KICKING TELEVISION: TV and the Death of the American Marriage

KICKING TELEVISION: TV and the Death of the American Marriage

nullThe first episode of season two of Transparent begins with a wedding. “Kina Hora” opens with a long, uninterrupted shot of the Pfefferman clan, draped in expensive, virginal white vestments, opulent garb against an epic California coastal backdrop. The series, which is the anti-thesis of tradition in society and on television, chose to invite the viewer into its sophomore effort by indulging in the very essence of tradition. Despite the immaculate aesthetic of the event, the wedding and its participants and guests were ugly, and in such a depiction Transparent stood with the traditions of its medium in presenting marriage as a deeply flawed and false institution.

Transparent explores the challenges of relationships. It beautifully examines how individuals construct, compromise, and conform in order to find happiness, or at least endure the journey. At the center of Transparent lie several marriages: the transitioned Maura and his ex Shelly; the newly betrothed Sarah and Tammy; Sarah and her ex Len; Josh and his partner Raquel; and all the bits and pieces, characters and relations who intersect and intertwine. It’s a look at marriage that introduces the contemporary evolution of our culture to the medium of television, a medium that tends to treat marriage with contempt. It’s also a medium that has evolved with the advent of streaming services like Amazon, which allows shows like Transparent the freedom to discuss an institution like marriage with less attachment to the traditions that permeate the network model. 

In “Kina Hora”, the defining moment—as the ugliness of the event meets the realities of the institution—finds Rabbi Raquel (the exceptional Kathryn Hahn) describing weddings as, “a ritual. It’s a pageant. It’s a very expensive play.” The same could be said about television itself. It’s part of our lives, an ongoing and unannotated play, in many parts, in many forms, with no end in sight. It’s a filter by which we quantify and qualify our own attempts at life. The streaming services have broadened the modes and conversations by which we apply that filter. And for the most part what we know as “television” seems to deplore marriage.

I got married this past summer, which was a surprise to many because I had never expressed any interest in marriage. This is not because I didn’t believe in love, which I did; or eternal happiness, which I aspired to; or gifts, which I rely on. I didn’t really want kids, but that became irrelevant, as marriage and kids ceased to be connected the way they once were. I think diamonds are a contrived industry, but I’m not wearing one. Ceremonies seemed opulent and gluttonous, but we eloped. Marriage, to me, had seemed simply a precursor to infidelity and divorce.

I’m not sure why I believed this. My parents have been together for more than 40 years and are very happy. My sister has been married for a dozen years or so, and my niece and nephew report no issue. Many of my high school friends are married and don’t complain about it much. But still, I had issues with the institution. And then, a few weeks ago, I was reading one of the many asinine and short-sighted op-eds that link television and movie violence to American gun culture, and I decided to blame what I believed to be the death of marriage on TV as well.

Television has killed the American marriage.

Unlike the facile arguments that blame media for gun violence, I decided to attempt to link my hypothesis to fact before asking my editors at Indiewire to publish it. Kind of like what Fox News does except the complete opposite. Is marriage, as television to me implies, dead—only worthy of farce, ridicule, and revile? Apparently, the meme that 50% of all marriages end in divorce is actually untrue. According to a New York Times study, “The divorce rate peaked in the 1970s and early 1980s and has been declining for the three decades since.” The piece also cites Fox, ABC, and Bravo references to the divorce rate myth as fact. The same media that both perpetuate and deride TV and film violence as contributing to a violent culture apparently do the same for the institution of marriage.

Violent shows bear ad revenue, as does programming of punditry that condemns them, as does the contemporary news model that treats myth as fact and viewers as sheep. Entertainment is an industry, and I like capitalism as much as the next guy with a paralyzing disinterest in nuptials. But I like facts and informed discourse too, which doesn’t explain why my own fears about marriage were tied to a straw man with commitment issues.

Interestingly, the Times piece begins with a reference to Chris Martin (a musician of some sort) and Gwyneth Paltrow (Blythe Danner’s daughter) ending their marriage. Of course it does. Even a respected outfit like the New York Times can’t make a concise argument in this day and age without tying it to B-list celebrities. It’s a trope of contemporary discourse that we filter issues through celebrity and media institutions. Television is a convenient barometer by which we tend to measure ourselves. It’s in our homes, a flawed mirror reflecting society and our notions of self. Am I as pretty as Rachel? Am I as funny as Chandler? Am I as successful as… well, none of the Friendswere particularly successful, but they had nice apartments and love and friendship and pet monkeys.

But beyond the aesthetic comparisons, there are institutional quantifications, which has lead me to believe that what has actually died is the representation of marriage on television. Once marriage was the aspiration of television, a narrative progression borrowed from Shakespeare. Boy meets girl, boy marries girl, and if it lasts more than four seasons everyone gets rich in syndication money. Weddings were sweeps staples, the ultimate achievement of television narratives: Luke and Laura, Jim and Pam, Ross and Emily. Weddings were beautiful, happy, defining moments that led to a lifetime of martial bliss, either on screen or in the world we imagined as completed series continued in our minds.

The current TV landscape sees marriage as either a cartoonish institution or one unworthy of reverence, perhaps as a result of the false meme or as a contributor to it. The sitcom revels in the former; a contrived wonderland where marriage is bliss, where flaws are adorable, and divorce is just a preamble to second chance happiness. Modern Family is a mockumentary meant to capture the contemporary American marriage, but instead it gives us animated generalizations. Phil the goofy loving father is married to Claire the overbearing mom, whose pratfalls bring us such joy. Jay is on his second marriage to the buxom Gloria, whose accent and ethnicity are a source of endless amusement. Cameron is married to Mitchell, and they’re both men, which is hilarious!

Two and a Half MenThe MiddleThe GoldbergsMindy: these shows all portray similar caricatures of marriage. Marriage is goofy. Men like football and synthetic cheese and drinking and they have penises, while women like shopping and makeup and Jon Hamm and they have vaginas. The dichotomy therein is a hoot.

In dramas marriage is a dismissed relic. The genre just doesn’t seem to like marriage very much. The modern day pulp of Shondaland savours infidelity common as oxygen and rarely attached to repercussion. The adulterous spouse can still be a president or a tenured prof or happy. Game of Thrones is filled with marriages of convenience and despair. Parenthood aspired to a more realistic depiction of marriage, but still filled its six seasons with adulterous leanings and desperate compromise. Maybe that’s what marriage is. Maybe mine is too new. Maybe I’m naïve. Maybe I should ask my wife.

These two representations perhaps help explain my media-driven fear of commitment. While marriage itself is a healthy and vital institution, television revels in its mockery. In actuality, marriage is a joyous union, an entry to a better life, not one of restriction or farce. I like being married, though I’m not very good at it yet. I’m heavier than I was when I was single, attentive but somewhat lazy with my affection, and not as responsible as a married man should be. But I’m trying. I aspire to better. I wish TV felt the same way.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJHe is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

KICKING TELEVISION: Depression and the Sitcom

KICKING TELEVISION: Depression and the Sitcom

nullThere were times not too long ago when I was not happy. Not because I was alone, which I was, or I was wasting my life, which I was, or because I was immersing myself in bad decisions, which I was. My unhappiness was easily masked. It was kept secret. I took a perverse pleasure in that secrecy. Mental illness, in my experience, takes on its own life. It becomes a tangible entity, an unwanted partner, a relationship with the self built on parasitic dependency, among other dependencies. And yet, when depression is portrayed on TV, it seems so foreign, so abstract, a caricature of what the illness really is; sometimes a literal caricature (like in BoJack Horseman or The Simpsons) and sometimes a more subtle cartoon, like in Two and a Half Men.

In the sitcom, depression is just another punchline. The canon is filled with scripts that mine depression for laughs. Alcoholism on Cheers or MomFrasier’s desperate help line callers, Two and a Half Men’s hedonism and loneliness, or years of trauma comically manifesting in the fallibility of the real world on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, are all born of some form of depression. It’s interesting that sitcom writers can find creative ways to discuss cancer (The Big C), divorce (Louie), war (M*A*S*H), homophobia (Will & Grace), class and domestic abuse (Roseanne), race (All in the Family), or alcoholism (all of them), but examples of engaging and inventive discourse on depression are hard to find. Even on shows that feature psychotherapists, like Frasier or The Bob Newhart Show, depression is a caricature.

I’m not condemning that mode. In my writing, I’ve used my struggles with happiness as a vehicle for humour. I have found self-deprecation in discussing my own struggles cathartic. And I would imagine that’s what sitcom writers find as well—or they’re just monsters that love other people’s suffering, like Republicans or cable news.

Accurate and deft sitcom portrayals of depression may often be found in animated series. Moe the bartender’s annual suicide attempts on The Simpsons are played for laughs, but careful consideration of Moe Szyslak finds a nuanced and skilled portrait of a character struggling with mental illness. His frequent attempts at self-harm and his violent oscillation between anger and indifference are contrasted by sentimental and selfless acts like reading to sick children and a genuine and hopeful capacity for love.

Similarly, BoJack Horseman manages to discourse on despondency and emotional disorder through the filter of an anthropomorphised horse/former sitcom star with a skill live-action comedy can’t seem to muster. As a faded member of the institution that is—for the most part—incapable of balancing comedy and analysis of mental illness, the titular character (voiced by Will Arnett) in the animated Netflix sitcom tries to manage his pain through attempts to find solace and context in those around him: A pink Persian cat/agent, a freeloader, yellow Labrador Retriever/rival, and a Vietnamese-American feminist/human ghostwriter who herself is spiralling into depression. Like many manic depressives, BoJack self-medicates, and though this is certainly played for laughs, moments born of his depression lend themselves to salient and sobering moments of self-realization that are rarely found in a sitcom, like, “You know, sometimes I think I was born with a leak, and any goodness I started with just slowly spilled out of me and now its all gone. And I’ll never get it back in me. It’s too late. Life is a series of closing doors, isn’t it?” Compelling reality, straight from the animated horse’s mouth.

Animation lends itself to intelligent consideration of something so difficult and inherently personal because as an audience (and as creators) the idea of sadness can exist in the abstract. The static nature of animation in The Simpsons and BoJack Horseman provide a forum for discussion, which allows the audience to filter mental health through the transcendental. One of the most difficult aspects of depression is recognizing it, and perhaps we, as an audience, find it easier to recognize it in an anthropomorphised horse than in a mirror.

Sitcoms are not typically a place where we confront ourselves. Sitcoms love to gloss over more serious conversations when given the opportunity to use them to evolve their narratives. Depression is a walking nightmare; it’s an attempt to quiet a screaming cancer while everyone watches the tumour grow. The TV drama makes it a character flaw or a tick, often treated as an affectation or virtue. Dr. House is depressed as a result of his atrophied leg, but a genius. In Scandal, Millie becomes depressed after the death of her son, but predictably recovers. In Nashville, Juliette suffers from post-partum depression, but will inevitably return to country music stardom. In all of these cases, and so many more, depression is the result of something. It has a cause that the character can address directly. The depression is almost tangible, a character with a background story who can be operated on, prosecuted, persecuted, killed off or written out.

But depression doesn’t have a cause. It’s born of nothing. One day it just exists. There is medication, but there is no cure.

Enter Aya Cash.

Cash’s portrayal of Gretchen’s spiralling depression in this season of You’re the Worst is nothing short of brilliant. I was an unabashed fan of the first season of the FXX sitcom, but I had concerns about how the re-imagination of the boy-meets-girl story would play out after boy (Chris Geere’s Jimmy) and girl (Cash’s Gretchen) moved in together. It seemed like the world of You’re the Worst may have had nowhere to go other than devolve into farce. And that would’ve been fine, but unspectacular and certainly unambitious—two regular traits of sitcoms seen in recent additions to the genre (Truth Be Told) or inexplicably still airing (2 Broke Girls) trading on recycled jokes and premises. But somewhere in episodes 3 and 4, the show took an unexpected turn concerning Gretchen’s clinical depression. And somehow, magically, creator Stephen Falk and his staff of writers have managed to take a serious and precious subject that the sitcom form has been mostly incapable of disseminating and used it to increase the show’s narrative scope while still being the funniest thing on TV outside of MSNBC debates.

What’s most impressive about You’re the Worst’s use of depression is that the world of the show has continued on despite Gretchen’s pain. The series hasn’t paused its narrative to focus solely on Cash’s character’s spiral—plot unrelated to her illness is still featured prominently. And therein lies the horrible truth of depression: The world doesn’t stop for it. So, while Gretchen falls apart, the universe the show has created goes on, with the characters Sunday Funday midday day drinking exploits, Lindsay’s (Kether Donohue) frozen semen, visits from Jimmy’s family and his temptations with infidelity, and Edgar’s (Desmin Borges) burgeoning relationship. While a lesser show would try to make the entire season about Gretchen, You’re the Worst instead allows her depression to exist within the show, and in so doing finds one of the most true and realistic depictions of mental illness to ever grace the small screen, and certainly the best to ever be on a sitcom.

The frustrating futility of a disease without a cure is beautifully depicted in episode 9, "LCD Soundsystem." Gretchen stalks a seemingly perfect couple, whose idyllic life she idolizes and aspires to. They have the nice house, the cute baby, the cool jobs—an aesthetic that suggests happiness and the life she believes she could have if she weren’t sick. But in a dose of reality that mimics the crushing severity and impossibility of mental illness, the couple ends up being as flawed and disappointing as Gretchen’s own existence. The husband is lecherous and desperate, hitting on Gretchen and dismissing his perfect life and family. The couple fight. The moment when she—and the audience—realize this is equally familiar and heartbreaking, while Jimmy (as many acquaintances of the depressed are) is wonderfully oblivious, and the look in Cash’s eyes in that instant are Emmy-worthy if ever a performance was. Without dialogue or animation, Gretchen’s eyes suggest a deep and resound loss, as if helplessly watching the very notion of ever being happy sink slowly into a dark and vengeful abyss

This is where the peerless brilliance of You’re the Worst’s recent season can be found. In episode 3 Gretchen misses her old "posse" and throws a party to reunite them. In episode 4 she sneaks out of the house in the middle of the night, where (we discover in episode 6) she has gone to cry alone in her car. Carelessly, and without warning, Gretchen and the audience are confronted by her depression. That violent and graceless fluctuation is perfect effigy of the sudden onslaught of mental illness. And though there will be laughter around Gretchen as the season progresses, Cash’s character exists in frightening isolation, familiar to those who have suffered from a similar affliction.

There are still a few episodes of You’re the Worst left this season, and who knows how many years of the show and its universe. I’m curious how it will deal with Gretchen’s depression and balance the tropes of the sitcom. Television is escapism. It is not the responsibility of artists to adhere to the audience’s needs. The sitcom is a form of expression, and a way of taking some small microcosm of common existence and giving those who actually exist in it a moment of solace. Cash’s performance is a caring tribute to those who suffer from mental illness, and a lesson for other sitcoms on how television can be ambitious and funny while respecting both the audience and the medium. Certainly humour may be found in dark and troubling places, but so can understanding and compassion. A well-crafted sitcom can respect its traditions—and audience—while aspiring to new modes of employing the genre.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJHe is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

KICKING TELEVISION: Mindy Kaling, Me, and The Death of Network TV

KICKING TELEVISION: Mindy Kaling, Me, and The Death of Network TV

nullI have an awkward attraction to Mindy Kaling. Awkward, because I have a complicated relationship with the characters she has played on The Office and Mindy. They seem obsessed with pop culture, their glossy public aesthetic, and the material. So I shouldn’t be attracted to her, because those obsessions annoy me. And yet, I want to have a dysfunctional relationship with her characters. I want to fight about Taylor Swift songs playing in our Mercedes. I want to go through a painful divorce with them, and reconcile one day in the romcom style of the art they find heroic. So, when Fox predictably cancelled The Mindy Project last year because it was a funny, well-written show that didn’t attempt to solve naval crimes, I was somewhat heartbroken. But then Hulu came along. The online network picked up the show, and Mindy and I were reconciled, just like in the movies!

What’s above is analogous to the current state of television in that the Internet and streaming services are the future of TV. Earlier this month, the National Football League broadcast a London game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills on the Internet. Yahoo served as the tilt’s exclusive venue (with the exception of the Jacksonville and Buffalo markets), the first such broadcast in league history. The NFL, always at the forefront of broadcasting and profit, was ostensibly using the game as a precursor to telecasts in markets beyond North America. And though the viewership numbers are under some discussion, one can imagine that this is the future of sports television. And as go sports, so does the rest of TV. Sport is the last bastion of live viewing, and has always been a leader in evolving to suit consumption habits. Sports were on cable long before The Sopranos gave life to HBO. Monday Night Football moved to ESPN a few years ago.

As the technology and the audience change while the networks don’t, TV is being consumed and celebrated beyond its once seemingly indestructible monopoly. HBO, Amazon, and AMC were feted at the Emmys; Hulu and Netflix are creating interesting, popular, and successful programming; and NetFlix’s CEO declared that their shows aren’t just better, but that all TV will be on the Internet by 2030. Is there any hope left for the network model?

Network television has been trying to fend off the rise of alternative broadcasters for over a decade. NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox were besieged by the onslaught of cable. But while HBO et al. were expanding the breadth and ambition of the medium through innovative and original programming, the networks had the sanctuary of convenience and tradition, not to mention brand authority. Plug a TV into a wall and you can watch Big Bang Theory. And even if a Chuck Lorre laugh fest isn’t on, the viewer recognizes that eventually something they like will probably come on CBS soon enou… oh hey, it’s Mark Harmon! Network TV was safe and comfortable.

But out of nowhere, at least to the anachronistic and ignorant rule of the networks, came the Internet. The constraints of traditional television were gone, like twenty-two minute sitcoms and seven-day schedules to shoehorn CSIs into. Programming is released on any schedule, viewers vote on pilots to promote to series, and the audience can consume products at their leisure. And the Internet doesn’t have to bow to censorship. But, instead of embracing the technology and adapting to inevitability, the networks have fought back with inferior efforts and multiple incarnations of established dreck. And now their end is nigh. Advertising revenues for broadcast television have plateaued, and advertisers are “predicted to spend more on digital platforms than television in two years.”

My own viewing habits are indicative of the evolution of the way we consume TV. I haven’t had a TV in nearly a decade; only recently has that changed. All of my viewing was online, mostly through less than legal means. It allowed me to pick and choose what I wanted to watch, on my schedule, without commercials or Dick Wolf productions. The picture quality, the sound quality, and the technology were at times less than ideal. But the price was right: nothing. And I never had to sit through an episode of something I loathed.

But don’t take my word for it. Take consulting firm Deloitte’s:

Streaming video services, now used by more than 42 percent of American households, are heavily changing media consumption habits across generations, according to the ninth edition of the Deloitte "Digital Democracy Survey" released today. The study reveals that streaming content has overtaken live programming as the viewing method-of-choice, with 56 percent of consumers now streaming movies and 53 percent streaming television on a monthly basis, as compared to 45 percent of consumers preferring to watch television programs live. Moreover, younger viewers have moved to watching TV shows on mobile devices rather than on television. Among Trailing Millennials (age 14-25), nearly 60 percent of time spent watching movies occurs on computers, tablets and smartphones, making movie viewing habits decidedly age-dependent.

In August I purchased a cable package, in part because I write about TV and I can deduct it from my taxes, and in part because I gotta have my Shondaland Thursdays without delay. And what I’ve found in the decade between cable subscriptions is that they look a lot like the Internet. Albeit an overpriced and less user friendly Internet. There’s on-demand viewing, but it takes some getting used to and there are still commercials. The picture quality is without peer, but I feel like I’m always being sold something. My package inexplicably doesn’t include HBO, but I can watch Modern Family at any time of the day.

The reason I keep the cable, other than the advice of my accountant and my affection for Ellen Pompeo: sports. I can watch nearly any event live, in perfect HD, with pause and playback features. Sports had always been the one drawback to my online viewing decade. Either options available to me were too expensive, the illegal streams lagged or were non-existent, or simply watching on a 13” screen didn’t do the spectacles justice. But as the Jags-Bills experiment predicts: sport is not long for extreme online convenience at a reasonable expense. And when that day comes, and it is coming soon, my subscription will be stricken from my monthly bills.

So, with the rapid change in technology suggesting that networks adapt a new model, one would think that the quality of their programming would evolve to counter their dissipating audiences. But that has not been the case. The fall pilot season has been awful, and television events like a live broadcast of H.M.S. Pinafore can only hold the fort for so long. Network programming is analog in every sense of the word. It is tired and dated and enjoyed mostly by your parents. Programming still aspires to mediocrity and adheres to antiquated formats. How many hospital serials that run forty-two minutes plus commercials from 10 to 11 can a generation handle? The networks are trying to offer audiences online options, but their streaming services are designed for your parents, as is the programming. Despite their efforts to offer on demand viewing on multiple platforms, they’re still selling a product that was designed for a platform (traditional TV) that has evolved beyond six channels and a set of rabbit ears. Networks are large companies with near infinite resources and a keen understanding of technology, and yet they seem to still believe that a century old model will continue to be successful. CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox seem to be trying to bleed the last few dollars out of a generation that will soon be watching NCIS in their retirement homes on iPads programmed by their grandchildren.

I missed last night’s episode of The Mindy Project. According to Hulu, in “Mindy and Nanny” Mindy has to “fire the world’s most difficult nanny: her mother-in-law. Jody tries to save Jeremy from his manipulative girlfriend.” It sounds delightful. I’m going to watch it as soon as I send this to my editor. I’m going to watch it in my pajamas, eating watermelon and Halloween candy using my parents’ Hulu login while drinking a pumpkin beer on my couch at 1:11 in the afternoon. Just the way TV is meant to be consumed.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJHe is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013).Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

KICKING TELEVISION: Reboot, Reuse, Recycle

KICKING TELEVISION: Reboot, Reuse, Recycle

nullThe other night I was watching ABC’s The Muppets with my wife, who is a bit younger than me, and doesn’t have the memories of The Muppet Show and Muppet movies of the ‘80s that I do. She laughed when it was funny and rolled her eyes when silent groans were required. And I suppose I did too, and I’ve enjoyed the show, three episodes in. But there’s also something very sad about this reboot of the franchise. Not for the show, or its production, which cleverly takes us behind the scenes of the Muppet universe in faux documentary style. But rather, the sadness was mine, because somewhere five-year-old me was aghast at the adult version of a children’s classic. Kermit was drinking. Fozzie was dating. Ms. Piggy was…ok, totally unchanged. And in an entertainment era where no franchise can escape a reboot pitch, the revisiting of memories past has altered our once-static television mythologies. Now a series finale is meaningless, and where narratives used to have definitive beginnings and endings, the contemporary TV landscape has made its canon malleable.

TV reboots are not new for an industry rich in talent but handcuffed by corporate ideology. How else can you explain Chicago FireChicago PD, and this season’s addition, Chicago DMV? Series need to guarantee, or at least give the illusion of a guarantee, that they will be successful and profitable. Typically, the industry has leaned towards recycling. Medical, legal, and forensic science serials are churned out every pilot season. Sitcoms still have wacky neighbors and hetero coupling, even if the studio audience and ratings have all but disappeared. Late night is full of penises, mostly white men telling the same jokes about being white men. Recycling is born of fear, because in TV ‘new and revolutionary’ doesn’t come along all that often and when it does it’s either by mistake (Empire) or on HBO. But while the idea is not new, the employment of their methodology has changed.

We’re used to remakes, and enduring Matthew Perry cringing for a paycheck on The Odd Couple. But revisiting a past series, and continuing its narrative, is a new premise, at least on a large scale. In recent memory, we have seen or will see The X-FilesMelrose PlaceBeverly Hills 90210, The Muppet ShowBoy Meets WorldFull HouseArrested DevelopmentSex and the City, HeroesCoachWet Hot American SummerTwin PeaksXena: Princess Warrior, and Cop Rock rebooted. Well, not Cop Rock. Not yet. Not until someone can find Steven Bochco.

No TV property can escape the greed for easy ratings. Even Fear of the Walking Dead is a reboot of sorts, reimagining the early days of The Walking Dead universe. And while season one is a mixed bag at best, it certainly lacks the bold vision and ambition of its parent series. Why be ambitious when you can be simple-minded? Which begs the further question: If The X-Files or Xena are successful, what does TV reanimate next? Do we return to Lost and find out what the afterlife is like on another island, say Fiji? Is House, M.D. addicted to Adderall and working as an on-campus physician at UMass-Amherst? Was Tommy Westphall’s dream in St. Elsewhere actually part of another kid’s dream? Are Ross and Rachel divorced? Is Jerry dead? Is Tony Soprano?

The trend of sequels, prequels, and reboots is not unique to TV. We’re about to endure the return of the Star Wars franchise. Harper Lee’s publishers saw an aging icon and dollar signs and brought back the seminal characters from Too Kill a Mockingbird back to life in the unfortunate Go Set a Watchman. Meat Loaf revisits Bat Out of Hell whenever he needs an infusion of nostalgia-driven cash. But while I can understand nostalgia, the genius and gift of art is that it’s always there for us to revisit on our own schedule and accord.

I’ve read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Cat’s Cradle over and over so many times that I’ve worn out the pages. I’ve listened to the Silver Jews’ Bright Flight at least once a week for as long as I’ve owned the album. Once a year, I find a repertory cinema playing The Godfather or Pulp Fiction or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and revel in both the genius of the films and my memories of first watching them. And while revisiting television was once reserved for syndication—and then home video—digital technology has allowed me to rewatch my favourite series, like LostFriday Night Lights, or West Wing whenever I feel the need to immerse myself in their universes. To visit old friends. To be held safely in the nostalgic warmth of familiarity and television acumen. But to alter the anchored narratives of those series would mess with an already weary mind.

Unfortunately, TV doesn’t use the reboot trend to satiate the lingering the TV junkie’s appetite for series that died too soon. Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini, Jason Segal, James Franco et al. will not suit up for Freaks and Geeks and Their Freak-Geek Kids. There will be no season two of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The surf is not up for more John from Cincinnati. Instead, TV tests the reboot waters with mid-range nostalgia like Boy Meets World and cult hits like The X-Files, before venturing into more seminal TV fare. Somewhere Mark Linn-Baker and Bronson Pinchot are dusting off their "Dance of Joy" shoes. Somewhere, Jaleel White is hopeful. Make no mistake; the reboot is the new spin-off. And no TV series is safe. Except for Viva Laughlin. Probably. The spin-off had too many variables that could lead to failure. The reboot is a safer root, as it just offers what was previously successful with minor twists.

In the meantime, I won’t close myself off to these reboots. I’m as curious as anyone. Which is why networks will churn them out. Because even the most ardent fan of a series’ mythology can’t resist a dalliance with the unanswered, the unsaid, the unproduced. So I’ll watch The Muppets, even if it messes with my past, and answers questions no one asked like, What’s a Muppet prostitute look like? and Is Muppet-human sex bestiality? I’ll dig in. I’m a consumer. I’ll be the Statler to ABC’s Waldorf. But, in the meantime, I really have to know: Where the hell are “Pigs in Space”?

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJHe is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author ofCheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013).Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

Watch: ‘Mad Men’ Recalls Edward Hopper’s Paintings in Frame after Frame after Frame

Watch: ‘Mad Men’ Recalls Edward Hopper’s Paintings in Frame after Frame after Frame

If you’re still unconvinced that ‘Mad Men’ remains the most exquisitely crafted examination of loneliness, then study the ways the show closes out each episode. Resting on the power of its compositions over witty dialogue, the numerous backwards tracking shots, framing Don, Peggy and others dwarfed in their work and home environments, often framed within doorways and other frames, is as poignant in its reflection of urban solitude as any Edward Hopper painting. And it’s clear that Hopper would have adored ‘Mad Men’: just as Matthew Weiner so subtly captured the lives of ordinary, extraordinary New Yorkers over the course of 8 years, Hopper was obsessed with capturing the privacy of everyday people. In solitary bedrooms, offices, movie theaters, often solitary characters reflect in their environments, yet even when couples are together, as in Hopper’s Room in New York, they are occupied with their own devices and do not interact with each other, their intimacy as unattainable as Don’s constant chase for happiness in the beds of other women, or a new wife. 


That isn’t to say that every shot ended in a back tracking wide shot; the close-ups of Don’s conflicted face accentuated his existential dilemma, and the frames within frames only heightened how trapped the characters were in their own fears and longings. But the back tracking shots are a basic staple of editing: start wide, go in, end, in a way that punctuates how far you’ve come. And that is exactly what makes the contrast between Don’s constant fading away, his dismayed face and the final filmed shot, a push-in to Don’s smiling face, so poignant. Stripped of his possessions, his family, his home of New York, he has found something close to internal peace at a hippie retreat on the California coastline, finding himself and, perhaps, a Coca Cola ad in the process.
Editor’s Note: The ending scenes are not in strict chronological order, to allow for some editing creative licensing. However, their respective seasons remain firmly in order. And I will be reminded that Don’s smile is not technically the last shot, or even the penultimate shot, of the series. A helicopter shot from the famous Coke commercial is the last shot seen of the series. However, it was the last scene of the original footage shot for the series, and for that, it is arguably the true final shot of the series. 

Serena Bramble is a film editor whose montage skills are an end result of accumulated years of movie-watching and loving. Serena is a graduate from the Teledramatic Arts and Technology department at Cal State Monterey Bay. In addition to editing, she also writes on her blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.

Watch: ‘True Detective’ Season 2 Is Brilliant, and Here’s Why

Watch: ‘True Detective’ Season 2 Is Brilliant, and Here’s Why

TV critics, TV bloggers, TV tweeters, and other TV commentators: RELAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX. At least where ‘True Detective‘ is concerned. The second season of the HBO series was recently greeted with so much anticipation, commentary, prognostication, critique, concern, and general reactiveness before it even started that, had it been a child, it would have been the equivalent of the youngest sibling in ‘A Christmas Story,’ smothered in winter clothing, lying on the sidewalk, screaming, "Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me! Come baaaaaaaack!" Expectations were too high, and the series disappointed many. But not Nelson Carvajal, whose beautiful video essay captures the visual intelligence the show’s creators packed into it, while also addressing its crucial themes, in a collection of images strung together by music by Philip Glass, among other musicians. Watching this, I’m reminded, oddly enough, of my first prolonged encounter with the work of Gertrude Stein in college. The professor suggested that, rather than bringing our expectations to the work, we should let the work itself stir expectations; rather than looking at what we wanted to be there, we should look at what’s there. I’m not saying the series is the equivalent of Stein, merely that it might deserve the same approach. Enjoy.

Watch: ‘Mr. Robot’ Dances around the Rules of Composition

Watch: ‘Mr. Robot’ Dances around the Rules of Composition

Rules hold sway over us, whether we realize it or not. Safety rules. Traffic rules. Rules of grammar. Laws. Codes of social behavior. Rules for arrangement of objects in your personal space. Rules for dress. Rules for business. The same holds true, oddly enough, when we watch films. We expect certain results. We expect certain placements, settings, orientations–and we even expect that the stories we enfold ourselves in will obey certain habitual patterns, will fall into place with a click. This character will fall in love with that character. Character X will win, and Character Y will lose. When it comes to visual rules, our expectations become a little harder to call out or examine because they are perhaps more engrained in us. The truth is, though, that it is the defiance of rules that makes a lasting work; whatever our expectations might be, the more eccentric works are the ones we remember. What better television show in which to examine the violation and transcendence of visual rules than the USA Network’s ‘Mr. Robot,’ as video editor Semih has done in this close-up, smart piece? Can you imagine a show about computer hackers that actually obeyed compositional rules?

Watch: Why ‘Mad Men’ Is a Personal Experience

Watch: Why ‘Mad Men’ Is a Personal Experience

Mad Men is a show about the odd relationship that human beings have with the past—our desire to escape coupled with our desire to hang on. On Mad Men nostalgia is dangerous, deceptive, illusory.

When Mad Men first came out eight years ago, friends hosted theme parties with tailored clothes and twist and shout dances, bars had Mad Men themed events, with cocktails named after the characters, clothing stores like Banana Republic opened up their own Mad Men themed clothing lines.

Over the course of the last eight years we’ve acknowledged the casual sexism and racism of the 60s, while also distancing ourselves from it. I ran into people at parties who swooned over Don’s primal masculinity, who laughed at sexist and racist moments, as if they were an inside joke.

Mad Men’s construction has always been seductive, all the beauty and sex and money and cars. We keep coming back even after we see that its an illusion, when Don’s house is emptied, when Betty is diagnosed with cancer from those same cigarettes we couldn’t help thinking were beautiful and sexy and dangerous in all the best ways.

Mad Men has always also been a mirror, forcing us to look at our own choices and see how deeply they are marred in the culture we live in. I was first introduced to the series by an ex who smoked cigarettes and loved whisky and cinema and sad films as much as I did. When we fought I often felt like one of the women of Mad Men, desperate to keep up appearances, to hide tears with makeup, to throw used liquor bottles in the trash. I’ve seen myself in every female character on Mad Men: when Betty shot those birds, when Joan knocked her fiancé out with her flowers, when Sally got those go-go boots.

But I didn’t think of these women when I left that relationship and started my life ostensibly over; I thought of Don, those empty shots of office rooms and open highways, of New York skylines and the California sun.

Despite strange protests that Mad Men is really all about the women, the truth is Mad Men has always been about Don. No character on Mad Men is capable of evolution the way that Don is, if not for himself than for the advertising culture he lives for. The ending of the series is ambiguous—does Don find peace? Does he use his experience in California as the foundation for a beloved and manipulative Coca Cola ad that defined the 70s?

The final episode of Mad Men reinforces the show’s allure for me, as well as its fundamental tensions. I’m still half in love with and half terrified of what I’m being sold. In the beginning Don tells us that, “What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons.” By the end, Don is moved to tears by the unmemorable man named Leonard who explains how deeply unloved he feels even though he knows the people in his life who he cares about are trying. Don’s response to Leonard’s opening up is the exact opposite response he received when he opened up about his own past at the Hershey pitch the previous season, when he was basically fired from his position for opening up about a past he is deeply private and emotional about.

Don has tried to fill a void in his heart with any number of vices. It’s telling that when Don calls Peggy, he doesn’t lead with his secret past, but the myriad ways he has been disloyal to the people he truly loved the most. “I broke all my vows.”

We can’t help being who we are, even when who we are is so deeply shaped by the culture we live in. In some ways, the hippie retreat is a relief and respite from the stiff, unfeeling world of advertising that Don comes from. But, at the end of the day, it’s just peddling another set of wares. Does Don’s meditation forgive him of his sins? “You always run away,” Peggy tells him over the phone and it’s true. If anything, the hero of this series is Sally, dutifully cancelling her trip to Madrid, so that she can help her mother and brothers at home.

But that’s not who we are poised to identify with at the end.

Though Mad Men has always fiercely critiqued the patriarchy, it is also very much the product of the time in which it was created. For the past eight years we have seen many series featuring a white, male antihero who finds some kind of redemption—steely, hard eyed, with an emotionally soft core. The women in these series have been given a far greater capacity for rich interior lives, but we also are still poised to see other women in the series as mere objects. We view these women through the eyes of the ad men themselves, the camera panning up and down legs, breasts and other disembodied body parts, whether in pencil dress or mini skirt.

To be a woman on Mad Men is to endure hurt after hurt, and brief moments of sisterhood and solidarity. At the very end, Peggy is afforded a possibility for romance that is still predicated on a man wanting her, rather than someone she has been overtly longing for. At the very end, Joan makes a decision, but finds she can’t have it all either.

At the start of Mad Men, I hated Don—I couldn’t stand his smugness, his womanizing, his lies, his cruelty in the workplace and at home. But after watching this show for eight years I began to see myself in him in small ways, especially in moments where the façade of ease would break.

Many of the reasons I will mourn the end of Mad Men do feel intensely personal. If you watch something for eight years, even something you felt profoundly ambivalent about, you’ll eventually start to have feelings for it, or at least for the YOU that was watching it. A lot has happened over the last eight years. I lost friendships, gained them and lost and gained them again. I started and left different jobs. I lost my grandparents. I mended my relationship with my parents. I learned to love in new ways, to love more deeply, and more carefully. I felt my soul crack open and felt parts of me sewn shut, and then I let parts of myself be open all over again. At the end of Mad Men, Don is the same person he was at the start, older, wiser, slightly changed, but still with that same wonderful, terrible core. Our identity is as malleable as we let it be, except when it’s not. By the end of the series we still want more, but at least we’ve learned to listen.

Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She has been listed four times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contestsShe is currently writing her first book.

Serena Bramble is a film editor whose montage skills are an end result of accumulated years of movie-watching and loving. Serena is a graduate from the Teledramatic Arts and Technology department at Cal State Monterey Bay. In addition to editing, she also writes on her blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.

Watch: Michael Stuhlbarg? Michael Stuhlbarg Is Calling!

Watch: Michael Stuhlbarg? Michael Stuhlbarg Is Calling!

Are you familiar with the work of Michael Stuhlbarg? He famously played Larry Gopnik in the Coen Brothers film ‘A Serious Man’–and he also famously played gangster Arnold Rothstein in the HBO masterpiece ‘Boardwalk Empire.’ If, by chance, you aren’t familiar with Michael Stuhlbarg, this video by Nelson Carvajal will be the perfect opportunity for you to get acquainted with his work–and, as it turns out, for Stuhlbarg to get acquainted with himself, as… Well, just watch.

Watch: ‘Twin Peaks’: A Short Video History

Watch: ‘Twin Peaks’: A Short Video History

What is it that made ‘Twin Peaks’ so influential in so many different cultural areas? This is the question most often asked about David Lynch’s and Mark Frost’s pioneering television series–beyond, of course, "What’s it mean?" This video essay by YouTube user "Glit Boy" offers us a history of the show and, in so doing, provides a possible answer to the question, perhaps uninintentionally. The video shows us snippets of the show’s origins, alluding to Frost’s previous work with ‘Hill Street Blues,’ by way of saying that the show was wholly unconventional in a time at which the networks were dominated by police procedurals and other similarly plot-driven vehicles. After a run-down of the plot, we get an explanation of the show’s influence on video games such as ‘A Link to the Past’ and ‘Deadly Premonition,’ as well as series such as ‘The Killing’ and countless others. What all of this accumulated evidence indicates is that what made the series so influential may have been its confidence: not just its storytelling skill, or its cinematography, but the sense that all of its elements, from Agent Cooper’s love of coffee to the fixation of the Log Lady, were in place before Lynch even imagined them, that he simply walked into the world of the show and began filming.