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March 29, 2017

I love love love Workin’ Moms

Much like a certain recent US presidential candidate you may recall, the CBC television series Workin’ Moms is not a perfect candidate. There are some obligatory awkward Canadian production moments (Dan Ackroyd notwithstanding; his casting was brilliant); mild implausibility (how do the workin’ moms manage to fit a mommy’s group into their workdays?); and wardrobe decisions I didn’t blink at but that drove my actual workin’ mom friends berserk—apparently sleeves in the office are pretty much de riguere? Who knew. But over the first season of the show it’s become clear to me that perfection was never what the shows creators were striving for. They put a wandering kodiak bear in the pilot, for heaven’s sake. And it was that bear, or rather character Kate’s response to it, that had me hooked, her serious, furious primal scream. In that powerful moment we were witnessing a mother being born.

The show’s frequent comparisons to HBO’s Girls are not amiss in that neither is a series about women in general, which keeps tripping viewers up “because we’re still more comfortable seeing women as universal types rather than distinct individuals.” If women in general get this treatment, then mothers get it doubly, and the creators of Workin’ Moms are actively working against those expectations of who mothers are and what they should be. In fact, they’re working against all expectations, hence the kodiak bear.

From the start, here is what I loved about the series: first, that the characters aren’t foils. They’re people. That they aren’t having existential crises about matters most people really do manage to work out in reality if not on TV—like, “Oh my god, can I be a mom AND a person?” “Is it okay that I really like my job more than I like taking care of my baby?” “Is it simply inexcusable to admit that I find devoting my entire self to motherhood is more than a bit unfulfilling?” I mean, these are questions the characters in the show are working through, but it’s the process that matters—it’s not as though entire plot points hang upon them. I also like that the workin’ moms’ partners (who are dads, but for one exception) are generally decent human beings. Making dads look dumb is really stupid comedy, and this show is much too smart for that.

I knew I loved the show in the first episode when Frankie started fantasizing about being hit by a bus. She doesn’t want to die, she explains, but how she’d love to go into a coma for eight weeks or so. Later we see her with her head stuck under water in the house she’s showing for a sale. Soon after, she kinda sorta slips under water in the bathtub with her baby daughter—only just caught by her partner. She’s fallen asleep, she claims. A tiny slip. Enough to make the viewer very uncomfortable, which the series never fears to do.

Another character whose trajectory messed me up was Jenny, who headed back to her IT job reluctantly while her husband embraced his time as a stay-at-home dad, and thereby became completely unappealing to her, sexually and otherwise. She starts having weird fantasies about her nerdy manager, and leaving provocative messages on his Facebook page. Alienated from her roles as mother and wife, she starts acting out in outlandish ways, most memorably on the girls’ night out when she demands someone pierce her nipple, which squirts milk at the moment of laceration. Predictably, the nipple gets infected.

I loved Anne, who’s struggling with her older daughter (oh my gosh, when she starts wondering if there’s a slut gene and she’s passed it onto her) and a young baby when she realizes she’s pregnant again. This accidental pregnancy does not come as good news, and she struggles with facing it in her characteristically blunt style—”You’re angrier than usual, Anne,” the leader of the mommies group remarks to her. The group in general in general is a bit put off by the fact that Anne keeps bringing up that she’s considering an abortion. Which is kind of sacrilege in a room full of babies.

And then yes, the abortion. It’s long been a complaint of mine not just that abortions aren’t shown on TV very often, but particularly that nobody ever gets to make jokes about them. (I actually have a long term aspiration to become an abortion humorist.)  Workin’ Moms going against the grain again as Anne’s friend Kate (who’s played by show creator Catherine Reitman) cracks this one as she’s driving Anne to a clinic and they’re considering whether you’d Yelp an abortion clinic based on ratings or proximity. Ratings, definitely, Kate figures, and then she takes it further: “I wonder what kinds of complaints an abortion clinic gets? One star. Still pregnant.”

And Kate, my favourite. All life in the city—she’s glorying in the beauty of the day in the park with her son as a vagrants’ pissing against a tree. Sardonic, bad-assed and unapologetic—particularly about her lack of sleeves. Her story throughout the series involves her return to work at a PR firm where she’s firmly established as successful, but she finds she has to redefine her professional role at work now that she’s a mother. Further, she’s a candidate for a prestigious position in Montreal, which would involve leaving her husband and son for three months. Is this something she’s willing to partake in for professional success? (Spoiler: in Tuesday’s episode we see her glorying in her clean white bed, alone, a full night’s sleep, and not a single soul to breastfeed. As any mother knows, there’s not drug in the world as incredible as solitude—but it’s also possible to get too much of a good thing.)

At the beginning of the show in January, Workin’ Moms received a terrible review from John Doyle in the Globe and Mail who chastised the show for its characters’ entitlement. “Oddly, to me, Workin’ Moms celebrates what was mocked with deft scorn by the Baroness Von Sketch series and the Canadian comedy Sunnyside. So, whose side are we supposed to be on? If it’s these appallingly smug people, heaven help us all.” But what the review only proves is that John Doyle doesn’t get it—it’s never been about sides. And what’s remarkable about Baroness Von Sketch and Workin’ Moms alike is that nobody is pitted against no one. Not unless, of course, there’s a very good reason…

In her celebration of Baroness Von Sketch, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer writes of how the show “celebrates and spoofs the mundane realities in which modern, urban women find themselves depicted. And oh, how the Baronesses know the contours of the boxes in which we live. They have it mapped out like diligent and transgressive draughtswomen who, instead of yielding to the airtight edges of their inherited designs, work to erase them.” And I would argue that Workin’ Moms is a similar kind of project. More subtly though—this isn’t sketch comedy after all. And because it isn’t, the show has to develop in-depth female characters with sustained narratives, and some people hate that. Remember that flawed candidate I started this post with?

Workin’ Moms isn’t perfect, but it never wanted to be—which is the reason it manages to be transgressive, hilarious and discomforting all at once. And it doesn’t fucking care if you don’t like it, which is why I loved it.

The series finale airs next week, but you can watch the whole thing online.

May 8, 2014

Unexpected Mad Men read: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing

Don and Bobby DraperI wasn’t expecting a Mad Men read when we started Tales of Fourth Grade Nothing a couple of weeks ago (which is significant for being Harriet’s first Judy Blume). I remembered the stories in the book so well, but I’d forgotten the details, or maybe I just hadn’t noticed at the time. Like how its backdrop was 1970s’ New York City, and how Peter is allowed to walk to Central Park alone to play with his friends when the weather is good, but he’s wary of muggers. “I’ve never been mugged. But sooner or later, I probably will be. My father’s told me what to do. Give the muggers what they want and try not to get hit on the head.” His parents are concerned about dope-smokers who hang out in the park. “But taking dope is even dumber than smoking, so nobody’s going to hook me!”

Tales-of-a-Fourth-Grade-Nothing1Warren Hatcher is totally Don Draper, though I suspect not as dashing and probably not so lucky with the ladies. He works for an advertising agency and, like Don in his more domestic days, is expected to use his status as family man to further himself professionally and win accounts. Because of the antics of his youngest son, he ends up losing the Juicy-O account. When his wife goes out of town for a few days, he brings the kids to the office and leaves them in the care of his secretary, Janet, who seems fine with the amusement of small children being part of her job description. While at the office, Peter and Fudge stumble onto auditions for the Toddle Bike commercial, and Fudge captures the heart of the company’s president. As ever, disaster ensues, but Fudge gets to be on TV. The next day, Warren/Don takes the kids to the movies, even though Fudge is only just three, and he sits Fudge on the end of the row. Unsurprisingly, he goes missing. And even without the disaster, it would have been a very Don Draper parenting move.

He even makes omelettes, which I remember as a Don Draper speciality! His children can’t believe he knows how to cook at all, and he actually doesn’t, because the omelettes are inedible. We finished the book amused by the Don Draper-ness, but a bit disappointed in the gender roles reinforced in the book. But then it was first published in 1972, so what do you expect?

Except that we started reading Superfudge, and it seems that Don Draper is evolving. He’s taking a year’s leave from the agency to try writing a book about the history of advertising and its effect on the American people. The idea is especially appealing to him because he’s looking forward to staying home with his family, to experiencing his daughter’s babyhood when he’d been absent for the other two. He’s even started changing diapers!  No word if he’s cut down on the smoking or the drinking though, or of what Roger Sterling thinks of the sea change.

April 9, 2014

The Canadian Mad Men Reading List

Don-Inferno

Mad Men starts on Sunday! I hope you’re reading up.

September 3, 2013

How Television Saved My Life. Part Deux.

thehour_2Once again, television came along this summer to make life with a new baby quite bearable. For the first six weeks of Iris’s life, every day was pretty much a mad scramble to 9:00 or so when we would sit down and take turns having the baby sleep on us while we delighted in excellent TV. We particularly loved watching the BBC drama The Hour, which was stylish, gripping and a stunning example of what female characters can be when women are writing them. In tragic news, the show was cancelled after two seasons, and left on a cliff-hanger. I have been pining for Freddy Lyon ever since.

We also watched Girls, which I’d been nervous about. Somehow in all the politics and furor around the show, I’d neglected to understand that it was a comedy. Sometimes I wonder if its critics didn’t get that either. We are looking forward to watching Season 2.

And now we’ve just started watching Mad Men Season 6, having saved it for a time when our evenings were a little less chaotic. Oh, it’s so good. Season 5 was a bit of a let-down, though still pretty remarkable, as we affirmed as we re-watched it recently. (Because yes, I have basically just been watching Mad Men over and over for about 3 years now. It probably is a good thing that I finally watched another show.) But Season 6 really does seem to be a return to brilliant form.

April 3, 2013

The Sally Draper Poems

mad-men-sally-draperWhile I never finished reading The Collected Stories of John Cheever, which has been sitting on the table before me now for more than 2 years, my literary obsession with Mad Men continues, as does my obsession with Mad Men in general. (We have spent the last while rewatching the entire series, and are now partway through Season 4. We will save Season 6 until our baby sleeps for at least an hour at a time. Basically, I do not care to acknowledge that there are any other televisions shows in the world.)

So I was overjoyed to read “The Sally Draper Poems”, written by one of my favourite poets Jennica Harper. These poems are so very good, demonstrating Harper’s sharp wit, gift for voice, and her amazing sympathy with a young girl’s perspective. I love the texture that they add to the Mad Men universe.

See also:

March 25, 2012

Ice cream

The ice cream shop at the top of our road has opened for the season! They remarked upon how enormous Harriet has grown, and they were kind enough to refrain from mentioning that she was also very filthy (and do note, she has since been bathed). In other local news, yesterday I went to the movies for the first time in nearly three years. We saw Friends With Kids, and I really liked it (its portrayal of breastfeeding in particular, which goes a long, long way). We also bought tickets for a train journey to Ottawa, served clafoutis to friends at brunch yesterday, started reading Tales from Moominvalley, finished watching Downton Abbey Season 1, and are having to wait for Mad Men Season 5 to come out on DVD because we do not have a TV. Which is sad, but also nice to know that my dream of continually having Mad Men before me is forever coming true.

March 8, 2012

What loving Mad Men has taught me about loving books and reading

We started watching Downton Abbey last week, and I love it, but we’re only watching it because there is not enough Mad Men in the world (and heaven knows, I’ve tried to make it go further. I’ve watched Seasons 1-3 twice, and saved season 4 for well over a year before finally watching it [and was the wait ever worth it. Season 4 was better than all the others put together]). And I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship to Mad Men lately, about how I love this show and its characters like I haven’t loved another show and its characters since Beverly Hill 90210 and Dylan McKay. By which I mean that I haven’t loved anything like this since I was 14, that age of absolute longing for life and for the world, and I feel  something similar for Mad Men, perhaps because of the nostalgia implicit.

But the show absolutely occupies me too– I finish an episode, and I’m thinking about it for days. We’ve measured them out so slowly too that I have much time for reflection in between. I go looking for extracurricular Mad Men too with my Mad Men reading, and random Jon Hamm google searches. (Look! Books that Made a Difference to Jon Hamm! And also Nyla Matuk has written a poem called “Don Draper”.) I could talk about these characters and their motivations forever, and their dynamics, and I do, because people like to talk about Mad Men, and when I do, conversations often reveal new levels of depth to the stories that I never even considered.

My relationship to Mad Men is so different from my relationship to any single book. See, I love books and reading with an all-consuming passion, but I don’t love television. There is only Mad Men. So that I have more than 70 books on my to-be-read stack (which is actually a shelf. Such a stack would defy physics, I think), but I’ll continue to watch Mad Men over and over again. I watch an episode of Mad Men, and wait a week for another, but with a book, I’m starting a new one before the other is even finished. I speed through my books. I relish it every time I crack open a new one. Mad Men I savour, because there is only so much Mad Men in the world, but my supply of books will never be exhausted. Which is sometimes exhausting.

And it’s something to think about. What if instead of loving books and reading, I just loved one book, and read it over and over, and got so deep inside it? Or one author? To become an expert instead of a generalist? Which is unrealistic of course, and I don’t even want to break my speedy reading habit, but it really is rare that I connect with a book as deeply as circumstances permit me to connect with this television show. (It’s also easier to connect with a television show, which comes spoon-fed and all I have to do is lie on the couch and knit). But it occurs to me that there are ways in which the joy of my book fetishising obsession and love of reading in general come at the expense of how I relate books in their specificity. And that learning from my television habits might make me a better reader.

October 10, 2011

What Sally Draper must have been reading: Virginia Lee Burton and Mad Men

Virginia Lee Burton’s father was an engineer, and her mother was an artist, which is probably a surprise to nobody familiar with her work. Burton’s early books (Choo Choo, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Katy and the Big Snow) are celebrations of man’s power to harness his environment with the use of technology, Burton’s vivid illustrations investing her fascinating machines with life and personality. Even 80 years after the publication of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, that steam shovel Mary-Anne appeals to young readers, and part of that timelessness is that Mary-Anne’s story of technological prowess (she could dig as much in a day as a hundred men in a week) was already about nostalgia even when the book was new. Burton’s work does not become dated, because within it she has acknowledged the passage of time. Mary-Anne was already the relic of a dying age, steam shovels being replaced by diesel-powered diggers, and Burton showed even as she glorified technology that progress did not necessarily lead to better.

But the pastoral age that Mike Mulligan… hearkens back to is a pretty curious one. Children have always loved this book because children are fascinated by machinery and learning how things work (Burton: “Children have an avid appetite for knowledge. They like to learn, provided that the subject matter is presented to them in an interesting way”), but for an adult-reader to understand Mary-Anne as the story’s heroine represents a significant departure from how we in the 21st century have come to understand our relationship to the environment. Mary-Anne who can level hills to make roads for automobiles to drive on, and dig holes to turn grassland into skyscrapers, and is powered by filthy coal– that Burton’s steam shovel continues to be a lovable storybook character is a testament to the enduring qualities of her book as a whole.

Mike Mulligan was published in 1939, and in 1942, Burton published her most celebrated book, The Little House, which won the Caldecott Award that year (whose ceremony, it is noted in Barbara Elleman’s fascinating biography Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art, was attended by Lillian Smith, president of the Children’s Library Association and head of children’s services at the Toronto Public Library). And from these dates and these books’ acclaim, we can only assume that both found a place within the personal library of Sally Draper, who was born in 1955. Unlike her parents, Sally is rarely seen reading (until Season 4 when she’s spotted with a Nancy Drew), so the contents of her early library can only be inferred, but if the connections between Burton’s world and the Man Men universe are any indication, these books should be an essential part of any Mad Men reading list.

Part of the appeal of both Mike Mulligan and Mad Men is our own nostalgia, but the nostalgia already implicit within these works’ conception of modernity makes our own present ring doubly hollow. In both works, the Future is now, and the present is shining, but something essential has been irrevocably lost, and it has been too late to turn back forever now.

Modernity is symbolized by the city in Mad Men, and also in Burton’s work, no more so than in The Little House. In both works, the city is to be escaped from, its edges a pastoral idyll, though in both works, the city is creeping. In Mad Men, this is shown by suburban life’s failure to be protection enough from the vices and sordidness the city entails. Even in Arcadia (ie Ossining NY), there is infidelity, family violence, divorce, and women lock themselves in the house all day, drinking too much and smashing chairs up. The outside world is brought in every night by the dad in his hat coming home on the train, and by the television’s incessant blare.

The creeping is literalised in Burton’s The Little House, which sits contentedly on its hill as the sun goes up and down, and as the seasons change. And then the lights of the city began to seem closer, and roads appear (courtesy of that same steam shovel we know so well from Mike Mulligan, as Harriet is always delighted to point out). There are new houses, and then the buildings around the house grow higher, and a subway is dug underneath, and trams run back and forth, and eventually the house is left abandoned and unloved in the middle of an urban wasteland. (And in this book, indeed, Burton has presaged and synthesized the ideas of Rachel Carson and Jane Jacobs).

But the book’s conclusion is as curious as is Mary-Anne’s status as hero instead of villain. The story of The Little House is resolved when a great-great grandaughter of the man who’d built the house discovers the place in its derelict state, and decides to move it back out to the countryside. Traffic is halted as the house is lifted up from its foundations and placed on a truck, then driven down a big road, then a small road, and eventually the house is settled down on a little hill much like the one it once called home (before that first hill was levelled by a steam shovel). Same apple trees and flowers, and the house can see the sky again, the sunrise in the morning, the moon shining high at night. “The stars twinkled all around her…/ A new moon was coming up…/ It was Spring…/ and all was quiet and peaceful in the country.”

The first few times I read this book as an adult, I figured the moral had something to do with white flight, and the death and death of the American city. Until I realized that Burton hadn’t presaged Carson/Jacobs so much, and then I thought about the book in the context of its own time, and Mad Men’s. The story’s point, according to Elleman’s book, is that “the further away we get from nature and the simple way of life the less happy we are.” It is a story of the environment with man still at its centre, and with this notion of the city as a place to move away from is an understanding that the space “away out there” is infinite, inexhaustible. (See Kathryn Davis’s Hell and the spaces at the back of medicine cabinets for razor blade disposal in the mid 20th century house– that throwing something “away” was to make it disappear.)

In “The Gold Violin” (Mad Men, Season 2), the Drapers retreat further from urban/suburban life by partaking in a rare family outing, a picnic (although they get there in a brand new Cadillac, so modernity has certainly not been left behind). At the end of the picnic (which has involved smoking while horizontal and peeing behind trees), Betty Draper picks up the picnic blanket and shakes away accumulated rubbish, letting it fall down onto the grass where she’ll leave it.

As in Burton’s The Little House, the world away out there is still ours for the taking, to be used and made noble by our relationship to it.

September 26, 2010

Mad Men is either brilliant or terrible: Update

Mad Men is either brilliant or terrible,” I wrote a few weeks back, and then last night we watched Season 3 Episode 11 The Gypsy and the Hobo and there’s no doubt it’s the former.

September 9, 2010

Style, substance, and that something: on the Mad Men conundrum

When I began watching Mad Men earlier this year, my assessment was similar to Karen Von Hahn’s of the show being “all style, no substance”. This was partly because I’d been biased already by the review of Mad Men Season 1 in the London Review of Books,  in which the show’s chief attraction was summed up as our own superiority at watching pregnant women smoke while their children played with dry cleaner bags. Mad Men is good, because at least we get to feel like we’ve come along why, which undermines the fact that we most certainly haven’t.

I enjoyed the first few episodes of season 1, though not as much as I’d anticipated– I wondered if my expectations had been made too high. Soon I’d decided that I’d finish watching the first season, but probably not pursue it beyond that. And I’m not sure what the turning point was, but somewhere along the line not pursuing the rest of Mad Men was not remotely a possibility.

I’m now just about at the end of Season Three. I’m in no hurry to get to Season Four. Though of course I am, but you understand how tragic it would be to one day have no more Mad Men before me. Because I love Mad Men, I do. I love its style, I love when it shocks me (the lawnmower, Betty and the shotgun), I love how I am desperate to find sympathy for these characters who do nothing to deserve it, that I have so much invested in the disaster that is Don and Betty, but mostly I just really love Don Draper. In a way I have never loved anybody, except for Dylan McKay and my high school math teacher. Impossible, lustful, agonizing loves, where you’re fortunate to run into them once in a while in early morning dreams.

It’s not just that he’s good looking– Jon Hamm on 30 Rock really didn’t do it for me, which was sort of the point of that endeavour, but I don’t think we can write it all down to Hamm being such a great actor. It could very well be the suits and the haircut. Or what I’m after might be the elusive Don Draper something that makes him such a magnet on the show. How he’s unpindownable. And when he’s good, he’s not even that good, but I cling to straws– “at least he’s a better parent than Betty”, which isn’t even technically true and wouldn’t be an achievement even if it were. But when he defended Bobby, and when he cooked for Sally in the middle of the night, and when he bought Betty the necklace, and when he demanded that guy remove his hat in the elevator. That he kept Sal’s secret. Fundamentally, he’s a man of integrity.

And when he goes and does something abhorrent, which is usually, somehow I’m convinced that he’s just not himself. That perhaps what he’s really lacking, what he’s calling out for in the dark, is someone to love him properly and that someone would be me. I sometimes wonder what Don Draper could do to have me finally not forgive him. More than he’s cultivated his own self, have I merely cultivated a self for him? Is that what everybody around him has done as well?  Is he the projection of our fantasies (and mine happens to be a good dad, and a kind husband)? Is the point of Don Draper that we want to believe in beautiful people? That we fling our sympathy upon them? Does his charisma come from him being fundamentally empty, and therefore a vessel for anything? Is he all style and no substance, and the entire show is this self-aware?

It’s curious though, the inconsistencies of his character. Of everybody’s character on that show, and it was one of my problems with it when I first started watching. The characters were different people in each episode, not just in a mildly interesting way, but in a way that made me wonder if the show had too many writers. I get the whole “Don Draper is an enigma” thing, but it has crossed my mind from time to time that that hole who is he might just be a clever way of badly constructing a character. And that the other characters who weren’t hatched out of nothing have no such excuse for being wildly fluctuating from one thing to another. Except Pete Campbell. I have determined he’s a psychopath.

I experience Mad Men the way I experience novels, by which I mean that there are often whole passages I don’t understand. And I love this about the show, that there’s more going on than I’m ever supposing, but sometimes I wonder if the problem is not so much that I’ve missed something as much as that that something just doesn’t make any sense. Mad Men is either brilliant or terrible, and I’m really not sure which, but it’s brilliant certainly in that I don’t care regardless.

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