Tuesday, April 6, 2010

When storytelling goes bad: Part I

I just watched most of Season One of 'Mad Men', the AMC series that has been hailed by critics as a work of genius.

It took me a long while to actually consider watching it, because I didn't find 'the premise' of the show to be interesting at all. I couldn't see what the buzz might be about. It didn't make any sense to me.

So I watched it, and didn't like it.

That 'Mad Men' turned out to be a pretty bad viewing experience for me didn't come as that big of a surprise. Because as you should know, when critics fall in love with a show, there's always a good chance that the show itself isn't really that good.

Unfortunately, this is exactly the case with 'Mad Men'. The critics once again took the bait. They 'love' the show. The audience, however doesn't care. You and me, the general folks, do not watch the show. Because it's not good.

So what's wrong with the show? The answers to that can be found from looking at the basic requirements of a "good" show.

1)What is the premise and the theme of the show? Is this a show about a family? Is this a show about the people at the agency? Is it about the times and lives in the 60s? Is it about the actual substance of their work?

If you like the show, you probably say that, yes! It's about all of those. But that's not a premise. A premise is something like "Jack Bauer has been framed in an assassination attempt against the President". What is the premise in Mad Men?

And how about the theme? A theme should be something like "life is absurd, but it makes more sense than we think" รก la Picket Fences. Mad Men doesn't have a recognizable theme either. That's a bad sign too.

2)Who and what are the characters? There's been plenty of hoohaa about how the characters on the show are more defined than on other drama shows. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. We don't know most of the characters at all. They are not fully fleshed out, they are cardboard cut-outs and fresh from stock. That's bad too.

3)Where is the drama? I couldn't find drama anywhere. The ad men are basically never in trouble. They never have big problems with their clients. Yes, I know you might say that there were some problems and that Pete Campbell 'saves' the guys by coming up with his own ideas. But in general, there's no real trouble. A real problem means something like "if we don't get this client, we're done". So there's no drama coming from there.

Of the characters, excluding Campbell, nobody is in trouble either. Just because Betty Draper is troubled does not mean that she is in trouble itself. There's a difference. And if anything at all happens, it's always resolved in less than twenty minutes. That's not compelling.

4)Who is Don "the lead" Draper? This is a big no-no on the show. We have no clue who Don Draper really is. You never know what he is going to do next. We have no idea how he is going to react to any given situations on the show. It's all a guessing game. Because the writers in all likelihood do not know who he is. They only know how he dresses and how he combs his hair. (back and to the left, back and to the left)

5)The focus on the show. Easily the biggest problem. Is there a lead? Who are the supporting characters? Who are the token nobodies? This is why the show is such a mess. People come and go. Supporting characters get suddenly individual scenes, even though we might know nothing about them. Somehow they suddenly lead the show. That cannot be good storytelling.

The most bizarre moment that I managed to see on the show really illuminates how bad Mad Men can get. Because there's a sequence in the fourth episode (the firing and reinstating of junior), where Don Draper's character goes in ten minutes from a lead to supporting character and then to an extra. That is simply wrong and bad television.

That is not quality writing.

It's also pretty disturbing how the writers on the show write these 'fake' endings. For example when Betty crashes the car and is sent to a psychiatrist by Don. The ending of the episode is when Don calls the psychiatrist and asks how Betty did in the session. I think the writers were hinting that there's some kind of a patient/doctor confidentiality that they were breaking. Well, obviously there wasn't, but they tried to nevertheless sell that angle.

Also it's rather cheap when we see a pregnant woman taking a glass of wine. Shocking - and then we go to like End Credits. Not really interesting, in my opinion. But basically that's the way they roll.

I'm not saying that 'Mad Men' is the worst show on tv. It has great production values and Vincent Kartheiser and Elisabeth Moss are doing great acting in it. It's just that almost everywhere else the show is a failure.

The fact that the show looks good doesn't mean that it's actually good. Because it's not.

And Yes, I did get the nuances. Seriously, I did.

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