Friday, May 27, 2016
MAD MEN AND DOWNTON ABBEY: THE END OF GREAT SERIES BUT THE BEGINNING OF THE PERIOD DRAMA SERIES RULING TELEVISION!
I usually made it a point to, when a show, (or a show I finally get around to finishing) ends that's of exception quality and relevant importance in the historical world of television, to do a analytical look at the show in an effort to place quantify their place in such world. I've done it for "The Office", "30 Rock", "Breaking Bad", "Weeds" to some extent, "How I Met Your Mother", one or two others probably, and something like "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report" as well, but I haven't really done that lately. I'm not sure why, there are definitely more than a few shows that I could/should do that for. Hell, one that I missed doing it for "The United States of Tara" still bugs me that I never did do that one. I mean, there's other reasons, that elongated stretch I had where I didn't have internet capabilities on a regular basis really ate into both my television viewing, as many of these shows I have to stream to watch, as well as my writing, regarding those shows, and frankly I'm so far behind on so many shows, by the time I ever finish some of them, the shows will be long gone. I have to really get around to catching up on "Boardwalk Empire", "True Blood", 'Treme", and "Nurse Jackie" eventually.
However, I did happen to catch the finale of "Downton Abbey" earlier this year, and then eventually, I finally got around to finishing up the last season of "Mad Men", and even though I'm a bit late on both of these, I think I need to cover them anyway like this, so I'm gonna try to cover both at once here. Now, I normally wouldn't do this, I think they're both series that are more-than-deserving of their own blogpost on this, but I'm also sure that so many of those pieces have been written by now, that, I doubt I can say anything that wouldn't be anything more than a redundant yelp of praise. I adored both of these shows, and was very saddened to see both of them end. They had good runs, and I suspect "Downton Abbey", could've gone on a couple more years if it wanted to; and "Mad Men", holy hell, that finale ending, I-eh, wow, I can't believe they did that. I wonder just how long they had that joke planned up, but wow. I won't give it away, 'cause you have to see for yourself, other than to say, they set up a great joke to end the series. Just, it's sheer ballsiness and brilliant ridiculousness that got them to pull that off.
I do think there's a few things about these shows that have really shifted the television landscape in big, big ways however, on top of being great shows, and you do have to go back to when these shows first debuted to really see how different it is, but, the main influence of these two shows, above nearly everything else, is that they're both period dramas. I know, that doesn't seem like that should be so weird, but in television, that's actually really unusual; it was especially unusual at the time. It's actually kinda unusual in general in regards to television, at least in America.
You see, the one thing that really distinguishes television is that, of all art forms, it's impact is instantaneous; I think I've brought this up before, but something happens, it's literally on the TV and in your living room, the moment it's happening, or at most, immediately after, and it's a shared experience with everybody else too. It's not like, watching a movie where your in a darkened closed-off room with a few others or even staring at a painting in a museum that's been hanging forever and will be hanging there tomorrow for someone else to discover, or even music which is made long before it's ever making it to radio or CD, or whatever the equivalent of CDs are that people use now, Spotify? I don't know,-, anyway, this immediacy is what inherently effects what works on television or not and something that typically doesn't work, because of this format, are period dramas. I mean, there's always an exception or two, but except for the western in the early days of television, period dramas are kinda rare, and usually not that important or relevant, especially years.
Hell, most of those westerns don't hold up, but you also have to think about that genre in context with the time period, 'cause, we tend to think of the wild west era, as kinda being an era of the past, at least in comparison to the history of film, but that's not quite true. The frontier mentality and Indian Wars and the building of the railroads, and such, that's a bit ancient, but the Wild West image of the outlaws and marshalls and saloon halls, that's not that old, pop culture-wise. Depending on when film started, late 1800s, or so, early 20th Century, a lot of that was still around, and let's not forget, that eventually the American film industry moved out west, to California, so westerns suddenly became much easier to make, 'cause, well, it's a bit of a trek, a few miles by the newly invented automobile and airplane, but the Wild West was right there. Wyatt Earp lived to see motion pictures and by the time film was created, that outlaw image of the west was tamed and had become a touring carnival. We had an obsession with the western for a long time, much longer than, we probably should've, really, really should've a lot longer than we did. (20 Years of "Gunsmoke" was about 15 years too many folks.) That's one factor there were others. There were a few other notable television drama period pieces too, but they were more procedurals though, at least in primetime. Or war series, WWII was ten-twenty years earlier, a lot of people working in television had been in the military, so you had war and military programs through all genres, your "12 O'Clock High"'s and "Combat!" also existed, but if you do think of the drama series of that era, you probably would think of "The Twilight Zone" or some other anthology series, or maybe "Perry Mason", or some other investigative procedural before that. Other than that, I can think of a few drama series, outside of the western that are somewhat important. One of them, is the reason I didn't put "Downton Abbey" on my Geekcast Radio Television poll a few months back, "Upstairs, Downstairs", which is the only other major British drama series that came across to America and became as big and popular as "Downton Abbey", and no, I'm not counting "Poirot", "Miss Marple", "Prime Suspect" or "Doctor Who", three are procedurals and one's sci-fi, those aren't involved in this discussion, plus, no, "Upstairs, Downstairs" was bigger at the time, and from everything I've heard, it's basically the '70s version of "Downton Abbey", and I haven't seen it to compare.
That said, other than that, what period dramas are ever mentioned after that? Maybe "China Beach"? "American Dreams" if you insist on stretching it, but there's almost no impact or influence from those shows remaining now. And, to be honest, I'm kinda surprised I can name that many, and most of the time when you do see a period drama on television, it fails, and usually it deserves to. Immediacy is important, and being about the past on television, well, it's a stretch and half unless you're a miniseries and even then. I know, most people's inclination would be that shows that take place in the past would have more impact over time, because it's more timeless, but television is different. It's immediate, and reflects the time it's made more than any other genre. There's a reason why Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone were in the '50s and '60s but in the eighties, it was Crockett and Tubbs and "Cagney & Lacey" and in the nineties, Briscoe & Logan, or Sipowitz & Simone. We were in a western appreciation period in the beginning, and plus, it's a genre that was already ready-made for procedurals or procedural-like shows, so, that was the exception. But since then, let me put it this way, last year, three of the six Outstanding Drama Series Emmy nominations went to period pieces. "Mad Men", "Downton Abbey" and yes, this is only technically a period series, but still, "Better Call Saul", (And "Game of Thrones" the winner, a fantasy series, could also fall into this category, but let's for the moment not count fantasy either as period pieces, but "Game of Thrones" importance shouldn't be underestimated here either; it also piggybacked off the trend) That might not seem weird, but pre-"Mad Men", and "Downton Abbey", not counting the single nomination for "Star Trek: The Next Generation", with the exception of "Deadwood" sole year being nominated, you have to go back to "China Beach", "Homefront' and "I'll Fly Away", in the late eighties and early nineties, and each of them, were only nominated once, and none of those shows lasted much longer than that single season. Hell, even "Beauty and the Beast", remember that '89 show, that took place in modern times! Go back further, when do we see it again? "Moonlighting", nope that doesn't count even though they seem to take place in more eras than "Quantum Leap", yeah, "Upstairs, Downstairs" winning in '77, that's the last one before "China Beach", And before then, the forever-punchline of "The Waltons" a few years earlier.
The point I'm making is that, this is not a medium that neither appreciates the period drama, and for that matter, even the few that sorta break through don't last long and there's a long, long list of attempted period series, comedy and drama that didn't succeed at all. Yeah, comedy, this sometimes work in nostalgia value, like "Happy Days" or "The Wonder Years", and of course, "M*A*S*H" is the exception that proves any rule, least of which, it's a sitcom, not a drama series, or even today with "The Goldbergs" to some extent, but the sitcom is a more natural art form for television. Dramas, they tend to not play as well in general on television, historically anyway, that's changing, but still, the period drama especially. Not immediate as series go, unusually un-impactful and rarely influential even if they achieve a modicum of critical or commercial success and frankly they're not conducive to television.
So, what changed? Well, "Mad Men" and "Downton Abbey". For one thing, they're really good, some of the best in television history. "Mad Men"'s pilot that Michael Weiner used to get a job as a writer for "The Sopranos" was about seven or eight years old when it finally got produced and he took the time to not simply be a show about, the sixties. It's the era the film takes place in, but-, well, my theory has always been that the world of Madison Avenue advertising, and the character of Don Draper were actually a metaphor for the writing process itself. Sometimes you have a good idea, other times you don't, other times it comes in the blink of an eye at the last second, other times, you have to have the experience to find the inspiration, you have to pretend to be someone else, get inside others shoes, etc. "Mad Men" is essentially a story about a conman, who convinces other to buy his products, while he himself is not who he seems and has attempted to convince himself that he's someone different from who he was. Did you get all that? Yeah, I don't remember any character that enigmatic on "The Waltons" or "Bonanza" and he's the main guy. The show did come along in what many consider the beginning era of the great drama series, that were more literate as well as cerebral, and used a more soap-opera influenced, continuous narrative as a focus as opposed to a more conventional procedural story.
I think if this is such a golden age of dramas, that's what meant by that statement, it's the beginning of a time, where a show that could employ such storytelling freedom became the expectation and not in the past, the exception. Drama series got better, simply be us expecting them to be better, and that includes shows that took place, somewhere in the past. They don't even necessarily have to reflect us as a culture or convey a moralistic ideal like the western and numerous other shows did previously. It's into that world that "Mad Men", exploded. And now, let's look at the Primetime landscape, especially the drama series. "The Americans", "Mercy Street", "Mr. Selfridge", "The Knick", "Vikings", "True Detective" to some extent, "Vinyl", "Masters of Sex", "Penny Dreadful", "Hell on Wheels", "Broken Trail", "The Making of the Mob: New York", "Rebellion", in the recent past, "Boardwalk Empire" "The Tudors",, you get the idea, there's more than ever.
And that's...-, well, it's mostly a good thing. Not entirely one however. I mean, it's like any subgenre, there's good and bad of it. There's just as many "The Playboy Club"'s in this genre as others. Hell, I honestly don't care for a good number of the shows I just mentioned above, and they're probably the best of the ones on now. And there's a few that don't catch on too; I'm probably the only person who really enjoyed "PANAM", but, yeah, I can't say that I'd bend over backwards to defend even that. Curiously network television is the one place where this genre is lacking, granted most of their time is now devoted to reality television, but there's still a few sci-fi and fantasy that sneaks in, but period pieces? Even "Sleepy Hollow" takes place in modern day, and most of the examples in recent years of network trying for a more ambitious period series, have flopped, and flopped badly. "American Dreams" is the last long-lasting one I can remember, and honestly, I have no idea why that show lasted as long as it did, it was terrible and boring; it made "Providence" seem like a watchable series. I mean, when's the last time you ever heard anybody other than me, bring that show up? Yeah, never, and for good reason.
That show took place in the '60s as well as "Mad Men", that came about after the popular NBC miniseries "The '60s", and was trying to piggyback off the success of that. "Mad Men", is much more specific, and much more stylized. Slick, cool, it evolved, but it also knew the perspective of the decade it wanted to pursue and look at. Explore. It also had the backing of a cable network that was on the upstart and was looking for anything to put on the air, so it snuck in and then it stuck out. And, then came the ones that have tried to use their formula, or something akin to it, and show us an era of the past through a very specific lens, a time and place, often through a few interesting characters' eyes. Yeah, most of these shows have quite the elaborate casts, not all but most, and some shows are becoming more and more stylized in that too. "Mad Men", for the genre of the period piece, is the main trendsetter, at least in modern time, and that, I imagine is going to be it's ultimate biggest influence, even above the storytelling and the characters.
"Downton Abbey"'s influence, is probably just bringing back and re-legitimizing the British period drama, and the most beloved of period dramas, the rich country home of the aristocratic rich, but at the end of their era, (While "Mad Men", at least the way I read the ending, while it seemed to be documenting the end of the golden era of advertising, I actually suspect might have been documenting merely the beginning of it, and shows it continuing on, in song, for years to come, reinventing, renewing itself for the next generation and the newest of cultures young and old.) "Downton Abbey", also, at least in America, started as a miniseries. The show was a regular series, but most of the time, especially for PBS series that air under the "Masterpiece" designation, the "series" usually got placed in the "Limited Series" category. Partially because in a sense, they are, 'cause of how England's seasons are structure, but also because, it was so unusually and so rare to see quality period series that weren't miniseries that occasionally when one was, they simply marketed it and portrayed it as a limited series. "Prime Suspect" and "Sherlock" are good recent examples, they're continuing series, but they're also detective shows and each series or season of the series is specific and different, and they don't always come every year, sometimes they're maddeningly random. It's not too unusual to see years go by between new seasons or series of a show; they might as well be miniseries. That said, when they suddenly switched from a miniseries to a regular series, permanently, it opened the door for other British period shows to make it over here, and for that matter British dramas in general."Sherlock", "Luther", "Orphan Black", among others, they crossed the pond in ways few series ever have. "Downton Abbey", was the first one though. It's actually amazing how well the show holds up. Sometimes, I thought it got too caught up in the bad over-expositioning dialogue and yeah, Lady Mary can be a wishy-washy emotional bitch, depending on who she thinks she may be in love with that week, but you also saw the time taken to patiently and quietly evolve every character over the series, and enhance us into the world.
You know, I have mentioned something about fantasy having too many characters most of the time that you can't get invested in, well, I think part of the reason they do that, is because they forget that the world should be enhanced and then the characters start to develop, not the characters come and enhance the world as they come. Castle Downton, is large and a character into itself, and never does the show make you forget that, and life and history happens there all the time, even in it's waining days of relevance. It's actually amazing how engrossing this show can be, although not surprising since Julian Fellowes had written the screenplay for the best recent film of this genre, Robert Altman's final masterpiece, "Gosford Park". Everybody's got a secret, everybody's got a past, and it seems like everybody comes to "Downton Abbey" hoping to get away from their past and start life anew, but unlike with Don Draper, who really never gets that much comeuppance for his ultimate sin, they all come back to haunt you at Downton, but that's not always a bad thing. (Although, fucking an Ambassador to death and then trying to hide the body in another room, um, yeah, that-, there's no spinning that one; it might not be illegal but good luck living that down.[One of the greatest episodes of television in history btw]) The miniseries that turns into a regular series however, that's gonna become more of a thing as time goes by. We're already seeing it with "Fargo", "True Detective", and other such anthology series, but it's gonna eventually evolve to shows that were probably just one-off ideas or seasons of other foreign shows that catch on. Hell, it expanded on foreign series, probably made it way more acceptable to think of foreign series as regular series equal and as relevant as shows on in America. Maybe that's it's legacy, being the show that truly made American television, global and international, even more than Japanese anime and Spanish soap operas, even more than cult British sci-fi series.
It's kinda fascinating how these two shows took two very different time periods, and two really different worlds. While Don Draper may be rich, he started out poor and the show always has a feel of the underlings trying to raise themselves up; you don't usually think of period dramas that focus on, essentially the underdogs trying to claw their way up. "Downton Abbey" is much more classic, and by classic, I mean caste. It's the rich and the servant, and the two worlds; nothing that hasn't been explored, especially in British literature time and time and time again, but by god, the contrast almost always makes the dynamic special. I guess you can also claim that "Mad Men" is a journey through a character's mind mostly. At least, in terms of the overall arc of Don Draper, if you want to read the show as that, although everybody goes through an epic journey into themselves. "Downton Abbey", is definitely more about it's locations and time and place, than "Mad Men"'s is. "Mad Men" documents the changing of the time, "Downton Abbey", reluctantly insists that times may change but "Downton Abbey" does not, at least not until it finally has to.
Yeah, I would've rather analyzed these shows separately, they really deserve their own separate analyses, but I don't know if I could've done them anyway. I could've but they would've taken forever; the shows are just so rich and in-depthful that I could probably do character analyses on each main character for these shows, and still be working on it well into next year. The main thing to note anyway, is just how much, at least in the short term, they've altered our understanding of successful drama series, and even bigger than that, showed the full potential of the period drama series, more than ever before. Maybe this will last into the future, or perhaps television's insistence on bringing more and more immediate material representing the zeitgeist of the era will eventually overshadow this current trend, but these shows didn't ride the trend, they didn't even just start and create the trend, they transcended it. With each Episode by Episode, from Person to Person, they expanded a subgenre and revealed the true depths of what could be in the drama series; I'd argue even moreso than the great shows before it, like "The West Wing" and "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under", not that these are better shows, that's debatable but by bringing in the period drama and showing that it too, can be at this level of quality, remain at that level of quality, and be popular and relevant enough to be worth the risk of doing such ambitious drama series as period pieces.... Yeah, we definitely can probably thank these show the most in having this shift go from intriguing anomaly, to full-on trend, to quite possibly a permanent new standard of quality and ambition for the television drama series.