Tag Archives: AMC

Week 9: ‘Mad Men’ – Episode 13, Opening Sequence

Having majored in cinema studies in my time at RMIT, I’m no stranger to the close textual analysis of audiovisual forms. That said, I’ve never approached a television program in this way. An open homage to the visual style of classic film, AMC’s Mad Men (2007-) seems an appropriate place to start.

Set in the 1960s, a decade of great political and social change in the USA, Mad Men explores the personal and professional lives of men and women employed by advertising giant Sterling Cooper. At its centre is ad executive and master manipulator Donald Draper (Jon Hamm).

An iconic still from the Mad Men opening title sequence.

The reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) in the show’s animated opening credits, specifically the symbolism of a falling man, is too perfect not to mention first up.

On initial viewing, with little knowledge of the show, I immediately read this image as symbolic of crumbling patriarchy. Having reached the halfway point of season one, the opening credits are richer with meaning for me. They infer mystery (particularly Don’s enigmatic character), suggest the growing power of women during the 1960s and critique capitalism and consumerism. I could go on and on, but let’s save that for my group presentation with Paul and Blake.

In this week’s lecture Brian screened “The Wheel”, the thirteenth and final episode of Mad Men‘s first season. Instead of examining the unknowable Don Draper, however tempting that may be, I’d like to take a closer look at the episode’s opening sequence.

The sequence depicts two simultaneous conversations – one between Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and his father-in-law Tom Vogel (Joe O’Connor), the other between Pete’s wife Trudy (Alison Brie) and her mother Jeannie Vogel (Sheila Shaw). Smart, neat clothing abounds. Perhaps surprisingly there’s not a cigarette in sight. But there is alcohol, it wouldn’t be Mad Men without it.

Subtle brass music plays throughout the sequence but it never escapes background status, encouraging viewers to concentrate on the dialogue.

Naturalistically lit, the sequence begins with an extreme close-up of a fabric pattern propped up on a dining table – a vivid lime green number with colourful bubbles and “powder-room” items printed on it. A pull back reveals Trudy and Jeannie keenly assessing the pattern.

Without a cut, the camera tracks right to show Tom talking to Pete about “man stuff”, namely sports and politics, in an adjoining sitting area, before pulling back to show all four characters in the frame. The women are in the background and out of focus and their speech is inaudible. It’s clear who we are meant to be looking at and listening to. Hint: it’s not the women.

The separation of the men and women in the sequence’s staging highlights the gender division that’s a common theme throughout Mad Men. Think of the Sterling Cooper work environment, with female secretaries working in an open-plan space for men in offices. It is interesting that Tom takes it upon himself to tell Pete about Trudy’s feelings, reiterating what she has told Pete herself during season one.

Having established the setting and locations of the characters within it, the camera then cuts away to a mid-shot of Pete. This is the establishing shot in the shot-reverse shot pattern that follows, an editing choice used to signal an abrupt change of direction in the men’s conversation. This new trajectory is categorically marked by Tom clearing his throat, moving from politics to the business of baby-making.

The latter topic seems to be in direct opposition to the “secret men’s business” vibe of the men’s exchange, but is neatly positioned in the ideological construct that is “The American Dream” – financial independence, nuclear families, white picket fences, traditional values…the works.

Notably, the subject of work (Pete’s promotion opportunity and Tom’s own business expansion) proves tempting for Tom. It’s a hurdle he gradually overcomes in order to discuss the issue of starting a family – something he believes he should, but is not necessarily keen, to address.

By this stage Jeannie and Trudy are no longer able to remain unresponsive to the men’s conversation. Upon hearing the word “child”, the ladies join the men in the sitting area. Jeannie sits next to her husband on the couch and Trudy stands behind her parents. This staging creates a “Wall of Vogels” effect that screams “CONCEPTION!” –  it’s three against one. All Pete can do is smile and nod in awkward silence as the sequence comes to a close.

One thought on casting. No matter how much I watch Mad Men, I can’t see Alison Brie as anyone other than Annie from Community. It can be truly bizarre, almost as though Brie is playing Annie playing Trudy. I expect to get over that at some point…but maybe not for a while. 

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Week 7: The Problems With “Quality TV” and Emergence of Narrative Complexity

The term “Quality TV” was destined to be contentious. It is used by some to describe a distinct form of television storytelling that has emerged in the last 20 or so years. Specifically, it refers to those long-form programs presented in series structure which bring narrative complexity and innovation to the fore and present an alternative to traditional episodic and serial storytelling. Commonly cited examples include The SopranosThe Wire and Breaking Bad.

“Quality TV” is a problematic term because it sounds like a value judgement, apparently positioning one of television’s many branches as superior to the others. At their simplest, value judgements manifest as notions of what is “good” or “bad” and are subjective by nature. There are widely held views on certain things, but just because a lot of people hated Garfield 2 (Tim Hill, 2006) doesn’t mean everyone hated Garfield 2. Come on, the animation is pretty cool.

This is the primary reason why I prefer the way Jason Mittell describes this relatively new breed of programming: “narratively complex” TV. As Mittell points out in his article, ‘Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television’: “Complexity and value are not mutually guaranteed.” He goes on to explore some of the key aspects of complex narrative television.

…we thrill both at the stories being told and at the way in which their telling breaks television conventions” (Jason Mittell, 2006, p.36).

It’s hard to define narratively complex television for the simple reason that it is not nearly so formula-driven as typical episodic (e.g. The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men) or serial programming (e.g. Neighbours, Home and Away, General Hospital). Instead, Mittel says, narrative complexity challenges these television norms, while simultaneously employing the two. He proclaims that this “…interplay between the demands of episodic and serial storytelling” is one of the key identifying factors of narrative complexity. It is “non-discrete” episodic TV that promotes the sense of ongoing and multi-faceted narratives spanning a variety of established genres.

This multi-focal approach – with both story arcs across both episodes and seasons – immediately reminds me of Showtime’s Dexter. Mittell describes The X-Files as having a “monster-of-the-week” focus while proliferating the longer-term narrative arc of the show’s own “mythology”. Similarly, episodes of Dexter mostly feature a “kill of the week” – a bad guy that Dexter (Michael C. Hall) researches, stalks and idiosyncratically whacks for their crimes. These weekly tales occur within season-long narrative frameworks similar to those Mittell associates with Buffy. Each season of Dexter has a primary “villain”: The Ice Truck Killer (Season 1), Bay Harbor Butcher (Season 2), Miguel Prado (Season 3), The Trinity Killer (Season 4), and so on. It is a mix of cop show, thriller, mystery, romance and black comedy and the show’s numerous episodic and season-long story arcs reflect this.

But there is also an over-arching narrative arc that runs for the show’s entirety. Dexter finds himself  unable to meaningfully connect with human feelings and emotions. By remembering more and more from his past (which take the form of flashbacks), he is forever trying to discover himself and his humanity. Dexter’s voiceover narration is an amazing storytelling device. It offers insights into his state of mind, reveals where he is at in his quest for self-discovery and frequently contradicts what his face and body language is outwardly telling other characters. It can be funny, frightening and strange. I can’t see this plot arc ever reaching any kind of genuine resolution – Dexter’s character is too foreign, layered and unknowable.

Season 10: Dexter remembers everything from his troubled past, suddenly feels true emotions and IT ALL MAKES SENSE. I don’t see this happening. It had better not!

Mittell also points out that episodes of narratively complex programs rarely have neatly packaged endings. This encourages viewers to watch the next installment, which will then propel or colour the narrative further. “Cliffhangers” immediately spring to mind – moments that have you demanding to know what happens next. The Game of Thrones pilot ends in this fashion, with one character pushed out of a window by another – will they live, or will they perish?

Sometimes it is an entire season of a narratively complex program that ends with a cliffhanger, like the Twin Peaks season one finale, which concludes as Agent Cooper is gunned down, his fate unknown. Being forced to wait until the release of a new episode or season can be frustrating, but also exciting.

Mittell goes as far as to say that narrative mechanics, the way a complicated story is written and constructed, can be a source of viewer pleasure in itself – “narrative special effects”. He connects this to the “operational aesthetic” audiences revel in while watching the work of elaborate physical/stunt comedies like those of Buster Keaton, or more recently Frank Woodley. Mittell says the viewer satisfaction and wonder derived from many complex comedies as coming from asking “how did they do that?” as opposed to “what will happen next?”.

Seinfeld is the perfect example of the remarkable tying together of several seemingly unrelated storylines through cleverly orchestrated “coincidence” and “chance”. That’s why Mittell cites it. HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (also created by Seinfeld‘s Larry David) is also mentioned, but not given nearly enough time.

Littered with self-referentiality, Curb is sometimes so beautifully cringeworthy that it’s hard to watch. But it’s also impossible to look away – I blame the artful writing. At its centre is the painfully inflammatory “Larry David” (Larry David). No matter how hard he tries, Larry cannot escape conflict. Sometimes it looks like he’ll escape condemnation, ridicule, attack, physical violence or some or all of the above. That’s just what the creators want you to think. But he never does. The show’s writing creates the equivalent effect of an on-screen explosion. It never fails to amaze me.

It seems appropriate to finish this post with a nod to this week’s timely edition of The Age‘s greenguide, the front cover of which reads: “The A-List: We choose the best 25 shows from the last 25 years.” You can probably take a guess at which shows are on the list. No prizes.

Week 4: Webisodes and Transmedia

Yes WordPress, I would like to add the word “webisode” to my dictionary. I know it’s obvious to some, but the term webisode combines the words “web” and “episode”.

Put simply, webisodes could be described as made for online videos with links to the storyworld of a program that is (or has been) broadcast on television.

In his article, ‘Television’s Aesthetic of Efficiency: Convergence Television and the Digital Short’, Max Dawson provides an in-depth look at the webisode as a platform for storytelling and the politics surrounding this. He calls webisodes by a number of names, including “digital shorts”, which he describes as:

“The short-form ancillary texts produced by television networks, studios, or independent producers as digital extensions of present or past television series for commercial and/or promotional purposes.”

Webisodes are just part of “transmedia”, an emerging and transient element of the mediascape explored by Matt in his guest lecture last week. One blog post just isn’t enough to encompass such a complex and layered topic.

Matt’s description of “transmedia”, like Dawson’s definition of webisodes, contained references to the extension of a show’s narrative – but across more than one medium.

Novels, video games, board games and comics could all be considered forays into the transmedia jungle, offering more ways for viewers to interact with and become immersed in their favourite shows.

My first transmedia experience (I only see it this way in hindsight) was reading “The Outsider“, a novel detailing the backstory of Ryan Atwood, one of the protagonists in The O.C.. Although it was not particularly well written, I distinctly remember lapping up page after page for no other reason than it was new O.C. material.

Regardless of the text’s quality, I was willing to persist with it in order to experience more branded O.C. moments. Some critics of transmedia would say that it is this attitude that networks are (often literally) banking on when they choose to experiment in the area.

Interestingly, the name of The Outsider‘s author is not printed on the front or back covers. Instead, an enormous O.C. logo occupies the place where that name may normally be, encouraging readers to see the book as “authentic” – the “official” story.

When searching for a webisode to watch and analyse for this blog post, I was restricted by my Australian location, with some American networks’ websites barring me from viewing their video content. Note to self: read “The Tyranny of Digital Distance” by Tama Leaver.

Instead, I was forced to watch webisodes of AMC’s The Walking Dead on king of the video aggregation sites, YouTube. This allowed me to watch all of the webisodes without “external” advertising interruptions – a user had uploaded them as one video.

This was great, but did not allow me to experience the webisodes as AMC would have liked me to.

Immediately after hit the play button, the tension between commercial and narrative concerns, which Dawson says is present in all webisodes, became apparent. The Walking Dead: Torn Apart is “presented by Pizza Hut”. Pizza and reanimated corpses – quite the combo.

Torn Apart (2011) is a six-part webisode series that documents the otherwise unknown backstory of Hannah, one of the most iconic “walkers” in the “key” text. In episode one of The Walking Dead, Hannah appears only as the mutilated and partially decomposed upper half of an infected woman.

Without legs, zombie Hannah moves by clawing her way forward commando style, her spinal chord dragging along the ground as she goes. It’s a hard image to forget.

Each installment of Torn Apart is between two and three minutes in duration and contains part of the lead up to Hannah becoming the pitiful sub-human creature seen in episode one.

As a huge fan of The Walking Dead, I found the web series thoroughly engrossing despite its having no impact on the trajectory of the show. Why?

Every webisode ends climactically, but also leaves plot points unresolved. Websode one ends with Sarah clambering into the relative safety of a live man’s home following a near-fatal encounter with a walker. Who is the man? Will they survive for long? It’s hard not to want answers to these questions, so I watched on.

I’m not sure my desire to see what happens next would have been so great had I been waiting for a new webisode to be released once a week. As it happened, thanks to YouTube user ministorm1985, I had every episode at my fingertips.

Torn Apart “looks” the same as the key text. It is shot in a way that should be familiar and satisfying to fans of the show, but also enticing to people that have not seen it.

Towards the end of his article, Dawson asserts: “Nearly all of the digital shorts found on television networks’ and studios’ websites and mobile portals promote something.”

Torn Apart is a great advertisement for the show: energetic, action-packed and heavily branded with beginning and end title brand reinforcement.

Wouldn’t mind a pizza actually…