“Oh my God, you HAVE to watch that!”

It’s impossible to mention The Wire to someone who hasn’t seen it without them bristling about how everyone says they have to watch The Wire. There’s a similar defensiveness around Mad Men, as people seem to think that if they disagree about the quality of the show, they are subject to social sanction.

I don’t doubt that such things occur. At the same time, the dynamic reminds me of omnivores who constantly rail against the self-righteousness of vegetarians and vegans, who are constantly trying to shove their ideology down the omnivore’s throat, etc. I will admit that I have indulged in such rhetoric before, and I was stopped short when a vegetarian asked me: “When has that actually happened?” I had to admit that proselytizing meat-shunners are indeed rare, to say the least. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually met one. No vegetarian has even told me, other than in internet arguments, that I should adopt their dietary preferences. I’ve dated and lived with vegetarians and been free to carry on my meat-eating ways without interference in all cases.

So where does the perception come from? My theory is that meat-eaters systematically exaggerate expressions of vegetarianism or veganism into moral accusations against those who follow other dietary regimes. Simply stating that they do not eat a certain thing sounds like a judgment on those who do. Again, such accusations are vanishingly rare in my experience — most non-meat-eaters go out of their way to draw as little attention to that fact during an actual meal as they possibly can, precisely because they are human beings who understand basic courtesy, etc.

I suspect that a related form of defensive anxiety is going on with the perceived oppressiveness of demands that one watch The Wire or effusive praise of Mad Men. In reality, saying “you must watch this” is an expression of enthusiasm rather than a literal demand. I suspect that the defensiveness around The Wire centers specifically around race — people worry that they will be perceived as racist if they don’t want to watch a show with a majority-black cast.

I don’t really have a theory for Mad Men, but I want this to be a safe space. So I’ll say this: I like Mad Men a lot. I think it does interesting things formally and aesthetically, things I’ve never seen in television before and doubt I’ll see again. But I understand that it’s not for everyone. It’s slow, it’s set in an off-putting milieu, and it often seems to withold the typical satisfactions of television on principle. It’s okay not to like it. It also might not be a form of speaking the truth to power to point out that while all those sheep love it, you never got into it.

Totally called it

In my forthcoming book on Agamben co-authored with Colby Dickinson, I include an essay that indirectly discusses The Use of Bodies, arguing that rereading The Time That Remains in light of the entire extant Homo Sacer series could be a good substitute for the book itself while everyone waits for me to finish translating it.

At the time I wrote that essay, and at the time that I compiled the collection with Colby, the actual epilogue to The Use of Bodies had not been finalized. Now that I’m translating the last few pages of the final text, I feel compelled to declare: I totally called it. Mere pages from the end, Agamben recapitulates his arguments from The Time That Remains about inoperativity and the “as not.” In fact, at the risk of overdoing it, it is arguably the most extended discussion of any single thinker in the epilogue — even the segment on Benjamin is shorter.

Creepiness in Star Trek

As a kind of coda to Creepiness, I have published a guide to creepiness in Star Trek at the Daystrom Institute. Drawing on an extensive comment thread on the topic, it includes obvious choices like Barclay or Neelix, as well as many others. But surely we missed some, to whose special creepiness you can pay tribute here.

A thought experiment on “Great Television”

To what extent are the “great” TV shows great television and to what extent are they just great stories, with great characters, etc.? That is to say, which ones contribute the most to television as a specific artform?

One way to get at this might be to ask whether something similar could be achieved if a show was converted to a novel. I think that a novel of Mad Men would be horrible, for instance, but a novel of The Wire would be a natural fit. Though The Wire is a little more self-consciously aestheticizing in its shots, etc., than one may initially realize, I think ultimately it’s like a serialized novel without the novel. It’s a great television series, but it’s not great specifically as television. Just throwing it out there, I think that Breaking Bad and Sopranos are very TV-specific, while maybe Deadwood isn’t.

Then there’s a question of whether we take the “it’s not TV, it’s HBO” slogan seriously. To what extent have certain shows moved beyond the restrictions of television to become a new genre of long-form visual narrative? All of the “greats” seem to challenge the episode format to some extent, as witnessed by the fact that events blend together when you marathon watch. In a way, you have to be watching specifically for the episode structure to catch it — meaning that it may primarily be a discipline for the writers, helping them to organize the material in a manageable way.

Perhaps the two poles are the purely episodic (which none of the “greats” are and virtually no contemporary drama is anymore) and the soap opera, which degenerates into a newspaper from a fictional universe. It’s a rare Game of Thrones episode that feels like a well-structured episode, for instance, so that it leans more toward the soap opera pole. I think the innovation of Mad Men is to realize that you can just put characters on the shelf without following them, then bring them back when you need them. Not every plot needs to be “ongoing” — we don’t need to know how Stan hooked up with the nurse girlfriend, when and why they broke up, etc., etc. The Wire and Sopranos move in that direction, but I don’t think they take it as far. Meanwhile, the small cast and setting of Breaking Bad and Deadwood prevent much experimentation in that regard, simply because it would make no narrative sense much of the time.

In short, some pretty random thoughts. I assume I’m reinventing the wheel to some extent. But all of this is partly by way of explaining why I think it’s basically not arguable whether Mad Men is the most artistically ambitious and artistically successful television show as a television show of all time — whether or not we agree, as we surely don’t, on its enjoyability, relevance, etc. And to some extent, I think that many of the ideological problems with the show — its limited representation, its “first world problems” focus, its objectively low-stakes setting — are features rather than bugs because they let the aesthetic come to the fore. Similar to how Melancholia basically has to take place in a setting of unimaginable wealth to “bracket out” all other problems.

The commodity is the better Jesus: On the Mad Men finale

Shadow Don
The Mad Men finale is doing two things at once. The first and most obvious is that it’s giving us some form of resolution for all our favorite characters. Most of these endings are happy — and even if Betty’s impending death isn’t saccharine sweet like the other plots, the way she’s handling it with dignity and autonomy makes it at least bittersweet. It seems reasonable to infer, too, that Don goes back to McCann and winds up writing the famous Coke ad that serves as the culmination of the series.

The second thing it’s doing is a Sopranos-style ambiguous symbolic ending. It doesn’t shout it from the mountaintops like Sopranos did, but that’s because Mad Men was always more densely “literary” than any previous television show. Hence the writers have practice weaving in subtle symbolism. There’s so much there that rewards analysis — and puts a sinister spin on everything. The very fact that the ending is so uncharacteristically sickly sweet seems to be a “meta” gesture toward the Coke ad, as is Joan’s experimentation with cocaine and even Don’s uncharacteristic beer binge (already, beer had been linked to soda through the “diet beer,” which would presumably become Miller Lite). We can’t expect a show that’s so witholding to suddenly give us what we want — the real thing, a real plot, a real resolution — without also casting a shadow over it. Was this really “it”? Was this what we wanted? Is this “love”?

The scene where the average slub breaks down in tears over going unnoticed is moving, as is Don’s uncharacteristic decision to “hug it out” with him. Yet the man is also picturing himself as a consumer good — presumably even a beverage in the fridge — and his questions about what “it” is anticipate future Coke slogans that we’re all familiar with. Don has completely divested himself of his symbolic image to the final holdout, Peggy, who he believes still idealizes him, but he still has one point of reference: “Don’t you want to work on Coke?” We know from the first half of the season that work is necessary to save him, but he can’t be a cog in the machine. Now after fleeing from the generic consumer, he’s had an encounter with that beer-drinking mediocrity from Wisconsin and realizes: “These people need me!” His hug could be saying, “It’s okay — I promise I’ll go back and start giving your life meaning again. I’m so sorry I strayed from the One True Faith.”

Don’s exchange with Stephanie about how much damage Jesus does to people, what it does to people to believe things, was poignant to me as a Jesus-damage survivor. (And by the way, did they give Stephanie unprecedented freckles to make her match the girl from the Coke ad?) But in such a richly self-referential show, it also reminded me of his enigmatic line: “I’m not here to tell you about Jesus.” Think of the contrast between the cosmopolitan Coke ad and the close-mindedness of the few Christians we see. Don is a believer — the commodity is the better Jesus, the Jesus who truly gives us everything, who demands nothing, who accepts us just as we are.

“Just as I am, Lord, just as I am” — in Don’s case, as the image above shows, “just as I am” is a void. Perhaps this is a reference to the Sopranos fade to black, except that Weiner takes us beyond the emptiness. The question is whether that “beyond” is redemption (the surface reading) or an even greater abyss of nihilism (my preferred reading). Think of the horror: a man who truly believes in the promise of advertising, who directly lives it every day of his life. Think of a world that can leave that man feeling happy and content.

In any case, I regard the genre of television as completed now. The most critically acclaimed, culturally prestigious, artistically ambitious television show of all time — and judging by current trends, I include the future here too — has culminated in a tacky commercial. By doing so, it made us experience its moving utopian qualities and its sinister cult-like qualities. There’s nowhere else to go at this point. That’s “the real thing.” That’s “it.”

Racism in American culture: Some observations

It seems to me that since the late 1990s and early 2000s, structural and personal racism in American culture have gotten significantly worse, undoing much of the progress that was achieved from the 60s through the 90s. Representation of people of color in popular culture has declined, and the criminalization of blacks through the War on Drugs was accelerated by the advent of “broken windows” policing. The War on Terror exacerbated the problem, leading to racial profiling and a situation where the majority of people of color portrayed in the media were either domestic criminals or foreign terrorists. Meanwhile, Islam was racialized in a much more intensive way. The same administration that demonized Muslim countries could display criminal neglect of the black victims of Hurricane Katrina, whom the mainstream media shamed as looters and savages.

Paranoia surrounding Barack Obama, a black man with Muslim heritage, brought together both of these racist threads. His presidency was widely viewed as showing that we lived in a “post-racial” society, but the practical effect was to intensify the racist paranoia of a non-trivial portion of the population — it was as though their worst fears had come true. Obama himself is studiously centrist in all of his policy proposals and has consistently been eager to make a deal with Republicans at almost any price, but racially-driven hatred of Obama and a desire to deprive him of any achievements or legitimacy have led them to refuse to take yes for an answer almost constantly.

On the grassroots level, a growing movement of people who are literally protesting against state-sponsored random murder of blacks has faced an uphill battle for recognition and legitimacy in the public sphere, as the criminalization and demonization of black men leaves the majority of whites still giving the police the benefit of the doubt.

Thoughts? Am I being naive about previous eras? Are there some signs of progress that I’m missing?

Why Game of Thrones sucks

Whenever I hear someone include Game of Thrones in the canon of the “Golden Age of Television,” I begin to ask very serious questions about that person’s taste and critical acumen. Here are a few reasons why:

  • A plot that’s sprawling beyond all reasonable limits — in some episodes, it seems like we’re watching a series of 30-second shorts pasted together. There is just no good reason to have so many ongoing plots that we’re “checking in on” so frequently. Shows like Mad Men and The Wire showed that there is another way: simply ignore the secondary characters till you need them. Instead of following Brianne of Tarth around for three seasons, suddenly she pops back up, and if you have competent screenwriters, they can fill in the background with a few broad strokes instead of tedious exposition. Game of Thrones seems to have picked the worst of both worlds — soap opera-style “checking in,” but often spaced out so distantly that we’ve forgotten about the character.
  • All the characters look alike — white people wearing black, smudged with dirt. That’s 90% of the characters. It may be okay if they had discernable personalities, but they mostly seem to do what the plot requires at a given time. What drives Stannis, for instance? Which one is he again? No one knows or cares.
  • There’s no interesting thematic content whatsoever — the whole point seems to be that George RR Martin has a sick imagination and has come up with a world where everyone is casually violent, then we are presented with hard truths about how casually violent that world is. Whenever the show tries to “explore” “themes,” the attempt is undermined by an over-the-top presentation. Want to talk about the complex relationship between father and son? I know, have the father be casually abusive to his dwarf son and deride him for visiting prostitutes, then the dwarf son discovers he’s sleeping with the son’s favorite prostitute and murders him! How about the dynamics of abuse and Stockholm Syndrome? Well, one approach would be to spend an entire season showing a man being slowly degraded and tortured, to the point where his dick gets cut off — a sequence that, by the way, is never “shown” in the source material, though it’s implied — and then being enslaved to the torturer through fear. There’s broad strokes, and then there’s crayon scrawls.
  • Danaerys’s plot is an absolute shit-show — in this day and age, you’re seriously going to do a full-on White Savior plot with zero irony or self-awareness? And within that frame, you’re going to try to draw “interesting” parallels to US foreign policy (like the suggestion in the most recent episode that they establish basically a “green zone” in whatever god-forsaken hole she’s decided to “liberate”)? If this is the payoff for having an ongoing plot that still hasn’t directly connected to the main plot, all these many seasons later, I want a refund.
  • Can winter fucking come already?! — I am so tired of vague foreboding and fleeting glimpses at the supernatural menace just beyond the wall. Or am I more tired of Jon Snow’s random moralizing? Tough call.

I could go on, but those are my main complaints. Lest I seem totally negative, though, I must admit that the title sequence is excellent. That’s what keeps me watching, at the end of the day.

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