s immense untapped reserve of every emotion that is not a direct byproduct of cute relationship ineptitude.

It’s the beginning of the season, so I haven’t given up hope that things will pick up, but at the moment, it’s weird to feel like Chuck and Sarah are the immature, emotionally under-evolved representatives of Buy Moria.

Mad Men – Blowing Smoke

2010 October 11
by kvanaren

There were several things I found difficult to believe over the course of last night’s episode. The first thing that I still can’t believe is that I thought for any moment that the ridiculously accented Bobby Kennedy was supposed to be real. If I’d paused it and thought about the potential ramifications – SCDP is instantly propelled into stardom, runs major democratic campaigns and takes over Manhattan, it would have become clear that of course it wasn’t actually Bobby Kennedy. But really, if I’d paused it and just thought about the phone call, there’s no way I wouldn’t have realized that absurd Kennedy impression was a joke. Next, I can’t believe Betty is actually so childish and petty that she would move away just to separate Sally and Glen (and by result, in some twisted way, force Sally to act out again, thereby upping her weekly therapy and allowing Betty to continue seeing the child psychiatrist). It’s not as though it’s implausible, given Betty’s stellar parental record, but it was still astonishing. What I could accept, no problem, were Betty’s fabulous sunglasses as she spotted Sally sneaking away and leapt furiously out of her wood-paneled station wagon.

The biggest piece of the episode that I found nearly impossible to believe was that the partners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce couldn’t see Don’s “Why I’m Quitting Tobacco” gesture for what it was – a brilliant piece of advertising. This is just my gut reaction theory, but that full-page ad creates a generational jolt of a very different kind than the standard “oh right, women were second-class citizens!” reminder that Mad Men has been so effective at administering over the last several seasons. The show has become comfortable with playing with historical juxtaposition, frequently through representations of gender or race, but also through smaller-scale details like the enormous, new-fangled Xerox machine or the advent of The Beatles. We love them and they work largely by playing with familiar aspects of life in 2010 that we are also aware have changed dramatically over the last several decades. Images of pregnant women drinking get to be astonishing and self-congratulatory for the audience (“we know better than that”), but they work partly because they’re not that astonishing. We know that we think about pregnancy differently now than we did then, and we understand that a fax machine would have been a magical thing.

The “Why I’m Quitting Tobacco” piece almost works the same way. A modern audience knows that tobacco advertising will be a source of endless tribulation and congratulates Don on being on the right side of history from a public health perspective, even if Peggy derides an employee who asks if Don will quit smoking. But my admiration for the letter was not really for its historically fortuitous stance against big tobacco; I loved it because it was smart, unexpected, and re-positioned SCDP as a company in control of its future. It immediately struck me as effective because it looks like a public relations maneuver that would happen at a canny modern company today, and it comes across as ahead of its time. It’s not hard to believe that an employee would get flack for dating a black woman because this is a part of our history we’re proud of having changed; it’s much harder to believe that an advertising strategy this calculating and self-conscious would be misunderstood, because it’s not easy to face up to how comfortable we now are with advertising “shenanigans.” This is an aspect of ourselves and the way media has changed that we think about much less than we do things like women in the workplace or joint custody. It’s so difficult to believe that Sterling, Cooper, etc. don’t love the ad because this is a historical rearview mirror we’re less familiar with consulting. Maybe we forget that advertising innovation wasn’t always synonymous with stunt advertising we were bombarded with stories about Taco Bell buying the Liberty Bell or half.com purchasing the town of Halfway, Oregon.

One more thing on the list of things I couldn’t believe about last night’s episode: how completely and surprisingly effective I found Don’s voiceover. Since it happened, I’ve been crossing my fingers every time Don even looked toward that little notebook, and I was really leery when I saw him put pen to paper in this episode. Instead of the overwrought SATC musing from last time, though, this was almost a vindication of the previous voiceover. We watch Don sit down, rip apart his previous diary entries, and begin to write what appears to be a personal, vulnerable account of why he’s quitting tobacco, fueled no doubt by the disturbing return of Midge as a heroin addict. The shot of him sitting contemplative at his desk in the Village segues into the familiar “sad Don goes swimming” shot, and then that voiceover fades away as a new one begins – still Don, but this time he’s pitching a campaign, not quietly considering the human condition.  What we get turns out to be a fabulous bit of wizardry, where the personal account turns into the public declaration and Don’s honest, open tone actually restores the calculating, intelligent, and still unreadable personality underneath the outer persona.

Can’t wait for next week!

Top Chef: Desserts are for girls

2010 October 7
by kvanaren

On occasion, if it’s a particularly compelling season, I really enjoy Top Chef. I’ve written here in the past about how much I also liked Top Chef Masters, because it’s a pleasure to watch talented people do something well. For those reasons, and also because I have been known to pull out a KitchenAid mixer on the weekends, I was really looking forward to the latest in the franchise, Top Chef: Just Desserts. Pastry chefs! Stupid title pun! Sounds good!

I’ve tried to give it a few episodes, but Just Desserts is exactly what I was hoping it wouldn’t be. I’m a girl, and I like to bake, and I was hoping that some of the machismo of the Top Chef aesthetic would elevate my hobby to a serious, challenging, not-quite-so-femme profession. The main Top Chef is full of slow-mo shots of very sharp knives puncturing brightly colored fruits, lots of crisp blue, silver and orange tones, and its kitchens are full of people barking at each other, often to the tune of “there’s no crying in the kitchen!” This is not to say that it’s a firmly hetero reality show – it’s on Bravo, for pete’s sake. But Top Chef seems most comfortable with a fairly butch style of queerness, and while this no doubt suggests some obvious and problematic connotations between masculinity and seriousness, this is just what I was looking for in a reality show full of cupcakes, pink frosting, and (ack!) chocolate.

So I turn on Top Chef: Just Desserts and am first confronted with the words “Just Desserts” rendered in glossy, chocolate colored cursive font underneath the familiar logo. Next we get cupcakes, bananas, and other similarly cute foods rendered in neon shapes in the background – these aren’t so bad, except that it seems like everything on the show has to be explicitly dessert themed. The contestants live in a house with pink and brown diagonal stripes painted on the walls, and I don’t remember being hit over the head with adorable themed décor on regular Top Chef. Okay, so the styling isn’t great, but what about the actual competition? It’s hard not to read into the locations and challenges offered to Top Chef versus Just Desserts, even though some it must be due to Top Chef’s well-established pedigree. Still – Top Chef contestants go to NASA. Just Desserts contestants go to a fog machine heavy “Mad Max meets Cirque du Soleil” aerialist performance from an unknown troupe of wacky theater people wearing bondage and burlesque themed outfits.

It turns out, there’s also lots of crying on Top Chef: Just Desserts. We’re just four episodes in, and there have already been too many weeping jags, mental breakdowns, and hissy fits to count. Almost every contestant is either too sensitive to put together a plate of food, or requires seventeen dramatic outbursts to bake a cake, and this emotional frailty cross all boundaries of gender and sexual orientation. Even worse, instead of the countless declarations of how much the competition means to them and how ambitious and driven they all are, Just Desserts is plagued by contestants who sort of wish they were somewhere else. No one’s blaming a parent who misses his children or sons and daughters who worry about their families’ health, but the spin here is markedly different. If you miss your children on Top Chef, you say, “I can’t believe how hard it is to be away from my son, but he’s the fire that keeps me here, and reminds me how strong I need to be.” When you miss your children on Just Desserts, or the competition stresses you, you collapse and then offer yourself up for elimination. The conclusion is clear and straightforward: people who bake are teary, self-doubting wimps who like things that are pink, fussy, and easily damaged.

Sigh. Guess I’ll have to go back to Ace of Cakes or for my less gendered televised pastry needs.

They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?

2010 October 5
by kvanaren

It’s premiere season, and so by all rights I should be watching all of the new programming. You know, Mike and Molly and The Event and Chase and Blue Bloods. Instead, I’ve been watching Gilmore Girls. It’s not as though I haven’t seen Gilmore Girls before, or that I haven’t seen it enough that I could probably recite entire three-minute-long reference-laden exchanges. In fact, it’s a show I have a hard time even being critical about – like Dorothy Sayers, Weezer and the complete mythology of Star Wars, it feels too deeply embedded to think about as something outside of myself. I feel apologetic for rather than distaining of its obvious low points (ooh, seventh season…), its WASPy wonderland backstory that barely pretends to have endured hardship and independence, its absurd reliance on dialogue that runs two hundred words a minute, its pitifully poor representation of non-white characters (the hilariously, inhumanly strict Kim family, the snobbish and prissy French concierge), its unbelievably cheesy credit sequence – these things are mere blips on my critical radar.

Which is why this blog post is not a “wasn’t Gilmore Girls ridiculous?!” post, but rather a “allow me to appreciate a single episode of Gilmore Girls at length” post. Because on re-watching, I feel moved to express the complete, utter brilliance of the Gilmore Girls dance marathon episode.

The premise of “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” is a twenty-four hour forties-themed dance marathon, exactly the type of bizarre, anachronistic, weirdly intense community event perfectly suited to showcase the singular strangeness of Stars Hollow. It’s an impressively well-constructed forty three minutes of television, beginning with the small-scale tension of Lorelai’s determination to finally beat Kirk in the marathon and ratcheting all the way up to a full on, life changing public breakdown. Unlike some episodes where the wacky hijinks seem to be a mismatch for the seriousness of the events, or the relationship drama overwhelms everything else, or the Stars Hollow spirit becomes obnoxiously twee, the dance marathon episode is one of the best examples of the show reaching a well-balanced tone. It’s funny and sad and has just enough Dave Rygalski to also be adorable. We get plenty of the older members of the town, and Taylor Doose’s sleepy reminiscences of his one-time career goal (magician) give the character some much-needed dimension. (Okay, not a whole lot, but tender childhood memories are actually quite a step forward for him). There’s a tiff between Jackson and Sookie that is both plausible and easily fixed, Mrs. Kim’s hilariously awful eggless egg salad sandwiches provide a foundation for Lane and Dave’s burgeoning relationship, and all of it serves to establish the backdrop for one of the show’s most traumatic and contentious relationship plot points – Dean breaks up with Rory, and Rory connects with Jess.

Whatever one’s opinion on Dean vs. Jess, the circumstances created in the episode which lead up to the big breakdown are really, really well done. Rather than build some stunning betrayal or overwrought confession of love, Jess just sits in the bleachers while Rory and Dean dance. Rory, whose character in the show’s early years often borders on tooth-achingly sweet, gets a chance to make a mistake for once, and goes on and on about how annoying, how provoking, how disgusting and silly Jess is behaving. Understandably, Dean finally gives up, and walks away from his relationship with a girlfriend clearly obsessed with another guy. Despite the cliché of a love triangle plot, the scene in the dance marathon is unusual in its ability to make the break-up everyone’s fault, and it ends on a note of misery rather than a much more cloying scenario with Rory running into Jess’s arms as Dean glowers in a corner. There really is nothing else like that final scene, as Lorelai and Rory embrace in the center of the gym while Rory weeps and Kirk, victorious, does laps around them to the sounds of the Rocky theme song. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the show at its best. We’re left with the two protagonists coping with their latest emotional crisis as Gilmore Girls’ own special brand of crazy literally encircles them, and an entire, weary town dressed in vintage forties clothing looks on.

There’s something crucial about this episode inside the larger arc of the series, which is why I’m so appreciative that this episode is successful. Rory has several other relationships after Dean – there’s Jess, and Logan, and Dean again, and Logan again, and even though those initial connections and subsequent break-ups are exciting and upsetting, none of them have the same force as this first collapse. It makes sense. The first relationship is perfect (even if it isn’t, really), and unprecedented, and after Dean leaves, it’s just not possible to imbue each new guy with the same promise of soul-matey idealism. When she moves away from Dean and into her relationship with Jess, Rory begins to shed her admittedly somewhat obnoxious preciousness, but with it goes her unusual, endearing innocence.

I’ve been referring to Stars Hollow as wacky, crazy and strange, but really, its underlying characteristic, and the force of its appeal, is something much more like innocence. Sure, you can point to the overt, often mocked nostalgia of Taylor Doose’s desire for old-fashioned ice cream parlor, but the whole town is markedly free from cynicism. The pinnacle of that quality is Luke Danes, whose curmudgeonly demeanor seems to promise the absent dose of real-world pragmatism, but time and again, his gruffness turns out to be an act and he faux-reluctantly takes part in the Winter Carnival, Film Festival, or in this case, Dance Marathon. The real pragmatism and brusque sarcasm comes from the outside, either through Richard and Emily Gilmore, or Chilton, or later, Yale.

It’s easy enough to point to Rory’s graduation from high school and moving away to college as the point when Gilmore Girls takes a turn, but for my money, it’s this episode. I don’t mean to suggest that after this point I think the show begins to fail, or even that some of its best moments don’t come after this point – the end of the third season is stellar, and I think the show is really on form all the way up through the fourth season. Eventually, though, the special Stars Hollow breed of insular, cheerful naïveté begins to parody itself. It doesn’t happen until much later, and there are many intervening events that contribute to the decline, but this episode feels like the first storm cloud in the lovely, unsustainable Edenic landscape. It is a fabulous, entertaining, effective storm cloud, and at the end, you get Kirk, jogging around the gym with his trophy held high.

Mad Men – Chinese Wall

2010 October 4
by kvanaren

It’s the last days of Rome at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and I can’t help but wonder if the subplots in these last few episodes are building into a rhythm of collapse. A week ago, those Beatles tickets hinted at coming disappointment that is alleviated in the last moment as Megan hands Don the envelope with the tickets inside. Of course, the ticket device was the frame for a much bigger set of failures and disappointments, so by the time the tickets arrived, they were really just a reminder of their own relative inconsequence. The stakes were much bigger in last night’s little off-screen framing narrative: poor Trudy was back in a hospital room giving birth, and I kept waiting for the dark clouds on the horizon to build into a thunderclap, particularly with the comment about the baby being too large for Trudy’s pelvis. Like the Beatles tickets, though, Baby Girl Campbell made it safely into the narrative world, but it was clear she was born at a moment when her father’s company was falling apart, its future resting on a distant possibility of hope in the shape of Heinz ketchup. These two episodes seem like a set-up for a rule of three plot arc – first the tickets, then the baby, and next week?

I say this in part because it’s easy to see the really big storms growing, and to imagine their fallout. Faye seriously compromised herself, and the effect of her professional betrayal on her relationship with Don was strongly hinted in their posture, which mirrored Roger and Jane’s snuggling on the couch. You never want your relationship to be compared with a marriage where all the husband can think to say when dedicating his autobiography is “to my loving wife,” the most generic inscription imaginable. Between that breakdown and the undoubtedly poor decision to have an affair with Megan, regardless how sincerely she promises not to cry the next day, it’s easy to see that Don’s personal life will continue to fall apart. Professionally, the upcoming obstacles are even more obvious. Pete’s dissatisfied with Don, he feels undervalued at SCDP, and maybe Ted Chaugh will make him feel more loved. Without Lucky Strike, Roger has almost no role in his own company, and it might not even matter because he might not have a company for much longer. It’s nearing the end of the season (it’s the end of Rome), and big things are happening.

But I’m stuck on the Beatles tickets and Trudy’s baby because Mad Men has always been a show that thrives on detail, and that aspect was never more obvious then last night. The empire may be collapsing, the partners may be driven to poaching clients at a funeral for God’s sake, but we’re going to spend several deeply awkward minutes focused on a smear of lipstick on Peggy’s teeth. Oh the lipstick. Oh the cringing. The funny thing about that sequence was that it probably made the meeting go much more smoothly and quickly than it could have – my impression was that the clients, like myself, just wanted the whole thing to end because it was so awkward and gahhh. This is the same quality I’m referring to with the tickets and the Campbell baby: it’s a small aspect of the episode that snowballs into a painful and embarrassing sequence, and I feel like the season is preparing to perform the same mountain out of a molehill performance in a far more damaging way. Except the next time, the mountain won’t be revealed for the molehill it is; it will keep growing and gaining mass until it really is a crushing, insurmountable peak.

A last word on using physical metaphors to describe plot elements – it’s not like the episode’s title wasn’t asking for it, you know?