Moving Pictures
Nov 03, 2010, 05:18AM

The Mad Men Effect: When TV Became Slow

Patience, patience, patience—it's working for some shows, not working for others.

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The latest episode of HBO's semi-successful series Boardwalk Empire featured an almost glacially long scene between two women: the wife of a major character, Jimmy (Michael Pitt) and the wife of the man Jimmy thought his wife was sleeping with. Shocker! You would think a surprise lesbian scene would be scandalous. It was certainly sensual: this being HBO, the women spent their conversation in various stages of nudity. But it was the editing, not the boobs, which shocked. Not once did the camera cut away, instead slowly zooming in to the women for about two or three minutes. Most shots on TV don't last longer than 10 seconds—in film, the average is two seconds. When did TV get so slow?

If the 1990s were dominated by zippy but appropriately paced half-hour sitcoms, and the 2000s were marked by fast-paced serialized dramas like 24, Lost and Battlestar Galactica, the 2010s might be the years of the slow and steady drama, the Eeyore to 24's Tigger. After all, one of the biggest disappointments of the 2010 fall television season—and they've really all been disappointments—has been Undercovers, JJ Abrams' spy caper intended to be "unusually, almost unspeakably, fast." Apparently not fast enough: Undercovers is NBC's lowest-rated scripted show this fall.

Television critics and bloggers are praising and deploring the recent trend to slow down shows beyond viewer patience, forcing us to focus on the nuances of character development and piece together the plot through the ambiguous actions of protagonists.

I call it the Mad Men effect, although it's not a foolproof model. In fact, it may be an utter failure. Some “slow” shows are huge successes, like Sons of Anarchy, while others, like Caprica and Rubicon, are either canceled or will be soon.

Nevertheless, in pursuit of Emmys and critical attention, a handful of scripted shows are toning down the action, slowing down plot development and focusing on character development and world building. Complex and fulfilling, these shows require more artistry, audience attention and, most importantly, time, the enemy of television.

Which TV series are taking it slow this year?

Boardwalk Empire (HBO) 
It took a few episodes to realize Boardwalk Empire wasn't moving quite as fast as it could, that it was trying to be much more deliberate with its story. There's enough sex and violence to lull the viewer into thinking they are watching a lot of really big and important things happen, at least at first. Soon, however, you realize there are whole scenes full of dialogue with any obvious point (a Mad Men hallmark). Boardwalk Empire is a smart (and expensive) show, and it's taking its time building the world of 1920s Atlantic City. Some of the characters, most notably Kelly McDonald's Margaret Schroeder, are incredibly rich and delightful, having grown tremendously but subtly over the course of the first few episodes. Others, like Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) are complicated but not really commanding the screen. Like HBO's Treme, Boardwalk Empire already has another season; it can rest easy. But the problem with its pace is the show hasn't answered a key question: what is it about? Is it about Nucky Thompson's psyche, the prohibition era, Atlantic City or crime in general? Without a driving force, a slow show feels more like a tease. Perhaps season two will go big.

Breaking Bad (AMC) 
Mad Men's dowdy little brother, Breaking Bad is textbook study in how to gradually contract a rich narrative. A story about a chemistry teacher who starts cooking crystal meth, Breaking Bad has precious little action for a series about drug dealers in Southwest America. What keeps viewers coming back to the series is a great character in Walter White (Bryan Cranston), who plays the high school teacher with equal parts menace and vulnerability. We sometimes root for Walt and sometimes want him to stop, and with each season, he comes closer to danger, closer to wealth and closer to the point of no return. But the series never forgets it is foremost about characters. One episode locked its two leads in a laboratory, having them spend the entire episode trying to swat a horsefly, while also avoiding their dark secrets—one's desire for revenge and the other's ruthless murder (essentially) of the other's one true love. It was fantastic TV, eschewing spectacle—unlike Family Guy's similar episode—for depth. Emmy-love, respectable ratings and AMC's low bar for success have saved this bright show from the cancellation block.

Caprica (Syfy) 
One thing about Syfy's Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica is true: the first half of the first season was fatally inert. It was pretty clear to fans that the finale of season 1.0 should have been at least, episode four, or even three, of the series. Caprica took way too long to get to the good stuff. Once we got there it wasn't enough to justify the wait. Television is all about the payoff; 24, Lost and Caprica's parent Battlestar Galactica understood this well: you've got to give viewers a reason to come back the next week. Caprica kept its lead, Zoe (Alessandra Torresani), trapped in a robot's body for about eight episodes, standing idly in her father's lab while he chipped away at a program we knew he'd never crack. Meanwhile, it spent little time really developing the characters, instead focusing on inconsequential details about the development of Battlestar's villains: the cylons. As a prequel, Caprica was hindered by a lack of mystery: we already knew what was going to happen. What viewers wanted to know was how it happened, and it needed to be exciting. Battlestar's first episodes were fast-paced and heart pounding: the world had just blown up and the detonators were hot on the trail of the last humans in the universe. How do you top that? Caprica needed to try harder, and a new show-runner came too late. The show is canceled.

Damages (FX/DirectTV) 
Saved by DirectTV, Damages' pace lost it viewers but gained critics. Like Rubicon, Damages centers on the gradual unfolding of a vast conspiracy, usually involving billions of dollars and New York's most powerful movers and shakers. Each season has a clear target, some kind of evil executive out to swindle the American people or Wall Street shareholders, with our lawyer Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) on the case. Most scenes center on the art of professional conversation, how to say what you mean without saying it explicitly. This refusal to be explicit matches the series' theme of hidden wounds. Characters bury their agendas and secrets deep, and viewers wait patiently for the scandals to emerge. What keeps us interested are the flash forwards at the beginning of each episode: a car accident, a brawl or a bloody corpse keeps us guessing. But they are a canard: things aren't always what they seem and the series is in no rush to explain how.

The Event (NBC) 
The Event was marketed as 24 + Lost, but it's not quite either. Sure, each episode of The Event has some form of a cliffhanger, and early on we got big shockers. But, in my mind, we already know what "the event" is, so the mystery's mostly over—spoiler: powerful human-like aliens crash-landed in Alaska in the 1940s and we've been holding them prisoner ever since. The big question is supposed to be: what do the aliens want with us? But the show has been focusing on the minor actions of various characters: a man's quest to find his girlfriend and understand the loss of her family, the president's efforts to nab a domestic terrorist, and an alien's desire to protect her people. 24 had a goal: by the end of the season something was going to blow up. In lieu of a goal, Lost merely peppered viewers with so many crazy twists they couldn't help but see how it would end up. The Event has neither, just a bunch of mini-narratives in search of story. Nevertheless, amidst NBC's roster of poor performers, The Event is doing okay, though it has clearly failed to connect with viewers as strongly as its artistic parents.

In Treatment (HBO) 
Perhaps the most spartan drama on television, each episode of In Treatment is a just a conversation between our therapist, Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) and his patient. No frills, and only the occasional introduction of mood music. In Treatment revels in evasion. Our patients are very reluctant to divulge their secrets and concerns, and we have to wait as patiently as Paul to get to the good stuff. While the first two seasons came pre-written from the show's original Israeli version, HBO wrote the third season from scratch, even bringing in big-name writers like Jhumpa Lahiri. The result is a beautifully crafted and emotionally bracing show, supported by a diverse and charismatic cast. Sunil is a math teacher from India who has lost his wife and speaks poetically about grief and resilience; Frances is an aging diva at risk for breast cancer and growing ever distant from her family; and Jesse is a troubled, adopted gay teen who is unsure whether he wants to meet his real mother. The ratings might not be Boardwalk Empire high, but HBO was smart to keep this vigorously intelligent show.

Louie (FX) 
Louis CK's Louie is without a doubt the most ambitious television comedy of the past year. It's not for everyone—it's slow!—but it's by turns profound and dark. Louie is one of few sitcoms to take comedy seriously: one scene starts with Louie's mother coming out to her kids—a hot young girlfriend in arm—and ends with Louie's brother demanding to know if his mother ever loved him; another scene has one of Louie's gay comic friends giving a lecture on the history of the word "faggot." Louie once spent two-thirds of one episode, at least 15 minutes, having its main character argue with a woman about her etiquette during his stand-up show. Almost every episode features an uncomfortably long scene, one that starts comically and ends in nihilism. Louie slows life down to show us how awful we can be to one another and how miserable we are, and it's funny to boot. Louie is getting another season, a vote of confidence from FX despite its unimpressive ratings.

Rubicon (AMC) 
Unlike Boardwalk Empire, Rubicon does know what it's "about:" the difficulty of untangling power and conspiracy in a complex world. Rubicon took its sweet time setting up its unpredictable penultimate episode, in which a group of old white guys control the markets and coordinate a domestic terrorist attack. Sounds pretty extraordinary and ridiculous, right? But you couldn't tell watching Rubicon, rife with scenes of our protagonist, Will, being followed without confrontation, and meetings in dark rooms with suits speaking ambiguously about intrigue, and long strategy sessions where characters prattle on about the minutiae of crossword puzzles and wedding parties. It could have worked. Rubicon was AMC's highest rated debut before losing half its audience to its dour and anemic pace. Conspiracy theories are fun, but Rubicon's characters weren't fleshed out enough: Will Travers moped around the whole season, Katherine Rhumor looked confused, Kale Ingram looked suspicious, Miles Fielder looked agitated, Maggie Young looked lonely and Truxton Spangler looked smug. No character development + slow plot = no viewers.

Sons of Anarchy (FX) 
I'm going to get flack for putting Sons of Anarchy in the tortoise league, but this season has really been taking its time. After the dramatic second season, filled with neo-Nazis, bloodbaths and baby kidnappings, show-runner Kurt Sutter told fans the current season would focus on the inner workings of the eponymous motorcycle club. What this has meant are revelations about secret siblings, new insights into the psychological pas de deux between the show's two main couples, and a gradual realization of the global and local politics of the Sons of Anarchy and their relationship to the city government, the ethnic gangs of Northern California and their charter in Ireland. Yet the driving force throughout the season has been Jax's search for his stolen baby: one season, one baby, one search. Sons of Anarchy has always been tightly serialized: each episode directly follows the events of the next, not much time passes across episodes and seasons. But this season in particular has been very controlled and almost stubbornly slow. The ratings are down, just a touch.

Treme (HBO) 
People who tuned into Treme knew, at least partially, what they were getting into. Wire fans are almost sanctimonious about the amount of time and dedication they gave to their show, how they tracked the political intricacies of the city government, local gangs and the police to fully understand David Simon's epic opera on the state of American politics (http://blog.ajchristian.org/2010/01/20/did-the-wire-presage-politics-post-2008) and society. Yet, like 24, The Wire had an end goal: the foreclosure of the local drug ring, a plot line that kept viewers engaged. After a few episodes, you couldn't put The Wire down. Treme lacks such an impetus: can anyone actually remember all of season one's storylines? Treme could be the most ambitious show on television: an intimate portrait of community struggling to survive, without deferring to things like plot and structure. Treme is about the characters and the city, and they are good characters—mostly. Yet it does need a mood change. Though I wouldn't count MacArthur "genius" grant winner Simon out yet: the second season brings us back to the Wire-land of crime, education and government policy. Like The Wire, Treme has not reached—and will never reach—the ratings of HBO juggernauts like The Sopranos, but, like In Treatment, it benefits from HBO's "above the fray" approach to quality television. If it keeps critics, it'll stay alive.

  • I think Louie is the most progressive TV comedy since Seinfeld. They're superficially similar (comedian playing themselves but not really), but Louie is just so dark, compared to Seinfeld and anything else on TV. Louie's moroseness is magnetic.

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  • I agree! 'Louie' is such a breathe of fresh air. It's pure innovation.

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  • An excellent column, Aymar. I haven't enjoyed the new season of Sons, so I quit watching. In general, I don't think the characters merit the slow-down effect. But I dare say that this focus on nuanced movements might actually make my students better readers of books... Heavens!

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  • As I was reading you on Treme and its critical fortunes, I began to wonder.... loved by critics or not, has there been a hit show--fast or slow--with a majority black cast since... The Fresh Prince??? I know that Undercovers is not supposed to be particularly good, but it seems very much to me that (with the exception of niche networks), the TV landscape is dominated by white males in various states of distress (Hung, Dexter, Mad Men, Breaking Bad... The Sopranos before them). I often like these shows. I am willing to imagine myself as one of these guys. But I also enjoy identifying with Nurse Jackie or Tara. But that's about as far as I'm allowed to go in scripted television. (And I don't wish to identify with anyone on reality TV except Judge Judy, et al). And the rest of the country is never asked to identify with anyone who isn't in their demographic group. It's very frustrating and, I dare say, I believe it has contributed to the rise of the Tea Party... if we can blame habits of identification drawn from scripted television for that.

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  • I agree! I wrote about the wave of tortured white dudes on cable here: http://www.splicetoday.com/moving-pictures/on-cable-long-live-the-anti-hero. And nearly all those shows are critical darlings -- many of them ratings hits. No show about black men/women has done the same. Jill Scott's show on HBO came close, but her character was very Oprah (just good); and the ratings were low. BBC has a show about a tortured black detective -- 'Luther' -- that's a hit in England but a flop here. So no, the only black show hits right now are on cable and they're produced by Tyler Perry and Ice Cube -- and they're only "hits" because TBS has a lower bar for success. Then again, I'm not sure what a hit is anymore.

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