Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Mad Men and Rescue Me: The Great American Novels

(Yar here thar be spoilers! No seriously big ones. If you haven'ts seen these shows. Run.)

It is odd, but perhaps appropriate given our reputations as philistines, that the only place where people are bothering to try and write the great American novel anymore is on TV. This is a distinction of course from great novel’s written in America. I’m talking about works devoted to decoding The American character and what if anything, it means. The subject has never been of particular interest to the post modernists, and the few remaining modernists roaming the land are more concerned with writing stories about how they can no longer get their penises to stand up quite as easily as they once could.

That leaves your David Simons, with his sociopolitical vivesection that is The Wire (“I’m A Free Born Man Of The USA”) that leaves Chase with his head trip through our monstrous id that was The Sopranoes. And that leaves with Mad Men. Draper has as much of the American Character in him as Gatsby. He personifies the idea that it is not only the right of every American to reinvent himself in the image of his choosing, but his duty.

After all why be Dick Whitman, whoreson, dirt poor, and cowardly when you can be Don Draper, Atlas astride the world.

For those five of you who still don’t know, Mad Men follows the lives of several Ad Men working at a Madison avenue agency at the height of that particularly businesses’ prestige, power, and glamour. It’s a world of privilege, of three martini lunches, and secretaries to bang before heading home to the wife. But its also a world whose first cracks are beginning to show, and one that will come tumbling down in the tumult of the sixties.

I’m fascinated by the idea of America as an empire. Mostly because we so manifestly are, and yet so many American’s are so resolutely uncomfortable with that fact and try to deny it so all we end up doing is being an empire about as poorly as possible.

Mad Men portrays that one brief shining moment when it all seemed to come together. When the generation who lived through the great depression and defeated the Nazis, looked around and saw that they where all that was left. A time when American Exceptionalism did not seem at best delusional and at worse actively destructive. But right, self evident. It’s the Pax Romana the one brief moment that it all coalesced before destiny was corrupted by Nixon, Vietnam, over extension, and other acts of general idiocy.

Mad Men lays out this story with a depth of detail and a unity of vision that’s stunning. If the theme of the show is reinvention or self invention, it knows this from the opening frames, a title card giving the origin of the shows title, which is too good to spoil. It has moments of grace and beauty worthy of the great works of the last half century. One of my favorite moments in the show is the image of Don’s by turns fragile and surprisingly strong wife Betty, demurely blasting homing pigeons with a shotgun in her robe curlers and slippers, an image that could cap something by Salinger, Updike, or Heller.

With its fascinatingly human cast, intrigue plot, and weighty articulate themes Mad Men might end up being the most satisfying book I read all year.

Rescue Me, is also a show that’s steeped in history. Albietly accidentally. Rescue Me is the story of a house of firefighters reeling in the wake of 9/11. The thing that makes Rescue Me so shocking, is its raw immediacy, its frankly bizarre to see 9/11 treated as a current event. Its just a happy accident that the show began shooting within two years of the attacks, with 9/11 not ten years out and yet already thoroughly cocooned in history, Rescue Me captured something that could never be redone.

Part of what makes Rescue Me so fascinating, is how unabashedly fucked up they allow Leary to be. Sure he’s still Dennis Leary which means he gets to make a lot of sarcastic quips and call himself an asshole, but he’s also someone falling apart at the seams a broken person, in the midst of a breakdown (He’s seeing the ghosts of those he failed to save ala Bringing Out The Dead), who is always mere moments away from a total personality meltdown.

About midway through the season there’s an episode that opens with Leary having a 9/11 flashback at a stop sign, getting lost in reverie, getting honked at by a pissed driver, and then getting out of the car to beat the honker’s ass. Now here’s the thing, if someone else had been stopped at that stop sign, Leary himself would have been yelling and screaming for that douchebag to move. The hypocrisy in his persona suggests that Leary is much more self aware then I gave him credit for.

Rescue Me isn’t quite as satisfying an experience as Mad Men, it leaves subplots dangling, and occasionally storylines peter out and end with a shrug rather then conclude (two particularly bad cases a black gay Midget who predicts horse races and falls in love with Leary’s uncle, {yes like the Gary Coleman movie} and a subplot involving a victim who ends up stalking the fireman who saved him might as well end with the sad trombone). Its unsure of itself, never quite deciding whether Tommy really is going Sixth Sense or is just completely crazy. In short its rougher and less satisfying then Mad Men, but what it lacks in elegance it makes up for with energy.

And with a cast of characters who are no less fascinating. The cast of Rescue Me constantly surprises you with the depths of both their Amorality and decency. These characters are so vulgarly verbal that they’re able to fool you into thinking that’s all they are. But when there hidden depths are show its never less then organic. Particularly Jerry the chief of the crew who initially comes off as a brutish homophobic, misogynistic asshole, only to slowly turn into one of the series most complex and vulnerable characters without ever seeming untrue to himself.

Rescue Me is a show about desperate people barely holding it together, and for all of its flaws and dead ends its never anything less then fascinating.


J.D. said...

What a fantastic post! And you're right, the Great American novel is being made on TV with these wonderful shows. And you can see other TV shows trying to do this in 1980s with the likes of CRIME STORY and WISEGUY both trying to do that exact same thing but with varying degrees of success. I would also argue that TWIN PEAKS attempted to do this as well but now you've got shows like MAD MEN where their creators have learned from the mistakes of shows past and are really going for it in interesting ways. I love MAD MEN, definitely the best thing of TV right now, and am excited by whatever direction it goes in next.

Bryce Wilson said...

Thanks JD

I definitely see a connection between Mad Men and Peaks. The scene where Peggy records "The Relaxalizor" commercial with the weeping model seemed very Lynchian to me.