I Like to Watch

"Mad Men" leads a midsummer night's dream of new cable dramas -- but "John From Cincinnati" wipes out! Plus: Do Emmy voters watch TV?

Published July 22, 2007 9:59PM (EDT)

What ever happened to a real summer vacation, the kind where you disappear for a month and the only way anyone can reach you is by boarding two flights, then taking a cab ride, a ferry trip, and a golf cart out to your island bungalow?

I don't want to IM or e-mail or text anyone this summer. I want to spend my summer lolling about in a boozy abyss, not LOL with my co-workers. I want to summer the way those rich people did in "Dirty Dancing" -- drinking gin and tonics and playing bridge and learning to do the bunny hop. I want to recline by the lake, reading a good book and sipping a stiff drink until I pass out and get carried away by giant mosquitoes.

Instead, I'm at the Television Critics Association's tour this week, listening to TV producers say things like, "I've always had a casting director in the U.K." (the Hollywood equivalent of "I've always had a house in the Hamptons") and "We've got a really aggressive schedule in terms of what we're doing with second unit" (the Hollywood equivalent of "My nanny drives the kids around so I can spend my afternoons getting sauced at the Ivy").

Dubious accolade dept.

Yes, I could be strolling on the shore in some fetching sailor-themed outfit like Jackie Onassis right now, but instead, here I am, in the air-conditioned squalor of the Beverly Hilton, surrounded by actresses and publicists and journalists and network executives and similar TV industry bivalves, slurping up strong coffee and TV trivia like this year's Emmy nominations.

The Emmys wouldn't seem quite so trivial if the nominations weren't so bizarre. Check out the nominees for best dramatic series: "The Sopranos," "Heroes," "Grey's Anatomy," "House" and "Boston Legal."

Obviously "The Sopranos" deserves the nomination, and will probably win the Emmy no matter what. Even so, these nominees make no sense. "Grey's Anatomy" is faux-poignant, soapy fluff, "House" is Mr. Toad's Wild Ride for hypochondriacs, and "Boston Legal" should be renamed "Litigating With the Stars," since it's a celebrity circus with David E. Kelley's same old nutrageously un-p.c. high jinks in each ring week after week. Even James Spader has turned into a tiresome ass-grabbing clown in Kelley's hands.

Where the hell is "Friday Night Lights"? You would dare drag Denny Crane into the mix, and not include the most original, heartfelt new drama on TV? And what about "The Wire"? Is this some kind of a practical joke? Does anyone in the Academy even watch TV? If they did, they would feel deeply embarrassed for suggesting that "House" and "Grey's Anatomy" are more deserving of an Emmy than "The Wire" and "Friday Night Lights," not to mention "The Shield" and "Battlestar Galactica."

And how laughable is it to nominate Kiefer Sutherland as best actor in a drama series, given how terrible "24" was last season? Every critic or writer who's ever seen "Friday Night Lights" has marveled over the great acting by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, and where is the Academy? Smoking crystal meth in their island bungalows?

Thankfully, "30 Rock," "The Office" and "Ugly Betty" were nominated for best comedy series, but "Weeds" was notably missing, while the painfully unfunny "Two and a Half Men" received its usual nomination.

Expecting the Academy to get it right is sort of like expecting to spend the month of July in sailor-themed outfits, nibbling on seviche and sorting through your shell collection. But that doesn't mean you can't wallow in the terrible injustice of it all. Festering resentment is the spice of life!

Big fish, massive ocean

Especially during the summer, when the air is hot and thick, the perfect environment to sew the seeds of nihilism and nurture a clear sense of the pointlessness of it all. My personal rule is, if I don't sink into a major existential crisis when I get back from vacation then I wasn't gone for long enough.

Of course, the sight of that massive pile of DVDs of brand-new summer shows on my desk when I got back into town certainly helped to jump-start my downward spiral. In case you've been soaking in mineral-rich mud at some pricey spa all summer, here's a news flash: There are tons of new cable dramas starring big names like Glenn Close and David Duchovny and John Leguizamo and Lili Taylor. And, shockingly enough, a lot of them are good. That's because cable channels like Spike, AMC and TNT are rolling out their best (or only) shows now, knowing that in the fall, there will be tons of other (big, flashy, tasteless) fish to fry. So far, these summer pilots look better than the fall offerings -- but give me a few more years to plow through this mountain of DVDs before I give you my official word on that.

Mad about you

"Should we drink before the meeting or after? Or both?"

I know this is probably predictable, but my daydream of being the first wife in a polygamous household has given way to a much more captivating fantasy: The life of the high-powered '60s-era ad executive is the life for me!

Imagine, swaggering down the hallways of a smart office in a tailored suit, surrounded by subservient Bettys in tight sweaters and 18-hour bras! Imagine, casually firing up one cigarette after another in meetings, in your office, mid-sentence while chatting with the guy down the hall! Imagine, having a nice glass or two of bourbon before that dreaded meeting, then celebrating afterward with more bourbon and pretty ladies, then rolling on home to your gal, who's got food on the table and endless love in her heart for her main squeeze!

Damn those bastards at AMC and the team behind the new drama "Mad Men" (10 p.m. Thursdays) for showing me that I was born 30 years too late, and the wrong sex to boot. No wonder I've always felt like a sullen old man with a dry, rattling cough, trapped in a woman's body.

"Mad Men," which premiered Thursday, sets the bar extremely high for the competition, both summer and fall. Presenting the most vivid picture of early '60s social oddities that I can recall -- Chain-smoking pregnant ladies! Kids without seat belts! Philandering galore! -- "Mad Men" offers a snapshot of bygone times that is a pure joy to watch, from the incredible costumes and sets to the deliciously claustrophobic depiction of work and domestic life it presents.

Creator Matthew Weiner, who was an executive producer for "The Sopranos," doesn't settle for the same old clichéd dialogue found in other dramas. The writing here is snappy and clever, and every scene has something to hold our attention or surprise us. When Don Draper (Jon Hamm), a senior ad exec, finds himself in the impossible position of having to come up with a campaign for Lucky Strike cigarettes at a time when the health dangers of cigarettes are becoming publicized, you expect him to walk into his meeting and suddenly become inspired (a scene we've seen so many times before). Instead, his mind goes blank under pressure, and his younger co-worker Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) steals the show. Then Pete's pitch fails and Draper regains his composure in time to sell the tobacco execs on a much simpler campaign. Immediately, we recognize that this won't be the typical peppy idealization of the good old days, populated by heroes and villains: Pete and Draper are both sympathetic and selfish, they behave callously but we can see how they're both hemmed in by their circumstances.

On the surface, all of the ad execs can seem like the kinds of guys who tirelessly celebrate their own specialness and harass women around the clock. But Weiner and the other writers know how to reveal weakness, just enough to get us on board with some of these cads. It's a testament to the fine writing and acting that we can identify with Draper's high-rolling, big-city existential trap, even as he chain-smokes and screws around and insults one of his female clients, saying, "I'm not going to let a woman talk to me like that!" Later, he has a drink with her as an apology, and when she admits that she's never been in love, he tips his hand ever so slightly:

"The reason you haven't felt it is because it doesn't exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons. You're born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I'm living like there's no tomorrow, because there isn't one."

Oof -- pass me the cigarettes! Draper is flawed, self-pitying and spoiled, sure, but he's charismatic and possibly depressed enough that we feel for him nonetheless. He has a soul, that much is clear, and it's immediately easy to care about his welfare. The other, less sympathetic characters take more shape over the course of the first four episodes (the second episode is a little slow compared to the first, but stay the course).

"Mad Men" wields all of the melancholy and ambivalence of the best "Sopranos" episodes, but there may be more of a sense of purpose here, an attempt to unearth the absolutely merciless social norms of the time. When a psychiatrist remains silent throughout a housewife's therapy session, then calls her husband to give him his professional opinion, or an OB-GYN warns a young woman that he'll take her off the pill in a heartbeat if he thinks she's "abusing" the drug by being a big slut, you can't help marveling at the ruthlessness of the era. This show should be mandatory viewing for any aspiring Pussycat Doll who thinks she's not teetering on the shoulders of feminist giants in those skintight ass pants. "Gee, that unseemly, shrill feminist attitude sure came in handy back in the day, when we were all treated like lobotomized infants!"

As Draper demonstrates, though, the restrictive attitudes and roles cut both ways, cornering both men and women in lives that, however successful and happy they appeared to be from the outside, didn't feel complete on the inside. "Mad Men" is smart, funny, eye-opening, and probably 10 times better than anything you'll see this fall, so don't miss it.


There are so many more shows to write about, but there's a pressing and important item on my agenda: "John From Cincinnati" (Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO).

I was behind this show straight out of the gate. I love David Milch and I assumed that this show would take shape, like "Deadwood" did, over the course of the season. But, to put it in "Deadwood" terms, the current course defies fucking logic.

What the hell is going on? Every time I watch it, I feel like I just took some 15-year-old acid I found at the bottom of my sock drawer. Is it just me, or do none of these scenes fit together coherently?

All of the stuff that worked on "Deadwood" -- the odd speech patterns, the strange non sequiturs, the quirky interactions of the community at large -- don't work here nearly as well. When people speak strangely and say absurd things, sometimes, they're just seem like weirdos. And hey, I'm all for weirdos. But an entire town full of freaks who mill about, without any clear motivations or goals beyond upsetting each other?

We started with a clear notion of what the Yost family was facing: Butchie (Brian Van Holt) was battling a dope habit, Mitch (Bruce Greenwood) was suspicious that his grandson Shaun (Greyson Fletcher) would be corrupted by the surfing industry, and Cissy and Mitch were having marital problems. Linc (Luke Perry) was the antagonist, greedily eyeing Shaun but certain to poison him and rob him of his innocence, aided by his slutty underling Cass (Emily Rose).

So why isn't anyone surfing or even discussing surfing or the surfing business? Why did Cass sleep with Mitch, then pair up with John (Austin Nichols) during the same episode? Why would we care if Kai (Keala Kennelly) and Butchie get together briefly, when they're immediately split up by Shaun's long-lost mother? Why are Freddy (Dayton Callie) and Palaka (Paul Ben-Victor) lingering around the hotel instead of returning to their lives in Hawaii? Why isn't Freddy selling drugs, or doing much of anything?

Cissy doesn't kill herself, Butchie kicks dope, Mitch allows Sean to surf: OK, God is helping the Yosts. But what about the 50 or so other characters milling about? Some of them have had two or three scenes, total -- but Milch keeps introducing more, throwing in Jennifer Grey as Dickstein's fiancé and Paula Malcomson (Trixie from "Deadwood") as a cafe owner. Why should we care that Shaun's doctor quit and now pedals his bicycle around the hotel, waiting for more miracles?

Every story problem here is solved by divine intervention. And if it all adds up simply because John is some idiot-savant Jesus, armed with a message from God, then this show may be the best case against acts of God in dramatic writing that I've ever seen. Because once you center one story around God (Shaun is in a coma after a surfing accident, then he's magically healed) where do you stop? Once God's got his sticky fingers in everyone's pies, how does the whole mess keep from seeming completely arbitrary?

It's just like life! I get it. And I was willing to go with that, despite increasing randomness, until the end of last week's episode, when John suddenly started speaking in non sequiturs as the massive ensemble cast stood around listening: "Mitch catches a good wave. Mitch wipes out. Mitch wipes out Cissy. Cissy shows Butchie how to do that..." So we're recapping the big events of the Yosts lives. Fine.

But then: "Fur is big. Mud is big. The stick is big. The word is big. Fire is huge. The wheel is huge. The line and circle are big. On the way, the line and the circle are huge. On the wall, the man at the wall makes a man from the circle and the line."

Yawn. Yes, I'm sure it all means something, if you have the patience to write it all down and pick it apart. But if you're going to do that, why not flip through some Plato instead?

On the "John From Cincinnati" Web site, you'll find writer Steve Hawk quoting David Milch:

"The important point that I'm trying to make is that storytelling has nothing, whatsoever, to do with logic. Logic is a limping stepchild of the true processes of the spirit. It's an illusion. It's a defective little parlor trick. Associations are the way that we perceive. Electrical connections caused by the juxtapositions of experience. That's the way we are really built, and storytelling takes into account that truth."

Logic may be a limping stepchild, but that limping stepchild is the Quasimodo that brings the audience water when things get a little too exhausting and chaotic to bear. If there were enough big, beautiful moments, or even little, poignant or sweet moments to nourish us, then fine. But mostly what we find here is hot-tempered fights and non sequiturs, and whether that reflects the true processes of the spirit or not, anyone can see that what began as a fairly engaging story has unraveled before our eyes. Time to roll out the defective little parlor tricks, guys!

Even if it all fits together in the end -- which, knowing Milch, it won't -- what's going to keep our interest in the meantime? John wandering around, repeating the same four or five lines, with not a single wave in sight?

I hate to write that, because I'm a longtime proponent of big, creative leaps of faith that make no obvious sense, but this show needs a miracle even more than the damaged inhabitants of Imperial Beach do. Instead of wasting his time, HBO should send David Milch to an island bungalow with a case of good whiskey so he can write us the full final season of "Deadwood" that we deserve.

Next week: Yes, that sense of entitlement becomes you! Just ask the high-stakes litigators of FX's "Damages" or the bank robbers of Spike TV's "The Kill Point."

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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I Like To Watch Mad Men