Box Watch – “Mad Men”

When watching movies, I know I’ve found a new personal favourite when I’m grinning from ear to ear as the credits roll. It’s a recognition of the craft – the art – that went into what I’ve just witnessed. It’s the realisation of how slickly I’ve been played as an audience member. And the jaw-stretching grin is all the more sweeter if my expectations were pretty high beforehand.

In the last five years, that credit-roll grin has been hurting my face after just an hour – sometimes only half that – of television drama. From the oh-my-gods-I’m-exhausted elation/relief of The Shield and Bodies, to the what-the-heck-happens-next-gods-dammit addiction of The Wire and Sports Night – and let’s not forget the hot-damn!-that-was-good enjoyment from The Closer, The West Wing and the occasional Burn Notice episode.

So what is it about Mad Men that makes me griiin and whine cry out Finished already? each week?

Nothing happens. It’s about relationships – between a bunch of distinctly unlikeable rogues bastards in an era where women were little more than chattels, blacks were invisible, and every damned one of the characters smokes.

It’s those very things that I savour about Mad Men.

Nothing much may happen in an ep but we’re learning more and more about Don and Peggy and company – and what we learn not so much answers questions about them but deepens what we know about their characters. Where most other television dramas would portray the dick-swinging camaraderie with a post-Top Gun homoeroticism or symbolic gunfights and car-chases, the male relationships in Mad Men are so finely detailed that even The Goddess is forced to ask me What was that all about? And as for the show’s portrayal of the time and place: I salute creator Matthew Weiner‘s unflinching lack of gloss or veneer – ‘S how it was, baby.

In portraying a period of history as unflatteringly as one might cover current events, Weiner’s genius is in showing us that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Where the choice on the box is usually between procedural (or procedural with a twist) and soap (or soap with a twist), it’s great to have a drama that – just like its characters toil at in advertising – gives more of the same, but different.


I Heart “Sports Night”

Watching Sports Night with The Goddess followed Cameron’s Logarithmic Curve. We started back in February, watching about an ep a week. March was the same. April was a wash-out. But as we entered May and The Goddess got to know the characters – in particular their relationships – as an ep’s end credits rolled, I would hear a Little Voice beside me: Can we watch another one?

Such requests are unheard of in the Mamea household.

In between, amongst others, Desperate Housewives, Lewis and Build A New Life in the Country, an evening with Dan, Casey, et al, became two-ep affairs. Then last week, on a couple of nights, we watched three eps in a row. And only two nights ago, we watched five.

Then I had to explain to The Goddess why there were no more eps to watch.

In the after-match debrief – and also while we worked our way through the DVD set – it’s the little details that stand out. How less is more – where what’s not said can define a relationship far better than declarations of loyalty or bemoanings of betrayal. How a certain behaviour can really be mere displacement. How expectations of standard TV drama situations and relationships were not met because they were handled with wit, intelligence and compassion. It’s safe to say that for all the verbosity, wit and good intentions of the characters, they’re as inhibited, neurotic and selfish as anyone in the real world.

I could go on and on about Sports Night but others have said it better in the nine years since it was first aired. As sad as it was that it got canned after only two seasons, it ended as well as it started, and you can’t say that of many television series.

POSTSCRIPT: The Goddess is quite reluctant to try Mr Sorkin’s West Wing because, for all my arguments that politics is merely behaviour and relationships on a different scale and plane, it’s about politics.


A Late Letter to Aaron Sorkin

Dear Mr Sorkin

I’ve been a big fan, Mr Sorkin, for a looong time.

I first noticed your work when Jack and Tom chewed the scenery (and each other) in A Few Good Men. Even though Det. Steve Keller Michael Douglas played The American President, I still enjoyed how you mixed in the love and politics.

And then there was Sports Night. A comedy with no laugh track? A drama that played for just half-an-hour? A show which wasn’t really about sports but about relationships? That used sports as a metaphor for what it meant to be a decent human being in this world? You sly dog, you: I was hooked. You showed me that not only was it possible to be funny and enlightening, you made me a believer in intelligent television – sometimes less was more.

The West Wing did not disappoint. Only you could create a drama about politics without regularly resorting to situations in which the world was saved at the last second. I only got to Season Three unfortunately – life had plans for me and I drifted away. I hear that around Season Four, life had its own plans for you, too.

I’m not afraid to say that I had a flutter when I heard you were returning with Studio 60 on Sunset Strip. So what if Teevee quickly tired of the numerous rants soliloquoys. And you have to admit Ken Levine was pretty funny with his if Aaron Sorkin wrote a show about baseball. I knew without question that I was going to tune in whenever it reached our shores.

The first half-dozen eps were classic Sorkin. I lapped it up. Whatever industry japes and spikes were there went straight over my head. So you wanted to vent – I was cool with that. And maybe your signature back-and-forth dialogue wasn’t so fresh a third time around – I didn’t mind; it was nice to have you back on the box. But then there was the The Harriet Dinner two-parter. Then the 4am Miracle ep. Then The Disaster Show.

Mr Sorkin – all due respect but… WTF?

I’m sorry, Mr Sorkin, but I just… I can’t take any more. I’ve stopped watching. I may never know how Danny and Jordan go with the baby, or if Matt and Harriett’s rollercoaster love will straighten up and fly right, or even if the New Black Guy will get his first sketch aired. I don’t care. I feel insulted. If I wanted will-they-or-won’t-they relationship arcs or idiot-plots-A through to -Z, I’d be watching CSI or Medium. I wanted to enjoy your last outing but it didn’t work out. It wasn’t me, it was you.

Please don’t take this to be a beatdown. I’m a big fan of your work – even if Studio 60 plumbed some depths, it was still superior television. Whatever your next show is, you can count me in, no questions asked.

Yours sincerely

d f mamea