For many people, including me, prime-time television was once a guilty pleasure on par with peanut M&Ms and In Style Magazine. Times have changed. Critics and audiences agree: television has gotten really good. Not just “Thursday night pizza and pajamas” good. More like, after dinner on date night “do you want to go see a movie or do you want to go home and watch Sherlock?” good.
With channels like HBO, AMC, and PBS changing the rules of serial story-telling, there seems to be a world of innovation open to the television medium. The series rely on their density to pack more punch into 10-13 episodes than their network counterparts can manage in 21-23. Longer episodes allow for artistic expansion on the part of actors, set designers, and directors. The effect is a growing diversity in quality television. However, while perusing this year’s list of Emmy nominees (winners will be announced Sunday, starting at 6 PM, Sept. 23, on ABC) I noticed something. The primary antagonist, the source of suspense, in two of the five nominated television dramas is the same character.
In Mad Men, a period drama about Madison Avenue in the 1960’s, much is made by fans and critics of the falling man in the opening sequence. Who is he? Is it literal? My educated guess: He is Don Draper’s inner man, and the feeling that he’s falling from a great height, jeered by signs of the times as he tumbles. But that opening alludes only to the show’s high-design vibe, not its thrill factor. In the prodigious first season, viewers (including myself) were inexplicably glued to episodes in which very little happened simply to see what would become of Don Draper and Peggy Olsen, two characters on opposite ends of a changing industry where he has everything to lose and she has everything to gain. But he never lost everything. And she never gained everything. At least not all at once. The show’s acclaim has waxed and waned with its subtlety and commitment to this premise: that the 1960’s New York City was a terrifying and exhilarating place to simply be alive.
In Downton Abbey, a PBS show that flirts with the boundaries of miniseries and television drama, we meet the Crawley family and their vast estate of Downton, which they are desperately trying to preserve. Even at the cost of marrying off their eldest daughter to whomever necessary. However, what could be a stale, faux-Jane Austen mini-series or a soap opera in period dress becomes a can’t-get-enough-of-it addiction because of meticulous attention to the times, 1914-1919 (so far) in manorial England. Generations and antiquated ideals clash with modernity in ways as comical and mundane as the arrival of the village’s first telephone, and as weighty and consequential as socialism and World War I. Once again…not a lot really happens in each episode, with a few notable exceptions.
What’s the drama in these shows where not much happens? There’s almost no gore in Mad Men (episode with the lawn mower notwithstanding), and almost no sex in Downton Abbey (“the incident” notwithstanding). No explosions. No diabolical plots to kill anyone. So what keeps us so rapt?
Change is the antagonist nipping at the heels of protagonists Don Draper and Lord Grantham. They are situated in times of huge, paradigm-imploding change. These shows create a character out of “the times.” We mostly find ourselves on the side of progress, naturally rooting for civil rights, women’s rights, and technology. We sympathize with characters like Peggy Olson and Lady Mary Crawley.
However, perhaps more ingenious is the fact that we are also rooting for Don Draper and Lord Grantham who have implicit and explicit anxieties about being left behind by progress. Rather than playing the static foil to the go-getter youngsters, they embody the fears of anyone who has found their place in the world: that the world will change into one without such a place. It is the fear that they will become the falling man in the opening credits of Mad Men, falling from the heights into irrelevance. It’s the anxiety of the silent film stars when the talkies came to town… which happened to be the plot of this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture.
San Antonio is part of this cultural moment. Debates like that over Alamo Brewery and the Mission Drive-In mural (both of these covered by The Rivard Report in earlier articles), or the name change of Durango to Cesar Chavez are part of the conversation for a city working hard to negotiate its modern and historical identity.The themes of television and other cultural artifacts always reveal something about the currents running through our own time and place. In this case, as a world witnessing historical regime changes, environmental disasters, mass shootings, an election year, and the ever-surging waves of new technology, it is safe to say that we are a world with concerns about change. Writers and producers will tell the story of that anxiety, making it a theme of this cultural moment, and resulting in shows such as Mad Men and Downton Abbey. The audience will likely find ourselves identifying with television shows, books, and movies that speak to our desire for progress and fear of disaster or marginalization. We shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves silently posing the question: what would Lord Grantham do? (Yes, “What Would Don Draper Do?” was the more poetic choice, but let’s be honest, the man is partly a cautionary tale…)
Change makes an excellent antagonist. It’s like the best supernatural phantom, shape-shifting and double-crossing even its most loyal allies. It has the potential to unite unlikely bedfellows and divide the most stalwart of unions. It is pure narrative magic. I find myself curious about the story of our city and the role change will play. I wonder if, like Downton and Madison Ave. we will progress with such style.
For many years, I hosted an annual Oscar Party. However, as September 23rd rapidly approaches, I wonder if that bastion of White People culture is also in danger of losing it’s place. Emmy Party, anyone?
Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey as an International Travel Consultant. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy.