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This is the longer version of the post up at The New Republic:
My favorite thing about this season of Mad Men has been watching Don Draper go slack. Many fans of the show have—understandably—lamented that Don’s inability to change is boring. One senses a hunger for Don’s redemption, and simmering under the restive essays on Don’s issues and how poorly they’ve aged is the question of what fiction is supposed to do. It’s true that people don’t change in real life, these critics write, but. The implication is that Don’s patterns are identical to the show’s and that Don’s progress is identical to the show’s progress: he hasn’t changed, therefore the show hasn’t changed.
We haven’t been among these critics. For me, it’s only at this point when, startled, we start to really experience what it’s like to be a Betty living with a Don—when we start occupying the subject position of wife (fan) instead of would-be mistress (potential viewer)—that the show becomes truly interesting. This is one of the few thought-provoking experiments American television, with its sprawling multi-year seasons that more often than not end in accidental burnout, can intentionally conduct, and it’s not an experiment in entertainment: rather, it’s a study of boredom and the perils of long-term arrangements that began with choice and ossified. Like addiction, like work, like marriage. The answer to creating a damaged, chronically depressed character whose tragic relation to his past consigns him to sameness isn’t to fix him or guide him to a happy ending (if Mad Men has taught us anything it’s that nothing ends); the answer is to chronicle the awful boredom of the compulsive.
In that sense it’s a show about our own time, no more about the past than Star Trek was about the future. We (the “we” whose peculiarly white American history Mad Men presumes to tell, anyway) Gatsby-ed our way to an expensive, sexy, monstrous prosperity and we’re more depressed than we’ve ever been. Our current crop of self-help is less about happiness than it is about “lifehacks,” the willpower to curb our compulsions, and the Mad Men Phenomenon unifies a cluster of especially ornate tics we anxiously pretend to control: sex, work, television, and the internet. The complaint that Don has become repetitive after SIX YEARS of cheating and self-delusion (in some televisual variant on the seven-year itch) both overlooks that the tyranny of habit constitutes a legitimate and indeed urgent subject and mistakes the source of our creeping disinvestment in the show. Especially since the show has changed precisely by highlighting that Don hasn’t; it has changed dramatically this season by decoupling itself from Don and peeling its progress away from his stasis.
Not that the charge was believable anyway; the apparently bottomless market for superhero movies proves that we tolerate repetition well enough. But that appetite was what made much of this season good: Don’s affliction, his stumble into anesthetic self-destructive sameness is ours. Our stupid yearning for happy endings, even for characters who don’t want them, even when we can see for ourselves how any such ending would compromise the integrity of the story we’ve been following so slavishly for so long, is just another kind of death-wish. All season I’ve been chuckling at the idea of Don having a come-to-Jesus moment. More compelling than a documentary portrait of 1960s white America is Mad Men’s true protagonist, the awful boredom that turns people into monsters.
For too long (and for too many) Mad Men’s appeal has been linked to Don’s. It’s nobody’s fault; this peculiar age of Serious TV Dramas Featuring White Male Antiheroes caught us unprepared. Blindsided by feelings before we can parse them, we’ve come to a wrongheaded consensus that a show’s interest and complexity is identical to (or interchangeable with) its protagonist. Somehow—and predictably, since we have a thousand years of tragedy as precedent—we’ve taken the (super)hero story’s sly cousin, this genre whose subversive project is forcing us to identify with a subjectivity we know to be evil, or wrong, or mistaken, and responded to this complicated narrative experiment by being, for the most part, stunningly sincere. Our reactions and loyalties are more or less the same as it would be if the antihero were a hero. Yes, there’s a veneer of knowingness; everyone understands intellectually that Don’s an asshole. But he’s awesome at his job, and look at the women he gets! There is (or was) a plague of men who want to be Donald Draper and women who want to sleep with him. This shiny-haired salesman from the late fifties is the cool kid everyone wants to be, not Back Then but now, still.
That’s weird, and it’s a symptom of just how oddly our sympathies have skewed. It’s been happening for awhile—I’m struck every time someone describes an insufferable and pushy woman as a Tracy Flick because it so clearly illustrates this affective loophole. Matthew Broderick’s character in Election was a psychopath intent on stopping a girl from a “broken home” (to use Betty Draper’s phrase) and a victim of statutory rape to boot—at the hands of a teacher, no less, and for this McAllister blames her—from being class president. Everyone knew it was satire when they watched the film but Tracy Flick remains the monster in our memory, not McAllister. We’re in an age when “it’s satire!” has become a facile defense of narrative strategies that so sincerely engage our sentiments that they (or we) forget their satirical goals.
Though not a satire, Mad Men suffers from this affliction. When watching any particular scene the experience splits pretty neatly into two basic categories. The first category is so context-rich and unpredictable that we forget we’re obsessed decoders and relish the odd dialogue. These are the Bob Benson conversations, the Roger Sterling-and-Jane-Divorcing sequences. The second category boils down to a naked quasi-schematic shorthand that informs us so loudly of the Scene’s Function that we never sink into the scene at all. Back in Mad Men’s early days, if Betty and the kids were onscreen, the point was to show us that Betty was an unfeeling and selfish mother. If Don and the kids were onscreen, in contrast, that scene’s work was to portray a complex person who, despite his faults, saw his children as feeling creatures and tried in his limited way to tend to their small frightened subjectivities. This was a tiresome double-standard and it became progressively more constricting and narratively unkind. Now that the narrator has reconciled Don and Bets, the scenes between Betty and Sally are newly rich; they breathe.
The Don and Sylvia scenes were of the second type, as were the scenes between Don and Ted which registered Competition! Not so the telephone conversations between Peggy and Stan or any storyline involving Pete’s mother. Those had the virtuosic quality of seeming like weird things that happened—they lacked the thudding expository quality that sometimes flattens Mad Men into a series of symbolic flash cards. Scene with Ginsberg were almost always the former whereas the conversation between Dawn and her friend in the diner was definitely the latter. But even those flash cards served the show well so long as they registered its growing narrative distance from Don.
The finale was sensational and absorbing but I was stunned to see Don actually get the come-to-Jesus moment I’d chuckled at because the possibility seemed absurd. I never would have guessed that the season-long corrective to our five-year habit of accidentally falling for Don would devolve into the clichés of hitting bottom and redemption. Don’s not the only recidivist; Matthew Weiner has reverted to Don-centrism. How good it was to see the show acknowledge that Don couldn’t anchor the show anymore—much better than seeing Don Confess to His Past or Punished For His Excesses was seeing him deglamorized and sometimes shuffled aside. To the extent that one can hope for the demise of a charming character, I had hoped Roger’s death would justify the references to death sprinkled throughout the season—Roger’s many allusions, the Inferno-reading, Vietnam, the assassinations, near-shootings, etc. He seemed like the logical candidate for reasons I explained there, and for Don’s midlife crisis not to culminate in any death related to Don would have so beautifully cemented the show’s defection and its new commitment to other characters and plots.
But the season concluded with the symbolic “death” of Don the liar and a full throated return to Dick-centric catharsis. It seems we have a resurrection to look forward to. Don’t get me wrong: it’s nice to see him come clean to Sally, but Don isn’t a tragic hero nor should he be saved—those traditions belongs to another time. Ours is smaller, sharper, and full of clicks. Don’s office isn’t where everything is. Where’s Ginsberg’s dad? What happened to Peggy’s secretary? Oh Joan and your bid for Avon, where did you go?
Cross-posted at Los Angeles Review of Books
The title of Girls Season 2 Episode 1 was “It’s About Time” — referring, exactly, to what? What is it we’ve been waiting for? Hannah’s (kind of, sort of) split from Adam? Marnie’s (kind of, sort of) return to Charlie? The return of the show itself? Probably mostly the latter: “It’s About Time” was a pretty conventional season premiere in that it mostly just eased us back into the milieu the last season had already established, concerning itself more with tone than with plot, character development, or theme.
Still, time was a theme, of sorts. Dunham has opted for the now-commonplace narrative gambit of skipping over an unspecified period of time (seemingly a couple of months) between seasons, so that a number of important events have occurred in the interim. (How is there not a TV Tropes entry for this practice?) Hannah is now having sex with Sandy (Donald Glover), unbeknownst (presumably) to Adam, who she is (reluctantly) nursing back to health after his accident; her gay ex-boyfriend Elijah has moved into her apartment, and is (platonically) sharing her bed; Shoshanna and Ray made some attempt at a relationship which fizzled out, due in part to her profligacy with emoji; Jessa and Thomas-John have been on a long honeymoon in Mexico (frankly, it would have been fine with me if they’d stayed there). Time marches on!
What I noticed most in this episode, though, were not the principals but the disaffected older characters, like Marnie’s embittered, narcissistic mom (Rita Wilson, playing against cutesy-pie type), or Elijah’s older boyfriend George, who has a karaoke-induced meltdown and then chastises the kids at Hannah and Elijah’s housewarming party for not having the right kind of fun (“When I was your age, I was snorting cocaine on twinks and dancing with my tits out!”). It’s interesting that the older people in Girls are frequently either attempting to re-enter the magic circle of twentysomething culture (like Jessa’s boss Jeff from last season) or passing angry judgment on it — or, in George’s case, both.
This intensifies a device Girls was already using intermittently last season: introducing older people at the story’s margins (most often parents, teachers, and bosses) in order to admit a corrective self-consciousness — or the possibility of self-consciousness — into the show’s mostly hermetic post-collegiate universe. Sometimes these older characters have some wisdom to dispense, but what we mostly see in them is a longing to return to youth, coupled with a scorn for how the young people of today are wasting it or doing it wrong. (“You look — can I be honest? — 30 years old,” Marnie’s mother tells her; translation: you don’t appreciate what you have, and you’re about to lose it.) It’s to Dunham’s credit that she can write convincingly for people over 30, but it must be said that she also takes a kind of sadistic pleasure in humiliating these characters, or emphasizing their most pathetic aspects: the scene where Hannah locks George out of the party (while still insisting, over his protests, that she’s “a sweet girl”) is both a case in point and a good allegory for the show’s general strategy vis-à-vis grown ups.
I wonder if, to some extent, the marginal presence of these voyeuristic, disapproving adults is Dunham’s way of working through the staggering amount of attention she’s received since the first season’s premiere. Much has been made of how popular Girls is with the generation it depicts, but it’s also, clearly, a source of continual fascination for older people as well, many of whom are vaguely (or not so vaguely) perplexed and disapproving. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out over the course of the season. If the last season (or the episodes Dunham directed, anyway) had a preternatural confidence, this one came closer to swagger: the final shot of Dunham stripping felt like a real manifesto moment, since nudity — and particularly Dunham’s nudity — has been the catalyst for so much of the aforementioned perplexity and disapproval. It emphasized something that’s too easily missed: that Dunham shooting herself naked isn’t just an exhibitionistic compulsion, or a sign of millennial shamelessness, or (pace Howard Stern) a “little fat chick trying to get something going,” but a directorial signature.
On a shamelessly exhibitionistic note, glad to be back in the fold here at Dear Television! Looking forward to hearing what the rest of you have to say.
I talk to my friends way worse than this,
The first thing Dear TV ever covered was the first season of Girls, to which we shall return this coming week over at the Los Angeles Review of Books. To receive updates on posts, like our Facebook page! In the meantime, enjoy a stroll down memory lane with this index of our own first season. At the beginning, we only roughly tied our posts to episodes, so, be forewarned:
“Testing, Testing” / Evan
“American Nervousness, 2012″ / Phil
“How are things in Ohio?” / Evan
“Call Me, Maybe” / Jane
“A Theory of Crackuracy” / Phil
“Bushwick Bildungsroman” / Evan
“Turn On, Drop In, Drop Out” / Jane
“The Economy of Friendship” / Jane
“Risky Business” / Evan
“The Eyes of Kathryn Hahn” / Phil
“Killing Carrie Bradshaw” / Lili
“The Marriage Plot” / Jane
“Bottoms Up” / Phil
This week, your friends at Dear Television covered episodes of New Girl and The Mindy Project, both of which were helpfully titled, “Halloween.” We also began a new tradition for our syndication at The Los Angeles Review of Books: death matches! From now on, we will not only be writing about issues of gender, class, and adorkability, we’ll also be judging these shows as a Battle of the Thirtysomething Lady Sitcoms. Check us out at the LARB to see who took the crown this week…
NEW GIRL, THE MINDY PROJECT, and the HALLOWEEN SPECIAL
Jane Hu: Shiny Red Lame Special On how The Mindy Project‘s in-costume episode was a gamble that ended up revealing the new show’s strength and depth:
While New Girl waited an entire season before taking on the Halloween special, Mindy Project aired their first last night, with only three episodes preceding it. The fact that it worked — that it was, at least for me, the best episode yet — speaks to Mindy Project’s success in setting out (and setting up) its characters so that they still speak to us even when dressed up as other characters.
And, furthermore, how Halloween Specials show us the profound joys of being recognized:
Given television’s theatrical and metavisual qualities, Halloween seems more suited to the medium than Christmas. Halloween specials remind us that characters are always already remodeled after prior characters — that they are always already in costume. Last week, Leslie Knope dressed up Rosie the Riveter in Parks and Recreation.
If one missed the reference, the costume and its attendant allusions would fall flat. Given that Parks & Rec jokes frequently rely on cultural references, however, one would suspect that its dedicated viewers would have easily recognized Rosie… New Girl and Mindy Project did the same. Jokes about Woody Allen! Jokes about Woody Allen’s tribute to the Marx Brothers! Diane from Cheers! Josh dresses up as Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, since it’s Mindy’s favorite film. But when Mindy quotes from the film, Josh doesn’t recognize it — and Josh is, like, really white.
Lili Loofbourow: Peanuts and the Perils of the Perfect Costume On how The Mindy Project locked it down this week:
Romantic comedies are like ice-skating (or, you know, any other sport): you know what you’re going to get, but the pleasure lives in the virtuosic disruptions of the format. QUADRUPLE-LUTZ! NO-HITTER! Kaling’s pulling this off, delivering solid formula along with some genuinely impressive moves. The show’s pleasure is as much in its grace notes as in the overfamiliar melody (“the brown Bridget Jones,” as Subashini Navaratnam put it). Scenes that should be throwaways do a little extra work.
And on how one of those throwaway exchanges helped crystallize Mindy Lahiri as a character:
When Mindy puts a jabbering kid on the phone, we all know what the next move is and what this scene is meant to tell us. Mindy will be good or bad with kids and that will show us A) how selfish she is and B) how much she wants kids (and therefore a man). That’s the point of kids in sitcoms about thirty-something women. That is the only way we’ve ever seen these chess pieces move with respect to each other. But no — Mindy actually sees this kid…Mindy’s childishness, her selfishness, her self-centeredness, all have the interesting side effect of letting her be a better friend because she’s not performing goodness. She’s refusing the Goodness Scoreboard. That’s an interesting brand of unlikeability.
Phil Maciak: Good Grief On how New Girl is strong on character/weak on plot, and Mindy Project is the opposite:
How on earth is it possible that a 30-year-old woman, growing up in America with an encyclopedic knowledge of romantic comedies and a television addiction — Mindy Kaling, in other words, who just executive produced an episode of television based around the message of It’s a Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown — has never heard of Peanuts? Who is Mindy Lahiri? Who are any of these people?
And on how hard it is for these two shows to create original characters from the set of archetypes and stale formats given to them by television and rom-com history:
The hot doctor. The spinster with no prospects. The man who goes where he wants, when he wants. The cool witty girl who kind of kills it in bed. The douche. The psycho. The dork. In their least interesting moments, the characters on these shows exist as either embodiments or comical inverses of these types. At their best, these characters mama-bird their types — ingesting them and regurgitating them in new forms. (Sorry.)
Get up in the comments section at LARB as we track more quadruple-lutzes, possible no-hitters, and missed Peanuts references this week!
Dear Television is over at the Los Angeles Review of Books discussing New Girl and The Mindy Project. BATTLE OF THE LADY SHOWS. Join us!
Here’s an index of what we’ve covered so far:
Week 1 of New Girl and The Mindy Project
Phil Maciak: Groove is in the Heart. Of women in comedy, and why we chose New Girl and The Mindy Project. Despite its early twee-ness,
“New Girl began to feel less precious and more lived-in… and even managed to offer a super-convincing meta-argument for its ethnography of Dork-Americans.” The Mindy Project pilot, in contrast, “felt a lot like a good college admissions essay: super-tight, clear voice, well-defined thesis and themes, plenty of poignant self-analysis, copy-edited and structured to within an inch of its life.”
Jane Hu: A Serial Takeover. Of television as a medium:
If one premise of Mindy Project is what happens to the rom-com movie when transferred to the medium of television — with all its attendant sit-com formulas — then I am more than game.
On what generational comedy means now.
A generational comedy of 30-somethings in 2012 rarely fails to poke fun at the extended adolescence of 30-somethings in 2012. Mindy can no longer “have what she’s having,” since she’s arrived at that particular meal too late. Instead, she possesses only the blueprints of a marriage plot that no longer fits her life and times.”
Lili Loofbourow: Party Girl vs. Rom-Com Girl. Both shows are trying to fight their respective stereotypes by exposing difference where you expect sameness–in New Girl, by putting Parker Posey next to Zooey Deschanel, the other indie queen, and showing the mismatch. In The Mindy Project, a different rescue is attempted:
If you’re a girl, the romantic comedy has been one of the few places where female protagonists a) exist and b) are allowed some kind of interiority… Kaling is building on this starved generation’s super-detailed knowledge of the romantic comedy corpus, and on its hunger for some kind of legitimacy.
Week 2 of New Girl and The Mindy Project
Jane Hu, When Worlds Collide. On space and the sit-com:
I started to see all sitcoms — all stories really — in terms of worlds that undergo continual threats of invasion. The basic axiom of narrative is, after all, how a constant (premise, group, space) must recalibrate itself to a sequence of incoming events, persons, or data.
New Girl is more conventional in pretty completely excluding the world of work from the show and focusing on home, unlike The Mindy Project, which has yet to explore Mindy’s apartment. Then there’s the question of social space: Jess and Mindy approach those spaces, and whether they mix, differently:
Jess struggles in keeping her relationship with Nick (friend and roommate) separate from her relationship with Sam; Mindy, however, has no qualms with worlds colliding. Well aware that all good stories rely on just-believable chance encounters, she encourages them.
Lili Loofbourow, Romney-Dad: Conservatives Back in Comedy. On the lack of true eccentricity in New Girl:
New Girl is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs where the dwarfs have been attenuated: Nick is Slightly Grumpy, Schmidt is Slightly Dopey, and Winston is Kinda Doc.
New Girl’s peculiarity is that its B story is almost always more interesting than its A story.
Here, in the middle of an ugly electoral season, the show pauses to dwell on Romney’s possibilities as the ideal father, and it’s brilliant. Romney would be a perfect sitcom dad — if sitcoms still had dads.
The Mindy Project has its token conservative too, and it’s the male lead.
Phil Maciak, Moby-Nick, Or The Whale Belt. New Girl seems to be saying, “Buy in to this vague, implausible stalling tactic for a season, and we’ll get them in the sack eventually.”
“Fluffer,” as a kind of summit meeting about the state of this relationship, was a canny piece of writing, but I’m not sure it plugged the holes it sought out to plug.
More importantly, though, class! the major players on The Mindy Project are RICH. Is Schmidt’s whale belt a Class Transcender?
So what kind of magic belt is this? Is it a kind of hipster-post-racial utility belt? Not quite. The simple answer is that the belt fits at the center of the Kanye West/Mitt Romney Venn diagram, and the thing these two men have in common is the thing they also have in common with Mindy Lahiri and Danny Castellano: they are rich. Rockefeller and Roc-a-fella.
WEEK 3 OF NEW GIRL AND THE MINDY PROJECT
Lili Loofbourow, Of In-Groups and Out-Groups. What happens when characters try to work outside their social systems?
In both cases, the protagonists end up choosing their original in-group over the more desirable out-group, but both episodes stage the seduction of wanting badly to belong, even as you understand that your winning has nothing to do with your own merit.
But, as usual, the show continues to forget about Winston.
I hope the show finds its sweet spot with Winston, because I feel like he’s fading into a joke accessory — he’s the guy whose weirdness only lasts one episode: he likes fruity drinks! He doesn’t get pranks! He wears a peacock earring!
Phil Maciak, How to Crush It. Can a douchebag outrun his douchebaggery? Or can it only be that
he’s not any better than you thought he was, there’s just more in there.
Should Mindy pay up at the Douchebag Jar?
The Mindy Project [...] sometimes doesn’t seem to have any distance from what it depicts. The camera on The Mindy Project is very subjective, and I think it might have d-bag goggles on.
Jane Hu, A Toast to the Douchebags. What do we really mean when we say douchebag?
From the New Girl pilot, Schmidt was dubbed “feminine” as much as “douchebag,” and that women don’t find Schmidt sexually attractive might have something to do with how he reminds them of what society expects a woman to be.
For Mindy, the club becomes a ballroom:
The modern girl’s fairy tale still involves ballrooms, red carpets, a gate at the stairs, and a carriage ready to take one home.
WEEK 4 OF NEW GIRL
Phil Maciak, Dance, Monkey, Dance. Is New Girl using its fat suit for cheap laughs?
They lean so hard into it that you are tempted to think they are making fun of the trope. But, of course, that’s what critics like us say when shows we perceive to be smarter than the conventions they employ go ahead and employ those conventions. And there’s no way out. No matter how much self-consciousness we ascribe to New Girl or Mindy or Girls, Fat Schmidt is still getting laughs for being Fat.
Sometimes, love just hurts so bad:
To know someone well enough to tease them the way Nick teases Schmidt is to have a kind of intimacy.
Jane Hu, Soul Cakes. Guys — are we giving New Girl too much credit?
Sometimes, a fat suit is just a fat suit. It seems that for New Girl — a show that certainly doesn’t lack attractive bodies — fatness has become a throw-away gimmick.
How stereotypically gendered are the New Girl characters’ relations to food?
Schmidt gets Nick a cookie, which he eats, and then regrets, because of what giving a cookie means. Jess bakes Cece a birthday cake, which she, as a model, can’t eat, because of what a cake does.
Lili Loofbourow, Go Back to Start, Do Not Pass Go. New Girl seems to be trying to wean itself off serial storytelling, since
A story about twenty-somethings (or thirty-somethings) is a story about precariousness, fluctuation, change. People marry, they move, they go out of town for jobs. The point of the roommate story is that it’s always already nostalgic. You go into a roommate situation knowing that it will end.
Finally, we might have missed the view from The Mindy Project a bit this week:
The other really interesting difference that’s already emerging (and will only intensify, I expect) is that The Mindy Project is aggressively structured through one perspective.
Dear Dear TV,
God, I loved these two episodes. Loved ‘em for the thrills, the gossipy content (Late Night wars!), but also, and mainly, because of their weird chains of causality. Tom Cruise doesn’t like surprises, so Louie goes on The Tonight Show. The maid refuses to Not Disturb, and it’s thanks to her that he gets up, checks his phone, and makes it to his meeting with the head of CBS. These are chains of causality we know: a crazy person explains to you that a remote control is counterintuitive, then murder suicides his whole family. This, in some deep, deep way, is the world we live in.
It’s not like surrealism is new to Season 3 of Louie, but sometimes (for me, anyway) Louie’s been hitting his uncanny baseballs out of the park. It’s a home run, sure, but I’d rather see the ball, catch it, take it home. If I had to group the show’s balls (So To Speak) into two camps, then Uncle X and Bizarro-Louie are In, and so is everything up to and including the window breaking in Dad, but the runaway scene is Out. Never-the-kid shitting in the tub is in—so’s throwing the rug out the window. Never causing traffic accidents and eating raw meat is out. Parker Posey’s in, Chloe Sevigny’s out. Ramón and all of Miami is in, along with Maria Bamford, Mark Maron, crabs, and even the crazy pharmacist grilling the lady on her bowel movements. When the surrealism gets too broad, it starts to get too dream-sequencey. If you’ve ever taught creative writing, then you know how legendary the And Then I Woke Up ending is, and by legendary I mean universal and lame.
Louis CK’s at his best when he’s showing us the inside of Louie’s head while showing us the outside world too in a way that shows the angle of distortion. The distinction I’m asking for is exactly the one he makes in Late Night: Part 2, when the show cuts between Louie watching Jackie Doll on the monitor with the music-glory vs. Jackie in “real life”.
Speaking of surrealism going outside the stadium, I watched all of Twin Peaks this last spring. When it ended I understood how everyone who watched Lost and complained about it endlessly truly felt. It’s a THERE IS NO GOD feeling. It stinks, because you’ve invested so much energy and thought in a show, trying to work out its premises, how it’s coding its mysteries, and then it turns out it was all just sort of slapped together with no real plan. Crazy lady with an eye patch! Ha, she’s strong! Um, cousin who looks exactly like Laura! Evil owls! A fake diary and a real diary! Dwarf! Giant! Billy Zane!
Not that I don’t like Twin Peaks—I have real affection for it in retrospect and I think parts of it are amazing mood pieces, but that doesn’t change the Disappointment With Dave. He’s SO the Wizard of Oz after Dorothy’s gone behind the curtain.
And that’s what Louis CK keeps offering us—here! He keeps saying. I’m drawing the curtain back! Here’s comedian world. Here’s single fatherhood. Here’s what late-show negotiations are like. And that’s what differentiates Louis CK from Lynch: where Lynch withholds information and turns plot points into shallow riddles, Louis just keeps giving you all the answers.
“Five years ago you probably peaked,” says the CBS guy, one of many Men Behind the Curtain in the Late Night series. “You do standup. You make 80,000 a year on your club dates. You don’t think you can do it. You think it’s over and you’re afraid to try. … I’ve seen it, and I’ve seen it turn around.”
CBS knows EVERYTHING. But it won’t lie about the future. The CBS guy is part Wizard and part Sphinx, just as powerful, just as vast in its perspective, and just as honest about how the world works:
“If the test is good, I’ll put you on the air. And then, if you’re a hit, everyone will think I’m a genius, and I’ll have saved the network about 12 million. If America hates you, no one’s gonna blame me. … But you’ll take the heat on all that. You’re gonna crack your head on the ceiling and you’re gonna go down, probably for good. “
Do you have chills? Because that’s a novel right there. Who puts that idea—that crazy enormous modern-day Rise of Silas Lapham of an idea—into the mouth of a CBS executive? HOLY COW. This is Satanic temptation meets genie meets, I don’t know, Indecent Proposal.
And there’s more!
“Look Louie, we’re talking about the big game here, so forgive me if I use big terms. Here’s the reality. In ten years you’re gonna be teaching comedy at a community college to support your kids, and falling asleep to the Late Show with Jerry Seinfeld. You’re circling failure in a rapidly decaying orbit. … But it’s in your power to change that.”
And this is where Part 1 ends—beautifully, because it could so easily have made the point of the episode Louie’s Yes or Louie’s No. Instead, it leaves the viewer with the agonizing question in the air. WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
Let’s just pause for a minute and think about how much less interesting this scene would have been if we were seeing it only through Louie’s anxious eyes. Say the CBS exec started getting bigger and bigger in the room while Louie got younger and younger. It would have been SO stupid, right, because that’s what’s happening anyway. The next episode is all about Louie being surrounded by Dads.
Louis CK downplays his smarts, which makes him better than Lynch in the sense that he’s (supposedly) keeping our expectations low. See his explanation of how he hired the actress who plays Janet for an example of this Oh, I Just Decided And Fuck It Everyone Will Be Fine With It sort of attitude. But let’s face it: dude’s a genius, and it would su-u-u-ck if he wasn’t putting serious thought into this stuff, which he obviously is. It’s no coincidence that the index cards in the background of wherever Jay Leno’s calling from say “Adam Smith,” “Products For A Better You,” and “Halloween Products.” There it all is: cutthroat competition, Louie’s self-improvement program, and Jay’s scare tactics.
But anyway, back to the chain of causality. Things in Late Show: Parts I and II are good and bad in pretty stupid ways in the moment (damn the maid! She woke me up!), but those outcomes are actually just steps toward some bigger, blustery whole. (Shot at the Late Show! Thank the maid!) Nothing in the world really connects to anything else the way it’s supposed to: that you were flown into LA for The Tonight Show in no way guarantees that you are going to perform on The Tonight Show. But there’s slant continuity, to use Jane’s coinage: you’ll always get either much more or much less than you want. Having planned 4.5 minutes for late-night television, you’re either going to get bumped or else you’ll just stay, pointing finger-guns at the audience, forever.
The trouble is that there’s no right vantage-point from which to look at the future. The end of Late Night: Part 1 is a true cliff-hanger, and the head of CBS is every inch the Satanic tempter as the music plays mournfully behind him.
What surrealism there is (how many different phones were ringing in Louie’s hotel room by the time he picked up?), it all feels extremely real. The baseball is within the stadium. Take these old men asking you to do truly odd things, then blaming you a little for not getting it right. They blow past your faults too, that’s how little you matter. “You don’t need to tell ‘em your name, son.” And yet, if you’re Louie, you have all these new dads who keep throwing you in the water, giving you black eyes.
And oh, what a precious kind of surrealism that is, because it’s damn close to how different generations see each other anyway. The Old Men in the business of show communicate telegraphically, so accustomed are they to being read correctly and to having their frame of reference be the only frame. “Carnegie Deli,” says the head of CBS after calling the lawyer in, and we waffle off-balance, like Louie, trying to figure out what to do with those words. Is Carnegie Deli the lawyer’s name? Is it a part of speech? There’s no context for what those two words mean, but they’re hovering in the air, awaiting a response. By the time we’ve recognized the phrase, it’s too late—the conversation has moved on. “Timing is everything,” says David Lynch, after Louie fails to perform an activity that Jackie Doll seems to think is Telling A Joke.
Do Not Turn This Off, says the index card in Jackie Doll’s booth, Just Turn The Intensity Down.
I do want to register a minor complaint re: Janet’s conversation with Louie, and it’s that their talk felt too rational. These people are divorced. They coparent, certainly, but there’s a painful past locked up there. Aaron Bady, with whom I was watching this episode, observed that when Louie tells Janet his news and she immediately says, “Cuz you’re cheap,” there should have been a moment of annoyance. I felt that when she says, “You’d have a job” and he says “I have a job,” his annoyance, his sip of water, the bad silence that follows–it all suggests something bigger than what comes next. Their body language is great. It’s uncomfortable, and bitter. That sounds like an old fight, and no such fight gets sipped away. If you’re Janet in that fight, if you spent years being mad because Louie’s job wasn’t reliable (and it sounds like it was an issue, even though she says she appreciated him supporting them), you push that harder, you don’t just zoom out into a reflection on his career arc and say, in a moment of generosity: this is what it’s all been building up to. “If you don’t do this, what was it all for. … What did I put my nine [years] in for?”
But that’s beside the point. The real object of that conversation (besides reestablishing Louie’s passivity and need to have every woman with whom he comes in contact explain him to himself) is to redefine the Right Thing To Do. We’ve talked a lot here at Dear TV about how central Louie’s fatherhood is to the show, so for Janet to redefine what being a good father means for Louie is a big deal. “You’ve been a fine father, but nobody needs a father that much,” she says. YOWCH. His job isn’t to be there for the kids, she says, reestablishing a definition of masculinity and fatherhood that’s as old as the Reagan and Nixon jokes. His job is to make it.
And that achieves something remarkably interesting: it means that Louie, in order to be a good father, has to submit to this old crop of show-business fathers at the very moment he’s losing his brother Chris Rock, who shaved and ditched the collar and donned the infamous late-night suit. I’m looking forward to seeing how this goes.
No today jokes yet. You’re not ready.