Late to the Party: A “Mad Men” Confessional

Image courtesy MadMenYourself.com.

I became hooked on “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” before I ever even considered watching “Mad Men.” I watched “Pretty Little Liars” and “Desperate Housewives,” “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” and too many “Golden Girls” reruns to count…but never “Mad Men.” Sure I had heard about how great it was, and my eyeballs were already on board—it’s hard not to notice that Jon Hamm is one of the hamm-somest men around—but it was something I never envisioned myself embracing. In fact, it was something I figured I’d need to brace myself for. I avoided it the way…well, the way that regular “Mad Men” viewers were probably avoiding the shows I vainly watched in its stead.

“Mad Men” meant one thing to me, and it was something that I didn’t think I could stomach without approaching an unproductive level of anger: misogyny. Sure, it was a knowing misogyny, something carefully crafted by modern day writers to mimic the true experience of the early 60s, all while nodding to our presumably changed attitudes. But that still meant a barrage of cutting remarks about the inferiority of women, the general boys’ club inanity, and—if “Mad Men” jokes on other television shows were to be trusted—a lot of unwarranted ass-slapping. Now, I prefer my ass-slapping in moderation, particularly if it is presented so glamorously that it almost starts to seem appealing. I was pretty sure that “Mad Men” would overstep this boundary, and that I might just be taken along for the ride. I was destined either to be constantly furious or gradually indoctrinated; by the end of the show, I might even be chain-smoking and drinking my way through breakfast. Never mind that most of the other shows I was watching were at least vaguely misogynistic in a different way, often showing women to be harpies, sluts, or oblivious virgins—main characters maybe, but rarely well-rounded people.

When I started watching “Mad Men” this summer, mostly due to its being the most appealing show Netflix offered on streaming (that I hadn’t yet seen), I discovered that I was not, technically, wrong. The ass slaps, thankfully, have been fewer than I imagined, but the bad attitude toward women (and anyone else not privileged, male, and white) is perhaps even more shocking than I was prepared for. There’s something almost giddy about the excessively un-PC dialogue; at times I find myself both cringing and laughing at the absurdity of it all. There’s no doubt that the show is well-made—it is both visually- and intellectually-appealing, with impressive acting and clever writing—but it is also quite troubling. It requires a very delicate dance between historical accuracy (and, I suppose, satire) and pernicious indulgence; it is difficult to determine whether this dance is fastidiously maintained or if there are missteps.

For me, “Mad Men” has been enjoyable but not compulsively watchable. Too many episodes in one sitting is like the majority of the foods featured on the show: impossible to digest. This difficulty stems not only from the often unpalatable attitudes but also the richness of the themes. The morally gray domain of advertising is particularly fruitful, leading to endless questions about human nature at its core. Additionally, each of the characters has a compelling backstory, which is explored with care. There is no detail too minor, nor character too small; the “Mad Men” world is complex and seemingly infinite. I find that these episodes can be savored longer, and ought to be. I feel more comfortable with the characters the more I ruminate on the paths their lives have taken. Still, this is not to say that any of these characters are quite likable; “Mad Men” is not the kind of show that needs to rely on heroes and villains.

Only five episodes into the first season, I can make no definitive judgments on how I feel about the show. Thus far, however, I am impressed by its writing and lush details. I am drawn in, in spite of myself, and eager to discover more. The characters are already real to me, and their struggles are already imperative. In short, I am learning what the rest of the world already knew: “Mad Men” is not just a treat, but a whole satisfying meal.

Progress Report

It’s almost the beginning of August, and I still have a thick stack of books staring me down. I haven’t been turning pages, and as a result, they’ve been turning on me. No, really — I left these words alone too long, and I think they’ve started to reproduce. Exponentially. How else would I have so much left to read?

I’ve abandoned my goal of reading Vanity Fair. Too. Damn. Long. Honestly, that’s the last time I take advice from my favorite 19th century British authors (I’m looking at you, Charlotte Brontë), who probably had waaay more time to read than I do…at least when they weren’t succumbing to tuberculosis. I’m sure it’s great and all, and I love any book that will help you scare off an attacker (and probably future boyfriends), but it always feels like too much of a commitment. Especially with my recent word infestation, I just can’t take the time to finish one book when I could be finishing two.

Ahem. I’m also bailing on The House of the Seven Gables. It turns out this is not the biography of Clark Gable and the six clones he built in his laboratory. So…yeah. I rest my case. I have started and stopped this book more than once, which makes for a rollicking game of Red Light/Green Light, but a pretty lackluster reading experience. Again, I should probably stop taking recommendations from people from the 19th century. Sorry, Herman Melville. (His response? Calling me a bunch of names, none of which was “Ishmael.”)

I’ve been keeping it pretty light, which makes for reading that is easy, but rarely very rewarding. That is, I don’t know which, if any, of the books will stay with me. Lately, however, I’ve been thinking a lot about Super Sad True Love Story, which I was somewhat disappointed with when I first read it, ironically on the Nook. Although some of it felt eerily possible, Shteyngart’s words have only recently been registering in my mind as prescient. When I’m in a particularly dismal mood, I imagine that everything he has described is already in motion. When I’m slightly sunnier, I realize that that’s still probably true.

As usual, I am disappointed with myself. The good thing is, as I’m now also a failure at setting goals, I didn’t fail at any of the goals I failed to set for myself. Sure, I’m still “a few books short of a book club” (an insult I am currently workshopping), but I’m trying. If only bad habits weren’t so hard to break. I have to know: reading The Bell Jar for the third time doesn’t get you put on a list or anything, right? Like, perfectly sane people, who aren’t about to stuff themselves with pills and crawl under their houses, do it all the time, don’t they?

…Maybe I should have stuck with William Thackeray.

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[Image courtesy the Betty White Calendar.]

Stuff Moms Like: The Killing

My mom and I both watch “The Killing”—and last night we made a point of watching the finale together—but I think that, at this juncture, we both have very different feelings about it. It’s the kind of show that started out great: it had a compelling marketing campaign, and it began airing just when other shows were wrapping up for the season. But at this point, if one of my friends told me she was going to start watching “The Killing,” I’d tell her to just watch “Twin Peaks”—or, hell, “Pretty Little Liars”—instead.

It’s not that I think this show is bad, necessarily, but rather that I don’t think it ever knew what it wanted to be. My mom is optimistic—she’s in it for the long haul—but I, like many others, can’t get over the fact that a show boasting a complete mystery over the course of 13 episodes didn’t deliver on that crucial detail. You see, last night’s episode ended on a cliffhanger, which, though in some ways satisfying, essentially undercut the appeal of the show. What was touted, more or less, as a miniseries, has instead been stretched out indefinitely. The lack of focus, already painfully obvious, has at this point become almost laughable. “Who Killed Rosie Larsen?” has instead become “Who Cares?” and “Who Stole 13 Hours of My Life?” …Which is not to say that “The Killing” has actually been a total waste, or that all is lost. But, seriously, how much should we viewers be expected to invest in this show before we finally get some payoff?

What “The Killing” is and what it professes to be may be two very different things, but this much is certain: The show details the investigation into the murder of high schooler Rosie Larsen, whose body is found in the trunk of a car used for the campaign of an upcoming mayoral candidate. As can be expected, all is not as it seems, and everyone–from Rosie’s parents to her teacher to, of course, the politicians—has a secret. Yet, “The Killing” also has a softer side, one that shows, unflinchingly, the various ways that grief can manifest. Viewers spend equal time with the police and Rosie’s mourning parents, and observe the shockwaves that a single death can send through a community. After a knockout first episode, the show began to falter, until eventually the pacing was simply confounding, and the twists haphazard. Still, it had on its side some exceptional performances, great atmosphere, and, of course, the promise that at the end of 13 weeks we would know who had killed Rosie Larsen.

Despite some genuinely shocking developments, and some truly heart-rending moments, “The Killing” has yet to live up to the promise of its marketing. It has been misrepresented as the antidote to the typical police procedural—too often it falls into the same gimmicky traps—and claims of its sensitivity to the grieving process are undercut by the fact that the Larsen family can come off as rather one-note. Furthermore, its similarities to “Twin Peaks” have only further clarified the ways in which this show is inferior to the David Lynch classic. Yet, I would still consider myself a fan, as there are continually scenes that shock me from my apathy. Moments like the one in which Rosie’s mother, alone in the bathtub, imagines what it’s like to drown (as Rosie did) are chilling; it is the show’s ability to channel the most desperate spaces of the human mind that makes it stand out.

There are still many unanswered questions, not only about Rosie, but also about the detectives, Linden and Holder, who have recently begun to develop into interesting characters in their own right. I am hoping that a second season will mean that all of these questions can be approached with careful consideration, and answered in a satisfying manner. Still, I, like Rosie’s mother, have learned that you can only hold your breath for so long. It seems that even on TV you can’t always find the answers you crave, or the closure you need. Does this signify the beginning of a new kind of show, one that delays gratification until the point that it is no longer desired? Or have the writers simply been so greedy (or misguided) that they refused to end the case before they had wrung every last drop from it? I hesitate to call the move brilliant, but it does require a certain amount of gall. We are now on the line just as much as Rosie’s parents, wondering if our questions will ever be answered.

I am glad that both my mom and I watch “The Killing,” because I need some perspective. I need someone to remind me of what I like about it, and to help me focus my own complaints. My mom agrees with me on many things—for example, that the mood takes precedence over the story, and that the writing can be weak—but she’s also able to find the thrill in it, to accept it for what it is. As I read the angry reviews that draw me further away from my initial reactions, I am grateful for someone who can remind me of how I found the finale not only frustrating but exciting. Of how I found the show, for all its faults, a unique experience, a welcome diversion. For those who have yet to watch “The Killing,” I would recommend holding off until season 2 is about to start. But, with the chance to watch it in one seamless run, I see no reason why somebody should reject this series. I only hope that a second season will allow the writers to focus their efforts, tighten their storytelling, and of course…tell us who friggin’ killed Rosie Larsen!

Summer Reading

Image courtesy cmcgough via Flickr.

.I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, but I’ve always been pretty serious about planning my summer reading. Or, at least, I’m serious enough to take the time to compose a list of books I want/need/ought to read—whether or not I actually get around to reading them is another story. I’ve always thought of summer as my chance to make up for all the times that I could have been reading but wasn’t, a golden opportunity to fill in those gaps in my literary knowledge. Frankly, there are only so many times that I can pretend to have read Pride and Prejudice and A Tale of Two Cities before someone finds me out.

Since it’s almost the beginning of May, and since spring semester is over in about two weeks, I figured I should start thinking seriously about this year’s summer reading list…and maybe look back on the list that I made last year in order to see what I could do differently.

Last year, I was ambitious. I chose 12 books (plus substitutes) and even made a schedule. I stuck to this schedule for exactly seven weeks, during which time I read A Confederacy of Dunces, four short novels by Marguerite Duras (The Square, Moderato Cantabile, Ten-thirty on a Summer Night, and The Afternoon of Mr. Andesmas) and As I Lay Dying. I was doing pretty well, but for whatever reason, it didn’t stick. Instead of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, I was reading Stephenie Meyer’s The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner. After that, there was no going back.

I guess the problem with summer reading is that you inevitably end up choosing a book or two that makes sense at the beach. Sure, I’d like to eventually read Infinite Jest, but it’s pretty tough getting sand out of more than a thousand pages. It’s just safer to stick with short, easy, inconsequential works of mediocrity, you know? And if I had to think too hard, I might forget about other things, like applying sunscreen. If I had stuck to my list of David Foster Wallace and Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf, I could have easily gotten burnt out and burnt up.

So, it seems, I always succumb—at least after a while—to that whole “summer is a time to relax” mentality. I defend my choices in various ways: it’s “research,” I’ve already exceeded the recommended yearly allowance for great works of literature, someone lent me this and I need to give it back…. Mostly though, I think I’m just not a serious enough student to spend a whole summer with Soren Kierkegaard, Joseph Conrad, and Vladimir Nabokov. (Except in my screenplay, in which we all rent a beach house together. Spoiler alert: hilarity and hijinks ensue!) Even my brilliant plan to present my reading list in syllabus form wasn’t enough to keep me on task. I decided that from July 25-31 I wanted to read what I felt like—to Hell with you, Appointment in Samarra, even if I’d probably like you under normal circumstances.

So, anyway, this year, I am just compiling a list of some books I would like to read. Period. No schedule. No debate over literary merit. Maybe I won’t even set myself a goal of how many books to read.

Tentatively, my summer reading list is shaping up as follows:

  1. Vanity Fair — William Thackeray
  2. The Lovers — Vendela Vida
  3. Bossypants — Tina Fey
  4. Swamplandia! — Karen Russell
  5. Sense & Sensibility — Jane Austen
  6. The House of the Seven Gables — Nathaniel Hawthorne
  7. Super Sad True Love Story — Gary Shteyngart

A total mix of new and old, light and serious. I don’t even have a reason for choosing them, other than that they all looked interesting. If I read them, that’s great, but if I don’t, oh well. I’m trying something new, easing up on the summer reading madness this year. Ultimately, I just want a list to take with me to the library, a guide so that I end up choosing books I’ve been wanting to read, rather than whatever I find. Yes, this probably means another year of not reading Ulysses, but I’m okay with that. You know that most of the people who claim to have read it have only read that one chapter anyway.

…Pervs.

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