After months of ignoring the critical buzz, I finally succumbed to the pressure, and watched the first DVD of the acclaimed drama "Mad Men". While the show certainly looked gorgeous and authentic, as much as I can judge what is authentic in terms of a 1960s Manhattan advertising firm, I had trouble warming up to the characters. The men and women who populate the show, or at least the first three episodes, are a bit too cold and distant for me to really care about their struggles.
I understand the premise of this series, and realize that the alternate universe of "Mad Men" is as foreign to me as, say, the vampires of Sunnydale in the 1990s or the polygamists of Utah in the 2000s, but I have a tough time believing that kindness and respect and a general adherence to one’s marriage vows are new concepts that didn’t exist before, oh, say, 1980.
It’s that final point that’s sticking with me the most, the more I ponder "Mad Men", and, more broadly, television today.
I love TV. I practically have my doctorate in primetime drama. But does it strike me as strange and perhaps a little frustrating that at its best, good television can get so, so, so much right, but it continuously, monumentally fails when it comes to portraying marriage?
I know. The myth is that marriage is boring. I hear this. I even play into this myth: I teach my creative writing students that things we want for the people we love -- happiness, security, stability -- shouldn’t be the things we want for the characters in our stories, at least not yet, at least not always, because happiness can deflate a dramatic arc faster than a psycho serial killer or a split personality.
But I don't necessarily believe a marriage has to be in trouble for it to be dramatically intriguing.
I’m surrounded by happily married people, and, shockingly, most of them have their own identities and lead pretty damn interesting lives both together and separately from their spouses. Yet, the idea that someone can still have drama and tension and conflict and still remain committed to one other person is such a rarity in network television that I can think of only one recent example of a successful marriage. The bedrock of the stellar first season of "Friday Night Lights" was the relationship between Eric and Tami Taylor. Of course, not a whole lot of people watch that show, and I’m not at all surprised that Entertainment Weekly promises that there’ll be some “clashes” between husband and wife in the upcoming season, because nothing drives ratings like marital conflict.
(I’m leaving sitcoms out of the equation, because I gave up on this particular medium around the time that Ross and Rachel broke up for the thirty-seventh time. In the commercials for most so-called “family” sitcoms alone, however, it appears that husband and wives can rarely stand to be the in same room -- apparently, hating one’s spouse is where great comedy comes from.)
On most dramas, marriage is used as a plot device, to speed up the relationship between a fairly new couple (because if there’s anything more boring than marriage, it has to be dragging dating past the six month mark), or it must be immediately marked as a relationship in trouble. And in most cases, the trouble has to come from an outside source: it’s as if Hollywood believes that there’s no way two people could actually care about each other enough not to go a season without being tempted by a vampy young co-worker or a particularly buff neighbor.
I had high hopes for finally seeing marriage handled in a recognizable manner after watching the premiere of "Brothers and Sisters" -- after all, in addition to the stellar cast portraying three married couples and an engaged pair, one of the Executive Producers was Greg Berlanti, who proved on his prior show, "Everwood", that he understood the dramatic tension inherent within a committed marriage, albeit through the tertiary characters of Rose and Harold Abbott. But two seasons into "Brothers and Sisters", and all the relationships on display in the pilot have been blown apart by infidelity (not to mention a few soapy plot twists).
Even among the titular Desperate Housewives -- which, by definition, should be about marriages -- not a single one of the title characters has managed to keep her marriage intact over the series’ four-year run: and considering these women have dealt with murder, secret babies, stalkers, tornadoes, and a freaky guy chained in the basement, you would think that staying with their movie-star handsome, kind and often successful husbands would be relatively easy in comparison.
I’ve been married now for more than seven years, and for all seven of those years, it’s just been the two of us in this relationship. No kids, no pets, not even any plants or houseguests who’ve stayed for more than a week: just us. I can safely say that I’ve witnessed enough action, enough drama, enough intrigue, and enough pathos to warrant an entire network worth of possibilities.
I’m not saying that Derek and Meredith should suddenly slip into wedded bliss (actually, please don’t), I’m just saying that it would be nice if just one network drama would explore the potential benefit of a marriage that won’t come apart at the seams when prodded, all as part of an attempt to garner higher ratings through manufactured drama.
Hey, you never know -- The Michelle and Joe Show could be a hit. Just hire Amy Sherman-Palladino to write us some snappy dialogue, add a couple of supernatural siblings, a few snarky co-workers, and relocate us to a shady high-tech apartment in some anonymous big city. Who knows? On network TV, marriage could be the next big thing.
Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw
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10.10.08 @ 10:02p
Noah Bennet. Family man.
10.10.08 @ 10:31p
I may be wrong, but what makes marriage work doesn't translate well in the television medium. And I'm not talking sex, which more and more pervasively makes it onto the tv screen. I think the things that really make a marriage work are less interesting to watch, and more difficult to translate.
10.11.08 @ 3:46a
As a single gay man I believe in order to have happy marriage you have to be happy with yourself first. Happy characters on television usually don't do well for the long term. Maybe it's the writers who can't manage to maintain a happy relationship who keep writing characters as unhappy because of their own failings who need to find inner happiness first before they can translate a happy marriage to the small screen.
10.11.08 @ 4:26p
Russ, you crack me up!
On a more serious note, I think that a happy couple surrounded by other not so happy couples could work. Oh wait, that's MY family!
10.13.08 @ 10:58p
Jeff totally nailed it. The day-to-day of marriage operations doesn't make for good TV.
And, conversely, that's what makes "Mad Men" so captivating. The fantasy storyline we've been fed about the idyllic 50s and 60s family and marriage dynamic is simply that -- fantasy. These people aren't individuals in their love matches. They are trying to live up to a standard that doesn't exist, set either by society, their parents, or, laughingly, advertising. The closeted gay marries a woman for appearances. The happy housewife is far from happy. The pressure to conceive uncovers a sham marriage. Can the philanderer be a good guy, too? Why not, if no one really knows what he does?
So the undercurrent of that particular drama, as I see it, is when we enter a marriage for the wrong reasons, we will end up sacrificing ourselves. It's the human condition magnified. We watch and try to avoid the traps set in our own relationships.