The Unfortunate Peak of Television
There’s a classic scene in season 1 of Mad Men where we get our first glimpse of Don Draper’s legendary ad pitches and we find out that all the talk is true; Don’s pitches are enchanting and he knows what he’s doing. He pitches to a couple of Kodak executives on how to sell their new slide projector they call “The Wheel” due to the circle of slides that spin them into a slideshow (you’ve heard of it). They ask Don if he figured out a way to sell the wheel, knowing it’s not exactly exciting technology even though it is new. Don replies, “Well, technology is a glittering lure, but there’s the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash... if they have a sentimental bond with the product.” He tells a quick anecdote about his first job and the lesson he learned from an old Greek copywriter named Teddy. “Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising is “new.” It creates an itch, you simply put your product in there as a sort of calamine lotion. But he also talked about a deeper bond with the product: nostalgia. It’s delicate… but potent.” Then he turns on the projector, starts an emotional pitch with a slideshow of photos portraying his happy family. Nostalgia, Teddy told him, is a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. “It’s not a spaceship. It’s a time machine... it’s not a wheel,” he says. “It’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.” He sells the Kodak guys on both nostalgia and new. It’s a powerful and heartbreaking scene, showcasing Don’s exemplary pitching skills by using his happy family even though the current standing with his wife is far from happy.
The reason for my hefty summarization of this scene is not just to applaud the brilliance of Mad Men, but to remind people how great television can be. I was reminded of this scene earlier this month with the release of Disney’s new streaming service, Disney+. Disney is at the top of the entertainment world and they plan to stay there with their new addition to the streaming world. Like Don Draper, but to a much bigger degree, they’re using new and nostalgia. They’re bringing all of their catalogs of old, classic Disney films as well as their new entries of Marvel, Lucasfilm (Star Wars), Pixar and National Geographic content. They’ve even added former 20th Century Fox titles that they swallowed up earlier this year. They’re offering a bundle that offers ESPN and collates their PG-13 content with more adult-oriented content on Hulu. I say “new” but even their new stuff, like the highly-marketed and anticipated Star Wars series The Mandalorian is based on existing intellectual property. I wonder if Disney+ will make any truly original films or series that aren’t taken from IP? But that’s what Disney does, they’ve figured out what most people want these days: vapid content that consistently caters to the fandom and superhero culture by adding on and on and on. Nothing new. All formula and no risk.
I’ve enjoyed the Marvel films (though I’ve pretty much declared myself done with them) and I love Star Wars. But their streaming service is literally marketed on the fact that they own a lot. Disney’s control of the film industry is frightening and that’s become increasingly clear with the recent Scorsese vs. Marvel internet fistfight. For more on that, read Scorsese’s wonderful New York Times op-ed.
I could go on about how Scorsese is right in every way and how Disney is ruining Hollywood and the theatrical experience but right now I want to get back to television and streaming. Netflix did it first, now there’s Amazon Prime, Disney+, Apple TV+ (which seems to have already disappeared into obscurity since the release of Disney+), WarnerMedia plans to release HBO Max in 2020 (only HBO NOW subscribers who subscribe directly through HBO or an AT&T cable provider will be upgraded to HBO Max automatically, with no additional cost; no word about other providers like Cox yet… it’s all so confusing) and then there’s Peacock (Peacock and chill…?) from NBCUniversal also launching. Content overload and overwhelming distraction. Why did I have to like movies and TV shows? What happened to reading books?
The final episode of Friends aired on May 6th, 2004 to 52.5 million American viewers. Lost ended with much controversy on May 23rd, 2010 while Breaking Bad ended on September 29th, 2013. The Office finale aired four months before that on May 16th. I remember the social media reception for The Office and Breaking Bad and talking about them with friends that night. I remember conferring with friends about the divisive How I Met Your Mother finale at school the next day. Parks and Recreation? Loved the ending. These were events. Now while I did catch up on The Office, Parks and Rec, and even Breaking Bad on Netflix (a good thing about streaming) before their finales, I still got to enjoy the conversations surrounding the end of these shows. I didn’t watch the Friends finale in 2004, I was a child occupied with other things, but I can only imagine the conversations the next day around the office water cooler. I am old enough, however, to be able to say that I had seen every episode of Friends before it was on Netflix not just because of my brother’s DVD collection (only season’s 8 and 10) but because I saw every episode through re-runs staying up watching Nick at Nite on cable. As Pete Thompson from Mad Men would say, “A thing like that.” Especially in this new world of endless streaming.
Game of Thrones deserved The Most Outstanding TV Series Emmy not because season 8 was great but because it truly is the most outstanding show in terms of the party it created on social media. That was almost all anybody talked about for 6 weeks and Thrones is most likely the last show to do that. Why? Because now everyone will be watching something different. There will hardly be events anymore, except for the Super Bowl, awards shows and Bachelor/Bachelorette watch parties to laugh at it.
Also, it’s not “did you catch that episode of so-and-so last night?” it’s “have you watched this/that yet?” because everything is binged now. Have you watched The Mandalorian? No, I don’t have Disney+. What’d you think of The Morning Show? Don’t know, can’t afford Apple TV+ because I’m paying for so many other services even though it’s the cheapest. Can’t wait for season 4 of Stranger Things! I wish but I had to drop Netflix to afford the Criterion Channel and HBO Max. Those are just a few hypothetical examples of the future of television viewing.
It’s a little saddening to see the solidarity of watching television go away and the outrageous prices some of us will have to pay to keep up. It’s almost not worth watching television anymore. It’s unfortunate to see Friends acquired by WarnerMedia from Netflix to be moved to HBO Max, a service I may not ever have. The Office is disappearing from Netflix in 2021 for NBCUniversal’s Peacock. These are the shows I now may no longer have the option of revisiting. Classic television is waning, prime-time is dying, and television has changed for both the better and the worse. Sometimes I even miss commercials. There was an art to finding the right time for a show to cut to commercial, something Mad Men did so well (currently watching it on Netflix, but you can see the commercial breaks).
Mad Men again brings me to my next point. With modernity has come much impatience. We need everything now. If it needs (wants) to be watched, it needs to be binged or while on the go or getting ready. Galaxies of content and we only have so much limited time on Earth. Why take a chance on a great slow-burn character building drama when I can consume all the endless mediocre content in minutes? With all of this quantity comes an enormous loss of quality. Netflix was the first example and continues to throw out garbage that overwhelms the few gems that sneak in there. Hopefully HBO Max doesn’t go that route and continues the HBO trend of funding risky, quality shows (I hope Barry never ends). We need quick content that is easy to digest, anything more than that takes too much time and is “too slow.”
Doesn’t matter what it is, we just need something there, distracting us from our responsibilities and boredom. That’s what streaming is for, to take up our time but not too much of it because we do have lives outside of watching TV. Netflix is even testing an option to view at 1.5 times the speed, making it easier to get through movies and shows while still being able to process the necessary information. Like moviegoers only flocking to mindless spectacle and non-challenging blockbusters in the theaters, television viewers will only watch something that looks “good enough” and quick, nothing too thought-provoking. We don’t have time to think.
Now, television is not cinema. We go to the big screen in a dark room full of strangers for cinema (at least some of us still do, streaming is changing that too). Television comes to us; it’s always been there to distract and keep us from descending into boredom. We leave the news on for background noise, watch sports and reality shows, and though I hardly watch cable, I watch sports and leave TCM running on my screen at all times. It wasn’t until HBO gave us The Sopranos, Band of Brothers, The Wire in the early 2000s and introduced the golden age of television. AMC was the only network that gave Breaking Bad a shot. Then there’s Mad Men, premiering on AMC in 2007. Mad Men, had it been pitched today, would definitely be on a streaming service but with all of these megacorporations releasing new streaming services every year, it would have less of a chance of actually getting made. With all of this competition comes no risk. Everything needs be greenlit in order to compete, doesn’t matter if it’s good or a creative risk. However, there’s nothing wrong with consuming cheap and easy content; Friends, The Office, Parks and Rec, while all great sitcoms, are also great for playing in the background while getting ready. It’s just a shame they’re each going to their own respective streaming services and now we’ll have to find a replacement for those shows depending on the streaming services we decide to pay for because unless you’re rich, you won’t be able to afford them all. It’s all just a convoluted mess.
Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter after the series finale said it best: “I love the waiting; I love the marination. When you watch an entire season of a show in one day, you will definitely dream about it, but it’s not the same as walking around the whole week, saying, ‘God, Pete really pissed me off.’ And then at the end of the week, saying, ‘When he said he had nothing, that really hurt.’ I remember people saying that. You can reconsider it. And you see it pop up in your life… I feel like you should be able to be as specific as you possibly can, and let that sit with people. I loved having the period in between the shows, and it probably is the end of it.” I completely agree with Mr. Weiner, that is why I started Mad Men in August and am only on season 4 as of today. I like to take my time on a great show. I like to think about it and be enmeshed in it. It has my full attention when I watch it, just like a great 3 hour epic movie has my full attention. There’s still time to actually enjoy things amidst the speedy chaos, hyper-connectivity and attention demanding. That contemplation time between episodes is getting truncated (not completely, The Mandalorian on Disney+ is weekly and other streaming services may continue to do this) and there are certainly benefits to it but with it comes a lot of bronze, some silver, and much less gold. We’re “enjoying” the bronze because it's easier, rushing through the silver because it's quicker, and when we do find the gold, we aren’t really paying attention to it because it's too demanding, too much work and time. Television can be both a distraction and an art form, but with these streaming wars comes distraction and not much more.