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- Jake on In Defense of The West Wing‘s Season 5
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- Leon on 7 Big Questions About Battlestar Galactica’s Finale
Monthly Archives: June 2015
The Sopranos is credited with ushering in a new “Golden Age of Television”. Its complex family dynamics, black-and-gray morality, and introspective bent were trademarks that set the show apart from its contemporaries. In its wake, a number of other shows emerged that embraced that approach and focused on antiheroes who, to one degree or another, were attempting to balance a double life. Two of these shows, Mad Men and Dexter, can draw a straight line from The Sopranos to their place in the television pantheon. In “College”, an episode from the groundbreaking drama’s first season, The Sopranos planted seeds that those two spiritual successors would have a hand in harvesting.
There are many works of fiction about people telling lies for so long that they start to believe them. These stories range from folks like Walter White putting on the costume of a villain only to realize that the role feels a bit too comfortable, to the cipher protagonist of Avatar, who spends so much time in his alien body that he decides he belongs with The Smurfs. Most of the time, these shifts are treated as triumphant awakenings or operatic betrayals. But few are as soft, simple, or sweet as when Royal Tenenbaum, in the film that bears his name, lives up to the lie he’s spun — that can be a better man.
When Royal (Gene Hackman) tells his pseudo ex-wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) that he’s dying and wants to reconnect with his family, it’s a canard. Not only is Royal as healthy as a man who drinks, smokes, and eats three cheeseburgers a day can be, but his conciliatory gestures were merely a front to (a.) worm his way back into the Tenenbaum family homestead after getting kicked out of the hotel where he’d been living for the last twenty years and (b.) ward off Etheline’s suitor, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover).
But the crux of the movie comes once Henry has unraveled Royal’s deceit and confronts him in front of the whole family, including Royal’s children: broken businessman Chas (Ben Stiller), gloomy scribe Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), and washed up tennis pro Richie (Luke Wilson). Royal doesn’t bother denying the accusations, but in one last attempt to manipulate his loved ones, he turns to the family and says, “Look. I know I’m the bad guy on this one, but I just want to say that the last six days have been the best six days of, probably, my whole life.” A strange expression suddenly creeps onto his face, and The Narrator (Alec Baldwin) says, “Immediately after making this statement, Royal realized that it was true.”
I first learned about The Mountain Goats’ latest album, Beat The Champ, when a friend of mine messaged me saying, “I’m pretty sure John Darnielle is releasing an album for you and you alone.” My friend was obviously joking, but she’s right that Beat The Champ, a concept album where each track is about some facet of professional wrestling, is tailored to a rather unusual venn diagram of fans. Despite the fact that Darnielle, the main creative voice behind The Mountain Goats, resides in a traditional hotbed for wrestling, there are probably few other folks in the world who have both sung Darnielle’s praises and also waxed philosophical about the main event at Wrestlemania.
And yet, there’s something very natural about Darnielle directing his humanizing gaze toward the squared circle. In the past, Darnielle’s shown a particular aptitude for writing poignant, heart-wrenching songs about vagabonds, broken men, and other self-destructive characters. Sadly, none of these individuals are in short supply in the wrestling business.
Mad Men has never shied away from exploring double standards. It traced the challenges Peggy Olson faced while rising up the ranks in the advertising industry, obstacles that men in her position never even considered, let alone encountered. It contrasted the cult of domesticity that Betty Draper was expected to maintain with the casual womanizing that had become the norm for her husband. It showed how Joan Harris had become an expert at navigating the intricate rules for a woman in the workplace in the 1960s and how the men in the office could drift along without any of the same concerns.
But the final season of Mad Men sketched the contours of one of the most persistent double standards that American society still struggles with today — the different expectations of men and women in their role as parents. Mad Men’s Season 7 presents five mothers who have each, in one sense or another, left their children behind. These women struggle with the choices that they’ve made and deal with a level of societal scorn and personal guilt that their male counterparts never have to face.