Don't read this unless you like thinking, and like some form of art

I find it funny that a TV show has brought me back to the age-old question of culture and purpose: what is art? This is a topic I'm going to tackle here, in this blog, in 3000 words or less, providing a defninitive answer that scholars will still be citing a hundred years from now. Just kidding. My aspirations are a bit more modest; I don't even hope to clarify what I think art is, because I don't even know that. What I do know is that I have some thoughts on the subject, and I'm going to share them with you now, dear reader, in an unclear and confusing manner.

The TV show which I mentioned, Mad Men, is to me in some ways unique in the world of TV shows. Perhaps this is because it was produced by AMC, whose primary genre is film. I find the standard 30-60 minute TV show is great for comedy and action (see: Family Guy, Fastlane, Hu$tle, Dukes of Hazzard) but I have never found it good for drama or suspense. I started watching Desperate Housewives when it was on its second or third episode and really enjoyed it for about five or six weeks, until they started creating even more mysteries than there were already, and I began to have the feeling that the writers were using the soap opera tactic of creating suspense in multiple ways so that hopefully at least one of the mysteries would intrigue you enough to come back and watch the following week. I quit cold turkey when I started realizing that even the screenwriters didn't know where the show was going, and would most likely leave the viewers hanging at the end of the season. This realization happened to coincide with the return from hiatus of Family Guy, so I told my girlfriend at the time that I'd be across the street at my own apartment watching animated figures by myself instead of Desperate Housewives with her, the reason being that with Family Guy, a thirty-minute session leaves me satisfied and happy, and not confused and wanting something more. [That's what she said.]

That half-season of Desperate Housewives was the first and last time in years that I tried watching a TV show which continued from week to week. I don't like having to remember stuff, and even if I did, it's not a good reason to watch the next episode. But Mad Men is different. Or was different, I should say. The entire first season is relatively devoid of action, drama, suspense, mystery, and other gimmicky weaknesses that in my opinion are overused in our main broadcast medium. One gimmick that is used in Mad Men is historical context from 1960-61. The episodes are interspersed with radio and television broadcasts of then-current events, such as the Nixon-Kennedy election battle and the Cuban Missile Crisis. I find some of this context wholly unnecessary when it isn't directly part of the plot, but it doesn't bother me. Like in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, you can learn a lot about history through fiction, but unlike Brown's book, it isn't the only redeeming facet of the work.

Mad Men is about nuance. My favorite parts are the high-context conversations, in which few words are packed in implication and insinuation. And the main character, Don Draper, is perfect as the tersest of virtuoso advertising men, never saying a word too many, and never deviating a millimeter from what he means. In a lot of ways he's someone to aspire to, but in other ways not. He does get a lot of women.

But all that aside, I'm still trying to figure out why I like the show so much. I think it is because of the focus on detail. The writers know that what happens doesn't matter as much as how they tell the story, and how the characters react. It's too bad the end of the second season (the most recent) got a bit bogged down in drama. It worked, but it didn't reach the bar set by the show's earlier episodes. I even started drinking whiskey towards the end of the first season; it plays a relatively prominent role in the show.

So, do I like Mad Men because it is more like a film than a TV show, or is there something there in the TV medium that I'm missing. I kind of have this subconscious-turned-conscious ordering of the pureness of art forms. On one end, there's the pure written word, prose, and next to it, poetry, with it's sometimes gimmicky visual arrangement of words on the page, and rhyme. Music can also be pure, but when we put words to it, it's contaminated and lies somewhere near rhyming poetry. The purest of the visual arts are painting, film, and photography, depending on subject. More contrived and conformist (Oh, the pleasures!) subjects and methods deviate from purity. Combining music, prose, and lyrics, we get theater, and the typically more-pure opera, though neither are as pure as ballet, which is not limited by words, spoken or sung.

You see, it easily becomes confusing which are more art and which are stuffed into a conventional format usually for the purpose of easy delivery to audiences. My main criterion for artness is freedom of expression. Prose is limited only by its own medium, words, and music only by sounds. I find opera forces too many high notes and astounding acrobatics of voice to deliver something wholly beautiful, though there are good instances. I prefer a symphony or ballet, where focus is either on music or dancing, and stories and words are secondary contexts. Or, maybe I simply have a preference against the human voice.

Film, with the possible exception of time, is limited only by technology and the people who operate it. Theoretically, anything can be on the silver screen. Salvador Dali and his friends produced wonderful examples of how non-conformist you can be with a camera, as I saw in a film studies class. But TV... TV is packaged in weekly installments, 30-60 minutes, with breaks for commercials. These are tough enough constraints to work with, without the constant need to keep ratings up and keep the advertisers happy. I don't think AMC has to worry about this as much as the typical network, but the basic format is the same. That being said, they've produced, looking at it from many different perspectives, the best TV show I've seen in a long time.

But as I already mentioned, the second season fell off near the end, and I'm losing hope that the writers can save it (in my eyes only) next season. Plus, I can't help but wonder if they have know what's going to happen before all is said and done, or if they take the story one or two steps at a time and wait for audience reaction. At some point it will become obvious if the carrot is on a string.


Ben said...

Don Draper is the man. I agree with you that the last episode or two this season fell off in quality. But, i always felt the same way about the last episodes of "the wire" each season. they build up this very complex universe and don't have a way to let it play out naturally within a tv season - so, they tie up all the loose ends in a way that seems cheesy - especially in contrast to how the story lines are developed.

i'd agree with you that freedom of expression is important in art - but, i think the greatest art is able to take certain known forms (symphony, eight bar blues, portrait, office drama tv show, etc) and make it seem like something completely new.

Mixing forms can lead to very interesting art - especially if it's the best of both worlds. Chuck Close is my favority visual artist - he somehow took abstract art and used it as building blocks for incredible portraits.

in some ways mad men is a mixture of office drama and historical documentary. some of the historical stuff might seem contrived - but, i think it's interesting to take a group of characters who we "know" and see how they might have reacted to real events.

By the way there's a website called "what would don draper do" - it's pretty good - although writing an advice blog is the last thing i see don draper doing.

RM said...

Let's be honest, you like it because it's a life you secretly wish you could live: drinking all day during the day, smoking all the time and pimping the ho's at work.

Ben - if you want a real website, go to http://www.wwtdd.com (what would tyler durden do)

fbg said...

@Ben, in response to your comment, "the greatest art is able to take certain known forms (symphony, eight bar blues, portrait, office drama tv show, etc) and make it seem like something completely new":

I respect your opinion here, but the purest art is that which is made from scratch, starting with no formats or templates.

In the end, both types can be great, and I just think it's a shame that a format as ubiquitous as television is so unappealing to me. But you have to have favorites, right?

@RM: You can have the television; leave me to the books.