Saturday, May 16, 2015

This Cinematic Show - Mad Men

I know that this is a cinema blog, but I wanted to take this opportunity to mark the passing of what I personally feel is the most cinematic television program of all time - Mad Men.

As more and more established filmmakers are making the move to serialized television, lots of think pieces are being written about the shrinking gulf between movies and TV. Most of these pieces cite either the effects and battle scenes from Game of Thrones or that stedicam shot from True Detective. But as far as I am concerned, that's just technology. Remember when bullet-time showed up in a Gap ad shortly after debuting in The Matrix? Was that a sign of commercials merging with the world of cinema?

What distinguishes Mad Men from the rest of the pack (for me) is the ways in which it abandons narrative in favor of mood and theme. What happens in any given episode is irrelevant, it's about how it happens. Episodes don't end on cliffhangers. Often the next episode will take place months later and it's up to us to fill in the gaps from little scraps here and there. Rather than following the rigid structure you are taught in film school, episodes and seasons function on the dreamlike logic of cinema where small actions create waves and have echoes that are felt throughout the series.

Despite the fact that much of 80's and 90's TV apparently takes place within the mind of an autistic boy (ie: The Tommy Westphall Universe), the medium as a whole hasn't trafficked much in this type of abstract/dreamlike narrative structure you would find each week on Mad Men. The only other example that really springs to mind is Twin Peaks and there you are still relying on conventional genre elements and cliffhangers. The closest true relative that I can find to what Mad Men has been able to accomplish over the course of seven whole seasons is in the cinema of Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master and Inherent Vice), The Coen Brothers (A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis) and of course Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.

A lot of shows have tried to piggyback on the whole mid-century thing (Pan AmThe Playboy Club, etc.) but that's just surface. It will be a long while before we see another show truly of this ilk. Only Masters of Sex has come anywhere close to truly repeating that Matthew Weiner Magic with episodes like "Fight" which mirrors Mad Men's legendary episode "The Suitcase" so rigidly that it also prominently features a televised boxing match.

So raise a glass to our fallen comrade. And if you ever find yourself getting too lonely, check out my personal Top-5 favorite episodes listed below. They're all on Netflix and each is perfectly capable of standing on its own as a true and distinct work of art.

"The Wheel" season 1, episode 13

"The Suitcase" season 4, episode 7

"Mystery Date" season 5, episode 4

"Far Away Places" season 5, episode 6

"The Crash" season 6, episode 8

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