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Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

I have an odd relationship to the show Mad Men. I've watched it several times through, and I really admire it on many levels. Currently it's my best reference for the writing of subtext, something I'm really bad at and need to learn to improve. And the costuming is masterful; analysis of it really teaches you how to do it. But I wouldn't exactly say I like it. I get weary of how consequences for people's negative actions tend to not have all that much of an impact because of the need to keep the show going, and nobody ever grows or changes, which I find wearying.

My mom watched the show before I did. She found it fascinating as a depiction of a time period she remembered very differently. She was born in 1953, so she was a child in the '60s, and her family was working class in a small industrial town, "where people didn't have as much, and they weren't as miserable." She said she found it fascinating to see those people who lived the life that most of the people in her world aspired to-- especially when it didn't seem to make them any happier.

I connect it to her not only because she introduced it to me, but also because of the character of Sally Draper. Personality- and circumstance-wise, they were almost nothing alike. Sally was a privileged girl with a rough, rebellious relationship with her divorced parents, while my mother was nice and well-behaved, "ethnic" for her town, without much money, in a family that was loving and close. But I can't help but think of her when I watch that beautiful little blonde girl, born only a year later than Mom was, experiencing a number of the same cultural influences. Nobody pays any attention to Sally's potential; my mom was always regretful that she was never encouraged to be anything but a teacher or a nurse, when she was smart enough to do anything. And then, of course, there's the smoking.

I still find that part of Mad Men hard to watch. Not just the fact that everybody's smoking all the time, but the culture around smoking. It's ubiquitous, expected, almost enforced. That's the culture that taught my mom the habit. She didn't start as young as Sally-- who I think was around twelve --but not that long later, in high school. My granddad didn't even do it and took a hard line against it. But things still ended up how they ended up. So it's a little hard for me. To watch the culture shape that little blonde girl in the way it shaped another little blonde girl into something that ended up killing her.

That's kind of over-the-top and maudlin. I still watch the show; I've watched it like three times through. But I think about it.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 7th, 2015 10:19 am (UTC)
I liked that the characters don't change, for a while. It's okay to make a show whose main plot is that the characters can't change. The problem is that we got the point by the end of season 4, and subsequently the show jumped the shark. Instead of having a wrap-up season 5 showing Don not really having changed and maybe Pete and Peggy starting to turn into Don, they prolonged it for 2.5 more seasons. (I have not seen any of the second half of season 7.) Sally has been the only interesting character for a while now, because, as far as character development goes, the adults are so unchanging it's basically episodic. The story arcs repeat as in a conventional episodic show, except they're a few episodes each; at the scale of 2.5 seasons, it's just as episodic, just slower.
Apr. 7th, 2015 05:40 pm (UTC)
My dad started smoking years before he could legally drive. It took him over thirty years to quit. I think it was the price that eventually made it happen.

I think Studio writers are afraid to have the characters change because they don't want to lose what made season one a success. I think actors are in favor of characters changing so they can explore new things professionally. I think mainstream audiences like the characters to stay the same so they can tune in to any episode or rerun and understand where things are at. I think devoted watchers want the story to evolve and for characters to evolve as well. Almost all the shows I can think of where character evolution is built in to the show are genre fiction shows where you can count on an audience to tune in every week, or shows released on the new Netflix model of dropping a whole season of work overnight where people will binge watch. I remember when Babylon 5 was -the- show that did it. As Genre fiction goes mainstream and new models like the Netflix bingewatch become more common I think we'll see a new generation of writers more willing to let the characters lead the story and see where it ends up, instead of returning back to baseline.
Apr. 7th, 2015 08:27 pm (UTC)
Nowadays, season arc dramas show characters change, all the time. The various period porn pieces - Rome, Game of Thrones, etc. - all have characters that evolve over time. So do crime shows like Oz and the Sopranos. The Wire is especially masterful at showing characters evolve over the entire 5-season, 6-year story arc.

Mad Men is somewhat unique in that, despite plots that force characters to do things they normally wouldn't, Don goes back to his old self and Pete becomes more and more of a terrible human being. It's actually saying something there: people don't change. They may try to, but they don't. The problem is that it can say that in maybe half the amount of screen time it's had, so from season 5 onward it's dragged, like a 4-hour LARP where all your plots resolved 2 hours in.
Apr. 7th, 2015 08:37 pm (UTC)
For every one show that does it, I could probably name two that don't. Castle, Newsroom, Once Upon a Time, even Sherlock (although that one is only up to Season 3, so has room still) just to name some of the shows -currently- airing. The fact that you pick out specific examples, a number of which have ended, only serves to highlight that it is an uncommon thing.

Now, I haven't watched Mad Men. If they are deliberately making the statement of 'The more things change, the more they stay the same', then that's all well and good, but as noted, that makes it even more important for producers to know when to pull the plug, even if it is a popular property. Always leave them wanting more?
Apr. 7th, 2015 08:53 pm (UTC)
I think the current US norm is for situational, episodic shows on network television, and story arcs with characters who change on cable. On cable, even Weeds, which is pretty silly, features evolving characters. On network, occasionally you see more story arcs and long-term changes that aren't flanderization and aren't just "these two characters are now in a relationship," but it's rare. (The one example I have: Chandler on Friends matured a lot from season 1 to season 10.)

The BBC is different, and I'm not sure what's standard there. But Downton Abbey has story arcs but characters who don't really change, and unlike Mad Men, it's not making a statement there ("Mary may seem nice for a spell, but she remains an asshole"). I haven't watched Sherlock, so I don't know what it's like.
Apr. 7th, 2015 08:59 pm (UTC)
Sorry, I was referring to Elementary, the American crime drama show, not Sherlock, the BBC adaptation. My mistake. The BBC show is a much more aligned presentation of the source materials, and the American show makes some radical departures to its core premises. I don't expect the BBC characters to evolve that much because it would take them too far from the source that their foundation is built on (and the Doyle source was like the network show of today, published in parts in magazines). But Elementary starts with some radical diversions, so I have hoped for more development than I've seen so far.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

About Me

My name is Phoebe. I'm Boston area theater professional and English professor focused in writing, acting, directing, and modeling. I'm known for having lots of interests, lots of opinions about those interests, and a very high estimation of the value thereof. This blog is for talking about whatever's on my mind, from my daily life to my activities to musing on any number of abstract topics. Thanks for taking the time to read.

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MRS. HAWKING part 2 and 3

at the Watch City Steampunk Festival 2016

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"The Tailor at Loring's End" screenplay
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