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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (8/18/08) 11:37pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Mad Men [1x07-1x09], The Kingdom [Disc Two]
Books:  <none>



Mad Men [1x07-1x09]
The third disc of season one of Mad Men contains the episodes "Red in the Face", "The Hobo Code", and "Shoot".

"Even when nothing happens, everything is happening."  As always, Alan Sepinwall leaves me wondering why the hell I bother.  Excuse me while I use a page or two to explain what the pro said perfectly in seven words.

I sometimes give feedback on scripts, and one thing I say regrettably often is "your script has no plot".  I'm usually not that brusque, of course.  Sometimes I'll explain it at length:  one of your goals as a storyteller is to make your audience want to hear more of the story.  And one of the most solid, time-tested ways of doing this is to have some question of how the story will turn out.  Will he win or lose?  Will they stay together or break up?  Will she get eaten by the mountain lion or escape?

And you *do* have the option of dropping that.  You *can* say, "My story will not have a plot."  But at that point, you've put a lot of pressure on yourself.  Without the crutch of "how will it turn out?" helping you and your story along, you've got to employ other, less effective means to maintain the audience's interest.  And you've got to employ them very well.  You've got to make characters that interest us by just *being*.  And if the scenes don't really add up to anything, then every scene on its own has to be damn near perfect.

No beginning screenwriter should subject him- or herself to that.

But then, experienced writers can pull it off.  And then beginning writers watch what the expereinced writers do, attempt to do the same thing, and wind up with dozens of pages of cinematic barf.  But I digress.

This show eschews heavy plot.  It is 'story-light', and employs slow, deliberate pacing.  Paradoxically, this makes it something of a high-wire act.  Because if anything goes wrong -- if a performance goes flat, if a character does something arbitrary, if the audience (read:  me) can't quite suss out the conflict of a scene -- then the show is sunk.  It can't fall back on a procedural, "Ooh, will Don figure out an ad campaign in time for the big meeting?" sort of question, so when it fails, it turns into a Michelangelo Antonioni film.[1]

I'd guess the best way they compensate for this 'story light' quality is to give characters very strong internal conflicts that can last a long time.  If you create a closeted gay character living in the very buttoned-down, heteronormative world of 60s advertising, then even if that doesn't generate scads of plot, it will generate tension.  Even if nothing's going on, you're still wondering if he will accidentally let something slip.  And all of the characters have internal struggles like this, so all the scenes are filled with conflict, even if there's no obvious 'how will it turn out?' plot.

Which brings us back to the lapidary Mr. Sepinwall:  "Even when nothing happens, everything is happening."

All in all, I'm enjoying the show -- not as much as the more effusive critics do, but well enough.  Sometimes the show is deliberate, other times, it's sluggish.  Sometimes it's subtle, but it periodically lapses into incomprehensibility.  It has its ups and its downs, and I'll see how the rest of the season goes.


The Kingdom [Disc Two]
You'll recall that Stephen King wrote an American adaptation -- Kingdom Hospital -- of this show for ABC.  It's supposed to be staggeringly awful.  (Wikipedia lists it as a "Comedy-Horror" -- not promising.)

That's a real shame, because this feels like an ideal candidate for a remake.  It has a solid idea at its core -- a haunted hospital? why had nobody thought of that before? -- and its execution adds some interesting plot threads on top of it:  a contemptuous neurosurgeon arrives from Sweden; a possibly crazy patient investigates an old cover-up; a practical joke goes badly awry.

I was hoping that with this second disk, the show would finally deliver on its vast promise.  But it never... quite... made it.  There were some exciting bits of tension here and there.  (The end of episode three was especially creepy.)  The vague sense of dread kept getting dreadier.  A few of the plot threads had some engaging, if not entirely credible, twists.  But still, it never quite got past "competent" in the writing department.       

There is one thing it did beautifully:  it created a fully-realized world.  It explored the hospital setting on a level I've only seen on The Wire and in Dickens novels.  You see the manager have meetings with the top staff; you see a janitor drinking with his buddy.  It's a place with a long history, with myriad traditions, with a rabbit warren of different departments and staffers, and with a sense that there is more stuff to explore in the sequel.  This show puts more setting into one building than more capacious and globe-trotting programs can fit into the entire world.

You sense that a real barnstormer of screenwriter could have had a field day with this playset.  But somehow Stephen King bungled it.  *sigh*


For next time:  I strongly suspect I need to indulge in something giddy and fun now.  Death at a Funeral, perhaps?  Maybe some Harold Lloyd or Patton Oswalt?  United 93:  right out.

At work, I barely listen to music these days; ergo, the Beethoven piano sonatas continue.




[1] Note for the reader:  I hate Michelangelo Antonioni films, which puts me opposite critical response.  If you dearly love Michelangelo Antonioni films, replace the footnoted sentence with "It turns into a bunch of languid, static shots where absolutely nothing happens and you the audience long for the gripping drama of watching paint dry."

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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