11:11 AM CDT, April 24, 2013
It seems to me that we should stop defining eras by presidents and begin defining them by the best and/or (possibly) most influential television show.
This is tricky territory because clearly we’re not about to use the most popular show of the time. We can’t go around calling it the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” era or the “American Idol” era or the “Sixteen and Pregnant” era. That won’t do at all. We can, however, point to one show that seemed to capture the zeitgeist of a certain time, that served as an explanation for what people were thinking and feeling and talking about (or trying to ignore) on a macro scale.
Occasionally, there will be interregnums when no show has stepped forward to claim the mantle, but pretty clearly we’re in a two-way race for the best show of its era, and I keep vacillating back and forth on which one will come out ahead.
Strangely, the premium channels have been usurped by upstart network AMC, which over the last half decade has served up both “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” With “Mad Men’s” sixth season now in full swing and Walter White set to return for his swan song this summer, it seems like a good time to assess where we are by just talking out of my ass about some stuff that has occurred to me.
The shows exist on different playing fields and are so dissimilar tonally that comparisons don’t seem easy. Yet at their core, they both revolve entirely around one central male figure, highly flawed and morally unmoored (if not bankrupt). The rest of the characters are merely living out the consequences of Don Draper and Walter White’s central genius—advertising in Don’s case and crystal methamphetamine in Walter’s. Of course, they’re both essentially selling drugs. “Mad Men” season six occurs in some of the darkest days of the Vietnam War, and a central element has been propping up the image of Dow Chemical, a company that was manufacturing the napalm then melting alive Vietnamese civilians. Don all but acknowledges the narcotizing effect of advertising when he talks about how companies don’t want their advertising associated with satire, “the most dangerous form of humor.”
The arch of Don shares much with Walter as well. Both are men who become drastically different people by conscious choice (Don even going so far as to change his entire identity, Walter under the pseudonym “Heisenberg”). Yet the men they wish to become, suave, sexy, dangerous, are also clearly the personas that will unravel them.
“Mad Men” is the more thoughtful, nuanced show. Matt Weiner has clearly done his homework about the era in which he’s telling his story and the blogosphere lights up with parallels to the real world Sixties after every episode. Even as “Mad Men” tends to the soap opera end of things (and how much of a wink is Megan’s acting gig? I’m going to assume a massive one), it also deals with complex historical themes. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, “Mad Men” is essentially examining the era when Madison Avenue took over and rewired the American consciousness. Its exploration of the method and madness of those who taught us how to want things we never knew we needed is endlessly fascinating, especially as it creeps into the era when the ethical conflict of selling Lucky Strike cigarettes or Dow Chemical lipstick became urgent and undeniable.
“Breaking Bad” on the other hand isn’t as interested in the large questions of its time other than some surface plot points regarding Mexican drug cartels. It’s basically “Scarface” told with more nuance over a longer timeframe (Walter and Walt Jr. watching that film in the living room, speaking of winks). However, even while “Breaking Bad” is a more classic (i.e. predictable) story, it’s told with a depth and coherence that rivals the novelistic ambitions of “The Wire.” Each season has been an interlocking chapter that requires attuned viewing. Each decision Walter makes that leads him farther down a morally dubious path echoes out into the world, destroying or corrupting all those around him. Grounded in traditions of tragedy as old as storytelling (Greek, Shakespeare—whatever your preferred pretentious literary reference), “Breaking Bad” isn’t all that interesting in what it’s saying about light and dark, good and evil, blah blah blah—but it’s meticulous construction and execution, down to a zombie fly and a teddy bear's eyeball, has been breathtaking.
So the short answer is, I don’t know. But much like Walt and Don’s respective stories, I can’t wait to see how it plays out.
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