Mad Men's fourth season, which finished this past Sunday night, had a dualistic quality, it seemed to me. On the one hand, the season had some of the strongest episodes of the entire series—particularly "The Suitcase," which I wrote about in this space before. On the other, it had easily the worst, most blunt, least moving finale of all four seasons. It also signaled a sort of repetition in storytelling that I think may show that the writers are running out of juice. I'm not sure how many times, for example, I can worry about Sterling Cooper in crisis, or tolerate Don unloading all his familial responsibilities on another wife he'll undoubtedly tire of.
The one consistency, it seemed to me, was that the show had a lot more trouble than usual writing its women this season. Much of the best writing centered around Peggy, which I've covered in past posts here, and who barely appeared in last night's finale, so let's talk about the other female characters.
I'm probably alone on this one, but my secret obsession at the moment is NBC's completely milquetoast Parenthood, and I wish I could better explain why. The show is, of course, well-cast—I'd watch either Peter Krause or Lauren Graham pick their noses for an hour if it came to it—and has that patina of shiny Bay-Area bourgeois healthfulness, complete with artfully cluttered ranch houses and comfortable-looking, natural-fiber clothing and that "no-makeup" look. But dramatically there's very little about it I can recommend to you on a principled basis. It has basically no aspiration to any kind of social commentary whatsoever. (The show does make some gestures towards addressing disability—there is a child with Asperger's depicted on the show—but it is largely framed as how the parents coming to terms with the "tragedy" of having such a child.) But every Wednesday morning, it's the first thing I watch on my DVR lineup. It's soothing, somehow, like warm milk, bland and inoffensive, without challenge. In my overly cerebral, often quite stressful life, it doesn't demand much of me, and it's without the sort of shameful prurience one attaches to, say, certain guilty-pleasure reality shows.
I've been following the discussion about the representativeness of The Social Network, about whether it accurately depicts women and "toxic masculinity" in technology particularly—a conversation which, as I said last week, I've been sort of surprised we're even having. Such a jaded feminist have I become, I guess, since I'm now actively surprised when people actually care about how women are depicted in this culture, but I digress. Personally, I thought the movie was sufficiently infused with internal comment on the misogyny of its characters that I wasn't as upset as I might have been by it's flat depiction of femininity.
I'm hardly the first to observe this sort of thing, of course, but I am, lately, obsessed with this question of how you reconcile your politics to your art. Rather than wade into the discussion on The Social Network particularly, though, since I'm only supposed to be blogging about television here, let's just situate some of these issues in that context.
It's been an abnormally bad year for new shows—there are few I'm sticking with past one episode. But so far, I'm still watching No Ordinary Family, a little one-hour drama from ABC that will air its third episode tonight. The premise is fairly simple: distracted, over-committed modern nuclear family goes on family vacation. They get into a plane crash in the jungle, mingle with jet fuel, and voilà: superpowers. In other words, it's a sort of live-action version of The Incredibles. The show is pretty well cast—you'll recognize faces from Dexter, The Shield, and Weeds. (And, umm, Seventh Heaven, but I guess someone's trying to break away from typecasting so let's not rib him too much for that.) The dialogue is pedestrian, but not painfully so. In other words, it's not yet some kind of heir to Heroes or Lost—the pilot simply isn't as strong as either of those shows' was—but the rest could be.
A year ago, right after the start of Glee's first season, I complained in this space that the show was riddled with stereotypes. These days I haven't much better to say about the show, other than that, from my perspective the writing has gotten even lazier, which I didn't think was possible. This week's Britney Spears episode, for example, didn't even have a nominal plot, just a disconnected sequence of novocaine-induced hallucinations. Increasingly the show is just an excuse to connect musical interludes, and as people more learned in the field of music have remarked, the interludes are less and less good as time goes on. (I admit I loved the football version of "Single Ladies," but it's been a long time since the show did anything near that inventive.)
I'm hardly the only person who complains about Glee, of course. It seems to be something of a lightning rod for people's complaints, particularly about diversity in television. The reason for this is somewhat immediately obvious; Glee presents itself as being a show about misfits. It's taking up the banner for every kid who hates the social structure of their high school, whose clothes were mocked, who liked the wrong things (like music), or who were just, in the extraordinarily cruel way of teenage thinking, not the right kind of person, because they had a wheelchair, they were pregnant, they were black. For the people for whom any of these things were true, that's a narrative that's pretty close to your heart, and when people go to reproduce it in popular culture, to speak for what it felt like to be excluded and rejected—well, you feel a special ownership over that, I think. At least, I still do, though I'm now more than a decade away from that time in my life.