Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Who is Don Draper?

Mad Men is back for its fourth season, and one of the great things about it is that I don’t have to wait for it all to be done and released on DVD (like Treme—*sniff*). I can watch it as the episodes come out ... though on the other hand, I have to wait a week between new episodes. Watching a series on DVD certainly caters to instant gratification.

But I digress! I won’t do an episode breakdown and analysis here—I’ll leave that to the pros—but certainly if anyone has any thoughts on the first episode and where it seems to be sending this season, please comment away. Myself, I was pleased with the episode, as it promises some interesting new character directions (Peggy’s got some new mojo, Joan has an office(!), Betty’s new marriage looks to be shaping up to be as miserable as her last, and Don suddenly can’t be the inscrutable cipher he has been till now), as well as some comforting consistencies (Roger is still the preferred vehicle for beautifully crass one-liners).

I’d been concerned with Mad Men as early as midway through season two, when it became obvious that certain narrative elements of the show were being pegged to historical markers: Kennedy’s election, for example, the Bay of Pigs debacle, and of course Kennedy’s assassination (the treatment of which, I think, was a tour-de-force). JFK being killed was obviously a crucial event that was going to weigh heavily on the show’s action; Sterling Cooper’s rebirth in the shadow of the president’s death was a masterful little twist that breathed renewed vigour into a workplace drama whose workplace was becoming moribund. Well, Sterling Cooper was always already moribund—that was part of the show’s irony—but the avid viewer in me wondered how long that could yield the kind of acerbic, minutely observed drama that animated the series.

I still worry about that, truth be told, but I have high hopes. Which brings me to my general theme for today’s post: the serial nature of television and the problems that poses for a consideration of television as an artistic form.

By way of explanation: the vast majority of those art forms to which we devote time, thought and doctoral dissertations tend to be helpfully discrete, comprising identifiably self-contained units. However sprawling Bleak House might be as a novel, it is still a unitary piece of work distinct from Hard Times, Oliver Twist or The Pickwick Papers. While a good bit of literary theory is dedicated to deconstructing this particular assumption, we nevertheless tacitly grant the autonomy of the novel, play, poem, short story, etc.

Film complicates the kind of straightforward autonomy granted the novel insofar as it complicates the issue of authorship. While literary works may run a gauntlet of editors and publishers, we still unproblematically ascribe the finished product to a specific author, or authors if co-written. Film is far more of a collaborative medium from the start, however, even if that collaboration tends to fall under the despotic rule of certain strong personalities. The writer—or, almost always, writers—is almost a nonentity, much farther down the totem pole than the director, producer, cinematographer, sound editor, costume designer, and so on. (I think screenwriters may even be less respected than the best boy and dolly grip).

For this reason, when film studies was first making its run for academic respectability, the concept of the “auteur”—someone on a film, usually the director, whose vision unites the final text as an artistic whole—was invoked in an effort to be able to think film in terms comparable to that of visual art and literature. Or to put it another way, the effort was to consider (certain) film art by bestowing upon it an artist.

(As an aside, it is interesting to note that as more television attains critical and scholarly attention, the number of television auteurs has proliferated: David Chase, Alan Ball, David Simon, Aaron Sorkin, J.J. Abrams, David Milch, Joss Whedon, and of course Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner).

Film, however, was also a series of discreetly-packaged texts easily considered in and of themselves. One can find many praiseworthy elements in North by Northwest while simultaneously disparaging Rebecca and establishing a critical narrative for the evolution of Hitchcock’s films, while always recognizing North by Northwest and Rebecca as distinct, autonomous creations.

Television complicates matters because of its serial, episodic structure—along with the fact that this structure necessitates a much broader village of contributing voices and visions. What is the basic, self-contained textual unit of television? The most obvious answer, at first glance, is the episode. But how does one consider an episode out of the context of the series as a whole? Especially when individual episodes rarely stand out? Conversely, when certain episodes do stand out, they tend to effect a discontinuity in the larger narrative arc of the series. To my mind, the greatest expressions of this last principle are three Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes, each of which was a minor masterpiece—and each of which occurred in generally uneven seasons: "Hush" (4.10), "The Body" (5.16), and "Once More, With Feeling" (6.7). "Hush" is an episode in which the entire town has their voices stolen, and hence unfolds almost entirely in silence; "The Body" is about the death of Buffy’s mother, and is a brilliant expression of grief that unfolds as a series of jarring and disconcerting camerawork, and which also indulgences in long periods of silence; and "Once More, With Feeling" is the infamous musical episode. Each episode is brilliant, but also jarring in that each stands out starkly from its season’s narrative arc.

Not that this is a bad thing, necessarily—but it reminds that the multiple levels on which we approach television critically (individual episodes versus season-long narrative arcs; complete, finished series versus ongoing ones; series cut short by nervous studios versus those that meander on well past their best-before date), as well as such vagaries of production as the revolving door of writers and directors, sudden cast changes, and network pressures, make for a generally inconsistent text. The departure of a key figure can radically change a series, to the point where it feels entirely different than what came before. Seasons five through seven of The West Wing, for example, are dramatically inferior to the first four, a result of the departure of Aaron Sorkin from the show. Ditto Gilmore Girls after Amy Palladino jumped ship. Can we consider a show like Firefly or Pushing Daisies as an aesthetic whole, considering they were both canned before they really had a chance to get going?

If a film or novel is entirely inconsistent or uneven, it is easy to write it off as an artistic failure—because whatever flashes of brilliance might appear in the midst of mediocrity, whatever redeeming features are present, must be weighed in the balance of the aesthetic whole. On one hand, we can do that with a television series: Rome, for example, was ultimately disappointing because season two was far inferior to season one. However, Rome is also an easier example to consider because it only ran for two seasons, twenty-two episodes in total. This becomes a more difficult consideration the longer a series runs.

As usual, my rambling here is simply me thinking out loud. I find this a very interesting, and important theoretical question for those inclined to look at television from a critical academic perspective, and I haven’t yet encountered anything that has dealt with it substantively. One of the things that intrigues me with the rise of “quality TV” like HBO’s stuff is that the attention it has been getting from academic types looks like it will necessitate a new vocabulary, not so much of aesthetics but the way we designate the boundaries of a text for the purposes of criticism.


Question Mark said...

Further complicating things is that several shows don't have narrative arcs, per se, which would seem to be one of the determining factors in auteur theory as applied to TV. For example, every Simpsons episode is stand-alone, and the massive collaborative writing staff prevents one singular voice from standing out as that driving creative force of that show (or, to be more specific, various eras of that show). I use the Simpsons as the example rather than, say, Two And A Half Men or something since we'd all agree that the former is one of the great/important TV shows ever while the latter is dreck.

Interesting that for your three Buffy examples, all of those episodes were directed and written by the series' overall "auteur," so to speak. TV has the unique ability to make up for itself, so to speak, with one great episode in the midst of a mediocre stretch of eps or an entire season. It's not like you read a novel and say, "Hmm, well, chapter 12 was pretty dry, but chapter 11 was so good that I'm still enjoying this book thoroughly."

You mentioned that seasons 4-6 of Buffy were uneven (to say the least), but yet Joss somewhat insulated himself from this criticism since the episodes where he himself took the reigns were so awesome. In way, it enhances his own reputation above that of his show --- many fans attributed/blamed those weaker seasons to Marti Noxon's co-production role, rather than on Whedon himself. Noxon was an easy scapegoat since fans could point to Joss' great episodes and her weaker episodes and conclude that clearly she must be the weak link behind the scenes.

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