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Mad Men

In the midst of the Gladiatorial games which are reality television, it is interesting to see some very good dramas appearing. I never managed to watch 6 Feet Under, or The Sopranos, but I am watching the new one on AMC, Mad Men. Set in 1960 in a Madison Avenue ad agency, it really has a filmic quality to it.

It starts with the opening credits--an animated sequence capturing both the glitz and the despair--worthy of a Hitchcock or some of the other amazing animated sequences of the 1960's. It's even shot like a film. A power struggle moment is shot so that the main character is framed between the underling and the boss. It's shot slightly below eye level so we're looking up at his face in the V between their bodies. Fantastic! The look is amazing, and nothing has been smoothed over. Everyone smokes, every moment. The bosses drink at lunch, pinch, ogle and proposition the secretaries. The only black faces are in restrooms and driving the cars and doing the lawns. They even got Robert Morse (of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" among others) as the big and really wacky boss (a Japanophile, he makes everyone take off their shoes when they enter his office). And everyone is competitive, and everyone has secrets. The veneer of happiness is very thin.

It has been suggested that this is looking at the past through mud-tinted glasses, not allowing the real mix of nice people and nice things to show through, but that wouldn't make for good drama, now would it? In one brilliant moment a little girl runs to her mother with a plastic bag on her head and her mother, (a good mother by the standards of the time), cigarette in hand says, "If I find the dry-cleaning that was in that bag on the floor, you're in big trouble. Now go play." (How did any of us Gen-Xers live through our childhoods? Jungle gyms on concrete, our teachers smoking at the edge of the building).

It's a study in class and wealth, in privilege and race. And it's all going to explode--you just know it.

I was thinking how I don't find myself watching reruns as much as I used to. I really do believe that television writing is becoming better and better--not just on the cable stations, but on the networks as well. I'm not sure when it started--perhaps with Twin Peaks, when Lynch proved that audiences would tune in each week for tiny clues. Even with the daytime soaps and the night time soaps of the 80's you really didn't have to be there each week. In the daytime enough would be repeated to catch up, and at night some things might build, but they weren't really necessary to still enjoy J.R. getting shot. The X-Files, Babylon-5, shows where episodes were defined by whether they were "Arc" stories (meaning clues in the big mystery) or non-Arc, (stand alone's). But those were "genre" series, meaning watched by trainspotting nerds so not part of the bigger demographic, or so the studios thought.

I still watch shows without arcs, House, Bones, etc. but more and more I'm finding them less satisfying.


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