on the end of Mad Men (aka: What the hell am I gonna do with my life now? Overanalyze Game of Thrones? Yeah, right. Okay, whatever.)

So that took a few days to digest. I’ve been drinking heavily ever since. I’m glad Monday was a holiday here in Canada.

Naturally, I’ve been pouring over reviews of the finale, unable to really let it go. It’s been a bitch of a hangover. I still have the Coke jingle in my head.

Generally, the initial reaction of the masses to the Mad Men finale, “Person to Person” was positive. But as a few days kicked by, there was a bit of a backlash. The nitpicking started.

This is why we can’t have nice things, Internet.

Going into the finale, I told Husband that with series finales they end up either emotionally satisfying or intellectually satisfying. I was afraid it would be the latter. I wanted closure, damn it. Very rarely we get both.

Emotional satisfaction comes immediately; we get so caught up in the moment, we’re swept away. Intellectual satisfaction takes time; we need to mull things over; we need to parse out the intricacies and give it an in-depth analysis.

But the Mad Men finale was very emotionally satisfying, and left everyone with a stupid grin on their face. I think that’s what prompted the initial good reviews. A thing like that!

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The thing is Mad Men is pretty much never emotionally satisfying. We’ve watched people make the same mistakes year in and year out because that’s usually what people are like. That was the refreshing beauty of Mad Men compared to the rest of television.

After few day of mulling it over, the emotional satisfaction was starting to wane and people began to analyze it intellectually. Wait, a million voices cried in unison, Man Men isn’t about happy endings! Mad Men is about the futility of self-betterment, the dying light of hope in a cynical world, and the true banality of existence that lies beneath the nostalgic vision we’ve created of the past! How dare the characters be happy!

I found the ending—a future classic, I believe—to be perfect. Emotional and intellectual. The Coca-Cola Hilltop ad was genius. In retrospect, the show could not have ended with anything else. The reason it was so perfect, to me, was the way it cast a sense of ambiguity over the entire series. It was not meant to mean one thing.

I don’t just mean as in how you interpret it plot-wise. It makes no difference whether or not Don would leave Big Sur and go on to write the most famous ad ever. That’s not the point. What that ad meant thematically, that is the point.

And the theme in this case is a little like the ending of Inception: the fact that we don’t know is the point.

The point is what that ad represented to America in 1971. Mad Men is not a show about people taking action and causing change; it is about people reacting to change. The Coca-Cola ad shows the way the counter-culture of the Sixties became mainstream, and what that means.

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What it means, exactly, is up to us to decide. The ad is like a Rorschach test.

I immediately saw it through the eyes of a cynic. I saw it as the ultimate sign that the “good vibes” of the counter-culture had been co-opted by that totality that is The Man: McCann-Erickson, advertising as a whole, capitalism itself.

I was Sally criticising the Moon Landing.

When I talked to my mom on the phone afterwards, she saw the Coca-Cola ad as wonderfully uplifting. She saw it as Don connecting with a human being and passing that message onto the world. She remembers that ad in 1971 and how positive its message was.

Furthermore, she remembers how necessary it was.

As was made so apparent in the previous episode, “The Milk and Honey Route,” America in 1970 was a divided nation. Think of Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” playing in the car and Don’s tragic adventures in Middle America. Think of how much the offices of McCann-Erickson reminded you of 1960 Sterling-Cooper. It seems cute at first, as if some people were stuck in a time-warp, oblivious to the changes the world had undergone.

But they weren’t oblivious; they were fighting those changes.

The end of the Sixties wasn’t just the “great wave” clawing its way back that Hunter S. Thompson wrote about. It was people paralyzed by change, not knowing how to react. Peace and love, my mom said, was what Coca-Cola realized everyone needed. That ad was a message of hope. That ad told people not to fear the future. It was a bridge between the divisions in America.

My mom was Don as he told Sally, “Don’t be cynical.”

What kind of loaded symbol is Coca-Cola? In and of itself, as product, it is completely useless. It’s fizzy sugar water, for Christ’s sake. That ad, all by itself—with or without Don Draper—is a one of those potent metaphors that real life occasionally throws out. If you were to put it in a novel, it would be too on the nose. If Mad Men created that ad and it didn’t actually exist in real life, it would be too obvious.

But it did happen. Because sometimes life is like that. Sometimes life is full of symbols and metaphors. Sometimes life is cloying. That may not be “realistic,” but it’s real.

Jon Hamm as Don Draper - Mad Men _ Season 7B, Episode 14 - Photo Credit: Justina Mintz/AMC
Jon Hamm as Don Draper – Mad Men _ Season 7B, Episode 14 – Photo Credit: Justina Mintz/AMC

That ad, when putting a cap on the entire series, can be seen as mainstream culture’s final victory against the counter-culture (castrating them by co-opting their message, just like records companies had been doing to rebellious music for years and would continue to do for many more), or it can be seen as mainstream culture at last truly understanding what the counter-culture had been preaching all this time.

So, thus, Don’s story—the lens through which we view Mad Men as a whole—ended ambiguously.

But everyone else seemed to get perfect little happy endings. It was too neat. It was too idyllic. It was like fan fiction. But I disagree.

I think these “perfect little happy endings” were earned. Consider how far these characters have come since 1960.

These endings seem too pat when taking into consideration who these characters are now, but when we consider who they were when their stories began, we realize that none of them got what they wanted.

Instead, they learned what they needed.

In 1960, Pete loved Manhattan and all the entitlements that came with it because of who his family was. He wanted to die in Manhattan.

In 1970, Pete gives up Manhattan for Wichita, Kansas.

Sure, here he’ll be given the royal treatment he always thought was his due, but in giving up Manhattan, Pete is actually giving up very much of what defined him. He’ll be a big fish in Wichita, but that won’t carry any weight in Manhattan. He knows this, and this is why he had to be forced into it by Duck Phillips. This seems to be such a great move for Pete’s career, but what he is really doing is giving up his idyllic vision of Manhattan for something more realistic and substantial.

In the last shot of the Campbells, Pete is the one carrying Tammy. Tammy, who couldn’t even draw a picture of a man, whose father was so awkward he never took the opportunity to say goodnight to her, who never saw her father, is now being carried by him. It’s a small touch, but a powerful one.

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In 1960, Joan was telling Peggy that the best thing a woman could do in this job is to find a wealthy husband and not have to work at all. Even as late as 1969, Joan insists she wants love over “some arrangement.”

In 1970, she dismisses from her life a rich man she loves because he doesn’t want her to work. Joan knows that her work is a fundamental part of who she is and she will not give it up.

The last shot we see of Joan, she is still in that little apartment she has had for over ten years. Her mother and child are with her, and she’s made her own home her business, a business that represents Joan’s totality: Holloway-Harris. This job is her life.

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In 1960, Roger was undergoing a classic mid-life crisis, unable to accept the fact that he was aging. There was always someone older to pick up after him: Bert Cooper. He had his name on the building, a wife and child, but all he wanted to do was have three-martini lunches and cat around with younger women. Remember the twins? Remember the two heart attacks? Then there’s his marriage to Jane, his dalliances with LSD and orgies, and his mother’s death and his terrified cry of “It’s my funeral!”

In 1970, Roger accepts that his name is no longer on the building. After a drunken, organ-riddled night with Peggy—which is both exactly what it sounds like and nothing what it sounds like—he accepts that he is on the “nursing home” floor of McCann-Erickson, he makes an honest commitment to a woman his own age, and he actively starts planning for his death by writing his will.

In Roger’s last scene, he cracks jokes about how old they are, showing his acceptance. He is learning French for Marie, which is a definite sign of commitment. Learning a language is not easy. They are also in Paris.*

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In 1960, Betty and Sally were at odds. Betty was a naïve housewife, Sally was a child. Think of how wrought with tension and bickering their relationship has been. Think of the Sally who said she’d stay at boarding school “until 1975 if it put Betty in the ground.”

In 1970, they understand one another, and value one another, even if it comes at such a cost. Sally has lived up to responsibility; Betty at last is focusing on herself. But then again, there never was a hint of a happy ending here. At best, we all made peace with it.

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In 1960, Peggy wanted a career. She wanted one so badly, in fact, that she was so focused and single-minded that she didn’t even realize she was pregnant.

Peggy had relationships, but each one was so obviously not going to work out from the start. And Peggy seemed to know this. It was as if she was sabotaging her personal life.

At least until Ted.

Ted was a sign of Peggy’s growing maturity, but not independence. There was a sense that Peggy learned from her relationship with Abe—and its epic conclusion—that she would need to be with someone who understood her job.

And Ted understood her job, but not in the healthiest way. Did you cringe too when he admitted to her that he was in love with his “protégé”? That word choice felt so wrong, like he didn’t truly value her as an equal. Ted was like a shadow of Don, in a way. Peggy saw their differences, and that made Ted attractive to her. He was in a role above Peggy, and she saw value in rising to his challenges. It was tied to her career in the way she thought best: it kept pushing her forward.

But Peggy failed to see the similarities between Ted and Don. She always thought she needed that push for her career, but that push was far too often antagonistic. It never let Peggy separate herself from her career ambitions. This separation wasn’t what she wanted, but was what she needed.

Peggy was never able to let go of Don and the career ambitions he symbolized until her last phone call with Stan. She calls him, worried about Don, but Stan tells her to let him go.

There’s a small moment—a subtle but important one—as she thinks about this and realizes it is true. She needs to let go of the pressure Don has put on her life, and when she finally does, that’s when she apologizes to Stan and he’s at last honest with her about his feelings. It’s a more complicated than a simple lesson learnt that “there’s more to life than work.”

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The previous scene with Stan and Peggy, the fight scene, was important because it set up their differing perspectives. Stan has made peace with the idea that there is more to life. Peggy immediately frames it in black and white: you either succeed or you fail.

The now-famous Steggy scene had been both celebrated and criticized for the rom-com-iness of it. I even said to Husband during it, “This is a total rom-com, but I don’t care, I love it.”

But this scene is not really about Stan and Peggy getting together, or even about our little advertising robot learning to love, it is about Peggy discovering all those shades of grey beyond the black and white of success and failure. Stan is upfront about his feelings. We get a sense he’s known how he feels for a while. But Peggy has to dig it out of herself. That’s how deeply she’s buried any real feelings. We know they’re there, but Peggy represses.

Her emotions always come out in tragic bursts, like the moment she collapses in tears, alone in her apartment. Even in the way she told Stan the truth about the child she gave up for adoption, she even tells the story in third person, distancing herself from the reality, as if it is not her story, but someone else’s.

So, in 1970, Peggy gives up the single-mindedness of her ambition, the shortcut to having her name on the building. Because, as Stan points out, will that alone really make her happy? No, she’s staying the course laid out to her: put in three years with McCann-Erickson and then she’s golden. Because by 1980, as Pete says, she’ll be creative director.

The framing of Peggy’s last shot seemed too perfect, but it was perfect. It’s a late night in the office, not home. She’s typing: working or writing something for Joan, it doesn’t matter. And Stan is— literally and figuratively—behind her. Stan understands her job, but more importantly, he knows not only when to push her, but when to pull her back, or when to just be there.

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I think, on a larger scale, series finales have changed in recent years. There is tremendous difficulty in having a both intellectually and emotionally satisfying ending. The take-away seems to be that if you have to err in one direction, err on the side of emotionally satisfying.

So many finales that are now infamous were ones that didn’t provide closure on the characters, even if they were artistically astute (The Sopranos), or tried to shoe-horn both the plot and character arcs into a neat package, which inevitably comes off as unfair to the characters and leaves the seams apparent (How I Met Your Mother, Lost).

This is what made Parks and Recreation’s finale so good. It was like the Stan and Peggy scene: it was saccharine, but it felt earned. At the end of the day, the audience cares about the characters and we want closure for them, but we also want the intellectual satisfaction of being able to ponder the subtleties and nuances for the rest of our lives.

Because, what the hell else am I gonna do now? Watch it all over again?

Thanks, Mad Men.

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*Side note: after Peggy’s date with Stevie earlier this season, I just knew that SOMEONE was going to go to Paris. OF COURSE, it was Roger and Marie.

why do I binge watch seven seasons of a tv show, but can’t force myself to watch a two-hour movie?

This post started as a note in my journal: one of those things that starts crawling out from your head while you’re in the shower, like a worm on the sidewalk in the rain. I meant to write it before the Oscars, because that makes it seem topical rather than tangential.

But alas.

Every year, Husband and I make of game of trying to get through all the Oscar nominees. Usually, some of the films we saw earlier in the year of our accord. These, ultimately and often, end up being my favourites. And, praise be to me, the Academy’s favourites, too. Of the last seven years, the only two “Best Pictures” I didn’t see in theatre way before hand were The Hurt Locker (wasn’t playing nearby) and The King’s Speech (meh).

This year, we only saw one film beforehand: The Grand Budapest Hotel. Boyhood was on our list, too. But it was only playing in one theatre and it was across town. We just didn’t get there in time; it wasn’t in the theatre for long. We we watched it as soon as we could. Richard Linklater has always been a favourite of mine.

I honestly thought Boyhood was going to win the Oscar.

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We did see Birdman (the only one we got through in our noble ambition). But both thought it overrated and wanky. I could elaborate at length, but I won’t. I can only think now that, as much critical praise as it received prior to awards season, it was probably with the expectation in mind that this film would go nowhere, would never get its due, and would be forgotten. It could take on legendary status as a classic that never got the respect it deserved. Now, with the label of Best Picture, it will probably be remembered as… Best Picture. Really?

I digress.

My initial point was how much fun we always think it will be to go through all these Oscar films – the apparent best-of-the-year – only to have it feel like such a chore. We still have films waiting for us to watch from last year’s Oscars. As I was in the middle of bingeing yet another television show on Netflix, I realized I felt this tug of guilt at spending hours upon hours catching up on superheroes, while perhaps those hours could be better spent.

But did I stop the show and start The Theory of Everything? Hell, no. I watched three more episodes. Guilt is not that powerful with me, it turns out.

It’s not just films, sometimes it’s highly recommended television shows too. I still haven’t started watching The Wire or Breaking Bad. And I probably never will watch Friday Night LightsBoardwalk Empire or The Sopranos.

I know I can’t be alone. Why do we do this?

I turned it over in my head and I could only come to the conclusion that – to paraphrase that ridiculous relationship advice book from ten years ago – I’m just not that into them. I just can’t force myself to care about cops, criminals, or athletes. Even if you tell me they are better than genre cliches. I believe you, but those topics just don’t pique my interest. I can’t force myself to care about yet another gangster anti-hero.

So here’s the kicker:

Watching seven* seasons of a show you love is like going on vacation with your best friend.

Sitting down to watch a two-hour movie you have no interest in is like going on a date with someone you don’t particularly like.

Sure, there might be moments in that vacation where you hate your best friend – where you want to haul off and slug them – but you will come home with fond memories. You will look back on it was a great experience. You will laugh, tell stories about it, have pictures to share, and then try to encourage others to vacation at the same place.

And that date might always surprise you. You know this going in. You tell yourself, “Sure, they seem boring and/or awful, but they probably have great stories about their drag racing days.” It’s a risk, isn’t it? It’s someone you don’t know anything about other than they don’t really seem to have much in common with you. Maybe their politics irritate you. Maybe they’re just really arrogant. But maybe you’ve got them all wrong. You will still dread it because it’s the uncertainty of a stranger… plus the awkwardness.

Television shows are the people in your life: your friends or your family. Even if you miss an episode, you know what’s going on. It’s the world you live in.

Movies are those fleeting interactions: the guy who cat-called you on the street, someone you rolled your eyes at on the subway, or the person you had a meaningful conversation with on that flight you shared from Toronto to Calgary. Movies are what happens in the moments between real life.

I guess – to me, at least – the movies I truly treasure are the ones that bridge that gap. The ones that reflect the world we live in in a meaningful way while also creating their own universe we can be absorbed into. That was what I thought Boyhood achieved.

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*arbitrarily chosen number. When I say “seven,” think “many.”

The Cultural Exchange

My husband knows he married a Harry Potter enthusiast. And he, himself, long ago admitted that he once-upon-a-time had been something of a Star Trek fan. “When I was a kid,” he said with emphasis, as if awaiting judgment. But what judgment was I to pass? I was well into my twenties when I spent an entire semester solely on Harry Potter and class ideology. If the internet age has given anything to the western world, it’s the ability to admit to being a fan of Star Trek without fear of wedgies, swirlies or a state of general social outcast-ery.

Then it happened, by complete accident, that Husband had just begun reading the Harry Potter series when I noticed Star Trek: The Next Generation appeared on Netflix. Whether it was a new acquisition or whether it had been there all along, only to magically reveal itself when I truly needed it, I will never know. But alas: I started watching.

As we innocently and individually began our new pop culture treks journeys, we realized what was going on. Seven books = Seven seasons. We didn’t intend on this fortuitous exchange; it just happened. Surely something magical must be afoot? Because otherwise the only lesson to take from this is: if you’re not careful with your marriage, your individual subconsciousnesses grow together into one marital hive mind.

This all began a few weeks ago. Husband has since finished The Philosopher’s Stone, which means if we are going to keep pace, I should be done Season One. But, as he warned me, Season One is a bit of a slog. “Just wait for Riker’s beard to show up,” I was told. Yet, for someone who claimed Season One sucked, he sure can quote a lot of it. Not only that, he knows the name of every episode, all the characters’ names and histories, and fun trivia facts. He even admitted to have all the action figures as a child. The truth comes out.

But here’s the catch: I’m actually really liking it. Yes, even the routinely-mocked Season One. We bonded over laughing at Troi’s melodramatic outbursts. “This gets better?” I said with a grin on my face. I don’t mind camp and ridiculousness in my science fiction, as it turns out.

As we’ve pursued our new fictions, frequent questions have oft been asked of the other, more expert spouse. Our knowledge of the other’s fandom prior to the exchange has been patchy at best. By this, I mean we’ve both only seen the films. And those are NOT. THE. SAME. Husband’s seen the Harry Potter movies, and I’ve seen some of the Star Trek ones. Including the new ones. Ugh. Now I can understand Husband’s chagrin as he whined: “But they’re not Star Trek…”

I am also discovering that so much of ST: TNG is oddly familiar. Repressed memories are welling to the surface. My dad used to watch it occasionally, and I’m pretty sure now that I saw it a lot too. I have vague flashbacks of proclaiming Geordi LaForge my favourite character and sliding my plastic headband over my eyes. I’m sure my younger sister was unsuccessfully beamed up several times.

Our questions and predictions foisted upon the other have ranged from the bizarre and philosophical to the inanely naive. For instance, I pointed out that early in Season One, I totally got the vibe that we were leading up to a big Picard-is-Wesley’s-father reveal, for which I was sufficiently scoffed at. We’ve also discovered just how geeky the other spouse can be about their chosen fandom. We’ve been able to answer pretty much any question the other has thrown out, no matter how detailed. Fun Fact: Troi’s mother was played by Gene Roddenberry’s wife. (Go on, pretend you knew that. I’m sure you did. Honestly. No sarcasm here. I’m just new around these parts.)

Star Trek is something I’ve always suspected I would like, even as the adamant Star Wars fan I was a mere ten years ago. Bah, how foolish I seem now. Star Wars is over for me. I feel like I’ve aged out of Star Wars and into Star Trek. It’s a substance-over-style thing for me. These day, I actively look forward to roundtable discussions of geopolitics rather than shit blowing up. And the Prime Directive speaks strongly to the anthropology student in me. So why have I avoided Star Trek all these years? I can’t say with any certainty, but I feel a significant part of it is this feeling I have relating to genre. It’s not cognitive dissonance, but that’s the closest analogy I can think of.

I have always thought of myself a literary writer and reader. And I am. But there’s something I find so simply fascinating about science fiction. I read all genres really, but if I have to pick one: SF all the way. And more and more of the stories I want to tell are speculative fiction based: from space operas to dystopias to any number of magic realist spaces in between. Yet why does it feel like SF, or any genre really, is at odds with “proper literature”? It feels like I’ve spend so many years harbouring delusions of literary leanings, while consuming SF as a guilty pleasure, an indulgence, even. Like I’m on the Booker Prize diet and SF is my cheat day.

They’ve always felt at odds with each other, like there is a dreaded One Day looming when I will have to pick a side. I go to readings and art-related events and everyone talks about poetry and I feel like a fraud. Sure, I know of which they speak, and I can hold my own in literary discussions, but I can’t banish this dread in the back of my mind that Oh god, they’re going to discover I like genre fiction, and then I’ll be cast out on my ass!

It’s part of why I have two completed novels, one literary fiction, one science fiction, and I’ve been gripped by panic as to which one to try to publish first. Because whichever one it is: that will determine my career… forever.

I think now, at long last, that I know. Now, I could get into long explanations about the pretentiousness of much of the literary crowd, people believing their own hype, yada yada yada, but I think, at the end of it all, I can just stop taking myself so seriously. It’s science fiction for me all the way. Yes, I wrote a novel about pirates in space, and, you know what? It’s fucking awesome. I’ve even actually got an agent on the hook for it. (Truth.)

Thank you, Star Trek (and Husband). I might only be in the middle of your shitty first season, but I love you already.

am I the only one who doesn’t like downton abbey?

For such a critically acclaimed show, Downton Abbey is pretty crap. What are the problems with it? Those frequently cited include: contrived, formulaic, elitist, and cloying. But others? I think the fact that it is so highly rated is what makes this almost unbearable. Were this show just considered so-so, I’d be fine with it. It would be a guilty pleasure, even. But I can’t handle the idea of everyone thinking it so wonderful. It’s just… not. So what about it frustrates me so badly? In short: it is clichéd and nostalgic to a fault.

There is nothing original about it. I’ve actually laughed out loud at the absurdity of many of its plots and dialogue. Jarring anachronistic speech aside, it falls back on convention so readily I genuinely want to believe it is a satire. But it’s not. Its characters are two-dimensional, either white-hat types or moustache-twirling villains. Its period setting does nothing to make itself relevant; one just gushes at the fancy dresses and swoons over the romance of a time and place that never really existed.

We are total dicks for no apparent reason whatsoever.

As for the nostalgia, it is naive to think that simply by making class visible, Downton Abbey is criticizing the class system. IT IS NOT. If anything, it upholds it. It casts it like a beacon, a museum piece of a bygone era, something to cherish and admire. Where something like Mad Men functions as a microscope, Downton is a pedestal.

Shows like Mad Men are successful because play on our fondness for the romanticized past by subverting your expectations. The unexpected adherence to the “realism” of the times is what provides the critical eye; it underlines what is wrong with those attitudes. For instance, in Mad Men, sexism and racism are dealt with without the filter of modern-day moralizing. This leads us to examine those issues as they really were and how those issues still exist in a contemporary context. Contrarily, by anachronistically altering the world view of that era in order to preserve our modern values, shows like Downton Abbey actually cover up the issues.

Raise a glass to our shared pretensions, shall we?

Actually, it doesn’t just cover them up, it varnishes them with the thick gloss of tradition. Not tradition in a historical sense, but in a storytelling sense. For instance, one of the worst moments in the show is when Maggie Smith’s character (one of the Lady Granthams), reads out Mr. Moseley’s name as winner of the rose competition in the village despite the judges pandering to her social status and unjustly awarding her the prize. Such a cliché in the worst possible sense. Beyond the laziness of that “character building” device, all this does theme- and story-wise is acknowledge that class differences existed back in 1914. Which we all know anyway.

But, hey, the show seems to suggest, it wasn’t all that bad. The upper classes were benevolent rulers who treated their servants like beloved members of the family. And they were just so gosh-darned nice. As Mary points out, Lord and Lady Grantham share a bed, which is weird for the day. Their marriage of convenience turned into one of love and respect. So apparently, arranged marriages are all sunshine and roses, too.

Smugness wears an ostentatiously large hat.

The show started with potential here to work out class issues, especially with Bates and Lord Grantham being war buddies, but it has failed to live up to its promise by engaging in ridiculous soap opera plots. The moment it all turned is when Lady Mary appeared in Anna’s room, telling her that what’s-his-face-the-Turkish-guy, died. His name is something stupid, isn’t it? I can’t remember, he just seems to be The Hot Turkish Guy. A plot point like this sudden, inconvenient death (while functioning as a way to not only move the action forward but to push it off a fucking cliff) has failed to pull itself out of its own absurdity.

And the absurdity continues. Now I’m all for characters having interesting pasts and (as it looks like the upper class characters don’t have much of a past at all) this task will fall to the servants of Downton. But, seriously, do you have to do it in such a hackneyed way? Do you really have to go the long-lost lover come back for some middle-aged romance? The “I used to be a drunk and a thief but I’m a nice guy now” trope? Two evil servants who wants to fuck up some shit with no apparent motivation other than they were passed over for promotion? The secret VAUDEVILLE PERFORMER? HONESTLY?

One of us dances a mean jig.

I’ll give you some credit, Downton Abbey. Beginning the show with the sinking of the Titanic was interesting. Perhaps even inspired. However, a historical touchstone that moved the entire country and shook the foundations of the household so much as to set the entire story into motion should not come to be the most subtle plot point in the series.

I also admire the introduction of the middle classes into a common trope usually focused on only the upstairs/downstairs dynamic. At first it seemed like a marker of increasing complexity, as if to note Hey, it’s the twentieth century. Class dynamics in Britain are not gone, they just splintered into shades of grey. But alas, Downton Abbey, you’re all about the black and white.

It's even been coloured-coded for the lazy viewers.

The complexities of the class system are inherently intriguing. (Before you claim that I am just going all Marx on this show, class is the most explicit theme Julian Fellowes is working with here.) But the class discrepancies have been battered out into doldrums of a soap opera, relying so much as it does on cliché. Where do I even begin? Lady Sybil’s rapid campaigns for suffrage? The bile-ridden banter between the upper class and middle class matrons? How about the Disney-level nuances given to the supporting characters? The humble gardener wringing his hat in his hands? Ditzy Daisy the kitchen maid? The crotchety overweight cook? The chauffeur who is both IRISH and a COMMUNIST? (Oh my god, he wants to read! He must be a Communist!)

That aside, Lady Grantham’s “Americanness” and her vast fortune (that somehow saved the estate) at first seemed like it would raise intriguing insights into Anglo-American relations and financial interdependence. But all it really did was loudly proclaim: “This is great, isn’t it?! This whole class thing. Shame if something were to happen to it.” You see, Matthew Crawley, the new heir to the estate is just so… middle class.

But those eyes....

But we like Matthew. As does Lord Grantham and Mary (Albeit her like of Matthew is rather more complicated. Perhaps the only marginally complicated thing in the whole show.) Even though Matthew is likeable, we are still led to lament the idea that the middle class shall one day in inherit the titles and wealth of the landed gentry. *Cue snooty guffaw.*

We are supposed to think that it is a crying, fucking shame that Mary will not inherit the estate. Even if Matthew was a total dick, our sympathies are drawn to the plight of the acidic Mary because the show explicitly tells us they should be. However, I feel no sympathy for Mary. Yet, Downton Abbey, you tell me I should. Why are no real qualms made as to whether Edith or Sybil should have a right to the estate? So it’s a gender thing, you say, not a class thing? It’s apparently unfair that Mary does not inherit because she’s a women, but it’s no worry that Edith and Sybil are shafted simply because they were born second and third? So, there’s no problem with this part of Inheritance Law.

Ladies and Gentleman, the most interesting plot: these two love each other and if they get married, everyone's problems are solved.

Even though Lord Grantham says himself that he’s just a steward; the estate does not belong to him. By this (frankly odd) logic, are not then the servants (the ones who actually get their hands dirty in the maintenance of the estate) the caretakers? And why the hell does it matter who inherits just as long as they keep the building from crumbling to the ground? I can’t be the only one who thinks Mary would be appallingly bad at this, right? I wouldn’t trust her to keep a goldfish for the weekend, let alone take care of a whole fucking estate. And if she marries, does this not all go to her husband anyway?

Ugh. I’m exasperated just thinking about it. I mean, the show does hit the mark in some small moments, but it is by no means capable of inciting an intriguing premise. It’s essentially pap with the odd interesting idea. Apparently, that’s been enough for critics, audiences, and the Hollywood Foreign Press, but all that does is make the disappointment worse. The expectations were so high. But all it is is Emmerdale a hundred years ago.

shows dr. roommate and I have watched together: an attempt to understand just why the hell we keep watching downton abbey

Shannon and I are still watching Downton Abbey. I tried to think of why, but fell short of a way to explain myself. We started watching the show because it was so damned critically acclaimed, but then we discovered that it, well, kind of sucks.

So why were we still watching it? For reasons I’ve tried to explain, we realized that it is the best show for us to watch together. (Watching alone is just masochistic nonsense.) With the help of this handy Venn Diagram, I will try to get to the bottom of this.

(Also, this diagram is by no means a comprehensive list of all the shows we’ve indeed watched together. It barely scratches the surface, actually.)

In the end, I think Shannon and I just watch television shows together so we can frivolously enjoy things like this: See Bates from Downton Abbey Wearing a Flannel Shirt and Holding a Baby.

(As a disclaimer, this is titled “Shows Shannon and Ashleigh Have Watched Together” not to exclude other Commune-ists, but simply because it was the two of us that have watched Downton Abbey, and, at Adam’s insistence, this blog needed more posts. Also, we’ve lived together the longest, so have thus watched the most shows together.)

are television shows the new novel?

I once heard someone describe Mad Men as the television equivalent of the “Great American Novel.” The “Great American Novel,” as a descriptor, carries with it sense of formality and scope. By definition, it is… well, defining.

What does it mean, then, when something like Mad Men has a far more expansive impact on the cultural landscape than your average contemporary novel? Are we really in, as some critics might claim, a golden age of television? Or does television just reach a broader audience than literature?

Let me present Exhibit B: the recent (and somewhat surprising) popularity of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Before it was a television show, the books were considered bestsellers, but definitely not a household name. Now it seems like everyone is reading them. George R. R. Martin has said many times how the sheer scale of his fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire could not have worked as a mere feature film; it needed to be a television show. Enter HBO and now the first novel in the series has become the first season of the show. Each episode was just another chapter in an ongoing story.

The result was essentially a novelastelevision. This made me think.

Perhaps, television shows are really the novels of our era. When considering the last ten years or so,what book has captured the zeitgeist in that way the Great American Novel claims to? Has a film? No, it seems to be television shows that define our era in creative form, be it everything from Lost to Glee.  It seems that scripted television has occupied a niche in our lives that used to belong solely to books.

Each season is a novel; each episode a chapter.

We watch television differently now than we did ten years ago.

What started with television box sets on DVD has only increased with the innovations of PVR, Netflix, iTunes and all other avenues, legal or not. Before this, we watched a single episode at a time, unless we were lucky enough to catch our favourite show featured in the odd Boxing Day marathon, or were blessed with several hours a day in reruns.

Now we have access to an entire season or even series all at once. I have found with most of my friends and family, we no longer seem to have several “regular” shows we watch; we move on from one to the next, powering through an entire series at a time. We ask each other “What are you watching now?” as if it’s the same thing as “Read any good books lately?”

For instance, a few of my roommates are onto Tru Blood, while I just finished watching all of the BBC sitcom Pulling on Netflix.  Now I’m working my way through all eight episodes of New Amsterdam, watching one episode each night in bed like reading a chapter of a book before turning out the light.

But it’s not just how we watch television that has brought about this change, it is television itself. The structure of the television series, especially the hour-long drama, has become far more serialized than it was ten years ago. Call it the Lost effect, but there is far less focus on the episodic story lines and far more focus on the overarching plot.

It seems television has gone through a bit of a paradigm shift where the Simple Premise – the “these people in this situation” – is no longer enough.

The main narrative is driven by a question. Think of the closing line in the pilot of Lost: “Guys, where are we?” That question drove the entire show. Think of Mad Men‘s tagline: “Who is Don Draper?”

Granted, yes, ongoing  questions have always driven a show to some degree, usually through will-they-won’t-they sexual tension, but you were never really watching Friends in order to know whether Ross and Rachel did end up together, you watched it because it was “six attractive people living in New York.”

This way of serializing a piece of fiction – while it worked for Dickens and soap operas – also makes it more difficult to sustain the traditional habits of television viewing. It is not as easy for viewers to follow serial storytelling with a whole week between episodes. If Arrested Development had come out just a few years later, would it have found a larger audience while still on air?

Perhaps this new way of watching television and this shift in storytelling structure are linked, but in a strange, chicken-and-egg dialectic. Or perhaps they are just a parallel evolution?

I’m not too sure what this might mean in the “big picture” sense. It seems far too easy to fall into a knee-jerk anti-television response. I mean, does it not sound rather crude to suggest that television will actually replace books? Isn’t that a rather antiquarian fear?

I have no real answers. Thoughts?