Wednesday, October 06, 2010

[TV] Tube Notes - Knocking on The Pantheon Door

Tube Notes - Knocking on The Pantheon Door: In contrast to movies, TV continues to kick out bits and pieces of real art. The current triumvirate of Mad Men (season 4 almost over), Dexter (season 5 just starting), and Breaking Bad (between seasons) are generating some remarkable drama. Interestingly, and instructively, all of them are variations on a single theme: the destructive affect of secrets.

Dexter Morgan is a serial killer secretly pretending to be a normal schmoe. Walter White is a meth cooker secretly pretending to be a normal schmoe. Don Draper is just secretly pretending to be Don Draper. In each case, a big secret wends it way through the character arcs and plotlines wreaking death and destruction to all who encounter it, whether they are innocent or guilty, loved or hated. Dexter's wife was murdered and children traumatized. Walter's wife is now complicit and his brother-in-law crippled. Don's marriage and family and business are in shambles while he has panic attacks. Lump in plenty of anguish for ancillary characters and the point gets hammered home.

Mad Men does the best of these three because 1) It's much more realistic and 2) it's the only one where the supporting characters can carry a scene, never mind an episode. This season of Mad Men has been riveting; probably the best yet. Matt Weiner has done astounding work developing these characters. Very few missteps (I'm not sold on the Joan/Roger plotline) and the temptation to go whole hog into sneering at the poor pre-sexual revolution Neanderthals has been ably resisted. There is a renewed sense of purpose that was absent last season, so I assume Weiner has a good grip on how he's going to eventually resolve this, but I have absolutely no idea where all this is leading.

Dexter and Breaking Bad found wonderful new twists and turns in their storylines, but didn't break any new conceptual ground. Still wonderful entertainment. A cut above most everything else.

That said, I can't let any of these, even Mad Men into the pantheon yet. (The pantheon is Deadwood, The Sopranos, and The Wire -- in that order.) Mad Men is oh so close, though. The problem is that "secrets = destruction," no matter how artfully done, is not enough of a human insight to bust through the pantheon's steel reinforced doors. We know the deal with tangled webs and innocent victims. We live it and see it every day. It is entertaining to watch and identify with, but it really doesn't take an angle we haven't already internalized.

Let me explain further with an example. The Sopranos. There were certainly secrets in the Sopranos but the show wasn't really about secrets, it was about self-delusion. (You could argue that amounts to secrets kept from yourself, but you'd be overly semantic.) It was portrayed in a very full robust way. Everyone deluded themselves, and these delusions brought them pain and suffering and destruction, but they also allowed them to survive. Without her delusion, Carmella would have been living in a low-rent hovel with no hope for her children. The trade off is being a housewife-whore but her daughter is going to Columbia and her half-wit son has a shot at supporting himself. In which life would she have been better off? If Christopher didn't delude himself that he was really just a soldier and Tony earned his loyalty, he would have been the hopeless white trash, which is what he saw at the gas station when Adrianna told him of her betrayal. The point of the show wasn't just that everyone deludes themselves and suffers for it, it was also pointing out that self-delusion is inherently human and necessary and helpful at times in leading a net positive life. That's the insight into humanity raises it above the crowd. And while the personal conflicts are resolved, the conceptual ones are left open.

Translated to the current crop of shows, we would look for some indication that secrets have their purpose, they are a necessary fact of human civilization, and that they may do as much good as bad, that there is no clear resolution to the conflict between the inner and outer lives of these people. As I said, Mad Men is close -- you could argue it's there and I am just missing it and I wouldn't be quick to dispute you. Both Dexter and Breaking Bad seem to make the case, but only in the purpose of refuting it, not just letting it rest unsettled.

Regardless, my overwhelming evaluation of all this is that Television is the most vibrant contemporary art form. Not even movies match its vitality. Certainly nothing else comes close (including novels and pop music and anything else).

That's not to say there aren't stinkers and disappointments. The late Martin Scorcese's Boardwalk Empire, for example. In contrast to Goodfellas (referenced above), I don't think anyone will be reminiscing about Boardwalk Empire in 20 years. It may not last 20 weeks. It's formulaic organized crime stuff, poorly cast (Scorcese's casting in his last few crime films has been dumbfounding), dispassionately acted, and stuffily written. I'll watch the full season for a turnaround, but I don't have high hopes. Sad. I guess David Milch is our last best hope for a return to HBO's former glory.