The ADristocrats

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KNOW THESE THINGS TO BE TRUE: 

My wife and I are currently plowing through all 5 seasons of Mad Men. We’ve been running an average of about 3 episodes per night and are about halfway through season 4 (NO SPOILERS!!!!). Almost immediately I knew everything I’d heard about the show was true. The acting, the writing, the believability of the world, ALL were superior to nearly everything else on TV (save for Breaking Bad). There are moments when the racism and sexism are TRULY and BRUTALLY shocking, but those elements are never used in a sensationalist way. Rather they just remind the viewer how far society has come in 50 years and occasionally how far we’ve left to go.

Consuming so much superlative TV in such a short amount of time (the same way I blasted through Breaking bad, 1-2 episodes a night, every night), I’m starting to really coalesce a Unified Theory of Television. What I mean is, I’m beginning to realize that regardless of genre, setting or subject matter, every television show geared towards me (a human person smack in the middle of all the prime demographics) either fails or succeeds based on the exact same successes or shortcomings. I noticed that not even 3 episodes into Mad Men, I was pausing the show to talk to my wife about a character’s motivation, how they really felt vs. what they were saying/doing, what their next actions might be and what repercussions those actions would have on their future and the other characters around them. This and THIS ALONE is the halmark of quality television.

I understand the formula is complex (writing, plus acting, plus directing, divided by budget, times network confidence and promotion, times Pi, etc, etc), and can rarely be duplicated with a resolvable, remainderless and equal solution, but my point is that all of these issues will have for the most part already been addressed before you and I, the viewers, see the end result. So let’s assume that all television shows have an equal opportunity of having a good premise, quality writing, and strong actors (which they do not, but let’s assume it anyway to simplify things). If, by the second or third episode, I am not either questioning or relating to a character’s motivation (which implies that said motivation is presented CLEARLY), then there is little hope that this show will hold my full attention. Let’s hope it has plenty of special effects and maybe dinosaurs (which we all know can’t always save a boring show).

My friend Amy Berg is a talented and successful writer in Hollywood machine and she always says, “What does your character WANT, and what is PREVENTING THEM from getting it?” While watching Mad Men, I began to think more and more about this idea. You see, at first I avoided Mad Men because I thought the whole “Period piece set in the 60’s” was a gimmick and would be overwhelming to the story or hokey in some way. I very quickly realized that, when executed correctly, the story and the characters trump the setting or the gimmick. As long as the show is telling a human story that explores wants, needs, hardships and triumphs then it will be relatable to the audience. Be it set in the 1960’s or a derelict spaceship during a robot war, a good writer can always tell a human story and a good actor can always convey emotions that will suck the audience in to their world.

I began comparing Mad Men to Revolution and that’s when my hypothesis really started to pan out. I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was I didn’t like about Revolution. It had most of the elements that typically draw me in to a televised work of fiction. It had a distopia and a dude from Breaking Bad and Katniss is there too. Lots of things to like. So why was I ready to give up after 3 episodes? I realized the premise, the show iteself WAS the character. Every human in Revolution acts solely as an extension of the premise and serves only to further the overall plot. “Where did the power go? Will it ever come back.” The individual characters are all replaceable and interchangeable. The thing needs to get from point A to point C, but only after it blows up the other thing at point B. ANY CHARACTER can achieve these goals. The plot still gets where it’s going and the audience is only attached to the action or the mystery rather than the characters. I would get just as much enjoyment out of an episode of Revolution if all I did was read the synopsis. In this case I think the failure is writing. I know at least 2 of the actors in Revolution are quite talented, but they are delivering less than captivating performances and I believe they haven’t been given much of a reason to think about what their characters really want. I could go on and on about Revolution‘s failure to impress me, but this is supposed to be about Mad Men.

Another thing I realized while shotgunning season upon season of Mad Men was how important the “show don’t tell” rule can be in television. Take another example of a show I try very hard to like, but can’t seem to stop finding fault with: Falling Skies. Every single character on Falling Skies speaks with the same voice. They all talk the same way, express themselves in the same way, get angry, get happy, get whatever in identical fashion. This starts to become super apparent when you realize that every character on Falling Skies explains their motivations with the same technique: the fond remembrance. Character 1 says, “Why did you let those aliens go? We’re at war.” Character 2 replies with a pause, then, “When I was 8, my dad used to take me to the batting cages to hit balls. There was this other kid who BLAH BLAH BLAH THE MORAL OF THE STORY IS WHATEVER.” They all do it. ALL OF THEM. Kill them all and replace them with a new cast on the next episode and I won’t notice because THE SHOW IS THE MAIN CHARACTER. Don Draper can raise or lower an eyebrow and it SPEAKS VOLUMES. Now again, is it fair to compare exceptionally bad writing to exceptionally good acting? It depends. How much of Draper’s eyebrow movement relies on the page saying “Don raises eyebrow as if to say…” and how much relies on John Hamm’s ability to execute those instructions. Obviously both are required, but I presume that neither works without the other.

So what’s my point? I’m not even sure I have one. I just know that high quality premises are being ruined by lack of attention to character detail, and high quality actors are getting shafted by sub par dialog and a lack of overall vision for what a show is, what story it is trying to tell, WHOSE story it even is and where the whole thing is going. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Fringe, The first 3.5 seasons of BSG, Firely… these are the shows that prove the impossible is actually all too entirely possible and that everyone else is slacking off. 

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24 Comments

  1. I'm of the theory that pretty much anyone who reads books or watches movies/TVs with any regularity is going to become fairly familiar with basic plot structures. With ongoing TV shows in particular, you can even start to learn the basic structure that each episode is going to follow and predict what's coming (as with Fringe). So any time you try to make the plot the main focus, it's just not going to work. It's only when the characters are compelling – when, as you said, you sit around during and after each story to discuss motivations and possible outcomes – that it becomes worth continuing to invest any time in the book/film/show. It's the characters that keep us guessing, not the plot.

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    • The craziest realization for me was that even though the setting was something I was not familiar with (the advertising world of the 1960's) the subject matter that was having me go into fits of "OMG I BET HE'S GONNA…" and "I CAN'T BELIEVE SHE ACTUALLY…" were such pedestrian topics as lies, adultery, rudeness, greed, etc. If a show can make me care about those things with the same ferver as "I HOPE THE ROBOTS DEFEAT THE OTHER ROBOTS WHO ARE ALSO DINOSAURS" then it's doing an amazing job.

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      • I've been told many times that I should get into Mad Men. I really don't have the time right now (especially since when I do get into a show, I tend to end up watching 4-6 episodes a day regardless of what else needs doing), but I may make it my project between this semester and next. Along with roughly five million other TV shows I've been told I should watch. Who needs family bonding time, right?

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        • The only real issue I had with Mad Men was that the first season, it was all so underplayed that I didn't really "get" the show until about a third of the way in. They really slow-played the first two-three episodes, at least from my perspective. Then everything "clicked" and suddenly – wham! Brilliance. Actually, Breaking Bad was a little like that, too. Maybe it's an AMC thing?

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          • Hmmm – I watched the Mad Men pilot a few years ago at a friend's insistance and was underwhelmed (probably because I was expecting another West Wing and it just… wasn't). But if, as you say, the show only clicked a few episodes later, I may have to give it another try.

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            • It definitely isn't a Sorkin show. Sorkin shows are set up to leave you very, very impressed with his wonderful, hypercompetent, clever characters. How well this works for you depends on how much you share his politics, and his sense of wit. (I lost interest in West Wing sometime around 2002, I think.)

              Mad Men, on the other hand, is built on dramatic irony – the audience knows (or thinks it knows) so much about where the characters are going, that it's basically built like a comedic horror show – don't go down those stairs! don't smoke eighteen packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day! don't drink half a fifth a day at work! This drags initially – Peggy being shown the ropes in the pilot is especially arch and misses the mark, at least for me. After the initial mis-steps, they loosen up, let the characters get weird, and back off the superiority a bit.

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      • I haven't gotten into Mad Men (Yet..), but I had a similar conversation with my older brother about this. He's in his 30s now, and is just striking that realization that how he watches TV really is about the characters, and whether you can invest yourself in them. Since then, he's become more picky about his shows, but seems to enjoy the better ones all the more.

        I'm (finally) watching Babylon 5, as I was a little too young to appreciate it when it originally aired, and I'm enjoying it for the same reasons.

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  2. To me, it is best seen in the final scenes of episodes. They rarely go to the old dramatic stand-bys. My catchphrase when watching Mad Men is often to pause & say "what any other show would have done is this…". A character isn't shot to death in the shocking finale. No one is revealed entering a room. Mad Men ends its episodes as if they were short stories. Betty firing at the birds. Roger & Joan standing on the curb like strangers. So many more. It set the bar for everything I have seen since. Glad you're enjoying it, I hope you like season 5. I think it was the best yet. Sorry for rambling, Mad Men is just the best show I have ever seen, & I don't often get the chance to gush about it, heh.

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    • It cut off the beginning of my post. Basically the biggest thing about it that the show respects me, its viewer. A bunch of artists I repesct making art that doesn't talk down to me, but challenges me on many levels. I think that's very cool, & very important. It was a new sensation to feel that. & a pretty fucking great one.

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      • Yeah, respect is really important to me as well. I'm a writer as well as a reader/viewer, and one of my top priorities is always to respect the audience's time. They've invested a portion of their life in listening to this story, so I feel it's the writer's responsibility to make it worthwhile. That means creating compelling characters, assuming that the audience is full of reasonably intelligent adults who can think critically (assuming that's your audience) and will recognize cliches, and providing a sense of satisfaction at the end. It requires a lot more effort, but the payoff in the end is so much greater.

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  3. This is what upsets me about Haven. There's so much to DO and EXPLORE with how these characters can handle this crazy town, and yet they always react the same way and the dialogue is completely interchangeable between characters. Honestly, I only know one's personality is different from the others' because there's a lot of, "Oh you, [name], you really are such a bad boy/hero/chosen one." The writers are wasting their time with all that explanation which more befits a show from 1975 when those tropes didn't exist yet.

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  4. I write myself, and I have so many different characters shouting in my head that if I made any two of them sound alike, they'd probably beat me up from the inside out. Yes there's usually an overreaching plot and everything, but its the ways that the character bends that plot around them that makes it interesting. You can only get away with 'Yes, awesome plot, but you've got 4 wood mannequins saying the same lines' for so long. Even if they're great mannequins, there's only so much that can be done if the writing for them is just terrible.

    I never got around to starting Revolution, mostly because I have problems starting anything with a specific timeslot I have to remember to be at a TV for. I'm just wondering if there'll be firings over it if it doesn't do well, provided people who're stopping watching continues. I mean, they advertised the ~crap~ out of that show. I saw so many commercials and billboards and everything for that show….

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  5. Oh, you and your "what do characters want." Next thing you know you'll be using that logic to criticize Prometheus.

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  6. Meh. Come talk to me when you make The ADristoCATS. Then maybe you'll have something.

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  7. This theory is not all encompassing. Take TNG, it took a long time before the characters on that show became people, and even then the characters were often only there to drive the story. Yet it is still great TV. Although, thinking back, all the best episodes were focused on Picard as a person (the flute episode, becoming borg, dreaming of life without being brutally stabbed). So you are only mostly correct.

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    • And the first thing I was thinking about was DS9. There is one show that devoted a massive amount of time and energy to it characters and their motivations. Even the villains got interesting character arcs and some of the minor characters seem better fleshed out than some TV shows manage with their main cast.

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      • Agreed…DS9 had a massive cast if you consider not only the main characters, but all the 2nd and 3rd tier characters that also interacted with them, and sometimes drove entire episodes, or story arcs.
        However, it's considered the "failure" of Trek shows exactly because of that reason.

        One thing I'd always thought of Trek was that TOS was how I grew up as a kid, TNG was my emerging into adulthood, but that DS9 was in many ways how the world is. While it might be nice to jump in your ship and leave that problem world behind, in "reality" life is more often than not like a space station, where your problems can/will come back to bite you in the arse, and can't always be run away from.

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  8. It isnt the writing of the other shows are so bad… it is just the writing in the good ones are that good. If you eat potatoes every day because thats what you eat then you dont know any better. Then along comes bacon cooked in butter with eggs and you are ruined.

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  9. Thank you for this: "Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Fringe, The first 3.5 seasons of BSG, Firefly… these are the shows that prove the impossible is actually all too entirely possible and that everyone else is slacking off. "

    This is my quote of the day.

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  10. The other thing that, to me, can make or break a show (or movie) is bullshit filmschool graduate cinematographic techniques. We all know what foreshadowing is, we all know how it can potentially draw in the viewer, but when you're trying to make a mystery show (or movie) and someone makes a vague comment about the mastermind and they suddenly show the person that eventually is revealed as the bad guy looking all contemplative, you're not foreshadowing, you're giving away the damn ending. Foreshadowing is used when following textbook standards and doesn't apply in all situations, like when you're trying to keep things a secret from the audience. That said, if the show still contains all the elements that you mentioned above, it can at least draw you in and make you want to know HOW that mastermind is revealed, but if you're not invested in the main character then you really don't care.

    This also makes me very unpopular with most people, but I can't stand Quentin Tarrentino (I'm sure I butchered that name) because all of his characters seem to think, act and talk the same way. It's like everyone in his movies has an English degree from Oxford and also Tourettes.

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    • "Forshadowing: a valid literary technique": Bloom County

      Some of the best foreshadowing isn't even necessarily planned out; it can be as simple as a good throwaway line of dialogue that sparks ideas for writers down the road that they didn't expect.

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  11. First, I love your description of "shotgunning" a season of TV.

    Second, one of the things that I was worried will get tiring about Mad Men was the cheeky "Hey! Look! it's the 1960s!" moments. But as time went on, they got very good at weaving them in to make some heavy forshadowing. There's a wedding invitation in season 3 (I think) that when tossed across a table, made me feel like my stomach had dropped into the couch. It was a casual reference, and we knew it wouldn't be a major plot point in the series, but it was a reminder of what will be happening in the background of the entire series. As a historian/history teacher, some of the most fascinating things about the show are the things that appear to be throwaway dialogue.

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  12. If we're talking about good writing and great acting…Six Feet Under.

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  13. Okay. Here’s the thing.

    Television script writing is just like any other job. When your expected or have to crank out X numbers of pages a day, well sometimes you phone it in.

    Remember to earn a living at script writing you have to take alot of jobs. and most of them are just that. Jobs. So you may not give a rats ass about the show your writing for, you just have to turn in an “Acceptable” script in a certain amount of time.

    To me the shows that stand out and have great writing, acting or directing is usually because the people involved, actually care about the work they’re doing.

    It’s as simple as that.

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