Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Truthsome Television

I watch a lot of television. Streaming online video has only perpetuated a much older habit fostered initially by MuchMusic and the first years of the WB. As such an admission suggests, I have some pretty shitty taste, and a lot of the television I've watched in the last while has been particularly terrible. I have resolved (not for the first time, of course) to give up prime time soap operas. They're like Old Dutch barbecue chips: they taste awful but I keep eating them anyway (next time you find yourself in the potato chip aisle, you would be wise to heed this warning). So, I no longer waste my time (I don't generally believe in such a thing as wasted time, but network television may be a notable exception) on the scripted, two-dimensional lives of Private Practice, or on the Roman theatre of Gossip Girl. I briefly took up other rather more interesting though perhaps no more worthwhile hobbies (Firefly fanfiction, anyone?).

And then came Mad Men, which quickly took me back from text to the talkies. The show's creator and writer, Matt Weiner, is one hell of a psychologist, not the Violet Turner "let's all find closure" variety, but in the sense that Dostoyevsky is a hell of a psychologist. The characters are so true it hurts. There is no closure, there are no wistful soliloquoys on what it all means, just a bunch of people stuck in the stories they tell themselves and each other. Too many of the reviews I've read try to make this a show about alcoholism and sexism and anti-Semitism etc. , but the truly tragic character - the deplorable Pete Campbell - is not the one who is markedly more sexist, more alcoholic, more anti-Semitic, but the one who believes the stories he tells himself a little too much. He's not a self-styled bad boy. In fact, he's unnervingly earnest: he earnestly believes that he is entitled to more, that his adulteries are justified, that his talents are the greatest. His communication - with his friends, with his wife - must follow the script of these stories.

The reviews mostly get it wrong again when it comes to our anti-hero, Don Draper. "All men want to be him, all women want to be with him." "A ladies man." If this was his appeal, I might as well turn back to Seely Booth or Derek Shephard. But Don Draper is the man who doesn't justify himself. He can sit down to a lunch of two dozen oysters and nearly as many martinis, or share a joint with a couple of beatnics after work; he can woo his wife, his mistress, or the bright Jewish business woman, and none of these "guises" are guises at all. These aren't games he plays at - seduce the girl, climb the corporate ladder, tarry with the kids in the Village - they're just things he does with the people he knows, with the people who know him. And yes, I think they do know him, despite his reticence. He seems mysterious not because he hides the truth, but because people don't know what to make of someone who doesn't account for himself. For all of his pretty pitches, he strikes me as remarkably honest; he has the sort of honesty that has nothing to do with talking about yourself a lot, and is quite often hampered by it.

But another review called Draper a total bastard. That one might be right, too.

Well, I've gone and tried to give an account of why I like the show and probably been painfully dishonest in the process. I mean, I haven't even finished the first season. I won't try to justify my actions.

1 comment:

  1. I think that if Old Dutch BBQ potato chips were a TV show, a lot more people would be licking their tv sets after they're finished.


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