Monday, November 09, 2009

TV Power Rankings: November 2009

With a few new shows having premiered, and one on the way out, it seems like an opportune time to do another TV power ranking.

1. Mad Men – By far the best show on TV, it’ll be a long wait until next season. I didn’t love the backhalf of the season as much as I liked the first half, but it closed on a great note, with a vast array of possibilities for next season.

2. Parks and Recreation - The best comedy on TV, the recent Halloween episode was a series high point, and last week’s library battle was another classic. This is better than the American Office has ever been, if it keeps up this level of quality, it could be an all time comedy classic, a Seinfeld or Arrested Development level series.

3. Bored to Death - I haven’t seen the season finale yet, Mad Men took precedence, but I just like this show more and more. It does have that weird HBO comedy feeling of not really being funny, but I love the atmosphere and the characters, and the past couple of episodes have been really top notch, particularly the mission to retrieve the sex tape. It’s great to see so many New York locations on screen, and I’m glad this is coming back for a second year.

4. 30 Rock - A lot of the buzz this year has been about how 30 Rock is going downhill. This season has had some issues, but the trip to “real America” last week was consistently hilarious, and I don’t think there’s been a full on clunker in this batch of episodes. I think the show might have been overpraised a bit, so it’s logical for things to even out. I think the bigger issue is that the characters have become so familiar that jokes that might have been funny earlier have become tired. But, Jack and Liz still work well together, and there’s enough material each week to keep it on the higher end of the Thursday comedy lineup.

5. How I Met Your Mother - This is another show that’s struggled with balancing the wacky and the emotional side of things. The Barney/Robin relationship has had some strong jokes, but I haven’t felt that emotionally engaged with them as a couple. Maybe I’m just expecting too much of the show. It’s still been pretty sharp and relatable, and perhaps the groundwork is being laid for some more substantial stuff down the line.

6. The Office - Another show I’ve had mixed feelings on. This most recent episode was one of my least favorite of the show’s run, not working on an emotional level, and balancing a maudlin, pointlessly cruel A story with a pointlessly dumb B story. Still, the previous week’s episode worked well, and the supporting cast gets better and better. I’d be happy if Jim and Pam disappeared and we got more time with Andy and Erin.

7. Community - The show has done a better job of balancing its goofier side with its emotional side, particularly in the standout Halloween episode, which featured some great surreal imagery and an ability to be absurd but still smart that is the hallmark of many great sitcoms. Some of the storylines still feel too rushed or sitcom cliché, but it’s getting better, and that’s one of the best things you can say about a freshman show.

8. Curb Your Enthusiasm - After a very strong start to the season, things have dipped into boring and predictable in this last batch of episodes. I think the problem may be that I’ve never loved the show, and this Seinfeld reunion hype got my hopes up about it becoming something that it’s not. The scenes with Jerry are great, but the rest is just Curb by the numbers, and when you’re expecting more, that’s not going to cut it.

9. Glee - The show hasn’t aired an episode in a while, but the last one was fairly strong, and even though there’s still a lot of things that bother me, I’ve got a better feeling about the show going forward. If it gets out of the rut of just hitting the exact same beats every episode and lets the characters grow and the situations evolve organically, not through terrible, imposed plots, it could become a very strong show.

10. Modern Family - This show is wearing on me a bit. The central issue is that it has the appearance of a slightly edgy, irreverent show, but is a traditional sitcom underneath, and the “awww” moments at the end of each episode are getting tiresome. It also feels like there’s no real evolution going on at all. I know it’s a sitcom and things aren’t going to change much, but I want a greater accumulation of feeling and events than I’m getting. It’s funny enough to be worth watching, but could slip off the radar if it doesn’t improve.

11. Dollhouse - Sometimes I feel like I’m watching a different show than people online because the one I’m watching is not very good. I’m sticking with it because of Joss, and it seems like there’s only a few more to go, but the show is so totally nonsensical and emotionally impenetrable, it’s hard to believe it came from the guy who managed to skillfully poke fun at the sort of absurdity that Dollhouse is mired in, and was able to find the emotional in for even the most absurd storylines on Buffy or Angel.

12. V - This was a pretty terrible pilot, with no defined characters and the most perfunctory telling of a potentially great premise. I’ll give it one more episode just because I’d really like to love the show, but the pacing on the pilot was horrendous, the whole thing felt like one long “Previously On…” section, skipping over a huge amount of potentially interesting story for no apparent reason. A real clunker so far.

Mad Men: 'Shut the Door, Have a Seat' (3x13)

Another Mad Men season is in the books, with a season finale that opens the door to a wildly changed status quo for the fourth season, with the two foundational elements of the show, Sterling Cooper and Don’s marriage both destroyed, and Don faced with the question of finding out who is Don Draper when the reason he was created is no longer around.

The episode reminded me a lot of last year’s Friday Night Lights season finale, which ended on a similar note of reinvention, closing out one chapter and opening another. I think that’s probably a smart thing to do at this point because the show had kind of backed itself into a corner with Don losing his freedom and getting backed into a corner by both Betty and Sterling Cooper.

That’s one of the reasons that I was a bit down on the backhalf of the season in comparison to the incredibly precise and evocative first half. The storyline I’ve found most consistently interesting on the show is Don’s quest for identity, which kind of culminated in his trip to California last year, but was echoed in his encounter with the hitchhikers earlier in this season. Midway through the season, that searching seemed to be cut off, as Don signed a contract to work at Sterling Cooper and seemed a bit more committed to Betty.

Even as he embarked on an affair with Suzanne Farrell, it felt like he was getting more and more locked down at home. His involvement with Hilton became an excuse to escape, but Farrell wasn’t the same as Midge or Bobbi Barrett, she had a very maternal presence, far from the independence of those other women. To some extent, it felt like Don was reverting to childhood, exploring the Dick Whitman persona in a different way by becoming his father and sleeping with his mother. That connection was reinforced by the dialogue where she speculates on what Don was like as a child.

It’s notable that his attempt to escape with Ms. Farrell was interrupted by Betty discovering the truth about Don’s past. The affair with Ms. Farrell was a secret life, the chance to engage with the Dick Whitman part of himself, and what Betty finds out is even worse than the affair, it’s not that he wants to be with other women, it’s that he wants to be another person entirely, and to her, that’s the ultimate betrayal.

It means that the life he built is a lie, a lie built to please her, but only a piece of himself. She wants all of him, and he’s not ready to give that up. The contract he signed, the relationship with Betty, it’s all locking him into a specific identity, and we’ve seen constantly how much he likes to play at being someone else, as in the trip to Baltimore in the first episode of the season.

The whole season has been about the increasing suffocation Don feels in his life, and his inability to maintain the freedom he cherished so much. Then, this episode flips everything and tears apart the things that imprisoned him. It becomes clear that Betty really does want to leave him. For Betty, it makes sense. She’s found a man who seems more enamored of her, and she proves to herself and Don that she doesn’t need him. She had to take him back last year because she was pregnant and had nowhere else to turn, but with Henry Francis so devoted to her, she gets a kind of affection that she hasn’t gotten from Don in a long time.

The question for her is, does Henry Francis really love her, or will he grow sick of her once he has her? Is it the chase he loves or the woman herself? Potential problems for Betty are set up when she says she doesn’t want Don’s money, without Don’s money, she becomes just as dependent on Henry Francis as she was on Don earlier.

For the show, this leaves Betty in a strange position. Will she carry her own stories, disconnected from Don, or will she and Don be drawn back together again. The obvious parallel is the end of the fourth season of The Sopranos, when Carmela and Tony split up. Then, we saw that Carmela was unable to make it on her own and got drawn back in. Will Betty go the same way? She seems strangely more astute than Carmela in her plan to break it off with Don, but the interest of the show would seem to lie in bringing them back together. Of course, the show does seem to be reinventing itself and seeing Betty in this new situation could be a good way to explore new issues next season.

I’m particularly interested in seeing how it affects Sally, who’s become my favorite character, other than Don and Peggy, this season. She’s portrayed as a mix of a child’s naivete and a shrewd insight into the adults’ behavior that makes them uncomfortable. The most memorable moment of the season for me is still Sally watching a monk immolate himself after being told off by her parents. She knows that Betty has pushed Don away, and hates Don for reneging on his promise.

She longs so much to have Don there, to love him, and now he’s being taken away from her again. I think the tough thing for Betty is that Betty is there for the kids, she’s the one who really raises them, but they’ll never love her as much as Don, and that makes her resent them a bit. The kids will likely serve as the bridge to keep Betty in the story and her and Don connected. We get hints of a custody battle here, but I couldn’t imagine Don wanting to raise the kids on his own. That would be a way to put the character in a different position, but I don’t see it happening long term.

Elsewhere, Don is relieved of another burden as he instigates a reboot of Sterling Cooper, and tries to reclaim his business destiny. Don clearly fears being just a ‘cog in a machine,’ he likes the human element of his job, and knows that the more corporations buy each other up, the less room for that is. In any purchase, he becomes just another asset, assigned a monetary value and paid for accordingly. In the sale of Sterling Cooper, he sees a chance to reclaim his destiny, to shake off the contract that he signed so reluctantly and start again.

In a sense, what Don and his crew do is analogous to what Don himself did when he abandoned the Dick Whitman identity and became Don Draper. Sneaking into the office at night, they steal the guts of Sterling Cooper and leave behind a shell. Rather than deal with a problem, he went outside the system and chose to reinvent himself and just run away and take on a new identity.

I liked most of the scenes of them creating this new business, but the only one that really hit on an emotional level was Don’s visit to Peggy’s apartment. Peggy hasn’t had that much to do in the back half of the season, which is frustrating for me because I think she’s the show’s most interesting character behind Don. I loved the moment last episode where Duck saw that Kennedy had been shot and decided to unplug the TV just so it didn’t interrupt him having sex.

But, here we get a strong emotional beat, as she struggles to build her own identity outside of Don’s shadow. We saw with Kinsey how people believe that she only does well because she’s Don’s favorite, while she feels that Don actually takes her for granted. Don is her father figure in this business, he indulges her at times, but can also be cruel and abusive. Ironically, to break away and go with Don is to take the safe route, to stay with her mentor and know that she’ll have a place, but never be fully appreciated. Could she have more success with Duck? Perhaps, it’d be riskier, she could be a star there, but she could also fail, and at this point, she’d rather stay with Don than risk that.

For Don, the new company is a chance to reinvent himself and reclaim the freedom that he had taken away from him as he became more entrenched at Sterling Cooper. As a partner, he can control his destiny, but at the same time, he’s been humbled by what happened with Hilton and knows that he can’t do everything himself. He needs Roger if he’s to succeed in his new business.

In the end, Don gets what he’s ostensibly wanted the whole series, the freedom to be his own boss, and freedom from the suburban life he built for himself. But, is that what he still wants at this point? Is he happy that Betty left him? I don’t think he is because it indicates a failure on his end, a failure to live up to the role he had taken on.

It also shifts an interesting burden on to him. He could toy with women before because he was married and always had that as an excuse to run away from them. But, what does he do now if he gets together with women like Ms. Farrell, does he seeks a real connection, or just continue to drift from person to person? I don’t think what stings him about Henry Francis is so much the fact that Betty cheated on him, it’s that she is one step ahead of him, she’s got her liferaft ready and is reinventing herself leaving him in the dust. He doesn’t know how to deal with that, he’s always been the one who walked out on people.

The season ends on a hopeful note, an era is over and a new one is beginning. The American Dream, as represented by a good stable job, a wife and 2.5 kids in the suburbs is dead. It died with Kennedy, and all the characters are pushing forward into a new, uncertain era. People we thought were relics of an older era, like Sterling and Cooper, are willing to change, and Don acknowledges that they need to be ahead of things, they need to think of new ideas and reinvent their business. Will all the people who seemed doomed to failure at the beginning of the series actually find a way to evolve and survive? It’s not quite clear yet, but Don seems to have taken the right first step.