Saturday, August 8, 2009

"Mad Men" will save us

Tulkinghorn directed our attention to, but for some reason did not want to post himself, this excellent Vanity Fair piece by Bruce Handy about the best show on television, perhaps ever. Herewith, a key passage, upon the merits of which Tulk and I whole-heartedly agree.

The thumbnail history of Hollywood goes something like this: Once upon a time, the studios reigned supreme. They bulldozed geniuses and turned out dreck, but in applying Henry Ford discipline and efficiencies to filmmaking they also gave us The Lady Eve, Casablanca, and Singin’ in the Rain. By the 1960s, however, the factory system began to give way, power shifted to directors and stars, and a new generation of independent-minded auteurs crafted sometimes indulgent but often original and even brilliant films such as Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, and Apocalypse Now. Then, another turn: studios got the upper hand back, or learned to share it grudgingly with a handful of superstars and A-list directors. But without the old assembly-line rigor the result has too often been big, bloated dreck, like the films of Michael Bay, or the gaseous Oscar bait that bubbles up every fall—the worst of all movie worlds.

But, ah, television. Its great accomplishment over the past decade has been to give us the best of all movie worlds, to meld personal filmmaking, or series-making, with something like the craft and discipline, the crank-’em-out urgency, of the old studio system. I’m thinking first and foremost of The Sopranos, which debuted in 1999 and sadly departed in 2007. This strange and entertaining series, as individual a work as anything by Hitchcock or Scorsese, was the creation of David Chase, and it paved the way for The Wire, Deadwood, Rescue Me, Damages, and its successor as the best drama on television, the equally strange and entertaining Mad Men, which will launch its third season on AMC August 16.


...each episode of Mad Men, with its scrupulous period detail, is shot in just seven days on a budget that, at an average $2.8 million an episode this season, even a lot of indie-film producers would scoff at. But who knows? Going back to my original point, if Heaven’s Gate had been a 13-episode series with a hard-and-fast airdate, the last 30 years of Hollywood history might have been different, and Michael Cimino something other than the butt of a cautionary tale.

Meditate on that.

Or on this.


Christian Lindke said...

HEAVEN'S GATE wasn't a 13-episode series?

I thought it was.

Seemed like it had enough footage.

Kidding aside, I hate self-congratulatory articles like this. "Look, I like a show and it's hip and cool and the 'best show on tv.'"

No it isn't. I could care about MAD MEN. Sure, I like THE WIRE. I also like SOUTHLAND. FRAZIER was genius. BURN NOTICE keeps me coming back every week. CHUCK entertains without pretense.

As for Handy's discussion of Hollywood films...I like the tent pole blockbuster. I like it for the same reasons I love watching old Buster Crabbe serials. They are fun. Sometime, like the aforementioned serials, they are total crap. But their intention is always the same, to provide a fun spectacle. I also like some of the "gaseous Oscar bait."

I'm not "too cool" for the arty. I'm not "too cool" for the lowest common denominator. I DO HATE those who say "I don't watch TV" while talking about the "best show on television."

That doesn't mean that Handy's point regarding what is great about TV, the imitation of the classic Hollywood studio system methodology, isn't a good point. It is.

But that comes from having to WORK and it carries over to a lot more than just shows like MAD MEN. There is a lot of junk on TV, but there is a lot of greatness too. LAW AND ORDER has been consistently good for over a decade. The list goes on and on.

Generic said...

Nice comment on The Blog That Shall Remain Nameless:

"Those who can enjoy things are luckier than those who can’t."

Christian Lindke said...

I agree with the quote, though it smacks of the Mansfieldian, "I have not been blessed with the gift of faith" sentiment -- at least when taken out of context.

I must say that I have become tired of a couple of social peculiarities. Among them are the following:

1) Film critics who complain that they haven't seen a movie they enjoy in "years." (You can insert any length of time for years.)
2) People who say "We don't watch television."
3) People who think that all movies should be "art."
4) People who don't understand just how hard it is to write something entertaining and of literary merit. There's a reason the canon isn't infinitely large.
5) People who look down on mainstream audiences. There is no such thing as appealing to the "lowest common denominator." There is "appealing to the mean." There is also "appealing to the niche."
6) People who think that writing "important" comic books is more valuable than writing comic books that are purchased and read.

There are more, but let me make it clear that if a critic doesn't believe that there have been any quality films released in "years," then they should quit. First, they are wrong. Second, they are so jaded as to have lost a love of the art form. Third, they are too full of themselves to do the public any service.

The same goes for those who think that a good television show is hard to find.

Even if one adheres to the most Schillerian view of aesthetics as the standard for art, SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE is worth watching. The level of human excellence on that show can be quite remarkable. It isn't always, but the moments it is are precious.

Generic said...

Nora got me watching SYTYCD, and I agree with you: The right person even won, this year.

I meant that quotation without irony, and meant it to suggest that I approve of the general drift of your comments.

I love "Mad Men" but also "Lost," "24" (at its best, which phase may be behind it) and others.

How was "GI: Joe"?

Tulkinghorn said...

There is a strong case to be made that television is better than it's ever been -- primarily as the result of the growing narrative sophistication of the form made possible by DVRs, DVDs, and streaming.

It would be hard to find an entertainment in any medium more demanding of its viewers than "Lost."

Although it is hard to find anything right now cooler than the Christmas release from Hard Case Crime. Needs to be seen to be believed:

Generic said...

Just to bring this full circle, Alan Cheuse can think of no higher praise for the novels of Steig Larsson than to liken them to "The Sopranos" and "Mad Men:"