Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Summer TV: Mad Men and The Bronx is Burning

People talking about a year round TV schedule were not messing around. This summer I'm watching six series on a weekly basis, more than I ever watched in the Fall, and four of them are shows that debuted this year. Mad Men was created by Sopranos producer and Wesleyan album Matthew Weiner. It's got a fantastic critical response, though I'm not quite as enthusiastic as they were. However, the first episode did a great job of putting you in the moment of the series, a bustling ad agency in the late 50s. Doing a period setting on TV isn't easy because it's tougher to relate to the characters. In Six Feet Under, you can jump right in, here we have to get some context for the world. It's almost like a sci-fi show in that respect.

This show does a good job of setting things up pretty quickly, and getting us into the action. There's some obvious TV plot devices, like having Don come up with the perfect ad idea at the last minute, but generally speaking it's smart and fresh. Vincent Kartheiser, who played Connor on Angel, is totally transformed into a really sleazy younger partner. Ultimately, every modern day work about the 50s seems devoted to undermining the myth about the period, first presenting the serene surface then delving beneath to show how there wasn't the strict order we believed in. I'm assuming that's the direction the series will take, and I'm eager to see it develop. It's a smart show with great production values, and if the critics are to be believed, it'll only get better.

I've also been watching the ESPN miniseries The Bronx is Burning, which chronicles the tumultuous 1977 Yankees season. As someone who's in the city everyday, it's interesting to go back to a much gritter, dirtier time. The subway cars today are a far cry from the dirty, graffiti covered cars we see here. The series makes innovative use of documentary footage to situate us in the time and place that the games exist in. To some extent this works well, clips from the mayoral race synch nicely, but the central plot thread outside the Yankees suffers. It's probably because I watched Spike Lee's Summer of Sam movie last year, but all those scenes feel like they were snipped out of another movie and placed here. I admire the attempt to fold in outside events, but it might have been better to keep it in the documentary stuff. If this wasn't based on history, I'd assume the two plot threads would collide somehow, but I don't think that's going to happen.

But, the center of the series is the Yankees season and most of that stuff works well. Characters like Steinbrenner and Reggie Jackson are archetypal figures, so this is almost like watching a new Batman movie. What aspects of the myth are folded into this presentation? So far, I think they've done a good job of creating believable characters and a team environment. The ancillary players aren't particularly developed, but the basic tension is there and it's kept me engaged with each episode. Even though I'd say Mad Men is a better show, The Bronx is Burning was more entertaining.

Ultimately, it's encouraging to see both these shows on the air. For one, they're both wildly ambitious period dramas that do a good job of capturing their era. In years past, you wouldn't have seen basic cable networks trying stuff like this, but the success of HBO and FX has made it essential for networks to carve out a brand identity. I'd rather see a channel like AMC devote its resources to one great show than make ten mediocre ones like the networks do. This sort of specialized programming is a big part of what's brought us to this current golden age of television. I doubt either of these shows will become all time classics, but they're both original, entertaining and smart, and that's more than you'll get at the movies this summer.

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