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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.

May 27, 2010

Dear Carrie Bradshaw

I never understood why it didn’t work out with Aidan. My sister has tried to explain it to me, how you and Aidan didn’t have *it*, and how apparently you found *it* with another man who was never very nice to you. This all reminds me a bit of that book that came out a few months back that implored women to “settle” and defined “settling” as marrying someone who is kind, stable, and good. Undermining the value of *it*, it seems. But in your case, didn’t *it* really come down to a closet?

I liked you, Carrie Bradshaw. When I was lonely and sad, I loved that you were a Katie Girl, and it gave me courage to be myself. I know it is pathetic to get courage from HBO, but it was the turn of the century and I was a bit shallow, and so were you, but that wasn’t the whole of it either, was it? I loved your friendships, and I loved your friends. I loved your voice overs, and your laptop screen. Neither of us could have been so entirely shallow, really, because I’ve never known a shoe that wasn’t orthopedic, but I liked you, Carrie Bradshaw, still.

I liked you, though you’ve done harm. You have! The number of women I know who don’t believe it’s love unless it’s tumultuous– that’s down to you, CB. Who believe that tumult=passion. Not to mention a predilection for really expensive shoes and bags, and really expansive debt. I’m not sure that before you, these things were considered normal.

I liked you though, but I don’t think I like you anymore. I’ll never really know, because I haven’t seen your latest movie and I don’t plan to, but I saw a preview and I’m disappointed. Unsurprised, but disappointed. Because in your new movie, you appear to take a look at your life (the not-so-nice, emotionally unavailable man you married, your closet) and determine that the problem is marriage. That marriage is boring, and passion gets stale, and then you run away to become the Sheik of Araby (and here, the preview lost me).

Though I am still a bit green when it comes to marriage, that I’ve been doing it for five years is nothing to scoff at. And I’ve been pretty good at marriage, actually, right from the get-go, when I made a decision to marry a man who wasn’t an asshole. It was him, actually, who took me away from a life in which courage was HBO. So yes, in a way, it seems I required a man to save me, but he saved me from you, Carrie Bradshaw, and your fashionable post-feminism. And I’ve been pretty happy ever since, having put away the angst, the drama, the tumult, and without that baggage, I’ve gotten a lot of really good things done. If he hadn’t come along, I really do fear that I might have whiled away my twenties wearing a necklace with my name on it, and I wouldn’t even have been you because you’re a fantasy. I would have been wearing orthopedic shoes and I would have still been sad.

Marriage is wonderful, Carrie Bradshaw. It is a fine institution, and of course, it’s what you make it. And it’s not for everybody, maybe even not for you, but I resent how you deride it. I resent that the same women who’ve spent their twenties thinking it’s not love unless somebody’s throwing things are going to think that marriage should be more of the same. And that when the throwing stops, that’s boring.

Carrie Bradshaw, you’re boring. You make adolescents look mature. If you were real, I’d throw something at you, and that’s not love.

Yours sincerely,

Kerry

May 3, 2010

House Post 1

I just finished reading Megan Daum’s new book Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, which I’ll be reviewing later this week. I wanted to read Daum’s book because I adored her collection of essays My Misspent Youth when I read it last year, but also because she was writing about houses– the ones she loved, the ones she’s loathed, the ones that got away. She writes about roommates, renting, renovations and running away. About MLS obsession, unfortunate apartments, and the experience if purchasing a home of her own. I’m obsessed with this stuff, and always have been, and just so you don’t think I’m jumping on the Meghan Daum obsessed with real-estate bandwagon, I offer you the contents of the journal I kept for school in grade 1. Keep in mind that this is most of the entire book, which means that my range of subject matter was awfully limited.

I’ve always loved drawing houses. This is significant because I’ve never much loved drawing anything else, but the basic details of a house were so well within my poor artistic grasp– square windows the t-frames, a door (with maybe a window for a garnish?), obligatory chimney and triangle roof. The possibilities for variation are limitless– curtains, shubbery, smoke in the chimney, shutters, a garage, curving path from the door. I loved illustrations of houses too in the books I read, particularly those of the whole house at work with the fourth wall removed, and you could see the staircases connecting all the floors, and each room fulfilling its own specific purpose, the life going on within it. (For some reason, the most fascinating houses were those in trees– I remember Brambley Hedge, and the Berenstein Bears in particular, and how I could stare at the cross section drawings of these tree houses and actually “play” with them for hours).

Houses in television are so important– I remain obsessed with the exterior shots of houses that always preceded any 1980s/1990s’ sitcom’s return from commercial break. These houses’ interiors too, and the ways in which they didn’t match the outsides, and the rooms we rarely saw (like the Keatons’ elusive dining room), and how the Facts of Life set was as familiar to me as my own living room. How none of these houses ever had actual foyers, and how staircases and such would get moved around between seasons and we just weren’t supposed to notice. Whole TV shows based around domicles– Melrose Place! And houses as extensions of their characters– Casa Walsh, and Dylan’s house (because he lived alone), and Kelly Taylor’s ultra modern nightmare. The layout of the Salingers’ house from Party of Five is indelibly etched upon my mind, and clearly, yes, I spent my teenage years watching terrible television. But still, I wouldn’t turn my nose up at Monica’s apartment from Friends.

But it’s houses in books in particular, which I had to imagine up all by myself. How LM Montgomery wrote about houses– Lantern Hill, Silverbush, Green Gables, Ingleside, New Moon. The English houses– Thornfield Manor, Wuthering Heights, Manderlay, Wildfell Hall. The house Isabel Archer came from in America, with no windows that faced the street, and the Ramsays’ house in To the Lighthouse, Gatsby’s house, Dora Rare’s in The Birth House, Howards End (which was ALL about real estate), Rose’s childhood home in Who Do You Think You Are?, Daisy Stone Goodwill’s house in Ottawa where she raised her family in The Stone Diaries.

Unlike Meghan Daum, however, I don’t own my own home. This is partly because paying a mortgage would necessitate me having a job (heaven forbid), but also because I wouldn’t live in my house anymore. Because I really love my house. Daum writes about the struggle of learning to be at home, to live where are you rather than always looking at where to go next. She thinks ownership is necessary to achieve this, but we’ve managed it without a mortgage. The house is home, and we love it because of and in spite of. The neighbourhood, redolent with blooms at this times of year and trees overhead. The tiles in the kitchen, and the how the sun comes through the kitchen door at lunch time, and how you can only run the washer OR the dryer if you don’t want to blow a fuse, and how the sun comes into the bedroom in late afternoon, and we can see the CN Tower in the winter (though the summer hides it with trees full of leaves), and my wonderful attic bedroom (which makes me sad only because I know every bedroom I ever have after this one will be a disappointment), and the trees and the breeze that keep us cool in the summer, and the huge living room windows, and how Harriet’s door doesn’t shut, and the backwards kitchen taps, and our en-suite that doesn’t have a door, and the deck and our fire escape, and the fireplace, and the wide hallway, the squirrels in the attic and the mice under the floor. I used to think that I wanted to buy a house, but then realized what I really wanted was a new apartment, and after two years in this one, I’ve still got no urge to go.

October 6, 2009

Little Women Report #2

Perhaps I spoke too soon awhile back, because the second half of Little Woman was really wonderful. Though the characters were good, they were good in ways that were true to themselves and the ways in which they strayed beforehand weren’t necessarily obvious and were interesting to read. The chapter where Meg makes jelly that doesn’t set on the day her husband brings home a dinner guest without warning was an incredibly realistic depiction of domestic dynamics. Jo’s experiences as a writer were fascinating and so true. Amy became a wonderful mass of contradictions, and the most interesting sister by the end. I really enjoyed this part of the book and am glad I followed through.

But the second half was so different from the first that I could scarcely believe that the two were published a year apart. I’d figured Alcott must have grown significantly as a writer in the interim. Or perhaps she realized her characters had wider appeal than she’d initially planned?

It’s the tone of the second half that is so very different, as though it’s growing up along with the characters. And that’s something I’ve never found in a book before, an omniscient narrator so in tune with her characters’ perspectives. In the first half of Little Women, there is little going on beneath the surface. Of course, you get the sense that Marmee is wiser than she lets on, but it’s so obvious, and the other characters know it too. But it was distinctly a children’s book, whereas the second half wasn’t.

And maybe that’s what young readers like so much about Little Women, that they begin with something quite geared towards their level but the book takes off on its own speed, and by the end the narrative is quite above them. So that it would be a book one would revisit time and again, to find out what has changed since the last time.

Note: I was so glad that Jo didn’t marry Laurie. The Professor is so lovely, however much German and old. Obviously, Jo hadn’t watched enough Sex and the City to be brainwashed into thinking enacting adolescent drama is an aspiration more worthy than mere happiness.

September 10, 2009

Television saved my life

Though I’ve always been partial to television, its tendency to consume my evenings whole meant that I’ve kept my distance from it these last few years. I also don’t have cable, which definitely helps with this. (Further, I hate commericals, which is why I love Midsomer Murders on TV Ontario, also because MM is the best show ever.)

But this summer, it’s true that television saved my life. First, when a friend lent us her Series 1 and 2 DVDs of 30 Rock in late June, and though we’d have to turn it up loud to be heard over the baby’s screaming, each episode provided us with a little bit of lightness every evening. And though I went into the show with Liz Lemon’s character appealing to me most, I was surprised to find that Tracy Jordan became my favourite. In every episode, he’d utter a line that would completely surprise me, and turn my idea of who he was inside out. His complete lack of conformity (to anything) made him always fresh and interesting, bizarre and hysterical. ThoughI do continue to worship at the alter of Tina Fey. (Naturally. I’m a girl with glasses).

The other show I’ve watched, and the one I appreciated the most, however, is CBC’s Being Erica. Which does appeal by its Toronto location (and Jessica Westhead reference– see Pulpy & Midge behind Erica’s desk. This is one bookish show). I’d almost given up on liking Canadian television, as every show I tried to watch was usually terrible, but I had heard good things about this one, and the series was being rerun for the summer. (I also liked that I could watch it online whenever I wanted.) It’s a show with a gimmick (girl goes back in time to learn lessons from her past), but the gimmick was never the point for me.

For me, the part of the hook was half-decent acting from most of the cast. (Most of the cast– some do act like actors on Canadian TV series, but this is a Canadian TV series after all.) A really wonderful soundtrack that catered to my nostalgic side whenever Erica went back to high school. And pretty fantastic writing that veered towards the unexpected. (I also liked it when Erica enquired whether her going back in time to change the past would disrupt the space-time continuum, as you do, and he informed her that her overall impact on the universe was not quite that extensive.)

I put Erica to the test in a recent episode, where Erica is at the movies with her pregnant friend. Friend has to go to the bathroom, but can’t get out from her seat, and just before the show breaks for commercial, water splooshes all over the floor. “If she’s wet her pants instead of having her water break, therefore defying all television convention,” I said, “then this is the best show ever”. (It was a water splooshing all over the floor moment that had me sure I was never again going to watch Sophie, a previous Canadian show I’d tried to like). And back from commerical, Erica won!

Now, full disclosure, Judith’s water did go sploosh later in the ‘sode, but I’m still giving credit. This show isn’t perfect, but it’s a million times better than most of the other stuff on TV. It’s immensely entertaining, and I look forward to Season Two in a couple of weeks.

July 13, 2009

Bits and pieces

I am so excited to read the final volume of the Anne books— I wasn’t aware such a volume existed, and wonder if it’s actually finished, as its form sounds quite fragmentary. But no less, my favourite Anne books were the last bunch (House of Dreams, Rainbow Valley, Anne of Ingleside and Rilla of Ingleside), precisely for their dealings with “serious” and “darker” themes this book supposedly contends with– I couldn’t help but think about Anne’s stillborn baby in light of Montgomery’s own experiences, Leslie Moore’s marriage, WW1, the pied piper and Walter’s death, when Anne fears Gilbert has ceased to love her, etc. Guardian blogger discusses the “dark side” of Green Gables. Bits of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book called Rainbow Valley and Rilla of Ingleside to mind, actually, and Dovegreyreader interviews Byatt here. Speaking of interviews, Rebecca Rosenblum answers 12 or 20 questions. And speaking of nothing at all, 30 Rock ripped off the Muppet Show, why our federal tax dollars should not fund jazz, and Russell Smith on baby slings (he says do avoid the polyester).

June 9, 2008

Expanding the possibilities

I was very interested to read “Women Behaving Boldly”, Sarah Liss’s argument that Sex and the City‘s female archetypes might have as their origin those of Alcott’s Little Women. I’ve not read Little Women for years and years, and I’m not sure that what I did read wasn’t abridged anyway, nevertheless, I’ll be (re?)reading the novel this summer. Liss writes, “Louisa May Alcott ’s proto-feminist tome has been a rite of passage for generations… [T]he March girls were complex and flawed, and they helped shape my understanding of the many facets of femininity.” As I reread, I’ll keep her ideas in mind.

A reader takes issue with Liss, however: “Have you actually read Little Women?” Claiming that Little Women didn’t celebrate feminist ideals, but rather quashed them. That Jo March was never accepted for her independent spirit, and those around her tried to tame her. Which might be right, I don’t remember now. But I suspect otherwise, for when I look back to impressions of Little Women, Jo’s spirit is all that I really remember. All attempts towards taming aside, Jo is Little Women (except for my impressions where Beth stands out, but they are only because she died).

I’d always associated Little Women with another female archetype-dependent television show, however, which was The Facts of Life. When I was seven and watched too much television, I came across an ad for Little Women in the back of another novel, read its plot synopsis, and figured these two quartets featuring girls named Jo must be intrinsically linked. It was only this chance to discover further adventures of a girl called Jo, I think, that led me to Little Women in the first place.

They were indeed a bit interchangeable, these Jo’s, except that one had sold her hair, and the other cultivated hers into an elaborate mullet. Both of them were everybody’s favourites though, and I can’t help but think I’m not the only one who found both of them integral to an understanding of self during these formative years. That there were alternatives to the kinds of girls we were supposed to be, expanding the possibilities to encompass most anything.

May 1, 2008

Katie girls

My only shoes worth more than $100 are orthopedic and I haven’t had cable TV in a decade, but I’ve always enjoyed Sex and the City (in syndication, naturally). And not just because of the “Ex in the City/The Way We Were” episode, which brought me such comfort during those dark days when I was deranged and thought no one would ever love me (and these two factors may have been related). Remember, the simple girls and Katie girls? But writer Libby Brooks pins down the rest of it brilliantly as follows:

“…this fantastical element was tolerated in exchange for the unprecedented honesty about other areas of women’s experience that Sex and the City hauled into the mainstream. Most prominently, the series discussed the micro and macro of sexual relationships as they had never been before: when is it all right to fake an orgasm? Ought there to be cleanup etiquette for men giving head? How does maternal ambivalence affect a woman who is already pregnant?

Those gasp-out-loud episodes were embraced by women not only because they’d been there privately, but thanks to the context in which they were discussed. For my money, the enduring appeal of Sex and the City has nothing to do with guys or footwear. It’s about the uncomfortably accurate presentation of women’s relationships with each other. However the critics receive the new film, they ought to bear in mind that, for all the brunch chatter, this show has never been a story about men. Sex and the City was always, baseline, about us girls; about how women’s friendships can be complicated and bitchy, but also meaningful, supportive and lasting.”

October 17, 2007

Sitcom

Just purchased Sitcom by David McGimpsey. I heard about it on the radio this morning. I am interested in it because I’ve lately had some thoughts about The Facts of Life that might be brewing into something special. Further, because I recently learned that Kimmy Gibbler in real life went on into academia.

May 19, 2007

Extra-Media Report

Though the book is my primary medium, I do branch out a bit from time to time. I try not to watch television, as I find it makes time go by too quickly. I allow myself one show a week, which used to be the gloriously awful CSI Miami, but I’ve quit that. There was something so terribly sadistic about it. And I’d fallen in love with Ugly Betty by then anyway. It’s a wonderful show– I like melodrama (if I wanted realism I’d go outside) but what kills melodrama every time is bad writing (hello CSI Miami). This is not the case with Ugly Betty, however, which is funny and poignant, and has brought tears to my eyes way more than once. And so this Thursday night we watched the season finale, which was so engaging I nearly had a heart attack. And then at the very end they tore my little heart right out, and I was absolutely gutted. I haven’t been this upset by a television death since Dennis died on EastEnders. Even so, I absolutely adore that show, and I can’t wait for the next season.

And now, musically speaking. Yesterday I was listening to BBC 6 Music when I heard the new Crowded House single. And surprised I was, for though I have long considered Crowded House one of my favourite bands, I don’t follow them too closely- particularly since they were broken up. But they are apparently back together, and have an album coming out this summer. Which thrills me. I really liked the single, and imagine the chance to see them live? And so that was all very exciting.

Now back to the bookish life.

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