This will be quite a TV mash-up.
I watch remarkably few television shows. I’m so ADD, it’s hard for me to devote myself to really watching something. I keep the TV on a lot, and half fluff-watch HGTV and (here come da judgey) QVC and Buffy repeats and (forgive me because of how very bad it’s gotten) Project Runway.
I haven’t seen most of the great Showtime, HBO, Starz etc. series. I finally got on the Orange is the New Black bandwagon, and it’s absolutely all that and a bag of chocolate and vanilla swirl chips. After bailing last season, I’m back to American Horror Story, though I never fully love it. I’m finally (mostly) satisfied with this past Walking Dead run. And I love love love Bates Motel.
Clearly I always watch with a critical eye. I pretty much hate-watch Grey’s Anatomy, and mostly only look up for that one moment per episode where someone has an interesting moment.
A few weeks ago I wanted to get into something, and almost went for Dexter or Breaking Bad (I promise you, with every show I tell you I’ve never seen, your eyebrows will raise just a bit higher), but I’ve been going through a bit of a rough time lately, so I deliberately opted for something more gentle. Enter Friday Night Lights. Jason Katims is at the helm, and he was integral in My So-Called Life, and it has been only raved about, so in I went.
It was love at first pilot. Beautiful. This, I told a friend, is my kind of television.
If you don’t know, it’s set around a high school football team in Texas. The fact that I can even watch a show around football is insane, and speaks to its quality. The actors are astounding. I have loved Kyle Chandler from all the way back to Homefront, but it’s Connie Britton who, for me, is a revelation. I’ve known she was good and seen her in some things (AHS, for one) but she is devastatingly good, and working with this real-feel dialogue–I can just eat this stuff up.
The show ran five seasons, and I just finished Season 3. And I’ll keep going, because I’m in now. But here’s the thing.
Ughh. I’m not going to get specific, in case you ever want to watch, but my tolerance for implausible, manipulative, predictable plot-lines; dropped threads and overall TV tricks is zip. (Well, some is used up by American Horror Story, and it frustrates me there, but they can get away with it because they are NOT going for realism.)
First, I predicted a rape many episodes before it happened. And they definitely made it make sense. But where they took that plot-line was to RidiculousWorld and back again. And really the crime of it was the “back again.”
At least on Grey’s they deal with aftermath. They are still looking into the current impact of Meredith’s childhood trauma of having (what I believe is) a borderline personality mother.
My sister will tell you my favorite thing about Friends. Yes Friends. It was that after the ending of the beautiful relationship between Richard (Tom Selleck) and Monica, she spent several episodes in a complete funk. Several. I’d never seen anything like it on a sit-com. I rarely watch sit-coms, but it was a game-changer. That show had a bazillion flaws, but it had patience and some focus. In the finale, Ross makes a joke about “unless we’re on a break.”
Here are the kinds of things I’ve seen on Friday Night Lights:
- Characters take on new projects, jobs, commitments–important to a moment of plot, and then never referenced again.
- One episode ended with a kid, out of anger, destroying a whole bunch of cars at a dealership. Never mentioned. Zero consequences.
- On the break between seasons 2 and 3, one couple had broken up, and no insight was given into that, and one character had gotten a high-impact promotion with no explanation. (Buffy fans, these were like Dawn showing up–let’s just give Buffy a sister and see how that goes. But again, that’s a magical world, so Joss can do that.)
- There’s one character they just never know what to do with. So they brought in a one-night-stand which led to a baby which led to a stressful but loving situation. What the what?
- Oh and I may as well mention that one of the characters; one from the wrong side of the proverbial tracks in a town where the right side isn’t so high-end, sports an obvious $200 haircut.
I call shenanigans!
Now I will say that with all these crazy-ass happy-harshers, the dialogue can be stunning. And the main couple is a wonder to behold in their loving marriage and their overall ethic. But there is “sheesh” as well. I mean, what happened to your cheerleading? Your job at the radio? Your work on the mayoral campaign? Your PTSD? Sheesh.
Mad Men is not the only game in town; not the only show that gets things right. From my past, my very favorites, thirtysomething and the aforementioned My So-Called Life, still pass the test. I was reminded while writing this that I walked away from Parenthood (also Jason Katims) for the same kind of reasoning. Look, I LIKE a soap opera, but you’ve got to sell it to me. (like say, with Downton Abbey). And at this stage of the game, it’s the real-feel shows that are subject to my worst scrutiny. If you’re highly stylized, it’s different. Bates Motel is wild, and I can’t hold it to the same kinds of standards–it’s a brutal fantasy, not to mention it’s against the background of a true modern myth. I’ve never criticized Walking Dead for its lack of realism; just for its lack of entertainment value–which can come by the writing being lame, which breaks the fourth wall.
Mad Men breaks a lot of television rules. We’ve discussed this for years. And it does it against a specifically styled backdrop. The dialogue is so precise, and the characters always surprise you–by doing things that humans do. So it’s almost a study of the juxtaposition of realism vs. style, and how they can work together to tell a story with intelligence and high entertainment value.
It’s still the one to beat.