Tag Archives: Mad Men

The Dearth of the Cool: Bunheads, by Amy Sherman-Palladino/ABC Family (2012-13)

by Carl Wilson


Let’s just say it: The TV series Bunheads, which returned from a five-month hiatus this week, is not cool. Its creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s previous series, Gilmore Girls, also was not cool. They are frantic and twee, tell not show, lacking all restraint. Unconventional but not transgressively. Awkward about sex. Oblivious about race. Bunheads is on ABC Family for god’s sake, though there isn’t a traditional family anywhere in it.

It’s not a comedy the way 30 Rock is a comedy nor a drama the way Breaking Bad is a drama, nor even a comedy the way Breaking Bad is a comedy, all self-aware and taut and a hundred paces ahead. In the schoolyard smoking area that is smart TV today, it’s not invited. In a way it’s an evolutionary holdover from the stage between network TV and post-Sopranos cable.

That was also the era of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I think it’s significant that both Sherman-Palladino and Buffy’s creator Joss Whedon were once staff writers on Roseanne. They’re carrying on Roseanne Barr’s project of exploring what role feminism can play in making popular art.

(By the way, did you ever see Whedon’s 2006 speech accepting an award from feminist group Equality Now? Worth the time.)

Roseanne’s was a more realized populism because Barr thought more deeply about class than her younger middle-class protégés would. But their shows strive for populism in a way sophisticated cable shows aren’t trying to do – they don’t seem interested, and they don’t need to be because that’s not their economic model. Those shows need to be cool because cool is what excites the tastemaker, social-media-savvy, dinner-party-going audiences they sell to networks, advertisers and aspiring fellow cable subscribers.

Watching Bunheads can be a reminder that cool takes its own toll.

Sutton Foster’s Michelle, the central character of Bunheads, is a lot like Lauren Graham’s Lorelai, the lead of Gilmore Girls: a witty, mouthy, knockout brunette who at some point has fallen from grace. Lorelai had a daughter born when she was 16; Michelle was a serious dancer whose fuckups reduced her to Vegas showgirl. Ducking out of the life script liberated them to be their own inventions. But as each series opens the women are reaching ages when it’s more difficult to slide by on charm, when what they’ve sacrificed for their originality, whether in income or intimacy, is becoming more painfully clear. It’s like what Elizabeth Wurtzel was addressing in her now-infamous New York Magazine verbal purge, without the crippling entitlement and spotlight syndrome. (Or at least with less.)

Sherman-Palladino’s (henceforth AS-P’s) way to make this very specific kind of dilemma more universally accessible is to surround it generationally: The core of Gilmore Girls was the love triangle between Lorelai, her estranged parents and her daughter Rory. On Bunheads, the triangle is more oblique: Without spoiling too much, in the opening episode she precipitously gains a husband, who is then excised from the narrative as efficiently as the parents in a children’s adventure story. Michelle is left in possession of his California homestead, inhabited by his mother (Kelly Bishop, who also played Lorelai’s mom) and the dance studio where she teaches ballet to apparently every teen girl in town who isn’t a cheerleader (and a few boys).

Thrust upon Michelle, then, are a mother figure and a bunch of surrogate daughters, as she becomes their teacher too. Her quest, just like Lorelai’s, becomes to adapt herself to these mature relationships and burdens without losing her unique spark. As a safety zone for working all that out comedically, on each series AS-P exiles her characters to a Shakespearian “green world” (as Northrop Frye put it) in the form of a quaintly eccentric imaginary small town. The laboriously quirky townie characters are her most gratingly uncool creations, but it’s also a sitcom-populist device that goes back to Andy Griffith’s Mayberry – with the difference that her quirk-arcadias are more or less female-dominated, less matriarchies than perhaps sorarchies. The difference is that by the time we met Lorelai she was a firmly established, beloved figure of Stars Hollow, Conn., while Michelle is, literally, a stranger in Paradise, Calif.

Even more than Gilmore Girls, where Lorelai and Rory’s respective romances took up space from the start, Bunheads is gunning for high score on the Bechdel Test: It features almost no one but women, who do almost nothing but talk to each other, about almost anything other than men. About work, their pasts, ethics, real estate, money, food and most of all about dance. About the pain and strain it extracts. About what’s worth doing for it, and about what would be dumb to do. It stands not so much for art as for geekily driven self-realization: Only one girl shows clear dance-career potential, and it distances her from those for whom the gratification is shorter-term, though it gives her a special link to her ex-pro teachers.

The young cast make credible student dancers although I suspect they’re all sneakily more expert, and for a show about ballet there’s a decent range of body and character types. Like Lorelai’s, a lot of Michelle’s jokes have to do with her gluttony, which in both cases would require superhuman metabolisms but is a lot more refreshing in this context than bulimia – Bishop’s matriarchs are left to do the shuddering and criticizing (though her character here is way less uptight, way more post-hippie west coast than Emily Gilmore).

When they are not talking they’re often dancing, but the dance sequences are held back from becoming production numbers, kept just amateurish enough, a casualness that actually makes them better. Even in this bigger setpiece, for instance:

Compared with Glee or Smash, this seems partly a choice to be female instead of camp. Not that it’s not campy, but it ain’t drag. In fact the way AS-P’s shows skirt queerness can be disconcerting; maybe here is the downside of populism. But perhaps it’s also a way of keeping the eye on girlhood and womanhood, insisting they’re complex enough in themselves, without being distracted by something shinier and “more interesting” – even if that means excluding certain experiences of girlhood and womanhood. AS-P’s shows are vulnerable to a lot of the same criticisms that were directed at Girls last year, with fewer aesthetic outs. (Though what they do have is age diversity.)

None of this means you would like and should watch Bunheads. If it weren’t for my general weaknesses for faux-screwball-comedy pacing and teen (especially teen girl) drama I might not watch it, either. The first season has just resumed after five months’ hiatus and it may well be too geeky to make it to a second. There’s no question that Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland and many of the other post-Sopranos, post-Arrested Development shows that we’ve been lucky to watch in the past decade have greater dramatic and comic scope, have deeper existential, psychological and philosophical strains, and are more compelling viewing.

But their aims and their economics dictate that they will lean to the dark, the odd, the sexually outré, the violent, the startling. That leaves a lot out, or at least relegates many of the perplexities of life to subplots and subtexts, or to allegory at best. (I exempt Girls and Louis here, though not altogether.)

Many of those plotlines particularly shortchange women, despite their creators’ best intentions – or at least reduce the feminist point to “and the women get fucked over,” all too literally. Think of Joan on Mad Men last season.

Before Bunheads, I might have guessed that Sherman-Palladino would attempt to join the lionized “better than the movies” TV crowd. Maybe she’s not up to it, or maybe she didn’t like what it would have demanded.

Instead she’s kept the lamplight burning in her fantasy town with its mirrored room where girls take up and trade positions, mangled toes concealed, bleeding and keeping on smiling, with the idea that perhaps something in this move, or the next, will be a clue to what they need. Perhaps a grace not learned and submitted to but earned and commanded. A grace the new wave of TV, in many ways, has yet to know.


Filed under carl wilson, comedy, dance, TV/video

Mad Men, Girls and Englishmen

by Carl Wilson

Out of proportion to all sanity, my personal version of the Internet (overpopulated with pop-culture overanalyzers) has been preoccupied the past several days with the (reportedly $250,ooo) appearance of the actual Beatles recording of “Tomorrow Never Knows” on Mad Men, its plot function, its true role in the music of 1966 and what a “quasi-hip … inventive, highly competitive trend-chaser” like Don Draper really would have made of it.

Obviously not a world-shaking discussion, but maybe one with a bit more relevance than at first glance. Draper’s character was quasi-hip (screwing around with a bohemian Greenwich Village girl, checking out Antonioni pictures, reading Frank O’Hara, though always a little befuddled by them) in the late 50s and early 60s. It was useful to his profession and it satisfied some of his own restlessness and curiosity. But then things accelerated. In Sunday’s episode, he thought he already knew what the Beatles were about, because he’d had a handle on them a year or two earlier as a particularly inventive teen-pop band. That’s not an unreasonable expectation most of the time – two decades later, if you had a pretty good idea what Thriller was, you weren’t deeply clueless if you didn’t pay close attention to the differences in Bad. But in the mid-sixties, the centre of generational gravity was sliding much faster, and the quasi-hip Draper of his mid-30s becomes unfairly, upsettingly much older – the “Mr. Jones” Draper of 40.

Thanks for the screen captures to Tom & Lorenzo.

As the show slips from the “forgotten Sixties” in which it began to the familiar later Sixties of a million TV specials, it hazards losing its subtlety and surprise. (This season has compensated by broadening its set pieces, and I’ve personally enjoyed that, but the risks are all visible.) But perhaps not if it keeps its attention on another allegorical level – when it comes to that kind of generational-shift velocity, I think the equivalent is the period we’re in right now. It’s one of those times when looking away for a year is like missing half a decade.

For one thing the “millennial” “echo boom” is the largest demographic group since the Baby Boom, by far. So it’s got that parallel momentum. But of course its salient cultural mover and marker is not music nearly so much as technology – “When did music get so important?” Draper asks, just as I often find myself asking, “When did music get so much less important?” – because the young adults coming of age now are the first really to grow up with the Internet. As a relative Don to their collective Megan (his much younger, hipper wife), I haven’t quite yet encountered my “Tomorrow Never Knows” watershed of bafflement, although I do suspect that the broader significance of Tumblr will always elude me. But I see it nearing.

Indeed, I think it’s one of the things going on with the comparable way-too-much-talked-aboutness of Lena Dunham’s Girls – that beyond the legit (but also sexist-double-standard) complaints about its white, wealthy, urban privilege, there’s also a disconnect between many observers and the part of the culture that it’s coming from.

In the way that someone of Draper’s generation was dumbfounded and annoyed by the boomer kids’ blithe shrugging off of dutifulness and pragmatism, I think some of Girls critics are having trouble distinguishing between the privileged part of its aesthetic and the part that’s really about being post-privacy and about navigating a life in which you are always already over-exposed. Or about being aware how fast things are going and having an undignified kind of haste about getting ahead of that curve. It reads as narcissism, in both cases. And youth is always narcissistic (although it is also often generous).

That’s why Girls compels me, even though I don’t find most of its jokes as funny as some viewers appear to. (It works better for me as a skewed drama than a comedy.) And it’s what I hope Mad Men could use its time exploring rather than running down the clock with swingin’ Sixties cliches – the other side of the Sixties myth: the pain of adjusting, the melancholy of being left behind, the Zen of giving up on being cool, the possible benefits of getting very confused, the rehearsal for mortality that is falling out of touch. That’s an understatement worth making.

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Filed under carl wilson, music, TV/video

Tea With Chris: Mentorship in Villainy

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Chris: I intended to write about Tintin this week, sort of, but it turns out that the virginal Belgian reporter has more layers than one might expect. So that’ll probably go up on Monday. In the meantime, and via Eric Harvey, here’s some black comedy at the expense of another comics hero. It feels like a good week for it:

As friendly and engaging a writer as he is, Mike Barthel’s essay about contracting Tourette’s syndrome in his twenties took me by surprise: despite following his work more and more over the past couple of years, I didn’t even know he had Tourette’s. It’s strange how an illusory familiarity can build up just from reading somebody’s criticism on the internet. The piece itself is great, its description of his body’s rebellion against his mind seeming less like a “betrayal” – that word could be too melodramatic in this context – than a bloody-minded petulance. He self-diagnosed after reading Motherless Brooklyn, but Barthel’s story has a happier ending; isn’t “I love your tics” a come-on we all want to hear?

Maybe not literally all of us. I can’t speak for 50 Cent, though I’m glad he appears to be following my advice.

Margaux: The ImagineNATIVE film festival is happneing right now in Toronto. Today and over the weekend, there will be features and shorts screening at the Jewish Community Center on Spadina and Bloor. Tonight, there’s a screening of shorts at 7 pm (including a short from Shane Belcourt who made the feature Tkaronto). Later there are some scarier ones: at 9 pm a program including a short and a feature called “A Flesh Offering” focusing on Windigos and at 11 pm a program of shorts called “The Witching Hour.” Someone told me that the screenings during the day are free, but I can’t find evidence of that on their website.

Carl: I’ve spent too much of my time the past month reading things people have to say about the TV series Mad Men on the Internet, but perhaps it was all meant to lead me to this forceful rant-essay on new-gen feminist site Tiger Beatdown, about the storyline of the seemingly ever-bitchier Betty Draper Francis, which read more closely is a study in misogyny and the repercussions of abuse. In fact that’s arguably the whole show (lead character Don having been an appallingly abused child), and more as it goes along – almost amounting to a thesis about abusive American 20th-century culture, in which the rebellion of the 1960s was against a certain kind of parenting as much as against war, or rather a wounded backlash from a cohort that had just understood how the two are connected. The post won’t be comprehensible if you haven’t followed the show, but its resonances go much beyond that. Sady’s a bold, moving writer. One of many lines that made me nod so hard my neck hurt: “It’s not easy to come to terms with what was done to you. But it’s much, much harder to come to terms with what you do.”

Speaking of parenting, did you know that Ari Up of the Slits was John (“Johnny Rotten”) Lydon’s stepdaughter, because he married her mom way back in the (punk) day (which goes a long way to explaining how she came to start a punk band at 14)? I can’t believe I didn’t, until this week, when Ari Up died of cancer at only 48 damn damn damn dammit. It’s a hell of a thing, in a season when several books, most notably this one, are looking back at 1990s riot grrrl, to be losing someone who blazed that path for us. One of its stalwart travellers, Carrie Brownstein, of Sleater-Kinney of course, has a suitably furious, frustrated and Promethean tribute to Ari on her NPR blog.

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Filed under carl wilson, chris randle, linkblogging, margaux williamson