Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Archive for the ‘television’ Category

Mad Men, the American Women’s Movement, and the Rest of History

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by David (spoiler alerts)

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once offered eight tips for writing. My favourite was the last one:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

This is pretty much how I feel about tonight’s final episode of AMC’s Mad Men. There is no cliffhanger. We are not hanging on the edge of our seats. We want to see what “happens” to the characters, but we sort of already know. And that’s ok. Because it doesn’t really matter. And that’s because the protagonist of Mad Men is not any one character, but American history itself.

Mad Men began as a show about Don Draper, creative director of a NYC advertising firm, and the people around him. Draper represented both sides of the American dream/nightmare, a con artist and an adulterer, but handsome and smart and charismatic enough to succeed in New York’s world of advertising in the 1960s. The best thing about Don was how he never succumbed to the racism and antisemitism he saw around him. He could be a sleazeball, but he seemed to conclude that those sorts of prejudices would only get in the way of his ambition.

After a few seasons, however, Don became boring, almost insufferably so. His former secretary, Peggy, became far more compelling, the real embodiment of the American dream, of feminist success in a man’s world world she made her own. Very quickly, the women of the show, Peggy, Joan, and Betty, became more interesting than the men, who stayed on almost as comic relief. That’s because the story of the 1960s belonged to them.

In the world that Matt Weiner and his writers created, women’s struggles in the workforce represented the driving force of the narrative. Other important events occurred: JFK’s assassination, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War. As viewers, we always asked ourselves: how is Mad Men going to incorporate this or that moment in history? Because in the final analysis, though we learned to love and care about the characters, what we were really watching was American history unfold through the lens of the white-collar working woman’s struggle. That struggle is not over, but we know the way it progresses, even if we don’t know specifically how it will go for Joan, Betty, Peggy, and the others. And this lack of a cliffhanger is an achievement of the show, not a flaw.


Written by David Weinfeld

May 17, 2015 at 18:50

Louis and Larry

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by David

The two funniest people in the world right now are Larry David and Louis CK, and nobody else is even close. I’m not the first to make this observation. Bill Simmons, ESPN’s the sports and pop  culture writer who now has his own site, Grantland, proclaimed as much in this mailbag column. True, he recanted a couple mailbags later, choosing Trey Parker and Matt Stone ahead of Louis and Larry, but I’m going to have to disagree with The Sportsguy there. I like Parker and Stone a lot, but for one thing, they’re two people; for another, I haven’t seen Book of Mormon, and even so, I don’t think what they’ve done is as gloriously hilarious as Curb Your Enthusiasm or Louie.

As anyone who knows me can attest, I love Larry David. He’s probably my favourite humourist of all time, and is certainly the most important comic figure of our generation. But more on that later. First, let’s break down exactly why Louie and Curb are so funny, what distinguishes them, and which is better.

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Written by David Weinfeld

December 11, 2011 at 12:50

The Wire, Treme, and the Sociological Imagination

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By Nemo

Am I the only one out there who prefers Treme to The Wire? While reviews for Treme have been mixed, many critics have dubbed The Wire the best television series of all time. Everyone seems to love The Wire’s epic portrayal of the drug trade in West Baltimore.  Pundits from across the political spectrum blogged about it. Top legal scholars and sociologists have used it as a teaching tool. President Obama called it his favorite television series. Attorney General, Eric Holder, requested a sixth season (probably to his embarrassment). In 2010, the show’s creator, David Simon, even won a coveted MacArthur “Genius” Grant. By contrast, the critical response to Treme, Simon’s recent series on post-Katrinia New Orleans, has been much more reserved, with viewers complaining about its supposedly slow pace and irritating characters.
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Written by Julian Nemeth

June 20, 2011 at 20:04

Nuremberg, Eichmann, Bin Laden: Some Thoughts on Justice and Punishment

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by Weiner

I recently listened to this superb debate between Glenn Greenwald and David Frum on the subject of Osama Bin Laden’s death. In terms of policy, I’m far more sympathetic to GG than Frum, even with Frum’s most recent slight turn left. I think GG got the best of this debate, except when the subject of the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials came up. There I sided with Frum.

Greenwald, like many others, argues that the Nuremberg trials (pictured above) represent a highlight in our society’s dedication to the rule of law. Even the most heinous Nazi war criminals were offered a trial, found guilty, and justifiably punished. He also mentioned the Eichmann trial as an example when the Israelis brought a criminal to justice, provided him with a trial, and rendered the correct verdict. He wishes that Americans had been able to do the same with Osama Bin Laden, thinking a trial, guilty verdict, and then meted out punishment. To GG, that would have been a more effective outcome in the “war on terror.”

In this article, Greenwald highlights what he calls “The Osama Bin Laden Exception.” People who normally prefer abiding by the rule of law, but will make an exception in the case of Bin Laden. He points to Jonathan Capeheart’s confession of hypocrisy in this regard, along with John Cole’s similar admission. Greenwald has more respect for this hypocrisy as long as these people own it.

Still, Greenwald disagress with them, and would have preferred a trial. Over on Facebook, Wotty presented a similar view, expressing his preference for:

a legitimate trial where [Osama Bin Laden] then got to spend the rest of his years rotting in prison would have been a sweeter victory over the man and his ideas, though it would have made for fewer screaming frat boys at “Ground Zero.”

I must respectfully disagree with Greenwald and Wotty here, for a number of reasons.

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Written by David Weinfeld

May 7, 2011 at 08:32

Ken Burns: Love Him or Hate Him?

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by Weiner


Ken Burns, every amateur history buff’s favourite film-maker, and every historian’s least favourite film-maker, is at it again, this time with a “Tenth Inning” to Baseball. I have to admit I’m excited. As a young boy, I watched Baseball not once, not twice, but four times. That’s four times eighteen and a half hours. That’s a lot of PBS documentary. We even pledged and I got myself a Ken Burns’ Baseball t-shirt. In college, I saw Burns speak about history and film-making, and they played an incredibly moving clip from Baseball, when Hank Aaron hit homerun number 715 to break Babe Ruth’s record, and I cried.

Of course, I had also really liked The Civil War. I thought the movie was absolutely beautiful, the incredible panning over those superb images, with amazing songs like “Ashokan Farewell.” The whole thing seemed so grand, so epic.

Now that I’m in grad school though, studying American history, I’ve learned that I’m supposed to hate Ken Burns. He didn’t pay enough attention to slavery, or African Americans, or women. Made the Union and the Confederacy seem like moral equals. And lots of other stuff that made historians like Eric Foner angry. There’s a whole book about this.

I know some critics didn’t like Unforgivable Blackness, Burns’ film about boxer Jack Johnson, arguing that it downplayed Johnson’s criminal domestic abuse. I recognize the criticism, but still found the film compelling.

Which is why I was surprised–pleasantly surprised–in reading history and Civil War buff Ta-Nehisi Coates’ post about “The Tenth Inning,” to learn that he admits to having “long loved” The Civil War, even if Burns’ “iteration of history is too pretty.” And Coates is watching it again, for the “seven-hundredth time,” and he still loves it.

What do you all think? I know I really want to see “The Tenth Inning.”

Written by David Weinfeld

September 27, 2010 at 21:29

Friday Night Abortions

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by Weiner

My favourite television drama right now is Friday Night Lights. Through four seasons, the series has been uneven. The first season was a work of art, perhaps the greatest season of televised drama of all time. The second season, due largely to massive plot inconsistencies (the characters appeared to switch years in high school), the threat of cancellation and a not uncommon sophomore slump, was rather lackluster. The third season picked up a bit, and this fourth season, while not quite as good as the first, has been excellent overall.

One reason is the writers’ willingness to tackle big issues, as they did in Season 1. Most recently, their episode on abortion garnered coverage in the New York Times. I admire the producers and writers for going where so few shows had gone before. I remember in Beverly Hills 90210 Val faked a pregnancy and took a trip or two to the abortion clinic, but I had never seen a major character actually go through an abortion on prime time television. According to the NYT article, unlike other pop culture representations of the pro-life position–from Juno to Sex and the City to Bristol Palin’s appearance on ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager–the episode of FNL offered a relatively unambiguous pro-choice message.

The writers of Friday Night Lights had something altogether different in mind. Becky’s pregnancy had been the result of a one-time sexual encounter with Luke Cafferty, a well-intentioned football star and the son of struggling, religious cattle ranchers who have not always held his best interests at heart. When Luke’s mother learns what has happened, her response is to say that Mary and Joseph thought they were in a tough spot too, at first. Luke bluntly corrects her: “Becky and me are not Mary and Joseph.”

I was impressed that the show really kept the decision in female hands: Becky, the pregnant teen, ultimately makes the decision, with encouragement from her mother and moral support from high school principal Tammi Taylor. This was not a radically feminist message, but the writers still placed women at the center.

Still, I’m not sure the episode was as unambiguously pro-choice as the NY Times article indicates. I think the show’s writers made the decision for a poor high school student who got pregnant from a one-night stand to abort appear be a difficult one, rather than the obvious one that those on the pro-choice left believed it to be.

But then I thought: should pop culture/artistic representations have a message? Doesn’t that make them propaganda? I tend to favour scholarship that attempts to be objective. I think I like my art-including prime time TV dramas–the same way.

All I know is that I can’t wait for the next episode.

Written by David Weinfeld

July 17, 2010 at 10:04

Nixon, Chile, and The Sopranos

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Say hello to the bad guy.

by Nemo

Last night, I finished watching the final episode of season 1 of The Sopranos (yes, I know I’m a little behind). Coincidentally earlier in the day, I happened to read the minutes of a National Security Council meeting held by President Nixon regarding Salvador Allende’s victory in the 1970 presidential election in Chile. I couldn’t help but put the two together. Just as the mobsters in the Sopranos casually plot to murder rival gangs leaders, Nixon and his advisers including Henry Kissinger and then Secretary of State William P. Rogers coldly discuss the necessity of teaching Latin Americans a lesson by daring to elect a socialist leader. Also like the characters on the Sopranos, Nixon and his advisers only discuss the true reasons behind their policies behind close doors.

This Nixon speech could easily, I think, have been given by a figure like Tony Soprano:

Murderous and psychologically complex. Like some presidents.

No impression should be permitted in Latin America that they can get away with this , that it’s safe to go this way. All over the world it’s too much the fashion to kick us around. We are no sensitive but our reactions must be coldly proper. We cannot fail to show our displeasure. We can’t put up with ‘Give Americans hell but pray they don’t go away.’ There must be times when we should and must react, not because we want to hurt them but show we can’t be kicked around…[T]he new Latin politicians are a new bread. They use anti-Americanism to get power and then they try to cozy up. Maybe it would be different if they thought we wouldn’t be there….We must be proper on the surface with Allende, but otherwise we will be tough. He is not going to change; only self-interest will affect him. (6 November 1970)

Of course, the US would soon play a major role in overthrowing the Allende government and setting up the Pinochet dictatorship, a regime committed to free markets, but also to kidnapping and murdering its political opponents. While Nixon’s realpolitik is as old as politics itself, it is nonetheless startling to witness the utter impunity which politicians professing to lead the “free world” believe they can punish entire populations that refuse to recognize “who’s boss.”

On a lighter note, if you’re one of the few people interested in quality television that hasn’t yet watched The Sopranos, this recent analysis over at the Onion AV Club convinced me to get on board.  At the same time, you might also watch the show for its insight into foreign relations.

Written by Julian Nemeth

June 15, 2010 at 21:56