Entrez-vous? MAD MEN, THE VENTURE BROTHERS, and the New Viewer

I tried to watch the new episode of Mad Men this week, I really did. Everything I hear says that the show is hitting new highs, and heaven knows I hate missing out on the zeitgeist. As I squirmed on the couch, however, I had to wonder if I’m just not meant to get it. I think some important stuff was supposed to be going down between Don and Peggy, but all I could see is what a jerk Don Draper is being. Loyal fans tell me these were momentous times, which leads me to wonder if the Sterling Cooper world just isn’t for me.

I think I cracked the actual code, however, while watching–of all things–the season premiere of The Venture Brothers (and, yes, I’m altogether too aware that this may be the first ever comparison between Mad Men and The Venture Brothers). The Monarch’s ode to his Butter-Glider (“no more hiding what is woooonderful”) made me laugh until I was wheezing:

Really, who can’t enjoy a little Butter-Glider humor? And yet, most of the episode was built on so many references, homages, and in-jokes  that the plot felt like a Jenga tower. Some of those references, as is often the case in The Venture Brothers, were to other pop culture phenomena (here several asides to Fantastic Voyage, Innerspace, David Byrne, Ghostbusters, House…even the episode title is a reference to an Oscar nominee), but many were references to little details in previous episodes. If a viewer hasn’t committed to memory–let alone seen–previous episodes like “The Family That Slays Together Stays Together,” “Return to Malice,” and “Pinstripes and Poltergeists”  (setting up 21’s twisted relationship with a dead 24), or second season premiere “Powerless in the Face of Death” (for King Gorilla’s backstory, the fact that there have been many Hank and Dean clones, and the montage of those clones’ deaths), that Jenga tower is almost certain to come tumbling down. “Powerless in the Face of Death” is more than four years old. It’s terrific, and people should commit it to memory, but that’s a lot of dedication to ask of a TV viewer. It isn’t just that the plot will make little sense without understanding what has come before–it’s that these gem-like little Easter eggs are the humor and emotional payoff of the entire endeavor. I found it delightful, but then I can recite the previous clones’ deaths. The show’s made for me, but it’s probably a lot less than inviting for a new viewer.

I suspect the same is true for Mad Men–that if a viewer is as immersed in the Sterling Cooper world from the very beginning, the organizing structure that is all of Don and Peggy’s little interactions over the years holds up the Jenga tower. And even more important than supporting the plot line, having those previous tidbits as the emotional underpinning allows for a cathartic payoff. But a new–or inconsistent–viewer doesn’t get the payoff, and I have to wonder if those viewers just give up. This isn’t exactly revolutionary–it’s not rocket science that one reason procedurals do so well, especially in reruns, is because people can drop in knowing nothing and leave happily 44 minutes later with the bad guy in jail. But it is interesting that these two examples, and perhaps most other examples of TV shows that reward hard work and paying attention, are on cable. Arrested Development scratched out four glorious years on FOX but never had a quarter of the audience of American Idol. ABC couldn’t sustain Pushing Daisies. How long can a show last if its very structure keeps new viewers from joining the party? To what extent do profit streams that take into account DVD rentals and sales and online access to content make such shows, with which viewers can catch up, more financially viable? Does the fact that we’re talking about payoff to small details set these shows apart from soap operas, which have ongoing storylines that demand commitment, or are we just being snobs? Is the only hope for complicated, Jenga tower programming networks that can be satisfied with a couple million viewers, while broadcast television is destined for little more than singing and dancing competitions?

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Emmys with a Side of Bacon

Susannah and I have been kicking back at the Emmys for a good long time now. We’ve wept. We’ve wailed. We’ve gnashed our teeth. Personally, I’ve worn sackcloth and ashes, but that’s just my general fashion aesthetic.

Part of the issue is that we can’t put our finger on what the problem is–something’s wrong (really, Academy–Entourage? Really?), but what is it? We’re inclined to blame the Emmy categories–is Pushing Daisies really the same kind of beast as Two and a Half Men? Should Dirty Sexy Money–or Boston Legal, for that matter–really be considered a drama? We’re embarrassed to admit, however, that every new categorization scheme we tried went exactly nowhere.

We considered doing away with “Drama” and “Comedy” and going instead with “Half-hour”/”Hour” or “Single-camera”/”Multi-camera”, both of which are already used in the technical and animated categories. In today’s television landscape, however, that left us with a couple of strong contenders and a couple we could argue about in the half-hour or mutli-camera categories while overloading the hour/single-camera even more than the current drama category already is. We toyed with the idea of honoring more actors by creating lead, supporting, and ensemble categories. These might allow for, say, Hugh Laurie (lead), Robert Sean Leonard (supporting), and Omar Epps (ensemble) or Steve Carell (lead), Rainn Wilson (supporting), and Ed Helms (ensemble) to be nominated for the same show, or for the large ensemble casts of, say, Lost or Friday Night Lights to be considered separately from shows that focus on true leads, like House or Life. The details necessary to make that work, however (“if the character appears on-screen for less than 30% of the broadcast…”), both felt arbitrary and were, frankly, nearly impossible to hammer out. We played with the possibility that there just aren’t enough slots available to honor all of the great performances out there, so we tried adding and dividing up categories differently–“Classic Sitcom”! “Workplace Drama”! “Speculative Fiction”! “Human Interest (read: Soap Opera”)! Each of those seemed just as arbitrary as “Comedy” and “Drama,” though–is Grey’s Anatomy a workplace drama or a human interest show? You could argue either category for Mad Men. We were stumped.

And then it occurred to us: maybe the categories are the problem–and maybe that means there shouldn’t be any categories at all. This was a strangely liberating idea. We kept the sex split, both because it seems less arbitrary than the above and because we feared our lists would be swamped with male roles otherwise (try filling out the female comedy roles under the traditional categories–brutal). We limited ourselves to people on the official Emmy ballot, which meant excluding favorites because of production-based eligibility problems (goodbye, British-based Doctor Who crew), because of genre (sorry, Venture Brothers–we’ll catch you next time), and because they simply didn’t appear on the ballot for reasons beyond our understanding (who dropped the ball on submitting Dan Byrd from Aliens in America?). We began with a list of 40 actors of each sex, then narrowed the list to 30 and ranked them. By assigning points to those rankings, we were able to compare and combine our lists to create a category-less Bacon Emmys. After complaining that there just weren’t enough spots to honor all of the excellent performances out there, we were pretty surprised to find that in the end we shared 21 ranked male actors and 21 ranked female actors–with one tie in the Lead Actor in a Drama category leading to 21 official male Emmy nominees in the “major” acting categories this year, that means our numbers are pretty much right on the real numbers. Some other patterns surprised us, too:

Male actors (in alphabetical order):

  • Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
  • Steve Carell, The Office
  • Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights
  • Gaius Charles, Friday Night Lights
  • Henry Ian Cusick, Lost
  • Glenn Fitzgerald, Dirty Sexy Money
  • Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother
  • Ed Helms, The Office
  • Michael Hogan, Battlestar Galactica
  • Hugh Laurie, House
  • Robert Sean Leonard, House
  • Zachary Levi, Chuck
  • Damian Lewis, Life
  • Zeljko Ivanek, Damages
  • Jack McBrayer, 30 Rock
  • Chi McBride, Pushing Daisies
  • Lee Pace, Pushing Daisies
  • Wendell Pierce, The Wire
  • Andre Royo, The Wire
  • Michael K. Williams, The Wire
  • Ray Wise, Reaper

Female actors (in alphabetical order):

  • Julie Benz, Dexter
  • Connie Britton, Friday Night Lights
  • Rose Byrne, Damages
  • Kristin Chenoweth, Pushing Daisies
  • Glenn Close, Damages
  • Tina Fey, 30 Rock
  • Anna Friel, Pushing Daisies
  • Ellen Greene, Pushing Daisies
  • Christina Hendricks, Mad Men
  • Holly Hunter, Saving Grace
  • January Jones, Mad Men
  • Angela Kinsey, The Office
  • Swoosie Kurtz, Pushing Daisies
  • Mary McDonnell, Battlestar Galactica
  • Elizabeth Mitchell, Lost
  • Adrianne Palicki, Friday Night Lights
  • Amy Pietz, Aliens in America
  • Jamie Pressley, My Name Is Earl
  • Sarah Shahi, Life
  • Sonja Sohn, The Wire
  • Natalie Zea, Dirty Sexy Money

For the record, Susannah’s top two ranked actors I didn’t list were Lost‘s Michael Emerson and FNL‘s Jesse Plemmons, while my top ranked she didn’t list were Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Charlie Day. For the women, her top two ranked picks I didn’t list were The Riches‘ Minnie Driver and Lost‘s Evangeline Lily, while my top picks she didn’t list were Tricia Helfer of Battlestar Galactica and Sunny‘s Kaitlin Olson.

These 42 actors represent 17 shows, which isn’t as many as the real nominees (24 shows). So maybe the Emmys do a better job of spreading the wealth than we would. On the other hand, they spread that wealth by nominating Charlie Sheen and Mariska Hargitay, and…yeah, we’re not going to apologize for not spreading the wealth quite that far. In fact, TV Bacon and the Academy agree on slightly fewer than 25% of the nominees (ten out of 41/42). It’s a supporting-heavy list, although that’s slightly skewed by self-submissions we’d place elsewhere (in what universe is Connie Britton supporting?)–that may reflect the current popularity of the ensemble shows we had such a hard time categorizing. It’s a very, very white list, especially for the women. Thank goodness for The Wire–if we remove their four candidates, 35 out of 38 of the remaining nominees are white. We’re still doing a little better than the real Emmys, who, including The Wire (from which they chose zero nominees), had four minority nominees out of 41 total. While we’ve both had America Ferrera and Edward James Olmos on our lists in the past, even including them wouldn’t hide the whitewash that is American television in 2008.

Perhaps most interesting, however, is that after all our complaining about the traditional categories–and we’re still plenty irked about several exclusions among the real nominees–it wouldn’t take us long to declare winners in each of those. Adding together our rankings to create a “winner,” we’d have to go exactly four names down our list of female actors to fill the four traditional categories, as our top four were Connie Britton (supporting actress in a drama), Glenn Close (lead actress in a drama), Kristin Chenoweth (supporting actress in a comedy), and Anna Friel (lead actress in a comedy). The pattern for the men isn’t nearly so clear, since we’d have to go five whole places down our list to declare winners in the four traditional categories: Andre Royo (supporting actor in a drama), Lee Pace (lead actor in a comedy), Alec Baldwin (lead actor in a comedy), Kyle Chandler (lead actor in a drama), and Jack McBrayer (supporting actor in a comedy). If we’d hewn even more strictly to the Emmy rules and judged a single episode the actors submitted, Baldwin’s tour de force journey through 70s sitcoms might well have pushed him over the top. So after all our complaining and rearranging–are the categories really the problem after all?

What do you think? How would you have rearranged the Emmy categories? Who do you think was robbed? Are you coming after me with pitchforks because it was my list that kept John Krasinski out? Will the Emmys ever get it right?

THE VENTURE BROS. Have Two Daddies

I love them both (and we’re not even talking about Dr. Venture and Brock Samson here). Adult Swim is streaming video of Venture Bros. creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer free associating as they watch the recent episode focused on Rusty Venture’s Day Camp for Boy Adventurers entitled “The Buddy System”. They discuss, and I quote, the “super-heated blanket of death,” “actual gorilla language,” and “super-villain dinner theater” and are almost as funny as the episode itself. And that’s saying something when you consider the grammar obsession this episode had, from the Monarch accidentally making umlauts to Sergeant Hatred’s minions being named Private Tilde and Private Schwa. You totally want to meet the guys responsible for that now, don’t you? You can return to the show after watching the creator clips, or watch the whole episode and clips from previous episodes. Forget saucy twins Nancy and Drew–there are CSI references afoot!