Procrastination Links

While I’m fortunate enough to spend my last two weeks of undergrad writing about television, we can’t all be so lucky. Here’s a collection of recent writings that can serve as enjoyable (and informative!) study breaks.

The Revolution Was Televised: The Conversation

Two of the most important television critics today, Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall, in conversation with each other about Sepinwall’s (fantastic) new book, The Revolution Was Televised. They discuss the change from television in the ’70s and ’80s to recent dramas, the television vs. movies debate, and what happened to the Russian, among other topics. It’s a conversation full of incredible insight from two writers who have immersed themselves in these questions.

How Film Critics Use Twitter

Less about television, but with the distinctions being blurred (e.g. screening television series at film festivals) this examination from Jane Hu about the heightened use of Twitter for criticism is spot on. I especially like her acknowledgment of the “work/play” boundary that critics tend to ignore on their Twitter – evident also in Chris Becker’s Good TVeets, a weekly collection of the best and funniest Twitter commentaries about television events.

Tom and Lorenzo’s Mad Style

As someone who loves both Mad Men and obsessive fashion criticism, this weekly analysis is mecca. The writers pick apart screenshots of the characters and their outfits, and puts them into dialogue with the episode’s overarching themes. For a great interview with Janie Bryant, the show’s brilliant costume designer, there’s Vanity Fair.

What’s So Bad About Small-Stakes TV Shows?

Bullett makes a plea for the renewal of Bunheads, looking at the widening gap between “big” and “small” dramas on television. “Even if critics are willing to praise both the big and the small, the pro-bigness position, which rewards shows for breaking with the bad old TV of the past, is the one that’s been adopted by the more adventurous segment of the audience that’s fueling this golden age.” This case for finding quality in smaller-stakes shows is a great perspective – and I really would like to see another season of Bunheads.

Mad Men S06E01, “The Doorway”

“What did you see when you died?”

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This is Don’s question, yelled drunkenly to his doorman as his coworkers try to hurry him into the elevator. Mysteriously opening the episode, the doorman’s brief death is what welcomes Don back to snowy New York after spending Christmas in Hawaii – reading Dante’s Inferno and silently taking in the sights, of course, as only Don Draper can.

The episode oscillates between hot and cold, or perhaps more aptly searing and chilling. Opening scenes in Hawaii lavisciously pan Megan’s tan flesh, fire-jugglers and smoking joints always in the background. Interiors are full of warmth and Christmas cheer (Betty and Henry’s house finally feels like a home, instead of the imposing mansion feel of last season), contrasted only by windows showing bleak skies of grey snow. Margaret talks of refridgeration, characters allude to California, Don’s tan clashes with the white walls of the office. It’s a sensory experience, as Don describes his vacation – the office is bright and cluttered, with a new floor and new faces (and new facial hair; Roger rolls around in fur and remorse at his mother’s funeral; the house in the Village that Betty visits feels desolate. Roger and Don both speak of “experiences” in the episode, and that’s what the premiere is. It’s a “shock” coming back to this Manhattan, catching up with old storylines and understanding new ones.

But is this really a jumping off point? Roger points out that “experiences are nothing,” that even though doors open they eventually close you back in. The reappearance of the Carousel Kodack slide indicates a cyclical pattern. Even seeing Don at the bar in Hawaii mirrors Don in the season 5 finale – a silent figure across the bar, their friend approaching Don with a personal inquiry. Many introductory shots of characters feature some sort of reflection in the background – in Roger’s therapy session, a bust, in Peggy’s apartment, JFK (in Megan’s public life, her character’s persona).

To a point the doubling in the episode matches a sense of déjà vu. Here’s a new eager account man, trying to usurp Ken and Pete for Don and Roger’s approval. Here’s Sally and Betty fighting. Here’s Peggy doing her best Don Draper impression. Here’s a clash between the revolutionary youth and the corporate, suburban adults. Here’s Don having an affair (with Linda Cardellini!!). Things have slightly changed, but not quite. It’s a question Don has dealt with throughout the series – how do you almost die, but then start over and keep living? Ultimately, the characters are their true selves no matter what year it is, or what the circumstances are. Will brown hair change Betty and her dark sense of humour (that rape reference!)?

“Heaven is a little morbid,” Don admits in a sales pitch. Notes of suicide still remain from last season, as his clients immediately pick up drowning motifs in Don’s interpretation of paradise – although, despite immersing himself in the Inferno, he doesn’t see it. I was affected by the doctor’s mention of anxiety, because that’s what I felt while watching – we are coming to the end of the series (Mad Men is set to run for another season, but who knows what tricks Matthew Weiner has up his sleeve), and in terms of time 1967 marks an enormous shift in American culture. In other words, the white light has begun to show. Get ready to shed your skin.

Quick Links: A Mad Men HOF

http://www.grantland.com/blog/hollywood-prospectus/post/_/id/72869/youtube-hof-the-best-of-mad-men

I normally wouldn’t be too excited about boiling a show down to a few of its “best” moments, but this list from Grantland is satisfyingly comprehensive. the scenes chosen have a wide range, highlighting the show’s ability to be romantic, comic, and tragic – sometimes all at once. And personally, I can never get enough of scenes between Don and Joan; “an uncommon pairing, probably because the wise folks at AMC are worried about melting your flat-screen” is a perfect way to describe the characters.

Infographic: Emmy Nominations by Network, 80’s – 10’s

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Emmy Nominations by Network, '80s - '10s

via Wired, “Welcome to the Platinum Age of Television.” This infographic charts the Emmy nominations by networks over the past several decades (the website’s image is interactive, to specify which shows were nominated for which network). The magazine points out that “with so many more places to see great shows, the distinction between broadcast and cable has disappeared. Quality is the only thing that matters.” The chart shows a lot of interesting changes – the incredible diversity of choice in the  00’s and 10’s; HBO’s peak in the late 90’s/early 00’s; the lack, with the exception of AMC, of any strong upwards trajectory by a network, etc. I find it especially interesting that HBO, AMC and Showtime haven’t received a higher proportion of awards, despite the reputation of quality that is associated with those networks – it shows that awards season may focus on quality, but popularity is still very much a factor as well.

Teaser: Mad Men, Season 6

Today, a new teaser video was released for Mad Men‘s final season, premiering on April 7th. Like the previous teasers, this video contains no new footage or dialogue, using footage from Season 5 to remind audiences what has been happening in the world of Don Draper. ShowBiz 411 has revealed some details about the first episode, informing us that it will be 2 hours long, titled “The Doorway,” and take place in Hawaii (explaining these beachy pictures).

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Throwback: 18 Academic Papers About ’90s TV Shows

18 Academic Papers About ’90s TV Shows (via Mental Floss)

Just because I work with contemporary programs doesn’t mean I don’t love a solid analysis of a ’90s television show! It’s also reassuring to see academic writing about these older programs, showing that this field of study has strong roots from which to grow.

“If we can learn something interesting about the ancient Romans by studying their drinking songs, surely we can learn something interesting about ourselves by studying our TV shows.”

The Good Wives

“God save us when an Aaron Sorkin antihero is the closest we get to a good guy.”

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A few months ago, the New York Observer ran a piece entitled Bad Men: TV’s Most Reprehensible Antiheroes and the Women Who Love Them. The piece was a follow-up to the Golden Globes, which was argued to be indicative of “a new trend in millennial TV protagonists—men who are, if not quite villains, then at least Bad Men.” 

Tony Soprano, Dexter, Nucky Thompson, Sgt. Brody, Tom Kane, Walter White, and Don Draper all fit the description of this type. “At best, our guy is an immoral misanthrope and a latent misogynist. At worst, he’s a sociopath, one who may or may not be running an international drug cartel. Or a terrorist ring. If you’re lucky, he’s merely a serial killer who kills other killers.” The presence of a misanthropic character on a television show isn’t necessarily a new trend – Archie Bunker is a prime example. What is unique about these millenial protagonists is that audiences identify with them. They root for them. They even respect them. 

Who we don’t respect, for the most part, are their wives.

These shows “all portray nosy, ineffectual matriarchs who are simultaneously ice-cold bitches, helpless victims and puritanical enforcers.” Betty Draper and Skyler White especially are despised by audiences, seen as the “spoilsports” to their husbands’ activities – even when in fact they are the victims of them. 

What these women really do is act as a foil to their male counterparts, foils that question the glorified masculinity that the shows depict through violence and rebellion. These women show the side of these men that can be sexist, weak, self-deluding, unreasonable, and downright threatening. When the protagonist is questioned, the audience is uncomfortable. They look for a scapegoat, the root of the problem. “Why is my hero struggling?”

That isn’t to say these women are perfect moral counterparts – they have their flaws and questionable decisions, their infidelity and maternal struggles. But the widespread negativity towards them has to be investigated, especially in an era where there are examples of complex, interesting, powerful female characters leading many different television programs.

There have been many different articles recently on the topic, which is promising, and Breaking Bad and Mad Men each still have a season (roughly) left to engage with these characters on a more complex level. As well, shows like Enlightened and Girls keep encouraging discussion around female protagonists whose relatability and respect differ widely among audiences, an interesting development for complex television. At the very least, the nagging matriarch is a trope that is being dissected in critical reviews.