Seeing as how it’s Saturday and DC is currently buried under a once-per-decade snowfall, this seems like a good time to abandon education entirely and talk about television.
I’m reading Chuck Klosterman’s new book, Eating the Dinosaur, which is not as sharp and wide-ranging as Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs but is still worth your money. One essay is about advertising and thus, inevitably, Mad Men. Some people seem to think Mad Men is too slow-paced or something. These people are insane and/or have terrible taste in television. Klosterman begins by discussing what remains the definitive Mad Men scene, Don Draper’s “carousel” pitch from the last episode of season one, which displays Don’s particular genius for understanding the universality of his personal evasions and failures and using them to sell things. Klosterman goes on to discuss how this has become universally understood since the early 1960s and yet still works:
The emotional transference Draper appears to be inventing is what we naturally anticipate from the promotion of any product. And that should make it fail. But it doesn’t. And I think that’s because people like recognizing that they are a target market. It makes them feel smart for figuring it out and it makes them feel desirable.
That last word is key and it’s embodied in the finale of the third season. After being a jerk to everybody for the entire season, Draper finds himself unexpectedly needing to recruit people for a new, breakaway ad agency. At three different moments, he sits in front of colleagues he has routinely abused but suddenly needs–Roger, Pete, and Peggy–and asks for their help. They all say they same thing, in different words: “Beg.” And he does. He looks them right in the eye and tells them just what they need to hear. They all know he’s lying. They’re not just people, they’re advertising professionals. They all know, to various degrees, that “Don Draper” himself is a lie. But they all say yes anyway, because they all want to be seduced by the person they know Don Draper is pretending to be. And they’re willing to pay a great deal for that. They want to live in that false reality so they can pretend that it might become true.
Which brings up a larger point: great television shows tend to be built around a few important and generally self-evident ideas, and the key to longevity is having the discipline to stick with them. Battlestar Galactica was only ever about one thing: the absolute corruption of war. The Wire used to literally announce the theme of each season in a kind of video nut graf: “The bigger the lie, the more they believe,” “Reform, Lamar. Reform.” and so on. People tend to mistake obscurity for subtlety and overvalue both; I have a lot more appreciation for depth and sustained artistic conviction. Matthew Weiner knew what Mad Men was about from the first frame and as long he doesn’t forget, I’ll keep watching.
Relatedly, Dollhouse has been cancelled right on schedule, i.e. just when Joss Whedon was getting to the point. It is (soon: was) not a show about sex or human trafficking or prostitution. It’s about identity. For the first 20 episodes, we’re meant to believe that Echo is merely a cipher masking Caroline, fighting to regain the identity she sold away. But now, as she struggles to integrate the various identities that the dollhouse has “imprinted” on her brain, we see that it was about Echo all along. And this, of course, is everyone’s struggle: integrating the various identities the world thrusts upon us: consumer, spouse, parent, worker, thinker, artist, daughter, son. And, particularly in the modern world, the tearing pain of choosing among them when we’re told that the freedom of self-definition is the thing we should value most. Whedon is fast becoming one of the great tragic figures in popular culture, a man of huge talent, vision and integrity whose work keeps getting killed before its time.