Archive for television

Verb Yourself: The Naming Of Gaming

Posted in criticism, literature, stupidity, television, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2014 by drayfish

Scott Pilgrim Gamer pic

IMAGE: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Universal Pictures)

I’ve been reading a lot of Shakespeare these past few weeks, which means I’ve also been reading a lot about names. Not surprisingly, as the most talented and prolific writer of the western world (this is a fact; the end), Shakespeare, was particularly obsessed with language – how it functions and alters over time. It means that he can go a little nutty for the puns at times, but it’s forgivable, because ultimately what he’s exploring is the way that we can take our language for granted. A crappy pun about ‘maiden heads’ or ‘country matters’ – aside from being surprisingly smutty – is a way of forcing us to re-evaluate the associations that words carry with them, to stop and compel us to examine the way that we use words and invest them with meaning.

As a consequence, he interrogates the nature of names and naming repeatedly throughout his work. In Julius Caesar, Antony, while giving a eulogy after the murder of Caesar, calls Brutus ‘an honourable man’ for his actions in the scheme; but by the end of his speech he manages to load the phrase with so much irony and contempt that when he repeats the word ‘honourable’ it translates to pernicious, traitorous killer. It is a compliment that becomes, effectively, a sneering declaration of war. Meanwhile in Richard II, when Richard has his throne usurped, he spends the remainder of the play mulling over what the name ‘King’ – previously an inextricable element of his very being – now means. He is King. Or was. And if he’s not King anymore, then what – if anything – remains of the man underneath?

We can still see the kinds of grammatical concerns with naming play out today. There are certain names that carry so much baggage with them that merely their utterance entirely derails a discussion. The most obvious examples of these, the ones that first spring to mind, come steeped in asinine partisan politics, or preloaded with bigotry and offence – hackneyed, racist, and prejudicial terms that carry with them the idiocy or ugliness of their past. For obvious reasons I don’t want to talk about those (despite how pertinent such a discussion might be while the Washington Redskins continue to be a thing).

Instead, I want to wade into the shallower end of the semantic swimming pool, to pick a target of lesser consequence, but one with a similarly loaded connotations. Because over the last few years, in the midst of its ongoing struggle for artistic respectability, the videogame medium has had a curious relationship with one such name:

Gamer.

It’s a word that looks innocuous enough.

Gamer. (Noun.) A person who plays games.

Simple.

But in practice, the word ‘gamer’ raises a number of problematic connotations that often muddy or complicate meaning – questions of what does or does not determine who is allowed to call themself a ‘gamer’. It’s a word that has evolved beyond ‘a person who plays a game’, to take on a whole new dimension, one where the amount of time spent playing, and the intensity of these sessions, are somehow being implied by the use of the term.

A ‘gamer’, from this perspective, is not a dispassionate descriptor, it delineates a kind of player of games. A ‘gamer’ plays the ‘HARD MODE’. A ‘gamer’ knows what ‘animation cancelling’ is in fighting games. A ‘gamer’ can get a twenty plus killstreak with only the throwing knife. A ‘gamer’ gets to say things like:

‘Oh, you’ve played 20 hours of Skyrim, have you? How quaint. Maybe you get to have an opinion when you’ve logged 300…’

Candy Crush becomes cited as the trash ‘non-gamers’ play; Dark Souls is for the ‘serious’ ones; Pokemon games are for hoarding, animal-blood-sport enthusiasts on acid. (By the way, Twitch Plays Pokemon was profoundly cool.)

Suddenly these kinds of exclusionary statements imply (or outright declare) that there is a self-evident division between what constitutes a real gamer and a fake one. It sets up a dichotomy of ownership of the medium in which only those devotees decreed to be in the inner circle can be considered the true audience, and everyone else condescended to as just along for the ride. It’s from this kind of classy system distinction that terms like ‘casual’ and ‘newbie’ and ‘gamer girl’ and witless garbage like ‘girlfriend mode’ spring.

It’s not clear where all of this started. Perhaps an attempt to engender some kind of tribal mentality (a spill over from the ridiculous brand loyalty wars of the Nintendo versus Sega days, and the current Xbox versus Sony age*); maybe the unintended result of the competitive nature of some games and the communities that support them; or the unfortunate, if natural, extension of the enthusiasm that inspires all fandom (we’ve all felt that; as for me, if you do not love Firefly then I regret to inform you that you are not a real person) – but whatever the cause, ‘gamer’ has come to represent a subcultural, elitist divide.

It’s a shame, because it risks taking something that should be inclusive, something to be celebrated, and turns it into a tedious pissing contest. Say to someone that you are a ‘gamer’ and suddenly a sense of judgemental snobbery threatens to overwhelm. They worry that you’re looking upon them as a Farmville barnacle; you worry that they think you’re a foulmouthed, teabagging thirteen year old on Call of Duty. And even if none of that disapproval is actually going on, it’s still in the atmosphere, stirred into being by the endless clogged forums and comments sections that do mean it all as an insult.

The answer, one might argue, would be just to not use the word anymore. We could say ‘people’ instead. Or ‘audiences’. Or ‘external biological reactive input interfaces’. Anything to let ‘gamer’ fall into that junkyard of sorry, formless terms we’ve abandoned, left to burn itself out on its own asinine steam – like jeggings, or Rob Schneider. The most logical choice would be to say ‘player’ – people who play videogames would be ‘players’, just as people who listen to music are ‘listeners’, and people who read books are ‘readers’ – the verb dictating the title.

Shakespeare’s Juliet would probably agree. For her a name was completely arbitrary. They literally didn’t have to carry around the stink of their past associations; a ‘rose’ by any other name would still smell as sweet. But what did she know? She was hopped up on adolescent lust. And as far as most research suggests, never even had an Xbox Live account.

But for the very same reason, using a different word seems like a needless concession. It is, after all, just a word; and when removed from its funk of juvenile competitiveness, it’s an entirely fitting one. A ‘gamer’ is just someone who wants to play a game – which is perfect if only it can be rescued from all that grammatical smog.

It’s not even like this kind of linguistic restoration would be anything new. Years ago, the idea of a television audience was observed with cynicism. A viewer? People would scoff. A ‘viewer’ was just whoever happened to be plonked on the couch willing to soak up the half-baked pabulum being spewed at them from the screen. Probably they were ironing and not really paying attention. Maybe they would fall asleep half way through, or flick over during the ad breaks and not return. Being invested in whatever the networks served up week to week was a waste of time. Next week Jeannie would still be misunderstanding Master’s orders (how was that show ever okay?); Magnum would still be P.I.ing; Gilligan was never gonna get off the island. The shows were only there at the behest of the advertisers anyway – yes, those are some smooth cigarettes, Fred Flintstone – so the viewer could just lap it up and call it ice cream. Of course, just as it is with videogames, this was all a gross oversimplification – but it was an opinion that for a long time continued to hold sway.

And yet.

Over the past couple of decades the notion of a viewer has been reclaimed. Redefined. In part this was aided by the surge in prestige programming that could not so easily be dismissed as cheap televisual distraction (your Mad Mens and Buffy the Vampire Slayers and The Wires), but it has also been a product of the empowerment of the viewership. Only a decade ago a network program sitting on 10 million viewers would be dismissed as a failure (remember Newsradio? NBC hopes you don’t); now it would be considered a smash hit event of the year.

Audiences are not, and never were, passive sponges for whatever is vomited their way; and the ubiquity of the medium, and our myriad ways of interacting with it, have shown this acutely. Shows can be time-shifted, recorded onto DVRs, bought through iTunes and watched on Hulu. What were once ‘water cooler’ events are now dispersed through circles of influence – people sharing programs with friends and loved ones.

‘Viewers’ are now something to be wooed. Cultivated. Treasured. Viewing is not just a passive act. ‘Viewers’ can bring shows back from the dead (Chuck, Star Trek, Futurama), they can crusade for programs they believe in (there is no way that The Wire would have run for five seasons on its relatively small ratings were it not for the rightful adoration of its loyal audience – many of whom, thankfully, were television critics**). In just the past few weeks Community, abandoned by NBC, announced it will be resurrected on the new broadcasting platform of Yahoo (huzzah!), largely because it carries its loyal fans in its wake.

There’s no reason ‘gamers’ need to be seen any differently. Sure, some might scoff that they ensure derivative FPS franchises keep chugging along (a fact far less offensive than the realisation that Transformers 4: Greasy Shouty Shiny Smash is set to become one of the highest grossing films of all time), but that lazy cliché is hardly the whole picture. They also foster and support the smaller, experimental games. They invest in Kickstarters and keep online communities alive. They help conduct gene research in order to find cures for cancer.***

Again, as Juliet would suggest, maybe the word ‘players’ would get this variety of interaction across just fine – just as ‘viewer’ can equally mean someone yawning their way through an episode of Two Broke Girls or an academic writing a dissertation on the Faustian descent of Breaking Bad. But it seems a shame if ‘gamer’ can’t be reclaimed as well. It just needs to be hosed off a little. Scoured of all that exclusionary us-versus-them drivel that, in a sad irony, has tried to turn it into a badge of honour by souring the very thing it is meant to celebrate.

For me anyway, to be a ‘gamer’ should just mean that you play games; that you see something of worth in the medium. It could be that you view them as a competitive sport, a work of interactive three-dimensional architecture, a narrative with which to invest yourself, a challenge to overcome, an auditory and visual stimuli, or all of these things at once. Whatever. All that matters is that you see them as something worthy of exploration. Something deserving of the attention you pay them when you pick up a controller, or tap a screen, or waggle your hands fruitlessly in front of an aggressively non-responsive Kinect sensor.****

You are a ‘gamer’ if you bother to play a game. Simple.

Because making that choice – for whatever reason – is a worthy act in itself. We don’t have to feel guilty, or territorial, or turn a definition in to some twisted, competitive point of pride. We could just be ‘gamers’, and be content that there is a medium as expansive and idiosyncratic as we are, where everyone is welcome if they just agree to all play along.

Heh.

Play.

How’s that for a pun, Shakespeare?*****

gamer-life_img2

IMAGE: Gamer Life (Mimo Games)

*Personally, I was a Sega kid by circumstance (Go, Alex Kidd!), but looked on longingly at my Nintendo compatriots (Go, Tanooki suit!) …Atari I could take or leave (Go, Faceless-Man-Jumping-Over-An-Alligator-Onto-Underground-Swamp-Ladder!)

** Just to put it out there: The Wire never won for best drama series. Way to keep proving your utter critical irrelevance, Emmys.

*** In contrast, Michael Bay spends multimillions to film a robot pissing on John Tuturro. And he makes sure that the camera angle is so overdramatically low that the splash off hits the audience; a more fitting metaphor for his asinine directing style I have yet to find.

**** At least until game stores and publishers perfect that process of segmenting and merchandising every component of a game behind preorders and pay walls, finally reducing ‘gamers’ to the cash-spewing compulsive magpies they have always suspected we were.

***** Yeah, okay, I know it was terrible. Shut up.

 

 

LIMBO and LOST: One is a dark, dreary, ominous excursion into a nihilistic nothingness …the other is LIMBO.

Posted in criticism, literature, philosophy, television, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2012 by drayfish

or: Wherever You Are, There You Are (Even If You’re Nowhere)

IMAGE: LOST (ABC)

An eye opens.  A pair of eyes in fact.  Two eyes; both opening.  Two orbs waiting to perceive, to absorb their strange new surrounds, and in that act of viewing, to come to know themselves.

The owner of those eyes, our protagonist, staggers slowly to his feet.  An unfamiliar landscape suddenly meets his gaze.  He is bewildered.  This alien environment is unsettling, foreboding; strange sounds filter in from beyond the trees, and a portentous, thunderous music punctuates the air.  Our solitary hero has no recollection of the events that flung him into this anachronistic land, and over the course of his adventures he will confront dangerous, shadowy ‘others’, predatory animals and otherworldly beasts, even convoluted machines that change the very fabric of space, time, and influence the elemental forces themselves.  He will find himself in world that seems to defy all logic or expectation, and over the course of his attempts to free himself and return to the familiar, he will seek to comprehend the nature of his circumstance, and in doing so perhaps better know himself.

This premise (indeed, this exact introduction) is the set up for two very distinct, yet thematically analogous works: one a videogame, LIMBO; the other a multimillion dollar television epic, LOST.  In the first a young boy, in haunting silhouette, moves across a shadowy two-dimensional plane solving a series of perilous puzzles in order to progress; in the second a character named Jack awakens on a mysterious island after a plane crash, soon finds himself the leader of a makeshift band of survivors, and likewise fights to survive in an environment that appears to defy all conventional reason.

Both texts invite their audiences to invest in their respective journeys into the inexplicable: LOST asks its audience to keep watching, promising that eventually all of its seemingly random narrative threads will link together into a cohesive whole; LIMBO meanwhile is propelled by the possibility that, perhaps, by continuing through its stages, the player will eventually be able to conceive of where exactly this small boy is located, what this nebulous ‘limbo’ state actually is.  And yet ultimately both texts knowingly thwart this desire for resolution, disabusing their audience of the hope that any of these mysteries will ever resolve into meaning.

For the six seasons that it ran (2004-10), LOST proved itself to be a recursive Russian Doll of ambiguity.  As the showcontinued from week-to-week viewers were left to hunt for clues to make sense of the narrative’s overarching mythology, sifting through a pastiche of sci-fi, horror, mystery, philosophical and spiritualist tropes for evidence from which they might glean answers to the riddle of what was actually going on in the tale.  Smoke monsters; electromagnetic Rube Goldberg machines; Egyptian hieroglyphs; ubiquitous recurring number chains; time travel; mysterious caverns with magical properties; every new puzzle piece seemed to tempt revelation, and yet each led only to more obscurity and confusion.  Indeed, often it seemed that the writers were just free-associating imagery (something that appears to have been true for the first three seasons at least, as show-runner and writer Damon Lindelof has since indicated in an interview with The Verge*).

Eventually, the viewer is compelled to realise that all hope of ultimate explanation is fraught with disappointment.  Just as the central characters find their questioning met with only more queries, so too does the audience find that every avenue of reasoning fails to offer absolutes to the experience of this island.  Instead we repeatedly watch as characters flushed with surety that they can penetrate the meaning of the island are stripped of their hubris and forced to realise that they too are but unknowing cogs in a larger, incomprehensible metaphysical machine.  The physicist Daniel Faraday who claims that the answers lie in science; industrialist Charles Widmore who believes the island can be possessed and exploited for profit; John Locke who experiences a transformative epiphany and comes to see the island as a spiritual oasis; the calculating Ben Linus, political leader of the Others, who, using his mastery of behavioural manipulation schemes his way into power; each figure represents one of numerous diverse fields of human endeavour, each purporting to know the answers to the island, all of whom fail profoundly, robbed of their misapprehensions, and often killed for their presumption.  Even the immortal figures like Richard Alpert and Jacob, who appear to themselves be products of these irrational elements, are themselves exposed to be little more than victims of circumstance.

Life is mystery, the work wants to suggest, and the grand metaphysical questions of what motivates us all cannot ever satisfactorily be answered, locked as we are behind our subjective vision and singular beliefs.  Indeed, the structure of the program itself embraces this notion of an individual’s fundamentally limited perspective: each episode is bound to a loose first-person viewpoint as we watch events unfold from one character’s angle, even dipping back into personal history that seems comparable to their current circumstance.  And in every instance, though they may yearn for comprehension, they consistently fail to see their place in the larger unfolding of events.

Curiously (for a narrative that fuels itself utterly with mystery), the final message of the show seems to be that no one can ever know all the answers, can ever escape their bewildered ignorance.  There is no key that will unlock meaning, and the pursuit of such answers are merely breadcrumbs leading us down several forking paths of aberrant misinformation, hubristic confusions, and mystic irresolvable vagary.  Instead of celebrating the pursuit of ultimately unattainable truth, the narrative instead acts as a cautionary tale: life is mysterious, so don’t try to figure it out or you’ll just go nuts, be slaughtered, abandoned, or get attacked by a polar bear.

And so the endpoint (as much as there is one) comes as our central character descends into a cave to move a gigantic plug in a pool of illuminated water (…honestly, I haven’t a clue).  Somehow he restores order, and eventually is mortally wounded, left unknowingly wandering, bleeding, back to the exact spot in which his journey began.  Jack slumps to the ground, prostrate, his consciousness fading to rest in the same position in which his adventure on this island, long ago, began.  He becomes the last in a long line of believers succumbing to death, his eyes now closing, his wandering fugue state now at an end.

The game LIMBO likewise ends where it started: the character lying back on the same patch of grass, his eyes sliding shut as a seeming death overwhelms him.  The journey to this point has similarly been fraught with peril, laced with conundrums and complexities that must be overcome.  Antigravity machines that require precision and poise to utilise; spidery beasts that must be outpaced or outwitted; mind-controlling bugs; vicious children with elaborate snares; electricity; cavernous drops; decaying suburban ruins; having seen his way through them all, the nameless boy undertakes the final puzzle, and in the course of its solution is propelled, weightless, through a glass pane (much like the monitor/screen through which we are viewing his journey), time slowing as his body flips gracefully through the glistening shards, tumbling to rest in precisely the same position that the game began.  Just as in LOST, we struggle onward in LIMBO invited to believe that the truth of where we are and what’s going on might at last be revealed, only to realise in the end that we are literally right back where we started…

But then something masterful happens: the boy wakes back up.

In LIMBO death has not been the end: the boy rises again and sets out once more upon his ceaseless quest.  Although nothing substantive in the narrative has been addressed – indeed, we have been left in no doubt that this is a literal state of limbo – our whole perception of his journey, and its meaning, is fundamentally altered.

Here the revelation of the endpoint invites us to embrace the indeterminate state within which we too have existed for a time.  Rather than watch a quest for meaning flicker and die we realise that there is no escape from this pattern of repetition and action; we end up right back where we began, having now realised that it was in the doing of things that our actions most mattered.  There was no magic endpoint, no final resolve, just action: what you did and how you did it.  We are instead invited to lose ourselves in the accomplishment of the game itself; like the unnamed, faceless protagonist, compelled to appreciate our place in this loop of programming and gameplay, we too are ensnared in the unceasing repetition of a platforming purgatory.

In its absence of narrative conclusion LIMBO therefore celebrates the momentary, embracing the ephemeral nature of agency.  We are presented with the definition of a Sisyphean task, not tasked with rolling a rock up a hill for eternity, but locked in a similarly experiential web without end.  And just as Camus described in ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, we, like the absurd hero, must struggle on, perpetually rolling the rock up the hill, knowing that there will be no end to his labour, because by embracing this inevitability, by welcoming the truth of it, we claim ownership of the task, folding the noble absurdity of our circumstance back into ourselves.

If we are not blindly struggling for an imagined metaphysical enlightenment we become masters of our own action, empowered by the knowledge that it is our actions that define our identity, our morality, ourselves.  Thus, when we play through the game again, the ease, the grace with which each dilemma is confronted and conquered delights us with the thrill of a task embraced and elegantly resolved.

Both texts, LIMBO and LOST, seem to embrace the structure of a dream.  Both begin and conclude with the actions of fading or waking from sleep, a sleep that is emblematic of death; indeed, both texts seem to articulate the Shakespearean adage that ‘Our little lives are rounded with a sleep.’   The line is taken from his extraordinary play The Tempest, a narrative itself concerned with a mysterious, magical island, removed from the real world.*  More specifically the line comes from a scene in which Shakespeare, in a wonderfully self-reflexive acknowledgement of his own practice, is directly advocating the capacity for plays to express the profound truths of human experience.

In the scene, the all-powerful Prospero has been presenting a masque for the entertainment of his daughter and her prospective lover Ferdinand (it’s also a none-too-subtle warning not to get up to any pre-marital nookie).  As he scatters the performers to the wind, mid-performance, he offers a speech about the nature of art, likewise dissipating all the traditional delineations between fiction and lived experience, pretence and reality, dream and the waking world:

                                              These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And, like the baseless fabric of vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with sleep. (Act 4, Sc 1, lines 148-58)

I showed you merely a vision, he says, but this vision speaks to our own experience of existence.  We too are merely the stuff of dreams, beginning and ending in an immortal sleep – our brief span on Earth but the flicker of a transitory illumination, soon reclaimed by the dark.  His exquisite, meta-textual play – folding our mortal existence, our fantasies, his own theatrical history altogether – celebrates humanity’s capacity for self-expression and imagination, a means of capturing, even in fragment, the exquisite vibrancy and expressive potential of exploratory play.  (He also throws in a magnificent reference to the ‘Globe’ – a literalised world of potential that shimmers with imagination – that I have to believe was an acknowledgement of his own Globe Theatre.)

For Prospero, as for Shakespeare, the fantastical dream of the theatre was an artful enactment of the most fundamental defining attribute of human experience: our brief, grasping efforts to define our own existence before fading to the transom of death.  In their respective articulations of this same vision in television and videogame, LOST and LIMBO too both seek to articulate the span of all human life, and our efforts to comprehend ourselves.  Both texts therefore operate as an elaborate form of imagistic ouroboros: the ending immediately reinitiating the beginning, returning us to point of deathly status quo.

In LOST this moment presents a conclusion: the eyes close rather than open.  Jack is warmed by the sight of the plane full of his friends rising from the island, presumably to a newfound freedom far from the island’s strange purgatory.  But this seemingly conclusive image merely reinstates the arbitrary nature of the journey that has been undertaken.  Jack is back where he began, and despite the text’s allusions to an awakening knowledge, or a peace that transcends reason, he has learned nothing of his place in the universe.  He has fought for what he believed was right and given all that he could, but is no wiser, and has watched people die arbitrarily at his command, sacrificing themselves for his leadership in wholly unjustified ways; and by extension, we the audience have learned that only frustration, disappointment and death await those who bother to pursue the most fundamental human desires to understand our place in the universe.

In LIMBO one is likewise right back where they started, but the world they now view is utterly reborn.  By embracing the absurdity of our circumstance, the unknowability of the grand metaphysical truths, we can instead refocus upon the present, and our engagement with ourselves and others.  In our exploration of the dream we come to see the value in our every movement and interaction.  Gameplay becomes the expression of selfhood, and we illuminate ourselves, validating our own worth to the uncaring void.

And so, as all three texts conclude, The Tempest, LOST and LIMBO,the lights dim and we are left to ponder our own place amongst the fantasy.  The pair of eyes shut.  The dream is over.  And we have learned all or nothing as the darkness seeps over us all.

IMAGE: LIMBO (Playdead) 

* http://www.theverge.com/2012/5/21/3030913/damon-lindelof-on-lost-on-the-verge

** LOST even makes a number of thematic and explicit references to the play: the character of Ben, who appears to be in control of the island like Prospero, has a (adopted) daughter whose romance becomes central to her story, much like Miranda; characters vie for control of the island much as the shipwrecked stewards of the King did; each of the characters brings with them baggage from their previous lives that must be resolved in their time upon the island; and one of Dharma stations on the island is even called ‘The Tempest’.

Why Don Draper Is: Season Five of Mad Men

Posted in criticism, literature, television with tags , , , , , , , on August 27, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: Mad Men (AMC)

[Spoilers!  Spoilers Everywhere!]

I’ve spent five years stunned by the exquisite slow burn of the AMC drama series Mad Men.  Few narratives have the elegance, the poise, the thematic self-awareness to exhibit themselves with such mindful, tempered pacing.  Mad Men gives its characters time to breathe, time to evolve, sometimes even time to utterly wallow.  There are characters within this fiction that – despite watching with enraptured awe – one cannot even come to understand until five years into the run of the show.  Indeed, this most recent season alone has provided several character-defining moments, organically peppered into the narrative, that have fundamentally altered the way in which we view these personalities, that provide telling new insights into their behaviour as it has played out over the entirety of the series’ run.

And this has been nowhere more evident than in the fluid identity of the series’ central protagonist, Don Draper (played masterfully by Jon Hamm), a man who in the past has lived multiple simultaneous lives under oppressive veils of secrecy; who has literally changed his very identity; and who, in the final scene of this latest, profoundly transitional season, is once again left at a crossroads in his development, potentially about to tumble into old self-destructive ways and re-enter a pattern of infidelity, deceit and self-loathing that has already cost him a marriage, friendships, and years of psychological peace.

Don Draper is a man who has been haunted the majority of his life with the perpetuation of a falsehood that eventually ate into every facet of his existence.  Indeed, in the first season Harry Crane declared that Don could very well be Batman for all anyone actually knows about him.

Born Richard ‘Dick’ Whitman to destitute parents – a prostitute mother who died in labour and a drunken, violently abusive, emotionally unstable father – ‘Dick’ grew up in a cycle of abuse and poverty, eventually going to war to escape his life.  While fighting on the frontlines, he watched a superior officer named Don Draper die and decided to steal his name in order to get the hell away from the carnage.  And so, returning home in the guise of another man’s identity, awarded a purple heart for a heroism that mocked his own cowardice, he lived that deception for the remainder of his life, working, marrying, raising children, superficially excelling in every avenue of his experience, all under the weight of a fundamental disguise.

In the first three seasons of the series we therefore watched this man – a charming, debonair, effortlessly successful advertising executive; father to two healthy young children, husband to a beautiful wife – chafe under the enormity of this deception.  He drank too much; smoked until his lungs spilled over with tar; whored around with numerous women; letting each one glimpse only a fraction of his rigidly compartmentalised life.  And it was killing him.

As the divisions between each aspect of his identity segmented even further – father; husband; lover; roguish workmate; mentor to an aspiring female copywriter in an oppressively patriarchal environment – Don seemed to be wholly detached, play-acting through it all, only finding the most transitory moments of solace in the slivers of self he let break through the facade.  And he remained extraordinarily talented at his job, for precisely the same reason he was torn up inside: his whole life a lie, he was a natural at the advertising industry’s world of artful deception, running for his life to deadlines just as he sprinted to keep ahead of his inevitable exposure.

Because, throughout it all, he remained terrified of losing everything at any moment.  His colleagues thought him a war hero, not little Dick Whitman, scrapper from nowhere.  His wife, a woman of means and elegance, was wholly unaware she had married an abandoned pauper made good.  And so, when the biological brother he left behind decades previous appeared, hoping to reconnect, Don rejected him – both fearful of exposure and no doubt reluctant to once again confront his own suppressed history – unwilling to yet fold those disparate selves back into a final oneness.

This season, however – for the first time – Don was able to exist in the relative truth of himself.  Having had his deceptions exposed at the end of season three, having fallen in love with a new woman who was willing to accept him for who he actually is, Don could finally live in a unified selfhood: at last, through Megan, he was known in a way that no one else in his life ever had, no longer strangled by deceptions but freed to simply be.

Just down the hall from Don at Sterling Cooper Draper Price another character had likewise pursued this sensation of unified experience.  For much of season five, Roger Sterling has re-examined his life under the effects of LSD.  Having shared a controlled dosage with his wife, he believed himself to have looked into the ‘truth’ of his existence, into the clarity of all life.  And the impact of this experience reverberated through his imagery this season: a geometric pattern that reminded him of the drug’s effects hung on his office wall; and his final appearance in the concluding episode presented him naked, again tripping out of his mind, and staring out into the night through a hotel window.

One of the effects of LSD is said to be a dissolution of divisions between the self and the objects one observes.  The mind looses itself in non-spatial, non-temporal sensation – Roger saw himself aged and youthful at once, even witnessed himself playing Major League baseball in a game concluded years previous.  Under the influence of the drug the delineation between inner and outer dissolves, and one simply is.

Aldous Huxley in the paper ‘The Doors of Perception’*, spoke of his experimental experience taking mescaline in 1953 – over a decade earlier than Roger let a laced sugar cube dissolve on his tongue.  (Mescaline, of course, is different to LSD, but for the purposes of this discussion it evokes similar effects.)  When Huxley verbalised the visions and observations that swam over him, he spoke of objects shining with their own, pure, undiluted light.  He became, he said, alert to the ‘is-ness’ of things, able to discern an object’s reality, it’s singularity of purpose – sign and signifier unified as one whole unutterable truth:

‘[Plato, who separated object from idea] could never, poor fellow, have seen a bunch of flowers shining with their own inner light and all but quivering under the pressure of the significance with which they were charged; could never have perceived that what rose and iris and carnation so intensely signified was nothing more, and nothing less, than what they were – a transience that was yet eternal life, a perpetual perishing that was at the same time pure Being, a bundle of minute, unique particulars in which, by some unspeakable and yet self-evident paradox, was to be seen the divine source of all existence.’

Like Huxley, Roger appeared to have experienced a similar dissolution of divisions; viscerally alert to the is-ness of the world, although only by chasing it down a pharmaceutically induced rabbit hole.  In contrast, for the first time in his adult life, Don appears to be at last truly living this kind of singular unity.  Freed by Megan’s acknowledgement of the many sides of his identity, finally seen, affirmed and loved by another human soul, Don is finally able to embrace his own, newly unified, is-ness.

And yet…

In that final scene, Don still seems poised to slide back into a life of pretence and betrayal.  A beautiful woman leans in to ask if he is ‘alone’ – a flirtatious exchange that brims with potential – and we are tempted to read into Don’s momentary pause a genuine moment of consideration as a new fissure in his identity looms.  His relationship with his wife – something he had held sacred for the span of the season, is suddenly revealed to be at genuine risk, with the question of why reverberating back through the narrative.  And it can be seen to lie in that notion of deception that has haunted Don his whole life.

Despite being a predominantly healing presence in Don’s life, Megan herself has, over the course of the season, struggled with the nature of Don’t career; and he in turn had baulked at her seeming dismissal of his chosen profession.  Megan was revealed to be effortlessly talented at the advertising industry – imaginative with the concepts; good with the copy; at ease with the delivery; and a master of the soft sell to clients – she was a natural, excelling at the job despite the inherent sexism of her workplace (a success that Peggy, who had worked so hard for so long, seemingly both envied and vicariously celebrated).  But Megan rejected this calling, unfulfilled by the profession that Don had devoted himself to, instead seeking to make her mark as an actor.  Advertising for her was not a dream – it was an easy, shallow enterprise, one that she felt, ultimately, to be empty.  At times in the season Don even felt judged by her attitude toward his career – one glaring example being the hilariously anti-consumerist play she took him to see, a performance against which Don bristled.

However, while he was clearly hurt by her decision to abandon this calling, and at first reluctant to ever let her travel far from him, there is a sense in which Don truly did want her to succeed, to be invigorated by her chosen pursuit.  In that final episode, sitting awash in the series’ signature haze of cigarette smoke cut by a flickering projector, Don watches Megan’s screen test, warmed by her innate luminescence, drinking in the is-ness of her drive and purpose.  A heartfelt smile breaks on his lips.  He seems to want success for her – to see her shine with contented joy.

Only minutes later however and that bliss was soured.  Megan struggled to excel at acting, and becoming frustrated with numerous rejections she pleaded with Don to give her a role in a commercial (even stealing the idea from her friend).  Don, not wanting her to go on suffering, agreed; but in his heart, he knew he was perpetuating a lie.  Seeing her embrace egotism rather than effort, to be rewarded by placation rather than validation, seemed to diminish the truth that they had celebrated in each other, and weaken the bond both shared.

When Don walked away from Megan as she was preened and prepped for her performance, there was a sense of encroaching darkness.  As the happy, fairytale scene (literally, she was shooting a ‘Beauty and the Beast’-style commercial) faded behind him, Don suddenly seemed overcome with a sense of mourning: something perhaps had died.  She had embraced the fantasy of the advertising deception, rather than the truth of her passion, and although she was back in his advertising world she was image now, not substance; an object and idea divided against itself.

This season has entirely been about change, about growth into a new state of being.  Socially, a new generation of thought, opportunity, and culture has started to spread into the world.  The season began with the hiring of an African American woman to the firm (albeit somewhat unintentionally); new music disseminated itself into the communal consciousness (in what has got to be the greatest use of music in film ever) with ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ by the Beatles swirling inexorably into the social sphere before being somewhat ominously silenced prematurely by Don; a rising European intellectual and artistic sensibility has begun permeating conversation and culture (we might miss the subtle shifts in ideologies and fashion, but no one will be forgetting Megan’s provocative birthday dance).

On the personal scale characters were likewise burgeoning and evolving (sometimes at a terrible cost): Peggy finally sought to step out from under her mentor’s shadow, taking a job with another firm where she can finally express her autonomy; Joan finally left a husband who thought of her as little more than an appendage and negotiated herself into a partner position (although she had to bargain off her body to do so); the penultimate episode even ended with Don’s daughter starting her period, herself entering a new, unfamiliar phase of life.

But the question of exactly how far Don Draper has changed, or in what direction this alteration will lead him, awaits a definitive answer.  When the woman at the bar asked him if he was alone, his face – his eyes – seemed to spark with a familiar old fire, but what that moment meant still awaits revelation.  Maybe we saw flicker there that old self-destructive sexual opiate that would numb the division in his soul; or perhaps, more hopefully, he was just stalled for a time, collecting himself before declining and returning home to his wife and his life – the place where for the first time he has found acceptance and truth, and the tranquillity amongst all the haze to simply be.

Only season six will tell…

* Guess where Jim Morrison got the name…

‘Clap your Hands If You Believe In Community’: Season Four and Why It’s A Show Worth Celebrating

Posted in criticism, television with tags , , , , on August 18, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: NBC

There’s almost nothing more irritating than having someone describe to you why a television show is great.  It’s so obnoxious, so presumptive.  Television is an intensely personal thing – you don’t just swan in to a movie theatre for two hours and then swish back out into the daylight, ready to return to your life.*  Television shows are something you live with week to week, sometimes for years.  You get invested in them, the ups and downs of the narrative, the rise and dips in quality.  They are relationships that an audience undertakes with a text.  They can make you soar imaginatively and emotionally; and you can go through bad patches with a beloved television show, you can see them make mistakes, go in bad directions, but still hold on to the hopes that they can pull it all back together and be as great as they once were.  You believe because you know them so well.

So having someone tell you why they love a particular show, and why therefore you should too can be incredibly invasive and off-putting.  Worse than that, it can make actually getting around to watching the show itself feel like homework rather than escapist fun:

‘Urgh, that show is on…  That show everyone has been insisting is so great, so important, so ‘clever’.  But I don’t want to have to learn a whole bunch of new characters and situations all at once.  I don’t want to have to scramble to catch up with all the episodes that have lead up to this one.  And who are those people to know what I like?’

All good points; all completely understandable.  Someone would have to be a ridiculous, self-righteous, pompous ass to still insist, after everything that you just thought/said, that they have any right to assign you viewing homework, to tell you what you should be doing with your free television time.  What a jerk they would be.

…So here’s your homework.  Go on.  Go get a pen.  I’ll wait.

And sit up straight.

Earlier this year, with its third season drawing to a close, the fate of the dearly beloved, but criminally under-viewed comedy Community hung precariously in the balance.  NBC, the show’s broadcaster, had benched the sitcom halfway through the season, temporarily postponing screening the second half (almost always the first sign of an imminent axing) due to less than stellar ratings; behind the scenes a fractious relationship between Chevy Chase and creator/executive producer Dan Harmon had made for disquiet on set and had started spilling out into showbiz gossip; and finally, most alarmingly, there was the shock axing of Harmon, who had been the show’s primary guiding voice for the entirety of its production, in May.

At the 2012 San Diego Comic Con, the newly installed executive producers and show runners for the upcoming truncated season 4 (only 13 episodes, yet another bad sign for the show continuing), appeared with members of the cast to try and assuage the concerns of fans (who range from academically intrigued to fearfully traumatised) over the loss of Harmon and the potential shift in tone of the beloved show.

But why do people care?  What does it matter?  Isn’t it just another one of those quick-talking, postmodern shows where characters shoot cultural references at each other?  Don’t we already have enough of those?  Am I just asking a bunch of perfunctory rhetorical questions so that I can obnoxiously flip them on their head as this article goes on?  Am I really that transparent?

Yes.  Now shut up.

Yes, Community is clever.  Yes, it’s alert and responsive to the cultural pulse.  Yes, it is capable of the most ingenious and knowing genre parodies currently operating now that The Simpsons have slid into a decade long funk.  But at the heart of all the seeming pop culture, self-aware hilarity, most importantly it’s about characters.  Fractured human beings who need each other to survive, who better each other in order to grow.

A character like Abed speaks of Pretty In Pink, Back To The Future, and Cougar Town, not because he is ticking off some mass culture Bingo card, but because these texts are his window into a world he struggles to comprehend, and can help rationalise through film and television.  Pierce ham-fistedly references facts from the ‘Wie-kie-poh-dia’ and ‘the facebooks’, because he’s a muddled baby-boomer struggling to act young.  Jeff Winger looses himself in imported beauty products, faux-soccer fandom, and pretentious scotch drinking, because his narcissistic materialism clouds a fear of self-worth.

In the past I have tried to convince people to watch (to love) Community.  I have had some successes, far too many failures, but the reaction that really surprises me is those who sort of shrug and say, ‘Yeah, it’s clever, but I wouldn’t need to watch it again.’

youwouldawha?

You wouldn’t need to drop in on this beautiful band of misfits again?  You wouldn’t need to see how they’re going?  Where they’re headed?  How their magnificently fractured minds intersect?  How they offer a salve for the damaged parts of each other?  How, by accepting each other as they are, they become the best that they can, or have ever, been?  You wouldn’t need, wouldn’t cry out to the universe in longing, for that?!

For me, Community is all about that imaginative act that allows for all manners of play.

I think a lot of people see the show sliding into the beats of genre and they think it’s an elongated piss-take with a rather too self-aware winking-at-the-audience-style satire of form over substance; but what those naysayers miss is that unlike the Family Guys and Scary Movies of the world, Community is not cynically tearing down these structures, poking holes in them.  it is rather using them as playgrounds in which to best articulate their characters’ journeys, manifesting the experience of people who have themselves been born into and raised by such culturally dense tropes.

The onlyway that Community gets away with their genre swaps – a paintball game pastiche of every action film ever made; a Law and Order style investigation of a murdered yam; a stop-motion Christmas Special; a tale played out in the 8-bit graphics of a videogame – is because the characters (and thereby the audience) invest in the scenario with which they are presented.  It’s a love note to imagination; to the unspoken collective accord of belief in one another that makes the notion of ‘community’ possible at all.  The characters, like we the audience, like society at large, decide to believe in something together.  And by believing in it, by feeding into that act of imagination, we make it real.  We become a community.

Part of what is most extraordinary about the show is that up until now it has seemed to go out of its way to baffle its audience’s expectations.  It offers us faith in the possibilities of storytelling, because it has repeatedly made effortless what any other fiction would attempt to do only to crash and burn.  So many times over the course of its three year run we have heard of an upcoming premise (the return to the paintball game as a Western; the multiple dimensions story; the story set entirely in the Dreamatorium) and thought: Oh God, no.  No, no one can do that…  No matter how good they’ve been up until now they can’t pull that off…’

And yet…  Every.  Damned.  Time.

It’s streets ahead.

In its first three miraculous seasons, Community has proved itself to be one of the most precious shows ever put to air.  No doubt the show’s fans – amongst whom clearly I number myself – will be praying that it doesn’t get screwed up this coming season in the wake of all the ugly behind the scenes nonsense.  Even his detractors would have to admit, Dan Harmon’s voice is going to be almost impossible to emulate, and personally, I’m not sure I hold much hope for the replacement show-runners.  …however, Community has always flaunted my dire expectations, all the moments that I thought it couldn’t go on.  So I hope to be joyfully disproved again in the months to come.

* With all the ‘swanning’ and ‘swishing’ I seem to be imagining audiences everywhere wearing capes now – sorry about that.  But you do all look quite fetching.  Just sayin’.

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