Bright Lights Film Journal

Heavy TV: Breaking Bad, Girls, and Mad Men

Who needs an Oscar when you can have an Emmy?

OK, that’s not quite true. If what you’re after is not media buzz but media thunder, an absolute kick-ass, home-run movie is the only way to go. But for sustained media buzz, for prolonged critical acclaim/ass-kissing/envy, nothing beats a hot, hot TV show. The simple fact is, 90 percent of the time, Hollywood makes money making movies for 13-year-old boys (the Marvel franchise1) and 13-year-old girls (Twilight/Hunger Games). Shockingly, TV is now the adult medium.

It all started, of course, with the David Chase cable classic The Sopranos, followed by Sex and the City, both on HBO.2 My appetite for charming gangsters was satiated by Bonnie and Clyde, waay back in the sixties, so I never gave either The Sopranos or its acclaimed successor, The Wire, David Simon’s grim salute to his hometown of Baltimore, a chance,3 but I was in the tank from the start for Carrie and her crew.

In the beginning, HBO owned edge TV, but in 2007 Matt Weiner and AMC turned the world around with Mad Men, proving that you can do edge without saying “fuck.” Partly because of its antique glamour, and partly because of Jon Hamm’s monster star power, not to mention Christina Fredericks’ mega T&A,4Mad Men probably generated more high-end media heat than any show in history. AMC followed Mad Men with Breaking Bad, an ingenious riff on the standard bad-ass cable show. Instead of creating a bunch of bad boys that would allow the nerds watching at home to live their fantasies, why not show a nerd actually living those fantasies himself? And now HBO has come back with ultimate feminist fantasy, a show that’s nothing but chicks — in fact, nothin’ but Lena — Lena Dunham’s Girls. All three shows are fashionably “dark,” though fortunately in different ways. “Dark” pretty much defines Heavy TV, Sex and the City being the one exception because it featured sexy babes talking cunt, blow jobs, and anal sex.

Let’s put the worst first and begin with Breaking Bad, created by Vince Gilligan. The opening shot — the teaser, I guess — of Breaking Bad is sort of the anti-Mad Men. Instead of the perfectly tanned, perfectly suited Don Draper, we see pasty-fleshed Walter White (Bryan Cranston), his tighty-whities scarcely concealing his sagging scrotum, naked and alone in the New Mexico desert.

From the start, Breaking Bad puts us deep in the bowels of Heavy TV, replete with nerd self-pity and nerd self-infatuation. Walt, it turns out, is a monstrously put-upon high school chemistry teacher. When we first get to know Walt he’s getting a hand-job from his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) — virtually a ritual castration. She’s pregnant, and she’s not comfortable with all that thrusting, so all Walt has to do is lie there like a good boy and mommy will take care of everything.5

We’re told that Walt is virtually a genius, with a classy Ph.D. and everything,6 but his pay is so bad that that he has to work part-time as a cashier in a car wash, but that’s not the worst. The worst is when a hub-cap washer doesn’t show for work and Walt’s Russian boss orders him to get in there and make those tires and caps shine! An American taking orders from a Russian! That’s not right! And then a couple of his dumb-ass students show up in a shiny Beemer and take his picture while he’s scrubbin’ and put it on Facebook! That’s angst, baby!

When he isn’t polishing hub caps, Walt is trying to talk science to a bunch of witless high school kids. In real life, a high school teacher with a Ph.D. in chemistry would probably be pulling down double Walt’s $43,000 a year at a high-end magnet school, but that wouldn’t make us feel sorry for Walt, so instead we get a dubious sob story.

To add to his burdens, Walt has a totally sweet, together, teen-age son with cerebral palsy (RJ Mitte as Walter White Jr.), plus the kid on the way, plus an obnoxious, overbearing brother-in-law (Dean Morris as Hank Schrader), a DEA agent who loudly holds the floor at Walt’s über-depressing Big Five-Oh birthday party describing at length all the heavy shit he’s seen — in the last three days! — while poor Walt just sits there listening as his dick shrivels and his testicles descend, not to mention a la-di-da sister in law (Betsy Brandt as Skyler’s older, bitchier, pretentious sister Marie Schrader7). But that’s just the warm-up. He’s got this nasty cough, and when he has it looked at — yeah, it’s lung cancer, and it’s the bad kind, too, Stage IIA! And he doesn’t even smoke!

Walt remembers something Hank said about how much cash a dude could make just by cooking meth, and he starts to thinking. He goes on a drug raid with Hank and he sees something Hank doesn’t: a kid hops out of a window and makes a break for it. Hey, he knows that kid! Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul)! A real screw-up! Walt chases the kid down, and a partnership is formed: Jesse and Walt will cook the meth, and Jesse will use his street contacts to market the drugs. Complications ensue.

In virtually every drug caper I’ve ever seen, the drugs involved are “incredibly pure.”8 “Captain, I’ve never seen anything like it!” Naturally, Walt, with his upper-middle-class dedication to his craft, cranks out the purest of the pure. In real life, it’s doubtful if meth heads have what can be considered refined palates, but in Breaking Bad‘s world, they do, and Walt’s Blue Meth, poetically called “Sky,” is the best of the best. Discriminating heads won’t settle for less!

Quite a bit of the first episode is devoted to describing exactly how one would go about cooking meth safely, including some lab equipment porn to which, it seems, I am particularly immune. A 5,000 ml cooking flask! Duuuude!9

Yeah, to cook right you have to know what you’re doing, but the real kicker is distribution, because you have to deal with, you know, criminals, who, in the world of Breaking Bad, at least, are almost all Hispanic, and are almost all amoral monsters, creatures of atavistic impulse and lust.10 Fortunately, Walt’s chemical smarts allow him to stay one step ahead of the bad guys — a sort of “nerds rule” shtick that occasionally requires the laws of physics to bend just a little, most spectacularly when Walt detonates a chunk of mercury fulminate by throwing it on the floor to impress a roomful of thugs. An exterior shot of the building they’re in shows a massive air conditioner flying out the window. But an explosion powerful enough to toss a half-ton air conditioner out the window, well, what would that do to a 200-hundred-pound human being? Even more to the point, Walt is holding a whole bag of mercury fulminate chunks, which he smuggled in under the pretense that it was meth. Wouldn’t the force of the explosion detonate the whole bag, with enough force to blow the roof off the entire building? Just sayin’.

Facing down violent criminals is not for the faint-hearted, but the rewards are sweet — fistfuls of cash. Real money, for God’s sake, forty-fifty grand a week, just for the taking, the kind of cash we common folks are never allowed to touch! Well, when you get the money, you get the power, and then you get the pussy, or rather, the anus, because when Walt wants to party, he’s a backdoor man all the way. And Skyler loves it, of course.

I originally expected that the new Walt would soon be slippin’ it to his prissy sister-in-law, who looked to be just beggin’ for a cornhole, not to mention the condescending wife of his ex-business partner, living the life of a Silicon Valley billionaire while Walt sweats out his weary life in a two-bit chem lab, but neither happened. For whatever reason, the entire sex motif drops out of Beaking Bad early on.

Instead, the big relationship in Breaking Bad is the dynamic between Walt and Jesse, Walt the gruff “daddy” and Jesse the adorably damaged young lad — or withholding father and fucked-up son, whichever you prefer. They both “progress,” of course, with Walt becoming increasingly cunning and ruthless, though, invariably, his antagonists are even worse than he is, so he’s more or less justified — more or less. The “worst” thing he does, and it’s pretty bad, is to have Jesse murder Gayle, a chemist whom arch drug dealer Gustavo Fring was grooming to replace Walt in the state-of-the-art meth lab built beneath Gus’s laundry. Gayle has to die because otherwise Gus will off both Walt and Jesse (I guess). Gayle is portrayed as an emotionally retarded homosexual, which presumably reduces the sting of his death, just a little.

Jesse’s progress is reflected in his clothes. In the first season, he looks like a fucked-up 13-year-old — baggy pants and shirt topped off by a floppy knit stocking cap. He loses the cap in the second season, so that he doesn’t look like a complete idiot, but the show carefully keeps its emotional distance from Jesse by showing him constantly relapsing into sustained drug use whenever a crisis is over. Who needs a life when you can have meth?

By the fourth season Jesse has dropped the baggy pants thing once and for all and dresses entirely in black. He still lives in a meth crashpad, but he acts like a big man now, taking a wad out of his pocket and snapping off a few twenties (or are they Benjamins?): “Here, go buy some pizzas.” He’s taking drugs, and taking charge.

Jesse is being groomed for bigger things by Gus, while Walt is being groomed for extinction. But canny Walt dupes Jesse (by chemical means, naturally) into thinking that Gus is after him as well, and, together again, they manage to bring down Gus.

The departure of Gus provided the stunning finale to the fourth season of Breaking Bad. We are currently experiencing the hiatus of the fifth and (maybe) final season, spread over two years.11 Series creator Vince Gilligan has been hinting that there’s “too much story” to cover in just one season. I haven’t seen the first half of season five, so I don’t know where exactly things are going, but I would guess that both Walt and Jesse have to die, either heroically or randomly, to atone for their sins, the biggie being the murder of poor Gayle, though, since it happened way back in the third season, may be forgotten about, particularly since Gayle was kind of a jerk anyway.

Breaking Bad is definitely “flat-screen,” big screen TV, one of the most visually arresting shows around. Set in Albuquerque, Gilligan takes full advantage of the dramatic western scenery as the appropriate setting for both agoraphobic loneliness and Cormac McCarthy-style gore. The show delights in “impossible” shots, and enigmatic ones. One episode opens with the screen covered with a thick, dark-reddish paste. Eventually, we figure out that we’re looking up through the floor as Walt and Jesse clean up the bloody goo that was once a gangster.12 Later, we’re treated to what looks like roasting flesh, and it is: barbecued chicken! Cute!

This sort of visual artsy-fartsyness probably reached its apogee in the second season, when every episode opened with a riff (unexplained until the last episode) about an eyeball floating in Walt’s pool. As the season progresses, a scorched pink teddy bear, apparently the eyeball’s source, appears as well, leaving us to wonder if some massive gangland atrocity is going to occur at Walt’s home. It’s only at the end of the season that we learn that the teddy bear is part of the debris left by a mid-air collision of two airplanes, for which Jesse and Walt are sort of responsible.

This sort of cuteness, even when not mixed with 9/11 exploitation, always rubs me the wrong way, and there’s plenty more where that came from in Breaking Bad. In the early going we learn that 1) Walt’s la-di-da sister-in-law is a kleptomaniac; 2) his DEA brother-in-law smokes illegal Cuban cigars; 3) his wife’s big-shot employer13 cheats on his taxes; 4) his sleazy, shopping mall lawyer, Saul Goodman,14 will arrange any crime in the book, including murder, if only you’ve got the cash! It’s almost like, the straights are the real criminals!15

Jesse’s “progress” — from amiable fuck-up to hardened gangster16 — has overtones of the moral progress of a 30 Rock-style TV writer/arrested adolescent who decides he’s got what it takes for the big time — to create and run his own show à la David Simon or Aaron Sorkin.17 What benefit it a man to gain the world if in doing so he lose his own soul? Well, the world, dummy! I’ll take that!

Probably the ultimate in artsy-fartsyness so far, which is what I was talking about, is a “stand-alone” episode called “The Fly,” in which Walt goes ape-shit over the presence of a fly in their gleaming meth lab. “We’ll have to dump the entire batch,” he moans, as the little fucker zips about the lab in artsy, extreme close-up. He’s that dedicated, that pure, that much of a perfectionist!

But in fact Walt makes no effort to keep the meth lab sterile. He and Jesse, not to mention Gus and a number of other gangsters, walk in the lab in their street clothes. He and Jesse put on protective garb to protect themselves from the chemicals, not to protect the chemicals from them. Furthermore, how “dirty” is one fly? We find flies disgusting because they feed on carrion and excrement, the two substances we find most repulsive. But how much filth can a fly carry? Damned little. We’re far more filthy than flies, at least in terms of quantity. Gilligan is thinking in terms of symbols rather than science.

Breaking Bad works pretty hard to keep itself pure by making both Walt and Jesse fairly unlikeable. Walt is sneaky and manipulative, while Jesse is seriously apprenticing to be a gangsta, plus he just won’t put down the meth pipe. But there are limits. Walt’s relationship with his son remains open and loving throughout the show, and that’s not a bad thing. And there are limits to Jesse’s evilness, and fucked-upedness, as well. At one point, he sets out to seduce a young woman who’s struggling to break her meth habit so he can get her hooked again and gain her as a customer,18 but he pulls back when he learns she has a young son. Moms on drugs! No way! Naturally, he gradually assumes the role of the kid’s loving stepdaddy as the show progresses.19

The violence on the show is intermittent but intense, Hank having a very nice shoot-out with a couple of stone-cold assassins from the Mexican cartel, while Gus is eliminated with an outrageous flourish of Grand Guignol.20 A bomb, planted by Walt, of course, explodes; Gus walks out of the room, apparently unharmed, until the camera swings around to show that half of his head has been blown off, his brains spilling out of his cranium. I don’t know if Gilligan can top that, but I’m willing to sit through more of his meretricious manipulation in the hope of seeing more high-end carnage.

GIRLS

If you read women’s blogs very much, you know that one of their jobs — along with criticizing one another, of course — is to complain about the lack of women directors in Hollywood. Well, Lena Dunham, age 26, isn’t “helming” any blockbusters yet, but she’s doing everything else, as creator/director/writer/star of HBO’s eminently buzz-worthy Girls.

It’s probably illegal to criticize Girls if you can’t recognize at least half the indie/alt wails that clot the soundtrack — tunes that make you want to burn every acoustic guitar in the world — but I intend to plunge ahead irregardless — or disirregardless, as my dad liked to say. If Breaking Bad is the anti-Mad Men, Girls is the anti-Sex and the City, or perhaps Sex and the City done according to nature, not glorious sex but awkward sex — physical intimacy without emotional intimacy or physical self-confidence. You’re using a condom, aren’t you? I want to see it. No, not there! I don’t like it like that! Instead of the firm, full, tanned bodies of Carrie and her crew, we get, well, Lena Dunham/Hannah Horvath, pale and wan and endowed with “writer’s belly,” struggling to divest herself of her Mary Katherine Gallagher21 panties and nervously getting it on with studly Adam Sackler (Adam Driver22), who reaches climax by jacking off on Hanna while imagining he’s doing an 11-year-old crack whore.23 The earth is moving, all right, but not in a good way.

Well, it’s an experience, right? You can use it! A writer can use anything!24 Of course, if Adam really did want to rape an 11-year-old, it would be pretty awful, but he’s really not like that. He was just being “transgressive,” or “gross,” if you prefer a shorter term.

If Hannah thought her day couldn’t get worse, well, she was wrong. Prepping for a dinner date with her college professor parents, she chugs a cup of opium tea as a fortifier and heads off to face the folks, but when she gets the news they have for her, she needs a lot more than opium tea: they’re cutting her off! After two years of living in the Big Apple on their tab, she’s on her own! In a funny scene, Hannah keels over and her parents fuss. What’s wrong with her? Is she high? Damn kids! Can’t handle their own drugs! Opium tea? You’d get a better kick from Constant Comment!

As Hannah regains consciousness, Mom (Becky Ann Baker), the tougher of the two, keeps her guard up, warning Dad (Peter Scolari), “Don’t let her manipulate you! I want a fucking beach house!” Thanks for caring, Mom! I needed that!

Hannah staggers home, feeling, one guesses, a lot like Walter White. The next day, working as an unpaid intern at some sort of literary shop, she explains that, since she’s been working for free for two years now, and, because her parents aren’t paying her bills anymore, she’d like, you know, a salary, she gets fired. “Will you maybe publish the work I submitted?” she asks. “Who’s going to read submissions now that you’re gone?” she’s told. Wow, she was doing all the work for nothing, while the big shots paid themselves to have lunch!25

Hannah lives in what turns out to be “her” apartment — something I didn’t realize until the end of the first season — with roomie and BFF Marnie (Allison Williams), a fellow Oberlin graduate, who somehow pays all the bills, now that Hannah is cash-free, on her salary as an art gallery assistant. Hannah also hangs with Jessa (Jemima Kirke), a classy Brit and quasi-Samantha Jones stand-in, who’s always totally cool and self-assured and self-absorbed, and who supports her fashion-model lifestyle with intermittent babysitting gigs, taking care of, sort of, the kids of fashionably fucked-up upper West Side phonies, as well as Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), Jessa’s cousin (American), a lazily drawn innocent, out-of-the-mouths-of-babes type with fantastic tits, which we unfortunately don’t get to see, at least not in the first season.

In the first half of season one of Girls, rain falls pretty steadily on Hannah’s parade. She goes on a job interview and when she thinks to engage in witty banter with the interviewer, she gets a humiliating lecture on proper sexual behavior in the workplace. When she does get a job, her gross, fat boss hits on her! When she goes to the gynecologist, it turns out she has HPV!26 She confronts Adam, who, very implausibly, insists that he knows he’s clean because he’s just been tested,27 so Hannah has lunch with her former college steady Eddie Elijah, and, well, it turns that Elijah’s gay, and, yes, he did do a little experimenting on the down low at Oberlin while he and Hannah were ostensibly an item, so maybe he is an HPV vector. Naturally, Hannah’s a little pissed at all this information, plus Elijah’s bye-bye closet threads rub her the wrong way. That scarf! It’s so gay! Well, girlfriend, that’s the point!

Hannah keeps checking out Adam, supposedly a carpenter/actor, kind of like Jesus, though he never seems to be, you know, making anything. He gets $800 a month from his grandmother, which somehow allows him to have his own pad in Brooklyn.28 And he keeps being transgressive, at one point “forcing” her to watch while he masturbates.29 Hannah is offended, to the point that she demands to be paid for having to endure this, although, of course she might simply have left. When she searches in Adam’s cash drawer, all she can find are hundreds, so she takes one.

Later, Hannah suffers even greater, and far more public, humiliation when Marnie’s long-time boyfriend Charlie (Christopher Abbott) performs a “song” at a club that consists of extracts from Hannah’s notebook, saying that Charlie is passive and dependent and that Marnie needs to break off the relationship so they both can grow.30

The tone of Girls is quite uneven. The sex scenes with Adam, though they push toward the outrageous too quickly, have the sense of reality — sexual curiosity and drive pushing us forward to do things that we hadn’t planned on, and which sometimes don’t go so well, flopping upwards like the doomed salmon we are. Wouldn’t it be a lot simpler just to breed in the sea? But, no, we have to swim up mountains instead! Thanks, Mother Nature!

Hannah’s fascination with Adam is generally well-done. He’s a bad boy, for sure, and that’s exactly what she wants. If it isn’t scary, it isn’t real! Once, when Adam is in a particularly bad mood, he gets into a Ratso Rizzo-style screaming match with one of New York’s many impatient motorists, and Hannah is simultaneously terrified and entranced. To be that physical! To wade into a confrontation without even being able to conceive that you could come off second-best! Imagine what it would be like to be like that, to be the opposite of what you are!

But later Dunham pulls it back too much. Adam wakes her up in the middle of the night to tell her he’s sorry. He takes her outside to show her his “I’m sorry” wall, covered with plaques saying I’m sorry. Then he carries her on his shoulders, Hannah laughing with joy like a little girl riding her daddy.

In fact, Liz Lemon’s bad-boy squeeze Dennis Duffy (Dean Winters) is much more believable than Adam. Dennis is a deceitful, despicable moocher whose one saving grace is that he never forgets to buy Liz a sandwich. In real life, of course, his one saving grace would be that he makes her come, but that’s more reality than network TV wants to handle.31

Too often, Dunham backs away from reality and goes for the easy joke. When one of Jessa’s ex-boyfriends shows up to tell her how well he’s doing and that he’s totally over her, how surprising is it that in the next scene they’re slamming into each other, and how surprising is it that when they cool off he’s telling her how much he loves her and she’s telling him how little she cares? When Marnie and Charlie run into each other, Charlie’s got a new girlfriend, who is 1) younger, 2) bustier, 3) darker, and 4) dumber than Marnie, the sort of thing Amanda used to complain about in every other episode of Sex and the City. Guys don’t mourn! They don’t suffer! But Charlie is supposed to be passive and dependent. Would such a guy really blow off the ending of a five-year relationship in a week? Huh?

One of the dicier issues about criticizing Girls is Dunham’s looks. She has a sweet face, but the guys she gets, well, in the real world, I don’t see that as happening. If I had Adam’s pecs, I wouldn’t be dating fatties.32 When she goes home to East Lansing, this young, good-looking, well-heeled pharmacist throws himself at her, practically proposing after one night in the sack (and totally not coming on her). Hannah is frequently told at parties “You look great in that dress,” when, frankly, she doesn’t. The issue of “body image” is more than ticklish with some women, and Dunham has been praised for frequently appearing nude in the show, but if I want to see a naked fattie, I can look in a mirror.

The first season of Girls ends with a rush. Hannah and Marnie have a furious fight that sounds more than a bit girly. Marnie, why is it that we always talk about your problems? We don’t, Hannah! We always talk about your problems! Hannah praises herself for hating herself more than anyone else could possibly hate her, casting herself as the tortured, gifted one, while Marnie is the straight one, the one who knows how the world works.33 Why these two would be BFFs is a bit of a mystery, except of course that Hannah wouldn’t want to have to spend time with anyone as special as herself.

At the same time, Jessa begins to suspect that the magic scales are starting to come off her magic butterfly wings, and that she’d better find a sweet resting place, in the form of a fucked-up rich guy who wants someone fabulous to help him spend the $100-$200 mil that he’s sitting on. They have a bizarre, surprise wedding that helps to set up a variety of cliff-hangers. Hannah and Adam have a huge fight because she doesn’t want him to move in with her, during which she reveals that she’s 13 pounds overweight and that she hates it. They shout rather clichéd confessions at one another — “I’m scared, see!” “Welcome to the club!” — and then Adam gets run over, which seems a little silly. Meanwhile, Marnie is making eyes at the jerky rich guy’s jerky friend, which also seems a bit silly.34 She can do a hell of a lot better than this guy, and she ought to know it.

The show displays an unattractive impatience with anyone who isn’t of Hannah’s milieu — anyone who isn’t a young, white, well-heeled, artsy Brooklynite isn’t welcome. Asian chicks are disliked because they’re skinny and have marketable job skills.35 When Hannah briefly hangs with some “How you doin?” working-class chicks, they talk like idiots, telling her she isn’t eating enough refined sugar. Great! Maybe I should take up smoking too! Later, when she falls asleep on the subway and ends up at East Far What the Fuck, she asks some rooftop party folks where she is and they tell her “You in heaven, honey, you in heaven.” Thanks, idiots.36 As for those fancy folk west of the East River, they’re doomed aristocrats tripping over their own periwigs as they stumble all unknowingly toward the guillotine.

Since HBO is pretty anal about letting you see their shows if you aren’t a subscriber, I’m not really caught up on season two, but there are tons of commentary floating around the web about the characters’ fumbling and stumbling, most spectacularly as Hannah slides into some serious OCD behavior, puncturing first one eardrum and then the other with a q-tip, because physical pain is so much easier to deal with than the emotional kind. Oh, and it looks like Adam might be moving from dangerous/sweet to damaged/dangerous, so things are getting “dark” all around.

Before she starts puncturing eardrums, Hannah hangs with this sweet older guy who has this fabulous Brooklyn brownstone. I saw an interview with Dunham in which she spoke very lovingly of that brownstone, almost as though Hannah should have had the sense to move in with the guy, whether he wanted her to or not. In season one, Hannah riffs joyously on the socio-cultural geography of life in the better borough. Perhaps, as Hannah says, she could be the voice of her generation. It’s just that what her generation wants to talk about is real estate.

MAD MEN

Say what you like about the folks on Mad Men, they can hold their liquor. Disasters may come thick and fast, and they do, but as long as you’ve got a decent crease, and a decent break, in your slacks, the world hasn’t gone completely to Hell.

Matt Weiner’s Mad Men, premiering so far back in the past that George Bush was president, took class TV to a new level. Yes, The Sopranos was intense, and we got to look at the Bada Bing! girls with a clear conscience, and The Wire was gritty and about black people and the evils of capitalism, but can’t we explore the evils of capitalism in Uptown Manhattan rather than Downtown Baltimore? Thank you!

Matt Weiner’s mannered, layered, meticulously wrought re-creation of fifties-going-on-sixties Manhattan high life put the critics in catnip heaven. Imagine being able to riff on, you know, period office décor! If you’re easily upset, Mad Men is an amusing/confusing, fascinating/infuriating combo of high-end soap opera, canned, condescending socio-cultural commentary, and, well, office décor. The show’s debut was itself an impressive exercise in media manipulation, setting the critics on their collective ears by leading with the ever-so-sensitive topic of anti-Semitism! The white collar frat boys of Sterling Cooper are faced with romancing a client who is, you know, a Jew!

In fact, the anti-Semitic riffs the bad boys come up with behind the client’s back are remarkably tame. We never hear “Jewboy,” not to mention “yid” or “Hebe,” and of course we do not hear “kike.”37 When Sterling Cooper gets a second Jewish client, a travel agency that wants to promote tourism in Israel, no less, one would expect an ocean of wisecracks — “At last! A country big enough for you and your nose!” — but instead we get nothing. By the third or fourth episode the Jewish clients disappear and so does the anti-Semitism, never to return. Critics, you’ve been hustled.38

Like The Sopranos, Mad Men works to make us identify with bad people — that is to say, lets us live out our fantasies of being as bad as we want to be. The uneasy prince of Mad Men is, of course, Don Draper (Jon Hamm). Mad Men loads Don with a lot of overripe, existential back story — like the fact that his mom was a whore,39 which more or less entitles him to cast a cold eye on life and death, to the extent that he switches identities with a dead man, giving up on son of a whore EM Dick Whitman to become Lieut. Don Draper, in the manner of William Holden’s character in Bridge on the River Kwai.

It’s amusing to read the critics clucking their tongues over Don’s wickedness, like the time he went on a drunken bender, going to bed with one woman on a Friday and waking up with another one two or three days later, whom he doesn’t even remember meeting. Terrible! Especially since the second gal is a sweet, busty airhead/cheerleader type half his age, the subject of a billion aging male fantasies, who smiles at him with a “thanks for the five orgasms, big daddy” glow! Sorry, but what man wouldn’t like to be able to seduce a woman half his age while dead drunk and then pleasure her out of her sweet little mind? I’d say, quite a few!

Don’s partner in crime is everyone’s favorite aging, unrepentant bad boy, Roger Sterling (John Slattery). Roger is a boy who knows how to show a girl, or a client, a good time, and isn’t that what life is all about, having a good time? Roger was probably a bit of a prick when he was young, maybe more than a little, but he’s aged well, a mellow prick who casts an affectionate though objective eye on his fellow humans. And if he doesn’t resist getting a politically incorrect blow job from Don’s second wife’s mother in a slightly too public setting, so that Don’s scarcely pubescent daughter Sally can observe them — well, welcome to Manhattan, kid. A life without blow jobs ain’t no life at all, and isn’t that time’s winged chariot at my back I hear? I think it is.

As a bit of an in-joke, Weiner cast Robert Morse, who broke into the big time as star of the Broadway/Hollywood musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying waay back in the sixties as old-money eccentric senior partner Bert Cooper. Bert doesn’t seem to do anything but flounce around in his office, an explosion of japonaiserie, which allows Weiner to let us look, and Bert to muse, at some “tentacle erotica” along the lines of Hokusai’s “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” — one of the many perhaps overly exquisite touches in the Mad Men saga.40

Alongside the men of Mad Men, of course, are the women, not all of whom have been nailed by Don, most notably Joan, whose mighty bosom, and perhaps even mightier ass, have set new standards in anatomical aplomb. If one had a dime for every time Joan has walked away from an encounter, knowing that the males she left behind were held in hypnotic awe by the massive rhythm and perfect tempo of her magnificently ponderous hips and thighs, one would be a rich man.

Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) is the anti-Joan, the woman who does not know where any of the ropes are, does not know what she wants, but does know what she wants to get away from, which is her family and the person she used to be. Impacted by both Norwegian and Roman Catholic41 guilt, she squirts upwards through the Sterling Cooper hierarchy like a squeezed pumpkin seed, crashing and bashing her head every step of the way. Peggy never seems to understand anything but work, or rather that it is only in work that her blindly striving nature can obtain reward. Her biggest reward, so far, is to be given my favorite Mad Men line — “Am I the only one in this office who can drink and work at the same time?”42

Both Joan and Peggy are endlessly put-upon by the evil, sexist society in which they live, as are all the other women in Mad Men, with the exception, of course, of Evil Betty (January Jones), Don’s first wife, swanking about in her skin-tight jodhpurs to show off her perfect, perfect ass, the perfect counterpart (I guess) to her perfectly constipated soul.

There is simply no length to which the show will not go to make Betty look bad. My favorite occurred in the first season, at her riding stable, where she became the obsession of a definitely Nick Carrowayish young lad43 (though a Yalie rather than Princeton), who actually gives her a copy of The Great Gatsby and tells her, rather outrageously, “Why are you so beautifully sad?” Shocked by his honesty, Betty races desperately away, refusing to confront herself. She’s so nervous that when she tries to light her cigarette she can’t because her hands are shaking so hard! This near unbelievable cliché had me laughing out loud when I saw it. It seemed so Joan Crawford.44 Then, totally unbelievably, Weiner had the nerve to repeat it several seasons later!

Not only is Betty a totally repressed cock-teaser, she lets babies cry, she litters, and, of course, she’s mean to black people, firing Carla (Deborah Lacey), the beloved black housekeeper, in a fit of pique — the whole nine yards of liberal sin. Later she’s visited by the ultimate punishment — she gets fat. We see her racing home from a weight-watchers session to rip open the refrigerator to shoot herself a mouthful of Reddi-Whip! What a slut!45

Mad Men constantly keeps us, or at least me, off-balance by switching from stereotypical liberal tongue-clucking — pregnant women drinking and smoking — to old-fashioned melodrama — will the firm survive? — and lots and lots of adults at play. There are plenty of dramatic plot twists that begin and end nowhere. Don goes on a business trip to the coast and just decides to disappear for a month or two, hanging with some extremely dubious hedonists as a sort of glorified harem boy before deciding that maybe this isn’t how he wants to spend the rest of his life. Did Betty miss him? Did Sterling Cooper? Not so’s you’d notice.

Like Breaking Bad, there’s a certain randomness to many of the episodes of Mad Men, a deliberate lack of dramatic focus. Robert Altman used to claim that he shot his films like documentaries, and both shows can have an Altmanesque flavor, deliberately, or at least randomly, disappointing our expectations for conventional dramatic action. The more recent episodes of Mad Men have a particular fondness for an “ambient noise” soundtrack — that is, no soundtrack at all.46 Instead of mood music that sharpens and defines the dramatic “point” of what we’re watching, we get nothing, nothing except the tedious rattle of a commuter train or the obedient whirr of an elevator, the mechanical devices that whisk us on our way to wherever it is we have to go, without a thought to the psychic torment that we’re enduring inside — because, as the opening of Mad Men reminds us, we’re always falling.

Mad Men withholds music to withhold meaning; but when there is music, the soundtrack is likely to hit us over the head with irony, an experience I seldom appreciate. At the close of an episode showing Don enduring a miserable, divorced dad Christmas, the soundtrack hits us with a hideously overripe rendition of the inescapably cretinous “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” — either an abysmal period original or a meticulous re-creation — taken at a slow pace so that every wretched aspect of the wretched tune — melody, lyrics, and arrangement — is relentlessly smeared over our consciousness over and over again. We get it, guys! We get it!

Mad Men Cheers and Jeers: Cheer: Rapist/pimp Pete Campbell and his brother chuckling over their idiot old-money parents, who managed to spend all the old money in sustained fits of senile extravagance. Hey! Who wanted an inheritance? I like sponging off my father-in-law! Jeer: Peggy getting pregnant and not knowing it until she’s actually giving birth. Not only did she not know it, but neither did Joan or Peggy’s Norwegian, Catholic mother! Yeah, like that’s going to happen! Double cheer and ultimate Mad Men moment: When Betty remarries, hubbie no. 2 gets tired of having Don Draper’s shit in his house. Don comes by and loads up his car with a dozen big boxes of his stuff. He drives six blocks to the nearest dumpster and tosses it all in. It’s the past, dude! It’s nothing!

Part of the fun of watching Mad Men is trying to separate the feints from the follow-throughs. I was entirely baffled by the long sequence about Betty’s dad, Gene (Ryan Cutrona), a guilt-free Main Line bad boy who brags about all the Germans he killed in WWI and lets granddaughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) drive his Lincoln. Don doesn’t know about the Lincoln, but he’s disgusted by Gene’s war trophies. For Don, war is the ultimate obscenity, never to be discussed before women and children. One for Don? But then Gene has Sally read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall to him. Because America is as bad as ancient Rome? Dunno.

On the other hand, I pretty much nailed the whole Megan thing, or at least the first half. As soon as I saw Megan (Jessica Paré), I figured she was so goddamn gorgeous she was going places, a suspicion confirmed when she became Don’s secretary. As soon as I learned she could speak French, I knew Don would marry her, because a gorgeous babe who speaks French is basically Jackie Kennedy, and who isn’t going to marry Jackie Kennedy? Plus, it gave him the opportunity to stiff Ph.D. career gal Dr. Faye Miller (Cara Buono), who stupidly believed that good-looking guys look for intelligence in a woman. I was also not surprised that Megan turned out to be a great career gal in her own right, exhibiting the obsessive perfectionism that is always prized in Heavy TV, and I was not too surprised when she tossed it all away because advertising is just getting people to buy stuff they don’t need, a less than stunning insight that somehow hits the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce gang like a ton of bricks. But I totally did not predict her “old French” Canadian parents — her dad a cut-rate, New World Jean-Paul Sartre and mom an acidic femme du monde who says not too kindly of her daughter that she has the temperament of an artist but not the talent.

As I’m writing this, Mad Men is embarking on its sixth, and apparently next-to-last season, which gives them plenty of time for feints and dodges before the final wrap-up. Sally has clearly emerged as the conscience of the show, silently watching and judging the evil adults do, and I’m always suspicious of conscience. Sentimentalist that I am, I love happy endings, and I’m sure Mad Men will work hard to disappoint me, but I hope the ironies don’t prove too crushing. Like everyone else, I’m rooting for the return of Sal Romano (Bryan Batt), everyone’s favorite closeted art director, who could show up in the Stonewall riots if the chronology works out.

The ultimate irony, for me, is that Mad Men faults its characters for not being like us. We don’t drink and smoke the way they do, we have a black president, and we’re getting gay marriage. So what’s not to like? It almost seems like, instead of declining and falling, America got better! Perhaps Weiner will cast its characters into the fiery furnace, with Sally emerging from the crucible with Joan’s baby in her arms to lead us into a better world.

AFTERWORDS

I’ve read that the peculiar economics of cable that allow big budgets for shows that claim relatively small audiences will not last forever, and the economic basis for Heavy TV may soon dissolve. Well, the media world is definitely in flux, so gather ye rosebuds while ye may. Waiter! Another round!

  1. The continuing impact of Marvel on Hollywood amazes me, because I always turned up my nose at Marvel comics as a kid. The artwork was so shitty — the Thing looked like an orange turd — while Spiderman’s poses resembled a manual for buggery. (They still do.) But Joss Whedon’s not complaining. After laboring profitably in cult TV (Buffy, Angel, Firefly), for over a decade, he delivered a 1.5 billion-dollar baby for the big screen with The Avengers, of which I remember a bitten macaroon and a three-second shot of Scarlett Johansson’s ass. []
  2. It’s a sign o’ the times that contemporary viewers don’t “get” the classic HBO opening — the letters emerging from visual static — because the digital generation doesn’t know what visual static is. []
  3. My standard take on The Sopranos, no doubt unfair if not entirely inaccurate, was that it was Jewish screenwriters pretending to be Italian gangsters. Unlike most of creation, I didn’t like the Godfather movies, and I also didn’t like Mean Streets, created by Martin Scorsese as the “anti-Godfather.” I watched five minutes of The Wire. A black detective in an elegant suit was sitting at his desk while two white guys were struggling to move a desk through a doorway. As they grunted and strained, the black detective displayed elegant disdain for their incompetence. Turns out, one guy thought they were moving the desk in, and the other one thought they were moving it out! White folks! Go figure! It probably got better, but I didn’t stick around to find out. []
  4. I’m sure Fredericks knows what she’s doing, but I can’t help wishing she’d lose about 20 pounds. Those thighs must be a nice place to visit, but I don’t think I’d want to live there. []
  5. Cranston acts with his dick quite a bit in this series. He’s definitely not afraid to put himself out there. []
  6. Very early in Breaking Bad we see a wall plaque thanking Walt for his work on a project that ultimately resulted in the awarding of a Nobel Prize, but not to Walt. []
  7. When Skyler and Marie chat, we learn, in what strikes me as a totally unnecessary act of one-upmanship, that Skyler, unlike her sister, has not yet hit the big four-oh. We also learn that Skyler has a publisher who will gladly publish another volume of her short stories whenever she finds time to write them. Such publishers are rare. []
  8. There is a major exception — the hillbilly meth stories so popular nowadays. Hollywood loves the notion of hillbillies doin’ dope. []
  9. You can get a 5000 ml flask online for $62 at a “blow-out” lab sale. So they aren’t that hard to find. []
  10. Hispanics are always portrayed as either vicious animals or sweet, innocent children, except for a few of Hank’s DEA buddies, sensible straight arrows who wince at Hank’s boorishness but lack his instincts and passion. The one Hispanic criminal who isn’t portrayed as a mindless thug is Gustavo Fring, a Brazilian rather than a Mexican. []
  11. How a “season” can last two years is a bit of a puzzle, but the definitions and distinctions of Heavy TV are nothing if not exquisite. []
  12. Again, the laws of chemistry and physics take a beating here. Anyone expecting to dissolve a human body, including the bones, in a couple of hours with a couple of gallons of hydrochloric acid is going to be severely disappointed. []
  13. In one of the lamest plot twists of the show, Skyler has an extended affair with the jerk, which you would think she would have the smarts to not do, apparently so that Walt can appear at least semi-justified in the way he constantly lies to her — because, of course, it’s all for her own good. How we men suffer! And what are the thanks we get? []
  14. Saul, played by Bob Odenkirk, is an amiable though shameless plot device, endlessly pushing the plot along, though why a lawyer should spend half of his time worrying about his clients’ private lives, as Saul does, is a bit of a mystery. Saul tells us that he only pretends to be Jewish, for the street cred, because God forbid you should think a Jewish lawyer could be crooked. []
  15. Also, when Jesse goes to his parents’ place to crash, they find marijuana in the house and naturally blame him, even though it’s not his drug of choice. The dope actually belongs to Jesse’s perfect younger brother, stellar on the flute, the oboe, and also the soccer field! And Jesse, nature’s nobleman, even takes the fall for the little shit! []
  16. After months of earnest therapy, Jesse gets in touch with his real self: “I’m a bad guy.” []
  17. As Liz Lemon put it in 30 Rock, “Suck it, monkeys! I’m goin’ corporate!” []
  18. Jesse joins a support group for meth heads with two of his remaining homies (one has already been offed) with the plan of getting the group hooked again. Once the plan is set in motion, there’s a shot of Jesse grinning evilly that is str8 outa the conclusion of The Godfather, when Michael/Al Pacino, college-boy no more, grins with delight at his own wickedness after having engineered the elimination of all the Corleones’ enemies. []
  19. In addition, Jesse is an upper-middle-class meth head, equipping his crash pad with “state of the art” stereo equipment, as he loudly tells one of the freaks inhabiting the place. “The best woofers! And the best tweeters!” Woofers and tweeters? Does anyone still care about that shit? []
  20. In the late nineteenth century, the Grand Guignol theater in Paris specialized in gory melodramas, using, among other things, a secret formula for stage blood. []
  21. Getting naked with a cool guy while wearing “Mom” underwear is a classic chick nightmare, endlessly exploited in The Bridget Jones Diaries (both book and movie), which Girls closely resembles, though with more angst and fewer laughs. But when it comes to sexless panties, I think that Molly Shannon’s MCG still reigns supreme. []
  22. Driver, it must be said, acts with his dick even more than Bryan Cranston. []
  23. If that’s not exact it’s pretty close. []
  24. I once went to bed with a woman, a strongly “oral” personality, who practically ate my lips off. To escape her, I ended up walking down Wisconsin Avenue at seven in the morning in the rain. And ten years later, I got a short story out of it. []
  25. When I was in an office with interns, I never gave them anything important to do, because I didn’t want to admit that an intern could do my job. []
  26. Human papillomavirus. According to this website, if you’ve ever gotten laid, you’ve probably had HPV. It usually goes away by itself, though, in women, it can lead to complications, and not nice ones either. So it’s good for Hannah, and her gynecologist, to know that Hannah has it, but Hannah’s doctor might have explained that 1) HPV is so common that Hannah is far more likely to have it than not and that 2) it’s usually not a big deal. Hannah’s stirrup time is also the setting for this too-on-the-nose dialog: Gyno: “You’re 24? You couldn’t pay me to be 24 again.” Hannah: “No one’s paying me anything.” Cue the world’s tiniest violin, huh? Particularly since, up until a week ago, Hannah was getting paid, to hang in Brooklyn in a sweet, two-bedroom apartment! []
  27. Adam totally does not look like the kind of guy who would get his dick checked. []
  28. In Breaking Bad, Jesse lives in a house his grandmother gave him, though his parents have the deed and eventually oust him from the place. With the help of Saul, and his drug money, Jesse buys the place back for $400,000, screwing his parents out of the half mil they spent fixing it up. Fortunately, the IRS never wonders how an unemployed fuck-up Jesse came up with $400,000. Also, since the place is, supposedly, worth about $900,000, the extra $500,000 would constitute a gift to Jesse from his parents, and they would be on the hook for a sizable gift tax. But, hey, this is wish-fulfillment, not reality. Don’t you wish you had screwed your parents out of $500,000? []
  29. When it comes to acting with his dick, Driver is way ahead of Cranston. []
  30. Charlie and his bandmate bud discover the notebook while searching Hannah’s and Marnie’s apartment while they’re not home. They go through Hannah’s underwear drawer and think at first that she’s wearing split-crotch panties, but, no, they just have a lot of holes in them. Ouch! []
  31. In real life, guys don’t buy chicks shit. They buy you shit! []
  32. I don’t have Adam’s pecs, and I’m still not dating fatties. []
  33. In admiring herself because she hates herself, Hannah is reminiscent of David Foster Wallace, who was struck by the fact that he was just like all the egotistical self-promoters he met in his creative writing classes. I’m just like those assholes! But I hate myself for being such an asshole! So that makes me better than them, right? But establishing moral precedence between the Walrus and Carpenter is a dubious errand. []
  34. Marnie has a much better moment earlier on when a very hot artist tells her that he intends to fuck her sometime soon. She races home to masturbate. OMG! This is fucking huge! []
  35. Granted, I’m generalizing on the basis of a sample of one, but I feel comfortable with this. []
  36. Dunham responded to the criticism by giving Hannah a black lover in season two. I haven’t seen how that works out yet. []
  37. “Nigger” and “cunt” are routinely cited as the “worst” words these days, but I suspect that it’s “kike” that takes the cake, because it’s never even mentioned. []
  38. In the early episodes, when Don and Betty (Jon Hamm and January Jones, of course) socialize with friends who are not involved with Sterling Cooper, there are occasional, vague anti-Semitic slurs. When the Jewish client disappears, so do the slurs. []
  39. This trope is examined in excellent detail by the eminent site TV Tropes here. []
  40. The second season, for instance, contains multiple references to Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency , apparently so that we will know that Matt knows who Frank is. []
  41. I guess this is some sort of gag on Weiner’s part. Did the writers have a contest to see who could come up with the least likely ethnic/religious combination? []
  42. Shades of Ingrid Bergman’s from Notorious — “Stick around! The serious drinking hasn’t even started yet.” []
  43. The first two paragraphs of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby run as follows: []
  44. I’ve never seen a Joan Crawford movie, but I assume that this is the sort of thing that happens in a Joan Crawford movie. []
  45. Sportingly, the show lets us see Betty comforting daughter Sally after the poor girl has endured the ultimate young chick embarrassment, having her period sans tampon on her first real date. So she’s not all bad. []
  46. Easily the most famous film with an “ambience only” soundtrack is Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Another is Jacques Tati’s Holiday. []