Thoughts On Better Call Saul and Big Ideas in Entertainment

I found myself rewatching Breaking Bad this morning, starting at the beginning.  It’s amazing how entertaining this show is given that this will be the third time I’ve seen this season.  Also, as almost everyone knows, for a show this entertaining it sure was able to deal in some really heavy themes.  I think that is what makes it so great, that it works on different levels, from base entertainment to American tragedy.

I finished Better Call Saul the other day.  Seeing the whole season now has made me want to watch Season 2.  There were several times in the first season that I wasn’t so sure about the show.  The acting has always been excellent.  I’m used to modern TV shows taking a little time to develop and find their voice.  After the amazing ride of Breaking Bad I determined that I was going to give Vince Gilligan the benefit of the doubt, even when the show was slow.  Several seasons of Mad Men have taken a little time to develop, only to pick up steam in the second half and be unbelievable.  Modern TV, when its at its best, can have almost the detail of great literature.  Mad Men definitely falls into that realm.  I think what Better Call Saul ended up doing throughout the season was great, but it really took me the full season to become invested on an emotional level, where Breaking Bad had an opening episode that hooked you from the start.

I think that any kind of art form has to work on an emotional level first.  If it can expand your mind, deliver big ideas, on top of that, all the better.  I want to get something more than just being entertained out of something if possible.  However, I think if a writer, musician, painter, can pull you in on some way that is emotional, especially if they have a big idea, it is going to have a far greater chance at affecting how people think.  George Orwell is brilliant not only for his ideas, but for his clarity and readability too.  Even if he is talking about something highly intellectual, I am always struck at how the way he writes pulls you along with him.  It’s almost as if you are arriving at the conclusion with him.

That doesn’t mean that every moment of a book or TV show or whatever has to be easy.  I like to be challenged.  I like to hear that weird soundscape in the middle of an album of pop songs, for a show like Mad Men to take its time developing characters so the emotional payoff is bigger by the end, to see a play that has an act that sets the stage for later. Only fools need everything spoonfed to them.

I just got done reading Voltaire’s Candide.  It was written in the 1700’s.  There is a reason, beyond the big ideas contained within, that it has lasted several hundred years.  It is highly entertaining as well as being highly intelligent.

One thing I realized is that one will never ever read every book that is ever written.  One will never hear every piece of music ever created.  One will never see every show that or movie that has ever been made.  Therefore you must choose what you expose yourself.  It’s fine to watch or listen to things that are escapist at times.  The brain needs downtime if it is going to function on a higher level at other times.  But one should seek things out that help to understand the world around you.  If you are looking to understand something in a very specific technical way, then that is a different matter.  However, if you are looking for some kind of broader understanding of the world, there is no reason that one can’t enjoy oneself while doing so.  If you are interested in something, or some idea, or just looking for new ideas, the chances are there is someone that has communicated what you are looking for in a way that is enjoyable too.  A great journalist, dramatist, or songwriter, can do more than one thing at a time.

The Brilliance of Mad Men and Q&A With Matthew Weiner


I’ve been watching Mad Men again in advance of the final run of episodes.  Other than the mighty Deadwood, which I believe is the Shakespeare of our time, I think Mad Men is as good as any TV show ever.  I think no show captures the existentialism and anxiety of modern times better.  For every scene that seems like a setup to explain what was happening in the 60’s, there are 20 that take us into the inner lives of the characters, that ring true to everyday life.  I’ve always found Don Draper to be an incredibly written character.  He is a character that sees through the facade of everyday society and tries to operate within it at the same time.  Although many of his faults come from his childhood, Matthew Weiner is too smart of a writer to make a character’s emotional life just a matter of cause and effect.  Draper sees the world as it really is and as it wants to be, he sees behind the mask, and that unbridgeable gap creates a great deal of the tension on the show.

Interviews with the creator of the show, Matthew Weiner, are always interesting reads.  Here is one that I just read today from Time Magazine:

Q&A With Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner

Our Secret KGB Lust

In the above article a woman gets in trouble with the police when she leaves her son in the car for five minutes on a cool day to go into the store.  The police only know about this because someone with a camera phone, who clearly wishes they were in the KGB, informed them.  The best part of the article is when another mother talks about the odds of a child being harmed left in the car for five minutes vs. driving to the store.  People’s threat factors are way off these days.  Also, just watch Mad Men to get an idea how our parents grew up.  As Terry Gilliam says, “kids bounce.”

How many times has some virulent anti-gay figure turned out to be gay?  Is the reason that we claimed to hate totalitarian Communism all those years, and I am referring to the Soviet kind for the moment, because we secretly loved it?  Why do we need a secret police when citizens feel that it is their duty to inform on other citizens for things other than serious crimes?

One of the things that I find most disturbing about modern social interaction is how nothing is private anymore.  It is one thing if someone wants to disclose their own information online, but we now no longer give people the choice most of the time.  From the disgusting world of TMZ to friends checking you into places on facebook without them asking, it is just getting ridiculous.  Are we Big Brother?

If there is a flip side positive to any of this it is when people use their electronic devices to speak truth to power and protect their fellow citizens.  I am thinking especially of when people take videos of police abuse.  If only more people would realize that we’re all in this thing together.

Dreaming the Wrong Dream

Contains a small spoiler for the latest episode of Mad Men.

It’s been raining the last few days in Austin.  My writing production has been slow.  Ideas can only be dispersed if you are busy collecting them.  Prepare to be inspired as David Milch says.  Last night I had one of those rare nights where you watch TV all night and everything is inspiring.  I watched The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Werner Herzog’s batshit insane My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, and the latest episode of Mad Men.  I have been slowly picking my way through the book version of Under the Skin and James Joyce’s Dubliners.  Musically I have surprised even myself by becoming obsessed with Kanye West, especially his new album Yeezus.

Although I’m not far along enough in Dubliners to comment upon it, many of these works deal with the idea that the modern world creates the wrong kind of dreams in one way or another.  We are searching for a connection all while being told by the dominant society to crave material things that bring us no lasting happiness.  The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology dealt directly with these themes.  Mad Men and the work of Kanye West both explicitly deal, in different ways, with the world of the material, but also both show its shortcomings.  The Herzog movie dealt with a character who searches constantly for something to cling to only to finally be driven to complete insanity.

If you are a fan of Mad Men than this review of this week’s episode over at Salon is really good:

I’ll leave you with lyrics from Mad Men’s Bert Cooper’s strangely delivered farewell song.  On one hand they can be seen as too sentimental.  However, in the overreaching story of the show they seemed powerful to me:

“The moon belongs to everyone.
The best things in life are free.
The stars belong to everyone.
They gleam there for you and me.
The flowers in spring, the robins that sing.
The sunbeams that shine, they’re yours they’re mine.
And love can come to everyone. The best things in life are free.”

The Grownups and Mad Men

The grownups they don’t know any more
Than you do
They still ache in their hearts
They’re just a little better at hiding the truth

Make me young
Make me young
Make me young again
There’s so much I don’t understand

They say a life viewed from the inside
Is just a series of defeats
And while that is partially true
Sometimes you find a love that’s sweet

Make me young
Make me young
Make me young again
There’s so much I don’t understand

We remain a mystery
Even to ourselves
Waiting on that one
That reflects us well

Make me young
Make me young
Make me young again
There’s so much I don’t understand

These are the lyrics to a song called The Grownups that I wrote.  It’s written from the perspective of a grownup talking to a child, letting them know that they still don’t have anything figured out.

I wrote this after I watched a really profound episode of Mad Men one time which also shares the title.  It takes place during the Kennedy assassination.  The characters are at a wedding when the news breaks.  Throughout the episode you realize that the younger characters are not as damaged as the older ones.  I also stole from one of my favorite George Orwell lines.

Mad Men is probably my favorite show on TV now because its story-lines play the long game.  It is almost like a novel in its approach.  It creates such a deep sense of character that by the time you get late into a season you can tell what is going on just by the way the characters look at each other.  This sort of long form narrative also leads to bigger emotional payoffs.  When Don Draper listened to The Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows, for a brief moment I realized how shocking that music was at that time.  That is because it was shocking to the character of Don Draper, who is so well written.

The show is also excellent at capturing the existential despair that we all feel in our lives at times.  The anxiety that we face as the world changes around us seems very realistic to me in the way that it is portrayed in the show.  Most people marvel at the way the lives of the characters, the show takes place in the 60’s, are so different from our own.  I do to, but like most great art, it also is about us now.  Whatever time period we are in, we are still human.

That’s not to say that Mad Men is not also greatly entertaining and filled with moments of humor.  Anyone that has seen the show knows about the office party riding mower scene.  I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say that booze and riding mowers don’t go well together in an office.

If you haven’t seen the show, or have and haven’t enjoyed it, try starting it from the beginning.  This is a show where the journey from point A to point B is more important than any one episode.

Dollhouse, Firefly, Mad Men, Deadwood

I like the Joss Whedon show Dollhouse.  I’ve been watching the first season again and have never seen the second, but I plan on it. It’s a really entertaining show if you can get past the first couple episodes.  It’s not until the larger arc of the story is introduced that the show becomes interesting. 

I tried to show my brother an episode.  My brother, like me, is a big fan of Whedon’s show Firefly.  I picked one of the better episodes that I thought would stand alone as I felt the first episode did not do the show justice.  He couldn’t get into it.  Afterwards I was trying to think why, as it seems like something he would like, given to the fact that he has liked Firefly and other things by Whedon. 

I started thinking how important to Whedon’s writing, and really TV in general, is the fact that you need to become invested in the characters to really get enjoyment out of something.  In the episode I showed him the characters get high on an experimental drug and starting acting out of character.  What is funny if you know the characters probably isn’t if you don’t know them.  You don’t have any kind of template to base your reactions to. 

I think one of the reasons that TV has been so well done in recent years is that shows have gotten better at creating well rounded characters that have long story arcs.  Mad Men, maybe my favorite show that is airing right now, is great at this.  By the time you get to later seasons even a glance between two characters can be infused with deep meaning.  A show like Mad Men has depth to it that really only great literature can beat. 

My favorite show of all time is the show Deadwood.  I think it is as close to Shakespeare as we will get in our lifetime, with an amazing amount of swearing thrown in.  Aside from being a well written entertaining show it shows how societies organize themselves and also highlights the bloodier aspects of capitalism in our history.  However, I know plenty of people that have tuned in somewhere in the middle and had trouble telling what is going on.  The language and the politics of the show are too dense.  I completely understand this as I think you have to go on a journey with the characters in the show from the beginning.  There are lots of subtle things that are being done that make sense if you see it slowly build.  If you are thrown in the middle of it is like reading chapters out of order in a book. 

I guess if there is a show that your friends like that you want to like, but don’t get, start at the beginning.  There is still a chance that you might not like it of course, but it is worth a shot.  There is a lot of great writing in TV right now, just try to find a way to watch it without the commercials.  Whatever entertainment or ideas you get from a show will be sucked out by those things.  

Where Does the Time Go?

Last night, at my show at Scholz Garten in Austin, I heard several people talking about Miley Cyrus.  I have seen several headlines concerning her at Huffington Post over the last few days.  I can connect the dots that she did something outrageous at the Video Music Awards.  However, exactly what she did has completely escaped me.  One of the benefits of not having cable is not having an overabundance of stupidity enforced upon you.  Things that might normally make my eyes bleed are now just minor occurrences off to the side of the stage.  I sort of know they are going on, but they are far away, as they should be, like an airplane across a cloudy sky.

I once read that Obama has a whole closet of almost identical outfits.  He does this to cut down on the amount of decisions that he has to make in any given day.  The more decisions that you make the less able you are to make decisions well later on in the day.  If you are the President you don’t want to be using too much of your brain power to pick out a tie.  You have far more important things on hand.

There is a lot of great television out there.  Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Killing, Real Time With Bill Maher, The Colbert Report, Game of Thrones, and The Daily Show are just a few of the programs I have consumed over the course of the last year.  I watch them online, on Netflix, on DVD, or at a friend’s house.  I’m able to consume all of these great TV shows without ads and without getting sucked into mindless claptrap like Celebrity Ghost Stories.  Yeah, that’s a real show, and I’ve seen it when I was at a house with TV.  Sometimes it’s hard not to torture yourself.

I’m not saying I’m better than anyone else.  I have watched some of the stupidest shit known to man and enjoyed it.  But there are a whole host of other things I like to do, like read books and play musical instruments.  If suddenly I had the option to watch Survivor Midget Edition, I might not spend as much time doing these things.  If you enjoy cable then keep it.  Someday I too may want it again.  But if you find yourself descending down the rabbit hole too many times, and asking where your time has gone, cut the cord.  You will find some other way to fill the time, trust me.  I think I need to go save Princess Zelda again…