Monday, August 24, 2009

Notes and Notions

(I used to call this type of post "Bits and Pieces." I like the new name better.)

Let's start with TV. Mad Men has returned for the third season. Set in the tumultuous year of 1963, this season has started slow. The various storylines (both new and old) have a deliberate pace and succeed at setting mood and tone as they slow ratchet the tension. At this rate it may be season's end before all this tension comes to a head. And speaking of tension, one can't really watch the new season without thinking about the world-shaking events that are soon to occur. The question is: When in the season arc will the Kennedy assassination happen? Will the writers wait for the end or place the tragedy in the middle of the story? Which is the best dramatic choice? Personally, I hope they deal with it sooner rather than later. Right now, watching Mad Men is like watching the first act of any Pearl Harbor story. We're just waiting for the bombs to fall.

I realize I've reduced the subtle and complex drama of Mad Men to rather simplistic terms. The show has never been a historical drama. It's a period piece and good one. The characters and setting are rich and the themes of identity and artifice are wholly integrated into the drama. But the atmosphere of the show has always had a fin de siecle quality. A way of life is ending. Big changes are coming. A modern audience can't help but think of 1963 in this way. I'm sure, then, that the writers will work hard to either make us forget the imminent changes about to befall the characters or satisfactorily make those changes part of the drama. Either way I'll be watching.

(One last note about Mad Men. The show has certainly made me less interested in HBO's True Blood, a series that has all the subtlety of a travelling circus. Compared to Mad Men, True Blood is nothing but melodrama and loud, horny characters. Let's face it: Where Mad Men is delicate, True Blood is gaudy; where Mad Men is nuanced, True Blood is coarse. What's more, True Blood has become increasingly superficial; there's just nothing to care about in the show. (Probably because it's not "about" anything.) I watch it now from a distance and with some impatience. Mad Men, however, fully involves me, emotionally and intellectually.)

Books: I recommend Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente -- a beautifully written fantasy about a magical city accessed through dreams. This one was wholly captivating. I also liked Positively Fifth Street by James McManus--an exciting, real world look at high stakes poker. Less interesting was World War Z by Max Brooks, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, and The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. All these books have gotten rave reviews and there is much to like in them. But World War Z lacked any narrative drive (you have to really be into zombie fiction to appreciate it); The Magicians featured a highly unlikeable protagonist who failed (in my opinion) to grow up by the end; and The Knife of Never Letting Go was aimed at a young audience and lacked any kind of subtlety (which is OK, really, but the first-person urgency of the narrative became wearing after a while).

Comics: I've read some great illustrated work over the past two months and I'm saving my reviews for a separate post. Look for it soon.

More on David Foster Wallace: We are approaching the first anniversary of Wallace's death. No doubt we'll be hearing more about Wallace's life and his last, unfinished novel (The Pale King) in the weeks to come. Wisconsin Public Radio has already put together a wonderful tribute which can be found here. Go give it a listen. I cannot recommend this program highly enough (the excerpt of Wallace's Kenyon commencement address alone is worth your time).

A few months ago I clumsily attempted to express what Wallace's loss meant to me. Recently, I found the perfect remembrance of Wallace by Sven Birkerts in Agni. I'm ending this post with his words. Where I stumbled, Birkerts dances:

"We are fortified by the work of our writers, by their specific books, but no less important is the sense we have, so long as they are alive, that they are with us, in our midst, engaged, taken up with seeing and thinking and processing--with writing. They make up an important part of the invisible but pervasive and perceptible sum-total that we recognize as our culture. When they die, we feel a terrible diminution, a suction of available energies withdrawn. As if suddenly we all have that much less purchase on reality. The air feels thinner and our gestures of thought feel heavier, more cumbersome, less part of a common purpose."


  1. Mad Man, or what I've seen of it, is very good. I actually only finished rewatching the first season yesterday, and am going to buy season 2 tomorrow (I live in the UK, so season 3 won't air for a while). I love how it's quite a slow burner - and not much really happens, when you think about it - yet it still manages to be gripping and tense.

  2. I agree Tom. Patience pays off with Mad Men. Too few shows require this kind of active viewing.

  3. You know, I like Mad Men OK, but I think the show is a little less clever than it thinks it is much of the time (or, at least, it overly relys on the audience's imagination to flesh out ideas that it drops without developing). I think the show functions best (and is the most fun) in the "oh yeah... I remember when people and stuff were like that" way. When it really evokes nostalgia in a GOOD way, achieving sentiment through unsentimentality. I just think the real top notch shows of recent memory (the Wire, Deadwood, Big Love as it progressed) don't feel as if the underpinings are as underdeveloped.

    Before you pile on, I do like the show, and I know I am in the minority in not feeling it reaches transendece. But I will say that the last three episodes of season 2 were the first time the show made me feel like it was saying something big (2.12, "Hall of the Mountain King" is the best episode, as far as I'm concerned). I found the beginning of season 3 promising. Big Love really turned for me in season 2, so maybe I'll look back on this the same way.

    True Blood can't be compared, though. It is not interested in being the the show Mad Men is invested in striving for (TB aims a little lower on Maslow's heirarchy of need... it may be "self actualized" to some degree, but it has never heard of self trancendence, and it mostly lives on the "social needs" floor or the pyramid). True Blood is pulp, and as such, is pretty darn good (after a kind of faint-pulse buildup taking 4 episodes at the beginning of each season). It just seems wrong to compare the two.

  4. Todd,

    Thanks for your comments. I agree that True Blood and Mad Men are two very different shows and comparing them may be unfair. But here's some of what was on my mind: True Blood is HBO's biggest hit since The Sopranos but the difference between the shows is staggering. Given that HBO passed on Mad Men (and that Matthew Wiener, one of best writers on The Sopranos is creator and producer of Mad Men) one can't help but think what about is happening to HBO and how its audience may have changed. On Sunday night I can actually choose between the two ostensible successors to The Sopranos. That choice is easy.

  5. Cool, I see where you are coming from. I just think the deal with HBO is that they screwed up their cycle, and now they have eyeballs hungry for something they can get into and all they have on in the hour-long field is a show whose appeals are below the neckline, sunshine.

    I really have a lot of hope for Game of Thrones (or Song of Ice and Fire or whatever the official title turns out to be), Boardwalk Empire (Scorsase and Sopranos people!), and Treme (I used to live there, depending on what era's boundaries you use, and I think I'll pee myself regulary going "I used to eat there" - I'm easy), but I'm kind of bummed that the development has taken so long on some of it's potential shows, and I wish they hadn't axed Preacher (that was probably a producer issue - there was no way to ditch Mark Stephen Johnson without ditching the show) or that David Milch show.