Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

High Class Soap Opera?

There's a class of show which functions as a soap opera for those who like to feel they're above soap operas. Make it a period drama or give it British accents, you see, and its classy. I'm not immune to the charms of this genre. We avidly watched two and a half seasons of Downton Abbey until suddenly we realized we didn't care if we saw any more episodes, and so we didn't.

I'd always had this vague intention of watching Mad Men. But I kept not getting around to it, and then a year or two ago the pieces I read by people who did watch it started sounding odder and odder. The other day I read into this massive spoiler (there's your spoiler warning) on Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog:
To recap: Don's real name is Dick Whitman. His prostitute mother died in childbirth; his dad, her john, beat him. His fundamentalist stepmother called him a "whore's child." Then his father got kicked in the head by a horse, and the stepmother moved in with her sister, herself a prostitute, living in a brothel. The stepmother, heavily pregnant with Don's half brother, prostituted herself to her brother-in-law, as the teen-age Don knelt outside her door. He watched them, through the keyhole, have sex. C'mon, now. This is no longer the backstory of a serial adulterer; it's the backstory of a serial killer.

We haven't even got to the part where Whitman goes to fight in Korea, accidentally blows up his superior officer, Don Draper, steals his identity, forms a secret relationship with his widow (she's motherly, yet also somewhat prostitute-like, since he pays for her upkeep), becomes a greaser, and seduces a model who is also concerned primarily with appearances. Eventually, he gets into advertising, and when his half brother, Adam, finds him, Don rejects him, and Adam hangs himself. It's not that none of this makes sense, or could make sense; it's just too much, overdetermined. None of the other characters has this sort of reverse-engineered psychology, and for good reason: it's a lazy way to impose meaning.
I'm not sure I've ever watched a whole episode of a soap opera, but I can't help wondering if this kind of character backstory manages to take things beyond even where soap operas go. Indeed, when I first read this, I had the idea that it was some sort of extended joke, but given how Coates responds to it, I take it this is actually the exposition which has been provided by the show. Wow.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"We avidly watched two and a half seasons of Downton Abbey until suddenly we realized we didn't care if we saw any more episodes, and so we didn't."

We had the same experience, although we did fast forward the DVR for a key scene involving Cousin Matthew in the finale (because we had heard so much about it). And it was every bit as bad (and perhaps a bit worse) as everyone said.

Re: Mad Men, since we still watch that. One point where the Coates description kind of misleads: the Don backstory scenes (the weakest part of the show) have taken place over six years, so, while that's a real flaw, it doesn't really impact the week to week viewing; maybe 15-20 minutes a season. Mad Men isn't a show that's driven by plot; it's driven by relationships, thematic explorations of various aspects of society and culture, solid acting, and occasional flashes of really strong writing. So, while Coates is right that Weiner has made a real mis-calculation in his depiction of Don's backstory, it is a pretty minor flaw in the universe of the show. In many ways, Don is the least interesting part of the show; but that's something that becomes clearer as the seasons progress.

John Henry