Sep 26, 2012


Thanks to Hannah Stephenson at The Storialist (  for prompting readers to think about high quality TV shows. I just noticed her 9/21/12 post again, and on the heels of my giving almost an hour to watching The Emmy show the other night (an hour was all I could stand, but it was a new personal best—or worst). 

Hannah mentions four shows that have been highly acclaimed:  Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy, and Boardwalk Empire, and many viewers would add Breaking Bad to that company. Mad Men is the only one of those I watch, and Hannah’s post got me to wondering why. I’ve tried the other dramas for about three minutes apiece.

In serious film and TV these days, there is a strong tendency to give us a pig trough of sociopathy, a dreary grey parade of characters with few or no redeeming graces. All of human life, especially in terms of morality, occurs between dusk and 3:00 a.m. 

I’m usually the one who’s crying Foul! Stop all that sentimental simplification about who’s good, what’s beautiful, who’s plastic enough to be sexy, and what images stands for what idea. I don’t like fairy tales. I don’t like fables. They’re insulting. They shrink beauty and moral complexity into thimblefuls and bumper stickers.

However, people seem to find depth and complexity in another kind of simplification that occurs at the other end of the spectrum, the dirty, amoral, noir end, where we find every character a one-dimensional embodiment of criminality or other kinds of antisocial behavior. People hate and use each other, climb over each other, connive and fuck each other—there’s no love-making, only fucking, though I admit, it's often amusingly acrobatic. 

There is no dawn, no dew, no greenery, no laughter, no meaningful connections among the characters—not with each other or nature or anything. It’s what a World War I foxhole must have been like, except that these days no one gives a shit about his buddy, and there are plenty of intoxicants going around to make it seem less a foxhole.

I’m sure many people live such lives, and I’m even more certain that to others they’d look more entertaining than people in my world, including myself. But those grim human animals are not more complex, and they’re not more representative of humanity or what humanity craves.

A long, grey, monotonous Michigan winter looms. I’ll look for ways to soften, brighten, and yes, escape that season for as many moments as I can. That does not mean mindlessness; it means I’ll look for the few birds dumb enough to be hanging around in the sleet, as well as friendly dogs and interesting human conversation. For company, what I won’t look for is a single, endless, atonal note played in a dimly lit room, its drama shifting between dark grey and charcoal.


I’m surprised to find myself regularly watching Boss, a Friday drama on Starz, with Kelsey Grammer as the mayor of Chicago. It’s full of the kind of unrelenting darkness and disease I’ve just protested, but the world of city, national, and international politics intrigues me almost as much as it depresses and enrages me. I don’t know if Boss presents that world with much accuracy, but events and episodes usually seem all too plausible. Also, Grammer’s portrayal of Mayor Tom Kane gains some sympathy because of his rare disease with its terrible prognosis.

HOMELAND  (Season Two begins September 30 on Showtime)

If I ever take time to think it through, I'll probably say Homeland is the richest, most honestly complex, and most gripping TV viewing experience I've ever had. The context consists of politics, war, and political intelligence, but the primary focus is always on the individual human characters, all of whom are caught in dilemmas bigger and deadlier than their own flaws and mistakes. Maybe King Lear was wrong when he said, “I am a man more sinned against than sinning,” but each of the major characters in the first season of Homeland could legitimately make that claim.



Hannah Stephenson said...

Loved your thoughts here (on two shows I am unfamiliar with).

This noirization (like that?) you speak of....I definitely notice it, too. I'm not sure what's going on here.

One show that celebrates absurdity in the midst of cynicism and depressing facts is Louie. Here is a wonderful article on that from the LA Review of Books:

Ken Mac said...

Love Mad Men! Have from episode one before the pile on. Breaking Bad is good, Walt is going down.

Jefferson Library is a former women's prison. Now you know!

Banjo52 said...

Hannah, thanks. And btw, I do watch Louie CK. I find it very uneven, but the half-hour show has some great moments.

Ken, thanks for the interesting!! library info. I'm a Mad Men addict too. BB . . . not so much, but haven't given it a fair try.

Jean Spitzer said...

Just watched and enjoyed the first episode of season 2 of Boss. It's available from Starz for free, online. Don't have tv, so probably will have to look for it on dvd.

RuneE said...

To you general comments on TV - series: Hear, Hear!

Maybe that is why I find myself watching science programs on BBC (and with no advertising!)

Anonymous said...

I'm no help, because I haven't seen anything but maybe a couple of episodes of Mad Men. It seemed kind of obvious to me -- like woman smoking, then close-up of her pregnant belly.

A little off topic, but as of yesterday, I'm half-way thru Heaven's Gate becuz the NY times recently said, hey this movie which ruined many creative lives was actually good after all.

What are they smoking over there?

Banjo52 said...

Jean, if you like Boss well enough to order, I bet you'd like Homeland at least as much, tho' the sex is less dramatic.

Rune, I get over to those shows once in awhile. Gorgeous visuals, AND of course you learn something. Why couldn't we have had science like that in high school? Ah, technology.

AH, I remember the title Heaven's Gate, but don't even recall if I saw it. Was there a big fire in it? Whose careers were destroyed and why? Are you gonna make me google??

I often wonder what they're smoking in Hollywood--also for TV shows. I'm telling myself we wouldn't call the shows good if they were all good--i.e., creative.

Also, Mad Men often leaves me seriously questioning the accuracy of their 1960s events, scenes. But pregnant women smoking--oh, yeah, that was there. As a former smoker I cannot believe the amount of tobacco and booze those guys ingest.

in small town Ohio, their kind of drinking was rare if it happened at all . But tobacco, oh yeah. A pack a day was considered moderate or light smoking.
Maybe that's why there was so much less obesity?? Just thought of that. Brilliant.

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