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Why Great Television Is More Like A Novel Than A Play

Why do we still watch plays by Euripides, born some 2,500 years ago, or Shakespeare, who is nearly 450 years old? Writer orthodoxy says it's because the fundamental rules for drama have never changed, as they are rooted in human nature. Those rules make the characters in a play or film or television show intelligible and interesting. And they are, to my eye anyway, rationalist rules: Characters are supposed to have desires and traits that are consistent from scene to scene, and these desires and traits cause them to act consistently. However wild a scene's emotions, the tick-tick-tick of its actions (she said that causing him to say that causing her to do that) is strictly logical. And maybe this is the only way that engaging drama can be made. But lately I am not so sure. I wonder if there aren't other ways to write characters. In the near future when we have post-rational politics, economics and medicine, maybe we'll have post-rational dramaturgy too.

Already, today's long-arc television dramas are violating the classic rules in order to present a less intelligible world that happens to feel closer to real life than anything we've seen before. For an Exhibit A, I'd point to Mad Men, whose fifth season ends tonight. Consider a scene in one of its best episodes: As Don Draper strides toward his office, his secretary gives him a message: "Stephanie called from California, no last name, she says it's urgent." Don (and we) know this is news about his dying ex-wife, who may well be the only person he ever loved.

Here's what would happen in most exemplars of what I'm calling a logical play or movie or TV show: We'd see Don pick up the phone, so that the tick-tick-tick of cause and effect could continue. If, instead, he didn't make the call, we'd see him tussle with himself, or with someone else, about the decision.

Here's what happens in the episode: Don doesn't make the call. He looks at the phone, but his mind wanders. Then distractions come flying in. Then he goes looking for them. He wants to call—this is the most important person in his life—but … he doesn't. Because he also doesn't want to. In the place of cause-and-effect and onward action, we get inconsistency, anxiety and evasion.

This is just one of many moments when Mad Men creates a shock of recognition entwined with surprise—that feeling of, yes, that's what it's like, yet I've never seen this represented before.What Don does, his cloudy, inexplicable procrastination, is something that happens in the lived lives of real people. But I, for one, had never seen this sort of true-to-life muddle represented on a screen.

That level of ambivalence and ambiguity and uncertainty once lived only in novels, whose form allowed the reader to inhabit the mind of a character, and so be privy to the push and pull of contradictory and even random thoughts—all that we hide and simplify to show ourselves to other people. But drama is supposed to be about conflict, and conflict requires consistent and understandable characters: People as they're seen by others, not as they experience themselves.

Mad Men in particular and contemporary TV in general often break this law. Hence, these days, we keep seeing moments in these shows that have never happened on screen before, though they happen in real life all the time: Moments of solitude, when the self is unmoored from its public face, and people do the things they would edit out of any story they'd tell about ourselves. Betty leaning into her washing machine to steady it and suddenly finding herself using it to masturbate; Henry Francis putting his car into the wrong gear so he can pettily, childishly, un-Francisly smash boxes that belong to his ex-wife's husband; Peggy looking into the mirror and singing "Bye Bye, Birdie," trying on an Ann Margret face no one else will ever see.

Why has it recently become possible to run a drama like a novel, and render people as they really feel themselves to be—not hard-edged and defined, but murky even to themselves? Form is the most obvious reason. Shows that tell a single multithreaded story over a whole season can behave like novels, where stage plays and movies and self-contained TV hours don't have the scope. I wonder though if digital culture also plays a role: The 21st century audience is used to seeing ourselves and our friends in bit-by-bit updates, with all the inconsistency, waffling and random behavior that they record.

I sometimes think too that the past 20 years of social-science news may have helped give writers permission to represent people as less consistent or coherent. Perhaps those ideas have been in the air long enough that they've attained the ultimate measure of success for any theory—to have become something "everybody knows." In any event, enough viewers seem to have absorbed that personality is a rambling cloud of contradictions, not a chiseled statue. And that they want an art that shows life as its lived, even on television.

Shakespearean post-script: In wondering whether the rules of drama could be rewritten, I'm not suggesting that what's new is an improvement on what's old. This is literature, not software, and v. 2.0 isn't necessarily and advance—it's just different and of its time. The greats of the past, though, will always be great. As I discuss here, in connection with Epic Theatre Ensemble's recent production of Macbeth.

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