Saturday, August 25, 2012

Late to the Party: Thoughts on Mad Men and Breaking Bad

The golden age of television is about a decade and a half old now and going strong, and the best thing about it is also the worst--there is, quite simply, too much to watch.  Even an avid fan of the medium has to make choices about what they will and will not follow, and sometimes those choices turn out to have been wrong.  Sometimes the shows you passed on become the most talked-about, critically-lauded series of the last few years, and you find yourself with several seasons' worth of material to catch up with before you can join the conversation.  This summer, then, was dedicated to doing just that--catching up with the two series that between them have come to dominate the critical and fannish conversation about quality TV, Mad Men and Breaking Bad (actually, the original plan also included The Wire, but the time proved too short).  The problem of coming to these shows so late and after so much ink has been spilled about them is that there is already an ironclad critical consensus as to what they are about.  I knew, before watching the pilot episode of either series, that 60s ad man Don Draper was a lost soul bent on a hollow reinvention, and that cancer-ridden chemistry teacher turned meth cook Walter White was on a journey towards damnation.  Though I expected to enjoy both shows--which I certainly did--I wondered whether either one would be able to surprise me.  In the end, though I found a lot in both series that I'd been expecting to find--a sharp and at points horrifying handling of 60s misogyny, a tense and thrilling crime story, a history of the growing role of advertising in American culture, a study of an ordinary man as he surrenders his moral convictions for money and drags his loved ones down with him--I also found things I wasn't expecting, such as a frequently dark, and often uproarious, sense of humor.  What most surprised me about both series, however, was how they have in common, and how much they both owe to their most obvious common ancestor, The Sopranos.

Despite the fact that Tony Soprano and Walter White are both criminals, it's easier to draw a line from The Sopranos to Mad Men (The Sopranos, for one thing, is not a crime story, and the defining myths of Tony and Walt's lives are very different--The Godfather for Tony, Scarface for Walt).  The two shows have a similar style, a plotless, detail-oriented naturalism in which events, big and small, explosive and mundane, are important less for leading up to a denouement or conclusion than for shedding more light on the characters and their foibles.  And they have very similar protagonists, alpha males who are the suns around which their respective universes revolve, but who realize, as they circle middle age, how hollow the power they've accumulated is.  Even the mafia angle--and its accompanying implication that Tony's dissatisfaction with life is rooted in the corrosive effects of his career--isn't as strong a distinguishing factor between the two shows as it might at first seem.  The Sopranos was never as much about the mafia as it about life in middle class America.  Tony might think of himself as a king, and the show never shied away from or minimized the awful things he did, but it also kept revealing was that for all his power he was a minor participant in an enormous capitalist system, whose cruelty and corruption dwarfed his own, and before whose indifference he was often left frustrated and helpless.

Mad Men strips away the mob-related ornamentation of this theme (and replaces it with another type of ornamentation, its painstakingly recreated historical setting) but it is saying essentially the same thing.  In Don Draper, Mad Men gives us a character who is seemingly more self-possessed, more in control, than Tony Soprano ever was.  A middle class white man in the early and mid 60s, Don's entire world is designed to flatter and accommodate him, but his occupation--a key cog in the machine that makes capitalism run--confers even more prestige on him.  His good looks and suave sophistication--so different from the portly Tony's brusque, rough manners--make of him a sort of paragon, the man Tony not so secretly aspires to be.  But what all this amounts to is that when Don's life proves less perfect than advertised--when his marriage to the beautiful Betty turns cold, when his lovers fail to reignite his zest for life, when his genius as an ad man isn't properly appreciated, and more than any of these, when everything goes right and still he manages to find something to be dissatisfied by--Mad Men is merely saying outright what The Sopranos hinted at obliquely--that that paragon, and the system that created it and taught men like Tony Soprano to aspire to it, are both shams.

My main complaint against The Sopranos when I was watching it was that after a few seasons, I felt as if the point had been made.  The show was so well written and its characters so nuanced and believable that I was always ready to watch another episode, but at the same time I wouldn't have been crushed to learn that there wouldn't be any more.  Mad Men skirts, and doesn't entirely avoid, the same issue.  After a season or two, it feels as if the show's verdict on Don Draper has been rendered--that he is at once a product, an expression, and a shill for capitalism, and that for all his conviction that his work is a meaningful creative endeavor and even a social good ("there are people out there who buy things," he tells a colleague, "and something happened, something terrible, and the way that they saw themselves is gone"), what he's really doing in convincing those "people who buy things" that there are yet more things they need to buy is transmitting his own fundamental emptiness, and his need to fill it with money, status, power, and of course things, to an entire culture.  Everything that follows is variations on and illustrations of this theme, and though these are always well done, the immediacy leaches out of the show.  Unlike The Sopranos, Mad Men manages to combat this loss of freshness, first by slowly unraveling the mystery of Don's past, culminating in the revelation that his entire life story is an act of invention.  The force of this revelation is somewhat dulled, however, by the incongruity of Don's having been able to reinvent himself from the ground up to escape an unsatisfying life in the past, while in the present the crux of his story is his inability to change his life or break out of bad habits. This has the effect of making Don's past as Dick Whitman, the unloved whore's son who deserted from the army by stealing a dead comrade's identity, seem less like a genuine insight into his character and more like a metaphor, another way of highlighting the hollowness of the life Don aspires to.

Far more successful in combating the show's tendency towards malaise is the fact that, for all that he is its undeniable hero, Don is also the least interesting character in Mad Men, and the characters who outstrip him are all women--secretary turned copywriter Peggy, office manager Joan, Betty, and Don's second wife Megan.  Against Don's deliberately cyclical story, these women are all undergoing a definite process of change and growth.  That change isn't always pretty or appealing--as Peggy's self-confidence and professional standing increase, her whininess and self-absorption become more apparent, and without even defining herself as such she often exemplifies the worst qualities of second wave feminism; Betty is twisted up by an upbringing that promised her happiness in exchange for her good looks and a husband who failed to live up to that promise, and frequently takes her frustrations with both out on her children--and it is by no means a straightforward progression towards empowerment--Joan has lived her whole life by the rules that govern how a woman may respectfully trade her sexuality for status and wealth, and her realization over the course of the series that these rules are meaningless and self-sabotaging is accompanied by many setbacks, most notably her choice to marry her fiancé after he rapes her; Megan, meanwhile, insists on having a career that is separate from Don, but when her hopes of becoming an actress flounder she persuades him to pull strings on her behalf--but it is a genuine process of growth that makes Mad Men interesting as a story as well as a character study.  Though there is sometimes a creakiness to the way the men and women's stories fit together--perhaps most notably in the way that the career that for Don has been soul-destroying is positioned as liberating and empowering for Peggy--on the whole the latter give Mad Men a much needed jolt of energy and forward momentum, and help to undercut its solipsism.

If Mad Men and The Sopranos are cyclical, slow-paced stories characterized by stately opaqueness, Breaking Bad is driven by a powerful, purposeful engine of story.  It's a show about change and transformation--most crucially, Walter White's rise from small-time drug dealer to kingpin--featuring shootouts, heists, grisly murders, and various other high octane tropes, and as if to up the ante it is also often structured as a mystery--Walt's working out of the personal and professional relationships at the heart of the criminal organizations whose attentions he draws with his superior product, and his DEA agent brother in law Hank's pursuit of the mysterious meth cook known as Heisenberg.  But despite their differences in style, Breaking Bad is merely employing a different (perhaps more winning) delivery system for the same ideas that lie at the heart of The Sopranos and Mad Men.  What all three of these shows, at their core, are about is masculinity, and more precisely the crisis of American masculinity.  (Even Mad Men's emphasis on female characters does not completely obscure this preoccupation, and their growing independence is often used as a way of highlighting the failures of the men in their lives--Joan separates from her rapist husband, for example, after he signs up for a second tour in Vietnam, which he does because the military gives him scope to indulge his authoritarian impulse and lust for power in a way that civilian life hasn't.)  In all three shows, masculinity is defined as power and control.  Tony was born to both, and finds himself unequal to their burden.  Don reinvented himself in order to gain them, and now wonders if the sacrifices he's made were worth it.  Walt had lost all control--over his career (for reasons the show hasn't yet fully articulated, he went from a respected scientist at the cutting edge of his field to high school chemistry teacher), his finances, and even his body--and his response to this last affront is to seize control by any means necessary, even the criminal.

What's perhaps most interesting about the ways that The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad present masculinity is that in the first two shows masculinity is a construct.  Tony laments the passing of the "strong, silent type," of the gentlemen gangsters of his father's generation, and of "real" men, but these are ideals that he can never live up to, either morally (whenever he resolves to behave like a gentleman--to forgive an offense, or act generously--Tony's worse nature trips him up) or emotionally (the premise of the whole series is that the pressures of playing patriarch and mob boss have sunk Tony into depression).  Don, who is of Tony's father's generation, embodies the kind of man Tony would like to be, but he invented that man--quite literally, in his personal life, but also professionally, as a means of selling cars and cigarettes.  Breaking Bad, on the other hand, treats this vision of masculinity as something very concrete.  The show's storytelling often focuses on problem-solving, on Walt and his allies working their way around the practical difficulties of their business--scarce chemicals, the need for private cooking space--and part of Walt's presentation of masculinity is his ability to think his way out of problems, to use his scientific know-how in creative ways, and to fix things with his hands (there is a great deal of the Heinleinian Competent Man about Walt).  Palpable, physical accomplishments that act as undeniable proof of Walt's manliness, and of the very concept of masculinity.

Breaking Bad does complicate masculinity and question its value--Walt loses his family and eventually his soul because he's unable to let go of his desire for power and control; Hank plays the manly cop, but when a fatal shooting leaves him reeling he's forced to conclude that that persona isn't a worthy end in its own right; Walt's former student and partner in crime Jesse, who spends the series learning manhood from Walt and the men he meets through him, is corrupted and perhaps destroyed by what he learns; this excellent essay argues that Walt's son, who has cerebral palsy, acts as a rebuke to his father and uncle's belief that manhood is tied up with physical strength.  But this is only to suggest that masculinity should be tempered with other, less aggressive traits, not that it is inherently flawed or even fake.  This, of course, reflects on Breaking Bad's handling of capitalism.  In The Sopranos and Mad Men, the construct of masculinity is a product of capitalism.  In Breaking Bad, it is the only means of navigating it.  Throughout the series, the criminal hierarchies that Walt and Jesse navigate are discussed in the terms of business, and the overall structure of the show, for all that it is a crime story, is also very clearly the story of an entrepreneur trying to make it to the top, testing out various business partners, battling opposing companies for market share, spending time as a cog in a corporate machine, and striking out on his own.  There is in Breaking Bad less questioning of the system than there is in Mad Men or The Sopranos.  On one level, this makes sense, since Walt is still clawing his way to the position that Don has gained and that Tony inherited, but already there is a sense that inasmuch as Breaking Bad is willing to criticize Walt's ascent, it is on the grounds of the field he chose to dominate and his methods of getting to the top, not the very idea of wanting to get there.  Like masculinity, capitalism as a concept is not something Breaking Bad wants to reject.

At their core, Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Walter White are all driven by the same impulse, the fear of death.  This is quite literal in Walt's case--it's the realization of his impending death that jump-starts both his criminal career and his transformation--and Tony lives in a world in which both his death and the death he deals to others are constant specters.  In Don's non-violent life, death still plays a major role in his creative process--an anti-smoking PSA targeted at teenagers aims at their burgeoning realization that they will someday die, and in the series pilot, in which Don is trying to sell cigarettes in spite of new studies that link them to cancer, a psychiatrist tries to convince him to appeal to the "death impulse," a suggestion he dismisses as "perverse"--in Don Draper's world, death is never desirable.  The question of their anti-hero's death overshadows all three shows, but is also itself questioned.  The Sopranos famously refused to reveal whether Tony lives or dies at its end, and Mad Men's opening credits feature the silhouette of a man, probably Don, plummeting from a high rise building.  But the show itself repeatedly teases the possibility of Don's death--from high blood pressure, from alcoholism, from suicide--while at the same time suggesting that maybe the entire series has been that long, drawn out fall.  It's left to Breaking Bad to make the oblique literal--when Walt, now in remission, goes for a periodic scan to see if his cancer has returned, he angrily rejects a fellow patient's protestations that their cancer is a sign that they have no control over their lives, "guess what?  Every life comes with a death sentence.  So every few months I come in here for a regular scan, knowing full well that one of these times--hell, maybe even today--I'm going to hear some bad news.  But until then, who's in charge?  Me.  That's how I live my life."  Whether it comes suddenly or in slow increments, at the end of the series or some time after, Tony, Don, and Walt are going to die, but what makes the question of their death central to their characters and shows is the fact that death is the antithesis of the control that lies at the heart of their masculinity--that it exposes the hollowness of both that control and the masculinity it defines.

When Betty, in the most recent season of Mad Men, has a cancer scare, she treats it as what it is, a threat to her existence, not her sense of self.  She doesn't rage, or feel the urge to start a meth empire, as a way of defying death.  She just worries about her kids.  The implication--that within the structure of these shows, even something as universal and fundamentally human as the fear of death can be folded into the self-definition of only one subset of humanity--is troubling, and draws attention to the limitations of this focus on masculinity.  For one thing, there is the problem that when we describe these shows as being about the crisis of American masculinity, what we actually mean is that they are about the crisis of white (and middle class) American masculinity.  People of color are nearly absent from The Sopranos and Mad Men, and though their absence (and the white protagonists' discomfort with the idea of their presence) is commented on--in the case of Mad Men, as the civil rights movement build steam in the its background, the show foregrounds the self-conscious liberalism of many of its characters, who support civil rights in principle but have no idea how to relate to black people--the end result is not only to elide an entire segment of society but to exclude non-white men from the struggle towards and with masculinity that the white men in all three shows are engaged in (Mad Men, for example, slowly introduces black characters to its cast--Betty's maid, Don's secretary--but these are all women). 

Breaking Bad should be the series that gets this issue right--Walt's criminal career brings him into contact with many Latino men (the fact that Latino characters of either gender are almost entirely absent from his law-abiding life is an issue for another discussion) who share his quest for dominance and control and would therefore presumably be struggling with the same questions about the value and cost of masculinity that Walt struggles with.  But with only one exception--a first season antagonist who challenges Walt's willingness to commit violence in pursuit of his goal--the Latino characters Walt encounters are psychopaths, inhuman badasses, and cartel honchos who cater to stereotypes of the excess and brutality of Latino gangsters.  If any of them struggle with their conscience, or wonder whether it was all worth it, or chafe under the need to constantly be aggressive and dominant, we don't see it.  Even fan favorite Gus Fring, Walt's main antagonist in the third and fourth seasons, who defies some stereotypes by assuming the protective coloration of an upstanding businessman and solid citizen, remains inscrutable, and the revelation that he has involved Walt in his decades-long scheme of revenge against the cartels for the death of his partner (and possibly lover) doesn't so much humanize him as make him seem even cooler than he already was--we never learn, for example, whether Gus feels that his revenge was worth the effort he took to achieve it, or whether, like Tony and Don, his response to getting what he wants is to look for something to be unhappy about.

What should we read into the fact that the three shows that between them define and exemplify the renaissance of the television medium are all so bound up in the question of what it means to be a white man?  It's not as if there aren't shows out there with similar topics that focus on women (Weeds, The Big C, Nurse Jackie, Damages) or people of color (The Wire).  But these shows have not amassed the cultural currency of, say, The Sopranos--even The Wire, for all its positive critical reception, hasn't penetrated pop culture the way Mad Men has, with Saturday Night Live skits, spreads in fashion magazine, and even a Sesame Street parody.  Quality no doubt plays a part here, though that raises the question of why writers of the caliber of David Chase, Matthew Weiner, and Vince Gilligan chose to write stories about men (a particularly pertinent question in Weiner's case; Mad Men could just as easily have been a story about Peggy, whose thirst for power and wealth is as intense as Don's, but Weiner chose to make Don the main focal point of his story and Peggy its secondary protagonist).  But given the similarities between The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, you have to wonder if that's all that's going on.  Did these shows get crowned as the best that television has to offer simply because they are good, or did television critics find it easier to recognize quality when its focus was the struggles of white masculinity?  And were these shows greenlit merely because of their quality, or because of their subject matter?  Mad Men and Breaking Bad are excellent series and I look forward to as much more of them as their creators will give me (Breaking Bad is about to take a break in its fifth and last season, Mad Men is scheduled to run either one or two more), but I think that we deserve shows of this caliber that focus on a less narrow aspect of humanity, and for that matter, shows that recognize that the lust for power and control, and the fear of death, are not qualities unique to a certain gender or race.  That's something that the golden age of TV has yet to deliver.

20 comments:

Bryan M. White said...

I was also struck by the similarity between The Sopranos and Mad Men, especially in the manner in which both Tony and Don conduct their extra-marital affairs, and in the way that both shows handle it.

I'm glad it wasn't just me ;)

Jin said...

"The Wire" should have been watched first... It is the best show ever.

Adam Roberts Project said...

Brilliant essay, Abigail.

Your description of The Sopranos is compelling, but I've always felt it's a series in two parts, the first part of which was by far the better. That first part was the original conception of the show: when Tony's mother was still alive, and the conceit was more straightforwardly Freudian: Tony is deeply unhappy, but his unhappiness has causes (although causes that he is unwilling to face) and the psychiatrist's office is the proper arena to uncover them. This was the dynamic of the first two seasons, and it took a good deal of its force from the idea that 'repression' might still be a psychological problem for a figure who, as a mafiosi, is able to act out violence most of us cannot. For me, the relationship between Tony and Livia remains the best written of the entire show; and it gave the show a powerful focus and narrative drive (quite apart from giving Dr Gelpi a reason for being in teh show, something she later lost). But when Nancy Marchand died, and they wrote her character out, the show was a big hit; the remaining four series are much more like your description -- 'plotless, detail-oriented naturalism in which events, big and small, explosive and mundane, are important less for leading up to a denouement or conclusion than for shedding more light on the characters and their foibles'; which is either a stroke of writing genius, or else, less charitably, the curse of network success, where nothing can be allowed to develop, or change, because so much money is tied-up in simply keeping it going. 'Plotless, detail-oriented naturalism in which events, big and small, explosive and mundane, are important less for leading up to a denouement or conclusion than for shedding more light on the characters and their foibles': replace 'naturalism' with 'comedy' and this is a description of Friends.

The big difference with Mad Men, it seems to me (and I take your points about its similarity to Sopranos) is that it repudiates the Freudian line, 'repression makes you unhappy'. It has the courage of its 'superficiality' convictions. The scene where Don sits by Peggy's hospital bed and tells her 'you will be surprised by how little you think of this, how easily you put it behind you' (or words to that effect) is amazing, and amazing because the show follows through on it. This actually is how characters live their lives. The main thing about the cheesy stole-the-identity-of-a-man-in-Korea story is how little effect it has on Draper's irresistible rise. It's a show that really seems to be saying: Don maybe unhappy, but he doesn't need a shrink to sort that: he needs more money, more whisky and more sex. Not that it's crass; on the contrary, I think this line takes its force from its slyly conscious knowingness that it's blaspheming against the logic of Therapy America. It's like a realist Seinfeld: no hugging, no learning.

Adam Roberts Project said...

Also, what Jin said: The Wire is amazing.

Foxessa said...

I stopped watching all three of these series before they were finished because they stalled out, and for other reasons as well.

The Wire, however, superior to all three, I've watched all the way through all the seasons three times so far.

Foxessa said...

Also -- The Wire? It doesn't have any of those endless BORING dream episodes, born of writers stalling out, that interrupt the other three series.

Dream episodes in series as much a sign that we've come to the end as the jump the shark episodes.

The Wire -- brilliant writing, always.

Like Homicide remained brilliant, through all seven seasons.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Bryan:

I'm pretty sure I've seen one of the reviewers at The AV Club saying that the show that Mad Men most closely resembles is The Sopranos, so it isn't just you.

Jin:

All the more reason to leave it for last, then, isn't it?

Adam:

You're right that there was a shift in tone and focus between The Sopranos's early seasons and its later ones, but I'm not sure I would describe that shift as the writers losing their therapy structure so much as their being liberated from it. The premise of Tony seeing a psychiatrist, it seems to me, was intended to make him more approachable, and more palatable as a leading man. Centering the show around the emotional toll that being a mobster has taken on him and dangling before the audience the promise that if only Tony can work through his toxic relationship with his mother, he'll stop being a bad guy and be a better husband and father, was, at the time, perhaps the only way the show could conceive of asking viewers to sympathize with such an irredeemable character. Losing the therapy angle, for all its occasional creakiness (as you say, Dr. Melfi ceased having a purpose on the show after the second season) felt to me like the writers stretching their wings, realizing that the audience - for reasons both positive and negative - had no problem rooting for Tony and that they could face up to his awfulness without ever suggesting that he might grow or change.

As for Mad Men, I'm not convinced that it's as anti-therapy as you suggest. Many of the characters are, because the repression you mention in relation to The Sopranos is a major component of their definition of masculinity (as it is for Tony) and therefore to face up to their feelings would compromise it. But I don't think the show validates that stance. Yes, Don tells Peggy to repress her trauma, but she doesn't - her entire arc over the second season is about facing up to what happened to her, and she ends the season by owning up to her experiences to both Pete and God (the latter a private confession that rejects the judgmental attitude of the priest who's been hounding her to confess all season, and perhaps indicates the way that psychiatry has come to replace religion in the public discourse about wellness and morality). Meanwhile, Don's repression comes close to destroying his life - it drives his brother to suicide and the final wedge between him and Betty - which is something he seems to recognize since he tells Megan the truth from day one. I think in both Don and Peggy the show gives us characters who are doing the things that therapy is supposed to do - facing up to traumas, recognizing bad habits, and trying to change - but doing so without the help of an therapist (which works for Peggy and doesn't so much for Don). Meanwhile, in the background and as the period of the show progresses, we have characters who clearly benefit from proper therapy - Betty's disastrous experience with a therapist who doesn't respect her privacy is substituted by one who makes her feel safe, and of course the same woman is also helping Sally.

replace 'naturalism' with 'comedy' and this is a description of Friends.

Well, yes, as I say the show does run out of forward momentum relatively early on, and what distinguishes it, for me, from Friends and its ilk is mainly the quality of the writing. The stasis in The Sopranos never feels artificial or imposed, and the setting and characters are so well observed that they're always a joy even if the story is just a variation on something we've seen before.

Foxessa:

Of the three shows I mention I think only The Sopranos regularly uses dream sequences, and I have to admit I quite like them. It's certainly a device that can be over- or misused (and plenty of shows imitating The Sopranos have done so), but I think The Sopranos mostly used it well.

Dotan Dimet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dotan Dimet said...

When talking about The Wire and why it didn't go on longer or receive the wild success it so richly deserved, David Simon repeatedly mentioned "the limits of empathy" - there's a reason that show opened with a white police detective at its center, continued with a season-long story about white lower-class dock workers, and lost popularity (although not quality!) as it dodgedly expanded the cast of black and mostly lower-class cast of characters in the third and fourth seasons.

Basically, American cable viewers prefer thoughtful drama to be about people like those who can afford cable subscriptions.

Adam Roberts Project said...

Dr Melfi, that's right. Why did I call her Gelpi? Who's 'Gelpi', anyway?

What you say about Mad Men (the paragraph running "I'm not convinced that it's as anti-therapy as you suggest ... the same woman is also helping Sally") is all factually true, as a description of some of the things that happen on the show; but -- and I apologise for being both ornery and vague at the same time -- seem to miss the tone of the whole for me. The things you talk about aren't why 'we' love Mad Men so much. It's more like James Bond without the spycraft and supervillains; the darkness and sorrow is there to add depth and spice to the (true) pleasures of the show: design, lifestyle, suavity, sex, clothes, a sort of complicated ersatz-nostalgia -- the darkness is there, in fact, to tickle our sensibilities into the belief that these superificial pleasures are actually layered with resonance and meaning. I don't say that to denigrate the show; on the contrary, I have come to love it -- repeated viewings have only deepened the conversion-experience I blogged about here.

Of course I agree with you that Sopranos is better written than Friends: my point wasn't that. It was that the lack of overall shape you identified as a symptom of narrative sophistication in the former show could actually be read as a symptom merely of network success and commercial pressure. But that's quite a banal point (mine is, I mean).

Dotan: you may be right about incipient racism dogging The Wire's reputation; but it is also true that (avoiding spoilers) the latter series, and the final one in particular, were largely exercises in punishing all the key characters, piling more and more misery and horribleness upon them; which, though dramatically powerfully done, isn't a strategy calculated to endear the show to a wide audience.

Foxessa said...

Mad Men does indeed use dream sequences. Dan Draper has them.

I quit watching Breaking Bad somewhere in the third season, but I recall at least one dream sequence in there.

Also Breaking Bad has fairly pedestrian at best photography -- unlike The Wire. In Homicide, you see them working out new ways to use the cameras -- and the new camera technologies that were rapidly evolving, particularly for video during all those seasons, as well as with The Wire.

Also, in my opinion, who has some platform in these areas, including constant dialog with people of color who live in Baltimore and and else
where -- both Homicide and The Wire were the most honest shows about racial matters (as well as everything else) I've ever seen on television or in the movies -- and without being racialist tinged in subtext. These shows both take for granted the actual condition of the mix we live in in this nation. The characters all behave as who they are -- they don't ignore color conditions, they are affected by it, and -- yet, this is the best thing that you never see anywhere else except in these programs, particularly Homicide -- they are all part of the same team, and that team matters more, whether the team be being police or being Baltimore. Except -- when it comes to family.

Gads they are great shows. No they don't show the country or the city location as Great, they show all that's wrong. But they also show people as people, striving in whatever way they can, to live their lives and make a living.

Of course too, both these shows are fiction. People sometimes forget that too. As with Treme.

Love, C.

Foxessa said...

By the way, Treme operates the same way (and employs, black and white) many of the same actors that we first saw in Homicide and The Wire -- some of them in both. Spike Lee has begun to those actors too, as he's spent so much time in New Orleans since the Failure of the Levees.

This throw the critics, reviewers and viewers way off, I think, since at leat the first two seasons didn't depict the 'black' drug war vs the cops, whether black or white cops. Many people can't recognize as plot or story any narrative that doesn't fixate on the binary good guys - bad guys, and lotsanlotsofgunviolencechases. If those things are there, then NOTHING HAPPENS IN THIS SHOW!

Treme is about musicians, primarily. Not all black musicians, but due to the history of the city and slavery, the traditional music that New Orleans made famous 'round the world -- it was and is still being made by black musicians. A lot viewers don't like this. But Simon and Co. are true to history and to the city in these all so important ways.

It is a shocking and terrible thing that so many in this country are like this when it comes to entertainment. But not surprising, when in this country we have men in charge of things like the House committee on Science and Technology who believes that there is such a thing as legitimate rape and that women don't become pregnant from it.

Treme is -- great, in the same way that The Wire and Homicide were great, but very, very different.

Those viewers who prefer violence though, well, as they are true to what happens, this season three, the focus is on the crime rate going off the charts in the new New Orleans.

Love, C.

Alison said...

I am away from home, typing on a phone, so I can't do justice to your welcome and complex review. I think that Mad Men, The Wire and Breaking Bad all deal with the ineffable. I think they are about how authentic existence breaks through the garbage, but not with joyful consequences.

Unlike Adam I think Mad Men is about how authentic being cannot be denied. Breaking Bad is more about how authentic being is amoral and inhabits evil as much as goodness. MM is about creativity and death, BB is about intellect and death. I think they are all critical of capitalism, but it is just the superficial context - like monarchy for Macbeth.

Something else I wanted to say about cathartic suffering but this finger-typing is too painfully slow.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Adam:

The things you talk about aren't why 'we' love Mad Men so much.

Well, my response to that, as you've anticipated, is: what to you mean by "we"? You're right, of course, that Mad Men struggles with the impulse towards artificiality, and that sometimes it seems to be fighting for both sides - the same visual and design sensibility that makes such a carefully crafted product out of the show undercuts its emotional immediacy. But I'm not convinced that this is a deliberate effect. In your blog post you link to the LRB's takedown of the show, which echoes my responses to the pilot and early episodes - all those blatant, audience-pleasing, Look How Bad It Was Back Then scenes. But the show has moved away from that tone and in its later seasons the historical setting is less urgent and less prone to impinge on the story. There is certainly a sense in which Mad Men can be read as a melodrama that takes itself too seriously, but I'm not sure that's the same thing as being a satire.

the lack of overall shape you identified as a symptom of narrative sophistication in the former show could actually be read as a symptom merely of network success and commercial pressure

I don't doubt that success did influence The Sopranos (I'm fairly certain the show ended when it did in spite of HBO's wishes) but that's true of every television series, and that influence isn't always a bad thing. Still, it feels as if you're saying that narrative stasis is in itself a bad thing, and I'm not convinced that it is - and not just for The Sopranos. Television was built on formula and repetition, and some of the greatest expressions of the medium still rely on them, even if The Sopranos's idea of what constitutes formula is more sophisticated and flexible than Friends's. The problem, it seems to me, isn't stasis but staleness. Friends became stale relatively early on (as most comedies do). I don't think The Sopranos ever truly did.

Jonathan Walker said...

"Unlike Adam I think Mad Men is about how authentic being cannot be denied. Breaking Bad is more about how authentic being is amoral and inhabits evil as much as goodness. MM is about creativity and death, BB is about intellect and death."

I think that's a compelling interpretation of the connection between the two shows.

brainwane said...

Ms. Nussbaum, thanks for this thoughtful piece.

I'm wondering whether you have any thoughts on Gomez in Breaking Bad? I enjoy seeing his understated friendship with Hank.

linda colman said...

Thanks for sticking with these classic American males long enough to be able to analyze the social meaning of their crises. I’m afraid I wearied of Tony and Don sometime around the third season. Among many possible reasons why their conundrums begin to feel repetitive is the fact that these males, as alphas, lack dense, developing relationships with mentors and peers (someone could likely have fun refuting this).

Two of my favorite shows–“Covert Affairs” and “Homeland”–feature female protagonists who are not only dynamic characters, but have richly layered relationships with their mentors and/ or peers. Both are agents working within hierarchical intelligence institutions, so there’s a practical reason for highlighting the mentor relationship. Thus Annie, (“Covert Affairs”) the CIA agent who argues and bonds with her mentor Joan (she of the implausible sleeveless dresses); and Carrie (“Homeland”), also a field agent, who defies, learns from and at times depends upon her older (and sadder but) wiser male mentor, surely one of the most compassionate men to be portrayed in a TV series.

But it’s Annie’s relationship with her work colleague Augie that is the heart of the “Covert” drama. As a duo, agile Annie and blind, resourceful Augie are reminiscent of the collaborative dynamic in the 1990s TV series “Dark Angel,” in which a genetically engineered cat-womanlike super-heroine combines forces with an unlikely partner: a revolutionary confined to a wheelchair. In both dramas “he” contributes his smarts (strategy, tech-savvy) while “she’” goes out and has all the adventures, and takes all the risks.

The above formula makes for very satisfying viewing, and allows for lots of growth opportunities for the adventurous female leads and their brainy male counterparts. But while it’s clear––after reading Abigail’s essay on the three TV series, that is–how Tony and Don are each in their way a kind of American Everyman–Hollowman, it isn’t at all clear to me what social and gender patterns are reflected in “Covert Affairs” and “Homeland.” What, if anything, do characters Annie and Carrie have to say about the American/ Western female? It would be fascinating to read a post on great to good TV shows with dynamic female leads.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Alison, Jonathan:

Thinking about it some more, the connection you both highlight strikes me as true but at the same time more complicated. You can certainly say that creativity is to MM as intellect is to BB, but at the same time intellect is a major component of Don's work (reading both the market and his clients, knowing how to transform the germ of a creative idea into a campaign) and creativity is an important component of Walt's (as a scientist, we're told, he was known for finding creative solutions to problems, and creative problem-solving is his main strength as a criminal). Neither Don nor Walt are using their creativity or intellect purely, as an end in its own right, but as a way of powering a business. While Don's creativity and Walt's intellect make them, respectively, the best in their fields, neither could have gotten as far as they have without the other quality as well.

Brainwane:

Gomez is a good character, and just about the only non criminial Latino on the show (Jesse's girlfriend Andrea might also count, but she's knowingly taking money from a drug dealer). But he's also a fairly minor character, with little in the way of agency or an internal life.

Linda:

Mentor relationships: both Tony and Don had these (with Uncle Junior and Roger Sterling, respectively) but the relationships have soured as the young men grew older and their mentors more feeble - the perils of a patriarchy, I suppose, only room for one man on top. It is interesting to note, however, that both Don and Walt are someone else's mentor - Peggy and Jesse. Neither are entirely wholesome relationships - Don holds Peggy back as much as he helps her develop, and Walt is simultaneously the only nurturing presence in Jesse's life and someone who is hopelessly corrupting him but the do exist.

You're right, of course, that few of the shows with dynamic heroines try to address the realities of being a working woman - I think the only series that comes close to doing what MM and BB do for working men is The Good Wife, but it's storytelling is significantly less ambitious.

seth ellis said...

I'm coming late to this excellent essay, and I don't have much to add except this:

The force of this revelation is somewhat dulled, however, by the incongruity of Don's having been able to reinvent himself from the ground up to escape an unsatisfying life in the past, while in the present the crux of his story is his inability to change his life or break out of bad habits.

I think this is a very realistic detail of the American masculinity crisis you identified, actually. In fiction, it's the Jay Gatsby principle: social reinvention is only supposed to move in one direction. There's very often a failure of imagination when it comes to any other kind of reinvention, even a failure to imagine how it's possible. I went to a fancy American private university with some first-generation-college students who were dead set on becoming generic yuppies, for very pressing economic and social reasons. They were mostly very adept at picking up social cues and adapting their behavior to fit on the fly; they were good at middle-class camouflage. But several of them, when they got what they wanted, were still dissatisfied, and now they had no idea what to do next. For them at least, personal transformation had to be goal-oriented, or it's unclear how to go about it, or even why. It's the final masculinity trap, from the male's point of view.

My problem with Mad Men, which I have yet to really get into, is that I already know this stuff. At least from my perspective as an American man, and one whose education is a little above my financial station, this is all extremely well-traveled ground. No matter how well-made the show is, it seems like it must be time for some new stories, as you point out in regards to the show's general whiteness.

Jack Rodgers said...

I don’t know how interested you are in checking out another show that’s primarily about what it’s like to be a male in contemporary America, but have you seen any of Friday Night Lights? In many ways, it’s a nice antidote to Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos’ portrayal of masculinity as a constant struggle to be an alpha male/master of the universe type who can’t stomach the thought of not being in charge. Compare the mentality of the aforementioned three shows – in which death and illness and aging are seen as threats to the protagonists’ worldviews rather than inevitabilities – to this voiceover by Coach Taylor from the end of the pilot episode of Friday Night Lights, delivered just after a star high-school football player is paralyzed following a huge tackle:

“Give all of us gathered here tonight the strength to remember that life is so very fragile. We are all vulnerable and we will all at some point in our lives fall; we will all fall. We must carry this in our hearts…that what we have is special. That it can be taken from us and that when it is taken from us we will be tested…we will be tested to our very souls. We will now all be tested. It is these times…it is this pain that allows us to look inside ourselves.”

Taylor’s brand of masculinity, which he attempts to pass on to his players (most of whom are notably lacking father figures in their own lives), is rooted in ideals like giving back to one’s community, fair play and helping others in need. Intriguingly, the third season of the show introduces a new character, built from the same mold as Don Draper et al, as a contrast to Taylor. He has the hallmarks of success – mini-mansion, trophy wife, a son he’s trying to shape in his own image (he’s been training him practically since birth to be the perfect quarterback) – and, of course, he believes that his wealth allows him to bully others and get his way on everything. Sadly, this plotline was mostly dropped after one season (I think due to the fact that the actor playing his son wasn’t very compelling), but it’s telling that this character is seen as a jerk and a menace to his own family on FNL rather than as a morally complex individual we’re meant to sympathize with.

The show wasn’t nearly as good at first at exploring female friendships as it was at male bonding, but it got a lot better at it at over the course of its run. And its portrait of the Taylors is easily one of the best depictions of a marriage in the history of television, something it accomplished by focusing on the everyday routines, compromises and joys of sharing your life with another person, rather than cheap stunts like teasing the possibility that either one will have an affair. I realize the focus on football scares away a lot of people, but it’s worth checking out even if you’re not a sports person at all (personally, I’ve never watched a football game from start to finish with the exception of the Superbowl).

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