Life is a gradual series of revelations
That occur over a period of time.
It’s not some carefully crafted story;
it’s a mess and we’re all gonna die.
If you saw a movie that was like real life
you’d be like “what the hell was that movie about?
It was really all over the place.”
-Written by Rachel Bloom, Adam Schlesinger, Jack Dolgen, Aline Brosh McKenna; performed by Josh Groban
This comes from a show that I think does it all: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which is gearing up for its 4th season on the CW. Created by and starring Rachel Bloom, this show has figured out what it is about TV that is special and articulated it in plain language without ever getting too far up its own ass. Television can develop characters over the course of several seasons and let them have arcs that don’t conform to a film-length schema of conflict and resolution, which provides space for a more drawn out, thoughtful exploration of how messy we all are as people. Real life isn’t a movie, according to Josh Groban, but it could perhaps be a television series.
My husband and I became TV watchers in 2010, when a friend gave us the first three seasons of Mad Men on DVD as a wedding gift. As I reflect upon this, I marvel at what an astute gift this was for a newly-married couple: a piece of art, as that show has now come to be recognized, that the two of us could slowly unspool and discover together over several years. I never watched a single episode of Mad Men without my husband, and we never watched the show without then immediately devouring a critical review of the episode we had just seen. This became a regular evening ritual, and we would find ourselves talking about the show over dinner and on long car rides – the show itself and the critical dissections of it that we so loved to engage with.
I needed the artistic guidance of the reviews early in the show’s run, because I was not prepared to watch something that was so dark and so down on the world, and whose plot so often made little sense. Critics knew how to read this show, and I did not yet know how to interpret visual media the way the it demanded. If I hadn’t been able to learn this language, I’m not sure I could have tolerated the show. Mad Men frequently hits viewers in the gut with the questionable decisions and cruel acts of its characters, characters we had come to believe we could trust. It also subsequently rehabilitated many of these same characters and brought us back around to them. We predicted so few of its plot machinations, and what fun would that have been anyway?
If Mad Men had been a John Cusack movie, it would have promised and delivered a payoff, Lloyd Dobler holding Diane’s hand on the plane as it takes off, the seatbelt sign turning off to signal the end of the movie, the exhale, the reassurance that things would be okay. I did just spoil the ending of Say Anything, but I think you know when you look at the theatrical release poster what’s going to happen in that movie. Which, by the way, is no knock on that or any other John Cusack movie; I have an essay in me somewhere in which I glorify all of John Cusack’s oeuvre for 1500 words, piece by piece (except Sixteen Candles, fuck that movie) so if you’re into that kind of thing, you’re welcome in advance. Some of his movies are weird as hell, but they contain their weirdness within a pretty predictable arc involving an desirable, unattainable girl and a guy who figures out how to get her. I used to own all or nearly all of John Cusack’s movies on DVD, a collection I displayed conspicuously in my dorm room, and I was more heavily invested than I realized in my life perhaps turning out like one of those romantic-comedy-type stories someday. I am still in the process of learning not to expect things from life that look like the plot of a John Cusack movie.
(Being John Malkovich, if you’re listening, I am not talking about you – you are just weird, and you go nowhere that anyone is expecting, and that’s why you’re great.)
Mad Men was the first story I watched that refused to resolve things, and I am not saying anything new or revelatory here. Pete Campbell positions himself early on as the easy-to-hate spoiled child who can’t stop failing upward, but more than once over the course of the show we find ourselves wishing good things for him. Peggy Olson is the one I rooted for first and last and always, but she frustrated the hell out of me sometimes. And Don Draper – how many times do we go back and forth on Don Draper? How long do we spend watching as he drives a car somewhere in the middle of the night, knowing that he’s going nowhere good? As he sits on a beach reading Dante’s Inferno? His choices fascinate and infuriate us – how can he be so self-destructive and so self-aware at the same time? Does he consciously not want good things for himself? Mad Men, through its exceedingly careful craft, manages to say to us that life is not a carefully-crafted story; it’s a mess and we're all gonna die. I’m not sure what it says about me that I find this deeply reassuring.