Thursday, June 18, 2015

Looking for Justice at the 2015 Emmys


        HBO aired the finales for its spring lineup this past Sunday, which means that the 2014-15 TV season has officially ended and the race for the Emmys is about to kick into full gear. While the actual nominations won’t be announced for another month, there’s no better time than the present to make the case for the shows and people I hope to see recognized come July 16. As I’ve mentioned in my previous Emmy wish-lists, these aren’t predictions, and given voters’ past tendencies, I imagine the majority of them have next-to-no chance of happening, but one must never despair when it comes to pop culture awards, not even in the face of inexplicable FX snubbing and Downton Abbey love. Until the final verdict comes out, possibilities for surprise abound, so if they know what’s good for them, voters should take a peek at this list:


The case: Mad Men for everything
The argument: It’s hard to think of Matthew Weiner’s iconic show about the ad industry in the 1960s as an underdog or long shot, but in recent years, its reputation as an awards darling hasn’t exactly matched with reality. Most awards bodies, like the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild, seem to have forgotten about its existence, last recognizing Mad Men in 2013. Even the Emmys, which often seems to lavish the show with attention out of rote habit (see: the continued noms for Christina Hendricks and Robert Morse despite the lack of actual material for both actors in the latest seasons), only gave it four nominations, and no wins, for the stellar first half of its seventh and final season. Add in the fact that not a single member of its large, hugely talented ensemble cast has ever won an Emmy, and maybe you can understand why I’m a bit nervous about Mad Men’s prospects, though it will presumably benefit from not having to compete with Breaking Bad anymore.
        It would be easy to argue that Mad Men deserves Emmy recognition simply because it’s Mad Men and it only seems proper to give such a seminal work of art one last hurrah. However, the show is too good, its merits too many, for me to resort to such a shallow, sentimental appeal. While the last seven episodes weren’t the strongest of its run, they still provided plenty of indelible moments, from Joan threatening to burn it all down to Peggy sauntering into the McCann-Erickson offices and Don driving off into the sunset, and a fitting conclusion to the saga of Don Draper and friends. As impeccably crafted as always, Mad Men stayed true to its ambiguous, elliptical nature, preferring hard-won, frequently temporary victories over immediate gratification. The dissolution of Sterling Cooper put all of the show’s major characters at crossroads and, as a result, proved to be the perfect storyline to drive home the series’ core themes of identity, change, expectations versus reality, and the unstoppable march of time. Layered performances by Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss and January Jones in particular ensured that Mad Men’s impending absence would be deeply felt.
The evidence: “Time and Life” (ep. 11), “Lost Horizon” (ep. 12), “Person to Person” (ep. 14)

Me to the Emmys, probably 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Halt and Catch Fire and Humanizing the Void


             You could be forgiven for dismissing Halt and Catch Fire as second-rate Mad Men. You might even be right. After all, the sophomore AMC drama created by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers is hardly the masterpiece that Matthew Weiner’s acclaimed, seven-season meditation on the American Dream was even in its youth, and its resemblance to the latter borders on suspicious at times.

             To start with, it’s a period piece, though 1980s Texas doesn’t quite have the exotic, jewel-toned glamour of ‘60s Manhattan. Joe MacMillan, the central protagonist played by Lee Pace, is basically a mid-level Don Draper – a debonair, silver-tongued genius tormented by his enigmatic past; he even ends the first season by ditching his job and disappearing into the backcountry, a move not dissimilar to Don’s cross-country odyssey in the last act of Mad Men. At one point, Cameron sums Joe up with the barbed observation: “You’re just a thousand-dollar suit with nothing inside.” Sound familiar?

I mean, come on.

Speaking of Cameron, she’s the Peggy Olson of Halt and Catch Fire, an idealistic young prodigy who the hero takes under his wing; her alternately affectionate and resentful interactions with Joe recall Peggy and Don’s volatile relationship. Donna initially occupies the obligatory neglected wife role, though unlike with Betty Draper, the other characters soon learn to recognize and appreciate her value, and in a pleasantly surprising reversal, the second season has positioned Gordon as a bored house-husband while Donna gets absorbed in her work. Both shows even include amusing side-stories involving typically straitlaced women trying marijuana.

Yet, after a rather uninspired beginning, I found myself thoroughly enjoying Halt and Catch Fire as I binged the first season on Netflix (for me, “binging” means consuming 1-3 episodes a day, which I guess for some people is known as “watching TV”). I couldn’t help but succumb to Lee Pace’s haughty charisma; the dysfunctional, frequently hostile relationships; the pleasure of seeing Donna upend everybody’s expectations, including the audience’s; the coolly retro soundtrack and credits sequence. As much as I love Game of Thrones, there’s something to be said for a show that creates tension out of lost computer files.

In a way, it turned out to be the perfect rebound, filling, however incompletely, the gaping hole left in my TV-viewing heart by Mad Men. For all the aforementioned similarities, I would argue that Halt and Catch Fire is not, in fact, a cheap knockoff of the seminal ad agency drama but a rejoinder, approaching the same problems – how are people shaped by society? Is happiness possible? What is our purpose in life? – from a radically different angle.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Some Reflections on Consuming Pop Culture in Isolation


        Last Friday night, I officially went into mourning for Jimmy Darmody. I’ve spent the last few months slowly making my way through Boardwalk Empire, the Prohibition era-set, Steve Buscemi-starring HBO drama that lasted five seasons before airing its final episode in October last year. Having never quite mastered the art of binge-watching, I sometimes go days, even weeks between episodes, so it felt like a small victory to finally complete the second season, even though I’d started the show at the end of February, which meant that it took me three months to watch a mere 24 episodes.

        The finale left me a bit emotionally distraught, as I knew it would. Yet even as I typed out that off-the-cuff tweet, the part of me that wasn’t numb with sadness felt ridiculous. After all, this was a fictional character whose abrupt demise had originally taken place way back in 2011, and while I managed to avoid hearing details of the specific circumstances, I’d been aware of this particular plot point virtually since it happened, giving me plenty of time to prepare. This foreknowledge naturally colored my viewing experience, but rather than spoiling it by taking away the element of surprise as I might’ve expected, it made me appreciate Jimmy’s overall arc as well as Michael Pitt’s performance more. The prospect of his ultimate fate loomed like approaching storm clouds, imbuing his scenes with an underlying sense of dread and melancholy, and what might’ve otherwise come off as an out-of-left-field twist incorporated for shock value instead seemed all the more tragic for its inevitability.

All I wanted was more of this ruthless swagger

        Deciding what TV shows to watch, once a simple matter of flipping through a handful of channels to see what’s on at the time, has become a rather trying occupation, one that requires careful planning and time management. More than any other form of entertainment, TV demands commitment, asking viewers to devote potentially years of their lives to following a single story that in all likelihood won’t even get a proper, satisfying ending. With the rise of new technology and the medium’s reputation, there’s a greater variety of quality shows than ever before. So, options must be weighed, priorities determined, sacrifices made. However, in the age of Netflix, HBO Go, DVRs and other alternate streaming/viewing avenues, what’s sacrificed is often not a particular show, but rather, the conversation around that show.