Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Elephant & The Jet

"I don't want to ride an elephant. I want to fly a jet!"

                        -- Bobby Draper "Mad Men" # 413

Two of the more significant television series of 2010 concluded their seasons Sunday. By the end of their runs both "Mad Men" and "Rubicon" were Internet and media darlings, each episode endlessly autopsied with significance read into every line of dialogue, nuance of performance and even choice of props.

Within 24 hours of their final fade-outs, in-depth reviews were everywhere as some debated how Don could possibly have chosen Megan over Dr. Faye and others predicted where the other Atlas-McDowell shoe might drop.

I'm going to engage in some of that here, but not to figure out what motivated the showrunners to take these directions, but to hopefully explain why one ("Mad Men") was magnificent television while the other ("Rubicon") ignominiously crashed and burned.


I may come off as a fanboy here and that's okay, because for the last 13 weeks with these two shows, that's what I've been.

Everybody who has ever been party to even an insignificant television series or film has had to deal with the ruminations of the rabid fanboys and fangirls. All of them wanting the material to be far more than it is to serve some personal agenda or perspective on life. My own reactions may be similarly skewed.

My first experience with fan analysis was on the CBS series "Adderly", (pre-cyberspace) when we arrived to set up shop for the 2nd season to thick envelopes containing a bound almanac of the 1st season compiled by the Adderly Fan Club.

The impressive volume was a combination episode guide, fan magazine and collection of clippings and reviews with guesses and suggestions about what it all meant and where it was going.

They suggested plots, exotic locales for the series' espionage team to visit as well as possible romantic couplings among the cast. There were also detailed examinations of everything said, done or shown in a close-up to determine "what it really meant".

I've never had a lot of time for semiotics, the science and meaning of imagery, when it comes to film and video. I've always figured all of that is far outweighed by the immediacy of the experience and its initial rush.

Back in University, I bailed on a Shakespeare class halfway through the semester when I could take no more of a professor who treated the plays as if they needed to be overlaid with some kind of Bible code to be fully appreciated.

For those who go for those things, apparently "MacBeth" can only be explained through the prism of the Book of Matthew -- or was it Luke...

There's a famous story of Henry Fonda attending a semiotics lecture at UCLA on John Ford's "My Darling Clementine". After listening to a professor do 20 minutes on how Fonda's posture perched on a corral fence referenced any number of icons of Americana, the actor recalled that he'd been thrown from his horse the previous day and he only sat as he had because his ass was too sore to be comfortable any other way.

Everything in popular culture can't be approached like it's fodder for a doctoral thesis. An audience is a living, breathing entity and they have to be engaged on a sensory level as much or more as they are intellectually.

In the "Adderly" assessments, somebody went on for pages about our hero's secret agent ID Number -- which was actually the license plate from my car. Another detailed the hidden meanings of a scene that had only been shot the way it was because we had 20 minutes and the set was already lit in that direction.

Sometimes we try too hard to make something more significant than it is. And as a fanboy of both "Mad Men" and "Rubicon" there were far too many morning-afters where I read the line by line picking of the carcass and wondered what secrets to the Universe somebody thought was being revealed and how much that process took them from simply experiencing the show.

Yeah, there's always an underlying theme or intention to every screenplay. But it isn't secretly encoded into every fucking line!

As Dr. Freud once said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!"

The whole point of drama is to get you caught up in the world of the characters, present a point of view on some aspect of the human condition and make you think about that while being entertained. "A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants".

Which I'm sure some "Madmen" pundits could interpret as premature ejaculation while those stalking "Rubicon" assume a fluoridated water conspiracy.

Great TV happens when a showrunner ignores all this nonsense and just makes the show. Bad shows happen when somebody begins to believe the fanboys are validating their importance and/or play to it.

I'm on record somewhere as HATING the first 3-4 Fourth Season episodes of "Mad Men". I didn't like Don's tailspin. It made me uncomfortable. The whole way of life at the new agency seemed out of whack. Characters I'd come to love weren't acting the way I was used to them doing. I thought the series writers and producers had lost their way or run out of ideas.


And then I got it. Matthew Weiner didn't want me dryly observing Don Draper's personal crisis. He wanted me along for the ride, to feel it, to get inside it and wear it the way the character was. Most of the show's audience had no experience with the 60's. Showing it to them wasn't enough. They needed to be trapped there and discover what it was really like.

Don had to struggle with the 60's version of being a man in the corporate America of the time. Peggy had to provide the same experience from the point of view of a young woman. Similar roles were required of everybody else. And the audience needed to ride that rollercoaster with them.

And from there on the series just flew. The ride was visceral. It made you feel like you were there. And you could relate all of it to life in the 2010's as well.

I don't know why anybody couldn't see Don was destined to end up with Megan. Hell, I wanted to end up with her! Sure Dr. Faye was nice and all. But when you're a guy with a whole cargo hold full of baggage, you don't want to go home to "Honey, we need to talk!" every night. Not in 1965 and not today.

Dr. Faye always represented the elephant in the room that Don Draper needs to confront. And that's not happening until sometime in the final episode of the series -- because that's when the ride ends.

If you need citations for all this look no further than the best Henry/Betty scene of the season and "There are no fresh starts. Life continues." or look to the Bobby Draper quote above proving the acorn doesn't fall far from the tree. So until there is no next season, Don's just being Don and flying Air Megan.

Television can either endlessly ponder the elephant in the room or it can take you for a great ride. "Mad Men" opted for the latter and confirmed its place in the pantheon of great television.

"Rubicon" stuck with the elephant and probably signed its own death warrant.


For 12 episodes, I really wanted AMC to renew this series. Now, like Truxton Spangler, I just don't give a shit.

If "Rubicon" comes back, I won't be there. And I don't know how anybody who lived and breathed its slow hunt for the truth could have felt anything but utter disappointment with its season finale.

"Wait, there's an even bigger conspiracy!" Sure there is. You kids go ahead without me.

I LOVED this show. It was smart, it was original and made it very clear from the get-go that it would take its own sweet time going somewhere very special. There were marvelous twists and turns along the way. Characters you thought were minor players blossomed into wondrous creations opening doors to entire worlds of possibilities you had never considered.

Actors like Jessica Collins, Lauren Hodges and Dallas Roberts utterly blew me away on a weekly basis. Christopher Evan Welch and Arliss Howard did the best work of their careers while James Badge Dale and Michael Cristofer foreshadowed a final showdown of epic dramatic proportions.

"Rubicon" was the thinking man's "Lost". And whether the showrunners actually had an ending planned, they convinced me they did and that when it arrived, and the secrets were revealed I would be presented with, in the words of somebody in "2001: A Space Odyssey" -- "Something wonderful."

Instead, we got any edition of "The Alex Jones Show" or Prisonplanet.com -- a tired "Rich guys run the world" conspiracy where nobody can be trusted.

Instead of taking the Post-9/11 paranoia somewhere we haven't been, "Rubicon" decided to eschew the jet and just keep talking about the elephant in the room.

I lay the fault for that at the feet of the series' replacement showrunner Henry Bromell.

Now I know absolutely nothing about Henry or the man he was hired to assist and at some point replaced, "Rubicon" creator Jason Horwitch. I don't know why a change was made at the top or at what point in the season it occurred.

I also have no idea which elements that Horwich created remained unchanged or were replaced, redirected or wholly rebooted. But if Episode 13 was always Horwich's intended destination, his vision needed to be altered and wasn't. And if the end point was Bromell's call, then AMC needs to start looking for another showrunner.

Because for all the (somewhat unprofessional in my opinion) "That was me. That part's my idea. I came up with that." and other self-serving personal back-patting that appears in this interview, Bromell delivers a climax even a porn starlet would have trouble faking.

AMC might want to consider changing their motto from "Story Matters Here" to "Where Bullshit Walks".

If I were to detail all the dramatic mistakes we'd be here forever and others here and here have already done that heavy lifting.

Suffice it to say that the needs of the audience were forgotten while virtually every character they had invested in suddenly made a 180 degree shift that canceled their previous incarnations.

The turns were also ham-handedly executed as if somebody who'd never seen the show was parachuted in to jab a needle in its arm and just put it to sleep no matter how suspicious the dispatching might look.

Kale, the quietly deadly puppeteer always playing two moves ahead and seen struggling to keep his hands off Truxton Spangler's throat in Ep. 12 suddenly decides to hide and fight another day, providing proof of "what those people are really like" to every homophobe watching.

Andy, a brilliantly played island of innocence and positive life force turns out to be just another secret agent in a turn so mangled the writers forgot that the DVD record of her address was made weeks before she even moved into the apartment.

Or did Will just conveniently live where he could be monitored even when he was above suspicion?

Every sequence in which Andy struggled to understand Will's strange ways and her shocked discoveries about him now ring completely false because they happened when she was alone and as such would have reacted completely differently if her surprise persona wasn't just some desperate showrunner's afterthought.

Try justifying any of these new personalities through a re-viewing of past episodes. You can't. They just don't fit. And therefore nothing you see on "Rubicon" in future can be trusted, not even Will or his quest. For all we know he's Spangler's kid just trying to watch the old man's back and keep him on his game.

If there unfortunately is a Season 2, ask yourself how long it'll take Andy's professional survival instincts to kick in and realize she's got to off the Kid Extra who can be seen in the BG snapping a picture of her with Katherine Rhumour moments before the woman is murdered.

Of course, she somehow didn't know Will had stashed those all important files in the apartment she spent so many hours alone in so she (or more accurately the writing team) will probably forget the little girl too. Although the writers might have Andy suddenly remember if they need a crushing revelation for Will somewhere around the slow crawl toward Ep 211.

In my own fevered version of where "Rubicon" was headed, I had expected surprises like "The Sting" where much of what you'd seen had been concocted for the benefit of the villains as well as to reward the folks at home who paid attention for 12 weeks.

In my Ep 13, the massive operation in New Jersey was a ruse from which the tanker video was broadcast to make Spangler and his associates think their plan had succeeded. Otherwise why would Will have spirited all files related to the Houston white paper out of API where somebody else might've stumbled on what he had discovered before the trap was set.

After weeks of being told these plodders were the smartest people in the world, we would finally have the thrill of getting to see them be that.

In my construction Grant was in NJ to prevent Spangler from getting something Kale and Will didn't want him to learn from his newly turned acolyte. Imagine how many new depths that character would have had after knowing he'd been used. His almost obsessive need for acknowledgement and self-affirmation would have provided hours of story potential.

I even toyed with the possibility that Katherine Rhumour was one of the boys from the lake or that her husband had killed himself not to protect her but because he was the only one of the original group to grow a conscience over his lifetime and couldn't live with what she had become.

In the light of Ep 13 explain to me why he killed himself again? Because he was just tired of being a homicidal sociopath or when the other homicidal sociopaths said he had to he knew they were making a sane decision???

I'm not saying any of my plot directions would have been great. But they would have at least given the audience something satisfying to take away from the "Rubicon" experience instead of the rehash they were served. They could have been the ride in a jet that "Madmen" gave its audience as a reward.

Maybe I should have sensed something was up in Ep 12 when Kale presented his completely bogus take on Roman history. Okay, maybe Cato, like Thomas Rhumour, killed himself so his family could make peace with Caesar. But that's not what the word Rubicon signifies.

Rubicon has had only one real meaning since Caesar took his army across the river of that name in 49 BC. It's a point of no return, a place from which there is no going back. You've made your choice for good or ill and now you must accept the consequences.

"Rubicon" has no chance of coming back and achieving either its former attraction or the willingness of its audience to re-engage. AMC needs to accept the consequences, cancel it and move on.


Danielle said...

While I share your concerns regarding some seeming character reversals in the final of Rubicon, I don't despair over them. Sure, it left us with many a stunned "Wait- HUH?" but that's the point with a show like this - the questions.
I wonder if you just got a little emotional about the Andie issue and that has effected your whole view? I expected that reveal from the moment Will first saw her through the window. I assumed she was there surveilling Will, whether for good or ill I was waiting to discover but I never believed the naive never-seen-a-gun coquette act for a moment. I didn't believe that was her sister on the phone and assumed she'd read every word of the file that she carefully ignored was bulging in Maggie's bag as she retrieved it for Will. Far from being hole in the plot, the DVD gives the address as a place of safety and that David was aware of it and I have no trouble believing that Will's father-in-law helped him find a place while the was grieving - a place where he could be watched over by whichever trusted agent was installed in "Andie's flat.

leor said...

very interesting thoughts. i've only come across your blog a few times over the years, but you have great insights.

regarding the showrunner change on Rubicon, from what i've heard, it was made after the pilot was shot, so there were some aspects to the show (ie. Katherine Rhumor) that were basically saddled onto the new showrunner and he never really knew what to do with them. i, too, wonder what might have been if Horwich had continued to lead the show with his vision. i would still like to see the show come back, just because the characters were so great, and i've heard a second season would have more self-contained episodes rather than a grand unifying conspiracy.