Sunday, August 30, 2009

Smoke and Mirrors

If you know me, I’ve probably recommended you watch Mad Men at some point over the last year. The first two seasons floored me. My mouth would hang open during new episodes. Did Betty Draper, negligee pattering in light wind, cigarette dangling from crimson lips actually just start shooting a pump action rifle at her neighbor’s pigeons? (Yes, she did.) If you talked to me back then, I would have claimed that Mad Men was the best show on TV (except for maybe The Wire). Then we’d sit down to watch, cocktails in hand, eyes stuck on the set.

That was until Season Three debuted at the end of August. With dustless Emmys from Season Two sitting in AMC’s offices, the stakes were much higher as a wider audience began to catch onto the premiere hype. I was moved by several scenes, particularly Peggy Olsen singing ‘Bye, Bye Birdie’ to her mirror and Don Draper stroking the heavy, Spring-straight grass as his children paraded around a May Pole, but, by and large, the show felt sterile and slow.

While the first two seasons eschewed campy episode arcs, they did have obvious pacing and rhythm, melding Draper’s public and private lives until they blurred beyond recognition (to both the viewer and Draper himself). But now the scenes refuse to linger, cutting in and out of various plots fracturing continuity. I love all the conflicts as they pit characters of the post war elite against the rising counterculture, social issues boiling over the glassy sheen of posed perfection into the lives of the headstrong men of Sterling Cooper, but now it is just a muddled mess. The writers are avoiding sentimentality and the repetition – the usual killers of once good TV – but that doesn’t mean the show needs to excise all sentiment. Remember Don Draper’s heart wrenching pitch to Kodak in Season Two as his marriage collapsed into memory like the yellowing slide’s flashing across the screen. Elegiac, tragic, beautiful.

I used to sit soundless in front of the TV, but, now, I find the show boring; the characters manufactured and posed. In the show’s defense, it continues to nail the aesthetic of the United States of the 1960s. Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, meticulously brought back to life an America of our not-so-distant past: the clothes, the drinking, and the cigarettes all hand-in-hand with status quo misogyny, homophobia, and chummy Old Boy politics as the ad men slurred through work days and gin-stained nights with wretched ease; wives betrayed and ads bought and sold at dizzying pace. We yearned to uncover the skeletons that piled to the top of Don Draper’s closet and wanted to see the real face of his wife, Betty, behind her Stepford smile.

But now it all feels forced, contrived. Some friends say I am passing judgment on the third season too soon. They tell me to give it time and let the plot lines unfurl and tangle together in typical Mad Men fashion. But now I wonder if we let the aesthetic of the show distort our senses. The short, painful scenes of the third season are so un-Mad Men. Gone are the long conversations and soliloquies that hovered alongside life’s worst moments, awkward and painful, but ultimately vivid and rewarding.

I still watch Mad Men, but it feels like a hollow suit, the kind so often attributed to those in gray flannel. Maybe it all was just smoke and mirrors after all.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Long Time No See

It has been quite awhile since I last posted and, as my senior year at Tufts looms large, I feel the need to get writing again. Where else can I rant about the decline of Mad Men and the pomo image crisis in Twilight?

But to get started I am going to forget about all that and write about soccer. I'm headed back to school this weekend and will miss DC United go for its 13th major title on September 2nd at RFK when they take on Seattle Sounders FC for the US Open Cup Title. The US Open Cup is the oldest major sports tournament in the United States (older than the World Series, the Super Bowl, etc.) Any team can enter from amateur clubs to professional clubs, providing lots of drama. Several amateur clubs knocked off MLS teams (fielding reserve squads) in the earlier stages of the tournament. For fans of English footy, it is the US equivalent to the FA Cup and, for soccer fans, it is a big deal.

If you are in town, go to the game! Tickets are cheap and beers are going for $2. Tailgate with the Barra and jump up and down ans sing until the stands shake and you sound like a hyena.

But, don't listen to me. Take it from Ryan Zimmerman.