Monday, December 27, 2010

Of Sling Boxes and Mad Men

Recently I became addicted to a new blog - Couchtime with Jill.  She is a self proclaimed TV enthusiast and she provides funny, insightful, thoughtful reviews to many tv shows.  Like me, she loves watching tv and based on her reviews, obviously gets something of value out of it, other than just a mindless whiling away of the hours, the days, the years.

Unfortunately this year I do not have the entire Christmas period off from work.  I have had the last few days off and am going into the office two days this week.  I usually find myself keeping myself pretty well shut in during this period, one to get a much needed break from work, and two I just like to putter around the house not doing a whole lot.  During the Christmas break though I usually engage myself with watching one or two series.   I must say that I usually find myself enjoying being shut in, wrapped up in comfy clothes, watching loads of movie and tv.  I usually "look" for a series to watch over this period and find myself completing a couple seasons of something.  This year I had Modern Family and Nurse Jackie in my sights but unfortunately  blew my load early (found them and watched them), some of what I found I loved so much that I will most likely watch it again, or just mix and match some favorite episodes from some good shows.  I still have season 1 of Friday Night Lights and Damages, although while I know I will like both of these shows I am not totally psyched to begin them and I have not yet begun them, choosing instead a hodge podge, episode here, episode there of tv.

Last Christmas, I took two weeks off from work and spent it being introduced to Mad Men. I watched the entire 3 seasons.  I had heard much about Mad Men and some close friends, whose tv tastes I really trust kept telling me to watch it, and I am glad I did.  This year my new favorite find is Modern Family, but I have also enjoyed Parenthood, Men of a Certain Age, Boardwalk Empire.  And of course I love Dexter, I still watch Weeds (although am becoming less and less a fan of it, but still watch it out of some misguided sense of loyalty).  And when I want to just  feel good and laugh, I still pop in episodes of Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond (which mirrors my life in many ways), Gilmore Girls.  When I want to feel nostalgic I watch, I Love Lucy, All in the Family, the Mary Tyler Moore show, Carol Burnett, The Waltons and Little House on the Prarie.

A lot of people are "down" on watching tv.  They feel it is a waste of time and even if they enjoy it, they limit how much they will watch.  A couple of months ago I got into a discussion about tv with a friend of mine, a person I have an enormous affinity and respect for, but whose lifestyle and attitudes are very different from my own.  He basically says that tv is nothing but a distraction.  People watch it to distract themselves from their own lives, their own pain and use it to not be connected to themselves, their lives and the people in them.  We got into a pretty intense discussion over The Sopranos, one of my very favorite shows ever (and I have seen the entire series at least 10 times through).  My friend who does agree that the Sopranos was and is probably one of the best television series every produced, though was still incredulous when I mentioned that I had learned a lot of lessons via watching the Sopranos.  Like many other people addicted to the Sopranos, my friend assumed I was addicted to the violence and its depiction of the Mafia, it's dark humor and oh yeah, did I mention the violence?.  Of course, those parts of the show are enormously entertaining to me but I explained that what really got me about the show was the the characters, how they got to where they are and why they make the choices they make and do what they do.  There are very few characters on that show who are not playing some sort of angle at some time in their life on the series.  Actually there is only one character I can think of throughout the entire course of the series that never compromised.  And it is not the shrink, but Charmaine Bucco, the wife of Tony's childhood friend Artie.   Certainly every main character on the show, and even many of the more residual characters had many layers and that is what drew me and continues to draw me to that show.  The main character, Tony Soprano, on the one side -- cruel, violent, pathological, and on the other insecure, wounded little boy trying to live with the reality that he had a narcissistic mother who was not able to love him, a victim in childhood and predator as an adult, living out the pattern set for him, while he is setting more or less the same pattern for his own family.   Going to therapy, but just for justification, not really an attempt to grow.   His wife, Carmela Soprano, one of the few people on the show who demonstrates any type of remorse for the life her husband leads and her role in it,  while at the same time totally seduced by the lifestyle that her husbands abhorrent manner of making a living affords her.  What I love about the Sopranos is the shades of grey.  It is all grey and that has a lot of resonance for me, probably because it is so realistic in that way, we all compromise, we are all hypocritical, and we are all a product of our parents, whether our choice is to transcend from that production or just live in it, asking ourselves, why me?  These are the two extremes of course and in between there is everything in between.  This is why this particular show has so much resonance for me.

My friend was somewhat surprised that I could get all this from a tv show and was still not convinced that television is meant to zone out rather than zone in (although to be fair, I didn't explain myself as fully as I did here).  We ended the conversation agreeing to disagree, as we often do on a myriad of subjects.

TV is one of the things I love most.  And to be honest,  there are times, and shows where I do just zone out.    It is relaxing, you don't need to think about work, paying bills, or stress, you can just enjoy what is in front of you.  But for me, there is a lot of thought provoking and moving things on television and many shows get me to think about things, put stuff in perspective.  There are characters I see on television who mirror people I know and getting to know them on tv helps me sometimes to understand the people I interact with in a better way.

I often think that the people who are down on tv the most are often the ones who are most afraid of it.  Afraid that if they would let themselves sit down and relax and watch it, they would never get up, they would never read a book again,  their only exercise would be the distance from the chair to the remote.Just caught up on Season 4 of Mad Men and just could not resist writing a little about it.

Like many, many other people I have fallen in love with Mad Men.  Living outside the US means that I don't live in sheer anticipation and joy for 12 to 13 weeks out of the year waiting for Don Draper to appear in my living room.  I got turned onto Mad Men in a different way.  It was last year around Christmas and I had the week off from work, it was freezing cold and I needed something to watch.  I was chatting with one of my friends, a guy with whom I have similar tastes in television shows and movies and whose opinion on these things I respect.  I told him I had run out of new and interesting things to watch and he asked me if I had ever watched Mad Men.  I asked, "that 1960's show about ad guys, I am not interested in watching Darrin Stevens and Larry Tate in a drama. "  He told me it was way better than that and he knew I would get into it, so while still chatting via gmail, I opened another window and ordered the first season on dvd from Amazon (express delivery) and within 1 and a half days, the complete first season of Mad Men was mine.

After watching two episodes, I took a very short break to log onto the Internet and order season 2 (and hurry it up) and within that first week I watched the entire first two seasons.  A week or two later, via my sling box (courtesy of my favorite uncle who lets me watch his satellite tv remotely and the wonderful people at sling technologies, who took the time and effort to develop this genius piece of technology, so that I, living abroad, could feel more connected to home by watching the Today Show and TNT Primetime in the Daytime) learned that season 3 was being repeated on AMC from start to finish.  So, I logged onto AMC and looked at the schedule and for the next week or two, I was up at odd hours, or early in the morning to catch Don Draper and Co.  So, within about 3 or so weeks I watched the first 3 seasons of Mad Men and I have just watched the season finale of the 4th season now.

I am not going to go into chapter and verse about what is so great about this show, as many other people on the net do that better, more creatively and snarkier than I ever could.  "Your Honor, let's just stipulate that the show is top notch, fantastic characters, great writing, interesting plots and stunning social commentary."

Now that we have that out of the way, let's go onto why I really love this show.  It's the aesthetics.  The scenery, the clothes, the hairstyles and the lifestyle.  I love them because it looks very much like the world I grew up in.  Granted Mad Men season 1 begins around 1960, 5 years before I actually made my premiere (and they don't hit 1965 until season 4), but the decor, the fashions, the lifestyle were more or less the same.  Don't forget Mad Men takes place in NY and NY is always a little bit ahead of the rest of the US, it takes a couple of years for things to hit us in the sticks (well, Pittsburgh), plus technology and lifestyle did not change in the lifespan of a fruit fly as it does today.  So, Mad Men looks very much like the world I grew up in.  The world of Corning Ware, canned vegetables and once-a-week trips to the beauty parlor.  I had totally forgotten that it was a regular thing that women used to sleep with curlers in their hair until Mad Men had reminded me of that.  The domesticity of women like Betty Draper was very much the norm when I grew up, albeit that my mother and most of her friends did not have the beauty and elegance of January Jones, they were more like Francine the neighbor, but still.  Women talking in the kitchen, over cigarettes and coffee while unobtrusively looking at their reflection in the coffee percolator was very much a part of my youth and my mother's lifestyle.  My mom went to the beauty parlor once a week like clockwork to get her hair done and and our house was very much like Don Draper's, we had a "good living room" that we kids were not allowed into except on special occasions and a lot of our life took place at the kitchen table.  My parents were never far from their cigarettes and ashtrays, fancy cigarette boxes and paperweight collections were considered high brow decor.  I actually have a few of my mom's former cigarette boxes and I use them as jewelry boxes.

Actually yesterday on Facebook I was scrolling through my news feed and a guy I went to high school with commented that he was finally watching Mad Men and that there was not a single likable character on the show.  I had never really thought of it that way but it is true.  Each character is reprehensible in a different way although most have their more likable traits as well.

I do think, that while there has been a lot of great television out there, the best two shows in the last two decades are The Sopranos and Mad Men.  I think for me a lot of reason these shows resonate so well to me, is that I see in their plots and characters so much similarity to the life I had both growing up and what I have now.  I think that what is more is that both series are shot during a specific period of time and reflect that time, it's feel, it's attitudes and it's views very succinctly.  In addition, both protagonists, Don Draper and Tony Soprano are struggling, trying to figure out who they really are -- the men that their image defines, or are they really someone else.  I find it interesting that both men address the emptiness in their lives through a haze of booze, drugs and countless extramarital affairs.  Both men had very difficult childhoods.  Both shows are dark and paint a rather empty view of American life and point out that wanton materialism is not the answer.

Who knows, maybe I just like the bad boys.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the shout out! Glad you like Mad Men, it's such a fantastic show. And I think you'll really like Friday Night Lights when you get to it, because we seem to have similar taste. I was hesitant, but then devoured all the seasons within a month.