Archive | April 2012

Scenes from Mad Men: Fisticuffs and the adolescence of Pete Campbell

Adolescence is when we begin to figure out who we are and who we want to be. Adulthood really begins when those ideas take (relatively) solid forms, and we spend the rest of our lives reconciling the two ideas, which are by no means mutually exclusive. Don Draper may have gone through some identity crises on the show’s run, but he has a very clear idea of who he wants to be, even if his past or personality won’t always let him. Roger is perfectly content, most of the time, to be a man-child. Joan may have taken a while a while to realize she needed to get rid of that scumbag Greg, but that wasn’t adolescence on her part. She wanted to be a good wife and mother. That was a clearly formed aspect of her personality. She just couldn’t be Greg’s wife.

“Signal 30” showed us, once again, that Pete Cambell is still very much in the figuring out part of his life. In season one, he thought he wanted to be Don Draper, and spent the season trying to pull off a desperate power grab. It backfired, of course, and Don (with help from Bert Cooper) put Campbell in his place. Now he has what he thought he wanted (a loving wife, a baby, a nice house, a job that gives him authority over Roger and Ken) and he’s still unsatisfied. He comes off as rather desperate to have Don over at his house, as if that’s a stamp of approval, and it ends with Don emasculating him via sink repair. At the brothel, he has a prostitute run through a litany of role plays before settling on a downright puerile one (“You’re my king!). When Don, trying his hand at marital monogamy, stays at the brothel bar, chatting the with madam, Pete is downright teary-eyed with disappointment. He even relives high school disappointment again, making small talk with a cute girl in his driver’s ed class before a much more age-appropriate lad stole his thunder (thank God, as I didn’t think Pete could get any scummier than when he forced himself onto the pitiful German au pair).

It leads to the scene where Pete, standing aloft his one perch that makes him powerful and exuding toxic levels of smug douchiness, says one too many a mean word to to Lane Pryce, who challenges him to pugilistic settling of differences. Say what you want about Lane, but he’s a man of action. And when Pete loses this schoolyard battle, in front of his superiors no less, he is left sobbing to Don in the elevator. These were his friends, damn it. And now he has nothing. Yes, it does sound like a Livejournal entry from someone in my generation circa 2002. Pete, like any 15-year-old, still has a lot of figuring out to do.

The best of “Community”: Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas

I figure I’ve already crossed the Rubicon with TV posts, so what the hell. How’sabout a new feature where I write about some of my favorite individual episodes of television? Warning: this will involve a lot of Community, X-Files, and Parks and Rec. In fact, let’s start with the first on that list, shall we?

Right now, no show consistently gives me as much pleasure to watch as “Community”. There are many reasons to love this show, and I’m among the many people hoping, pleading, praying for it to get at least one more season (let them graduate, dammit).

The very best episodes of Community are an unholy (holy?) mix of pop culture parody and touching, good-hearted fun. Much like its low-rated, NBC neighbor “Parks and Recreation”, “Community” has gotten better with age as each episode gives us a little bit more to love about its cast of characters.

At the heart of the show, I think, is Abed, which is why “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is my favorite episode.

On a lesser show, a character like Abed would be little more than a walking series of punchlines, a convenient generator of awkward situations. Indeed, Abed himself was a bit too much like this for comfort. But as the show continued, Abed became something more, the one character in the cast capable of being above the rest of the characters’ insecurities. His lack of social awareness allows him to keep everyone in check, and because he’s so damn sweet and sincere, it doesn’t become obnoxious.

But every once in a while, he has his own problems to face, and it makes perfect sense that his method of dealing with them would involve crafting an animated universe.

But the episode doesn’t skirt Abed’s emotional quandaries. The show, as a whole, has done a great job balancing the charming side of Abed’s social obliviousness with the genuine pratfalls that would be unavoidable. Awkward conversations have nothing on a 2o-something man having no ability to process his first Christmas without his mom.

And yes, it gets sappy. But sap is not inherently bad. It’s only bad when artists expect sappiness and sentimentality to carry an unworthy story. But when a set of characters like those in “Community” have endeared themselves to us as much as they have, they earn the right to tug some heartstrings.

And heartstrings it does tug. The expulsion of Britta showcases the sweetest and (inadvertently from his perspective) harshest aspects Abed’s personality; he spells out Britta’s insecurities in dealing with other people precisely. It would be brutal for anyone to hear this about themselves, and despite the stop-motion animation, the show lends the moment its due weight.

The episode ends on a perfect note: the characters standing by Abed, and then gathering around a TV to watch Christmas specials with him. Even the final shot is perfect, showing the reflections of the actors in the TV. It’s a subtle, beautiful reminder that nothing in this episode, canonically, was fake. This was how Abed deals with his emotions, and damn it, we’re along for the ride, willingly, to whole time.

Scenes from Mad Men, Part 2

Spoilers ahead.

“Mystery Date” fascinated me. A lot of viewers on blogosphere had a very similar reaction to the one I had. There was an unsettling tone throughout the episode, akin to the feeling I used to get as a 7-year-old staying up too late to watch re-runs of “Unsolved Mysteries”. For this post, I’ll be focusing primarily on the single most disturbing scene the show has had yet.

It’s no mistake that one of the episode’s running plots involved Sally trying (and eventually succeeding) to read the news story of the Richard Speck murders. The Speck murders, still one of the most shocking crime stories in American history, connected the storylines this week. Sally wanted to read the story, and couldn’t sleep. Peggy looked at the crime scene photos, laughed them off initially, but then couldn’t go home alone (not to mention, her boyfriend was in Chicago, where the murders took place). Don was too caught in a literal fever to care, but his resulting nightmare had more than a few parallels to the case. And Joan, by far the most insular of the show’s main cast, lived out what she had thought would be a nightmare, and finally confronted another one she had endured years before. (Remember what I mentioned a couple of weeks ago about the show’s tendency to let some storylines play out in what feels like real-time?)

The single most unsettling scene in the whole episode was Don’s fever dream murder of his old flame, Andrea. As Alan Sepinwall pointed out in his review, the only way that scene, and the subsequent reveal that “it was all a dream” works is if we’ve already figured out it was a dream. Otherwise, it’s a form of cheap bait-and-switch that “Mad Men” never engages in.

But more than that, we still need to believe that Don Draper has his humanity. Don Draper isn’t an anti-hero, in that he’s not driven to consistently do despicable things in the name of some quest or goal, one that we want to see resolved regardless of the protagonist’s “goodness”. He’s a deeply flawed, often selfish person who we still need to believe has a grasp on the bare minimum of human decency. He can’t quite be Walter White, who we watch hypnotized, amazed at his amoral audacity. When Walter White suffers petty failures (i.e. every talking down Gus Fring gave him in seasons 3 and 4), we feel a twinge of gratification, since he’s such an irredeemably bad person by now that it lets us have our cake and eat it too (i.e. see him suffer for being a horrible person while still seeing his thrilling knack for survival pay off time and time again). We’re not yet there with Don, who we still willingly forgive and want to see succeed. When Don is vulnerable, we still feel for him. And even that slight twinge of suspicion that maybe, just maybe, his dream of murdering Andrea was real was as unsettling as the scene itself. We forgive Don Draper many a sin, but murder is one we can’t. And we need to be able to forgive Don Draper.

Authenticity and the movies

The recent picking apart of the “The Hunger Games” for absurd “inaccuracies” from the characters’ races (in which case critics displayed both racism and very poor reading comprehension) to Jennifer Lawrence’s weight (seriously?) reminded me once again how mind-bogglingly hard some fans can be to please. Whenever a film adaptation of a hugely popular work emerges, there’s usually immense pressure from the fanbase for the film to adhere to their standard of “authenticity”. Sometimes, (in the case of the now infamous “Hunger Game” complaints) these accuracies reside solely in the fans’ heads. Other times, yes, these standards of accuracy are more legitimate, although they’re usually not much more than a mental checklist of details that the movie needs to get “right”.

To a lesser extent, a similar game occurs when movies or TV shows involve something that can be easily picked apart by someone who’s an expert in the area. From my experience, it’s rarely a good idea to talk to a history professor about virtually any historical film. And bringing up “Mad Men” to an actual 1960’s ad man will lead to a list of inaccuracies that are completely irrelevant to what makes it the best drama on TV (give or take a “Breaking Bad”).

With the first group, my policy is simple. I don’t give a damn about the accuracy of an adaptation when it comes to blow-by-blow details of the plot. When I was in college, a common topic of debate among my English major friends was over the superiority of which Pride and Prejudice adaptation: the 1995 BBC miniseries, or Joe Wright’s 2005 film. I much prefer the latter. Many egos were shaken and fisticuffs exchanged, and it was never really resolved (movie debates never really are, nor should they be). But one argument for the former that I refused to even acknowledge was that it was a “more accurate adaptation”. If we’re talking about the quality of the film, you’re better off arguing that its sets had prettier wallpaper. Yes, the miniseries is a more accurate adaptation, but in its obsession to keeping true to almost every scene from the books, it’s a less-spirited, much more mundane experience, fanservice for the book’s legions of fans.  Without Jane Austin’s wonderful prose, which was one-of-a-kind, it’s not much more than a skeleton of the book. Joe Wright’s version condenses the meat of the story and focuses on the two major plot points: Lizzie and Darcy’s romance as the main story, and the dramatic subplot of Lydia’s scandal. Yes, it cuts out a lot of material. It’s a movie, not the book. If you want all that stuff, read the damn book. The result is a much more moving cinematic experience, one that moves along as a film should, urgently and rather breathlessly, and in doing so it captures the spirit of Austen’s book more than the miniseries does, despite being less “accurate”. It has a sense of time and place and an energy beyond “here’s how I imagined it looking in my head when I read the book”. A movie without a directorial vision isn’t much of a movie at all.

With the second group, it’s more of a mixed bag. It doesn’t bother me that “The Elephant Man” or “Amadeus” are largely fictionalized. It does bother me that “A Beautiful Mind” was. Maybe that’s hypocritical. However, I think it’s that “A Beautiful Mind” doesn’t work as a film unless you think it’s real. Knowing that virtually nothing in the movie actually happened turns it into a series of manipulative, cloying set-pieces. “The Elephant Man,” by comparison, is so strongly acted, so well-written, that its transcends the type of film it could easily have become. John Merrick, the main character, is compelling in his own right, and its best scenes have a power all their own that stem from how strong his characterization is. In other words, it’s a movie, whereas “A Beautiful Mind” is cinematic lemon juice, aiming to draw tears without really earning them.

“Amadeus” on the other hand has no pretenses of realism. It casts off any notion of being a “true story” and turns Mozart into a cipher for its own, wildly entertaining tale. For me, the difference between “Amadeus” and “A Beautiful Mind” is similar to the difference between Mike Daisey’s controversial “This American Life” piece and the countless other spoken-word personal essays the show has had from the likes of David Sedaris and Da vid Rakoff. Daisey’s story was presented as a major scoop. The latter group are presented as personal recollections, which we know in advance are largely unverifiable.

For a film, “authenticity” and “truth” can be very tricky to deal with. A movie is usually under no ethical obligation to recount facts, unless it’s a documentary. And sometimes, complete fictionalizations, or great liberties taken with source material, are required for the purpose of making a movie. Movies are their own art form. They don’t have to meet any other’s standard. The only details a movie needs to get “right” are those that make it a better movie.

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