I've been having these vague thoughts lately on "realistic" drama, and how it is or isn't realistic, or how real life does or doesn't get considered realistic. And seeing a couple of comments on the last couple of episodes of Mad Men spurred me to actually write some of them down.

Basically, it just occured to me how when you think about great dialogue, it's usually dialogue that is either witty and subtle or incisive and sharp. Dialogue or drama that's sentimental, clunky, or too on the nose is fake or inept. Yet so often in real life people are all those things.

On some level it's just like anything else to do with fiction--we cut out the boring parts. That's why it's art. Good dialogue that sounds natural but is profound is like hitting the jackpot. So I understand why people don't like moments that are instead filled with people explaining themselves earnestly and precisely or being generally cheesy. But sometimes I think that can lead to cutting out parts of the human experience. I've met so many people who really have explained themselves earnestly and precisely in a generally cheesy way--and okay, sometimes it makes me roll my eyes, but sometimes it's honestly who the person is.

To use an example, the past two eps of Mad Men (the first of which was AMAZING!) used three dramatic devices that I saw criticized by a lot of people, even if they liked the episode itself. The first was the appearance of a "ghost" (a character sees a vision of a person who is dead), the second was a hand squeeze accompanied by a serious Look and the third was voice over in the form of diary entries. Three things that were called cheesy (the first), too on the nose and OTT (the second) and just a bad device (the third).

To start with the first, it's not that voice over is bad, it's that it's so often used badly, especially in films where it's used to patch over holes. I can totally understand just finding it jarring and not liking it, especially in a show that’s never used it, but some criticisms I read implied that it made the ep artificial. Yet what struck me was how believable it was that this character at this time would be keeping a diary, and that he would write about what he was writing about. In fact, writing a diary is something that so many people would do in a similar situation. So I found myself thinking--hmmm, I feel like this is a totally believable choice for this character, but is it still a bad idea because a) voiceover is immediately bad and artificial and those things are supposed to be outside the style of MM, and b) a character laying out their thoughts is a cheat because good dialogue should be ambiguous and we should have to work to really understand people.

The two examples from the first ep were more about sentimentality: MM doesn't do ghosts and visions. It's sentimental. Yet for all the people who didn't like it there were, unsurprisingly, many people who said "It happened to me." Seeing visions of loved ones is really common in real life after they've died. Of course, it's even more common on TV, where the ghosts often become recurring characters. The problem with the ghost here was, I think, that it either signaled MM getting into magical realism or else it was presenting this vision as part of realism and that suggested a realism too sentimental for a sophisticated drama.

I can totally relate to that idea, but otoh, if this were a real guy? I would totally believe he would have had this vision--so does that make it OOC for the show or not? I don't know!

Likewise with the handhold, some felt it was too overt. It would have been better to have it unspoken (or more unspoken since there were no words), something more subtle would be more powerful. But to me, part of the point of the handhold was that it was supposed to be awkward and overt. The character felt pushed to be less subtle and really makes some sort of overt gesture. It wasn't about being caught off guard and revealing himself, it was a person uncomfortable with this sort of thing making a decision to do this sort of thing. It was a self-conscious performance, but a self-conscious performance of a genuine feeling.

So it winds up not being subtle or sublime or beautifully done. All these things wind up seeming like flaws for their awkwardness and volume level. It's like hitting a false note because you tried to hit it too loudly. But life itself seems to be really full of those moments, so sometimes I find myself cheering "serious" drama on for going there, for admitting that sometimes people, even on sophisticated shows, are sentimental and awkward and say things that are clunky and shallow and exactly what they want you to think about them (not talking Inception dialogue here, you understand--that's a different kind of bad) or they ponder their lives and don't come up with anything particularly interesting or original.

I don't want to sound like I'm saying anybody who didn't like any of these moments or devices lacks the taste to appreciate them or anything--I think they all have the potential to throw intelligent viewers out of the scene. I've just been thinking about how I do think that makes them gutsy. Because it's so easy to imagine a show that considers itself adult and sophisticated just being too cool for these kinds of moments. But this establishes that yes, this universe and these people actually do have a lot of the same thoughts and longings as the characters on Touched by an Angel or Little House on the Prairie.

(Okay I now totally believe that Don Draper will be a total closet LHotP fan in a few years...)

The other thing that really got me thinking about this, btw, was something [livejournal.com profile] jlh recently said about Gilmore Girls (a show I never watched so I can’t actually comment on). She said "Good television doesn’t all have to be harrowing drama or point-and-laugh kitsch." It points out the two extremes that that dominate TV nowadays (and fanfic as well, now that I think about it) that not only avoid the grey area in the middle but are both ways of avoiding those emotions people have that are embarrassing and sentimental while also being genuine.

From: [identity profile] ptyx.livejournal.com


I'm very behind in my viewing of Mad Men, but I'll come back here when I catch up :)
ext_6866: (Watching and waiting)

From: [identity profile] sistermagpie.livejournal.com


I don't want to oversell the ep from the week before last but OMG I LOVED IT SO MUCH! :-)

From: [identity profile] ptyx.livejournal.com


Hee, I love when you go into fannish mode. I wish I could see it NOW, but it's my sister who's in charge of everything related to shows and TV in my house. So I have to wait.

From: [identity profile] go-back-chief.livejournal.com


In fact, writing a diary is something that so many people would do in a similar situation. So I found myself thinking--hmmm, I feel like this is a totally believable choice for this character, but is it still a bad idea because a) voiceover is immediately bad and artificial and those things are supposed to be outside the style of MM, and b) a character laying out their thoughts is a cheat because good dialogue should be ambiguous and we should have to work to really understand people.

I don't think voice-over is immediately bad, but it's very very hard to pull off well, and when it manages to do that, I think it's usually because it brings something extra. Although I can't come up with any examples on the spot. With the Mad Men episode though, the problem for me was just that, that I didn't think it brought anything that we couldn't figure out by ourselves. Okay, we found out Don never finished high school, but that was pretty much it. It's possible that I've missed something, of course, I've only seen the episode once, and I don't always hear everything. But as far as I could tell, they were mostly his thoughts about events going on and none of them was surprising, the only new insight to his character they brought was that he was now keeping a journal. And I agree that that seemed perfectly in character, but we didn't need to know (hear) what he wrote.

I have to say I liked the hand-thing and I didn't think it was too much. Maybe if that had happened in the very last episode of the show, it would have been a bit too clunky (as it's supposed to reflect that scene in the first episode) but at this point in time, I don't think it was.

From: [identity profile] redbrunja.livejournal.com


I would point to the show Veronica Mars as an example of voice over being used effectively. Yes, sometimes Veronica's OV were clunky bits of exposition... but a lot of time they were her internal monologue and worked because the show was a neo-noir and hearing the protagonist's thoughts was a homage to all the previous first person detectives who had gone before her. So not only were the viewers getting insight into Veronica's character, the VO also fit with the genre VM was part of.

From: [identity profile] go-back-chief.livejournal.com


Yeah, it's been a while since I watched Veronica Mars, but as far as I can remember, they handled that pretty well. It was obviously a grip they'd thought through, at least.

From: [identity profile] redbrunja.livejournal.com


Yeah, they were definitely aware of how it could easily go wrong.
ext_6866: (Hmmmm..)

From: [identity profile] sistermagpie.livejournal.com


Yeah, I felt like...there was nothing in the VO that was really surprising at all or that we really needed to know, I thought. And so I'm sure the writer knew that. It seemed like the whole point of it was just that Don was keeping a diary, like he was swimming now. It was all part of his sort of project for the summer of self-improvement. I guess if they just showed him writing we wouldn't have known what it was, and if we might still not have gotten it. So maybe it was just saying that the character was trying to be more open, honest about emotion, etc. and it was more about that and more about the change in him than any particular insight that he had in the diary because there really weren't any.

I definitely don't mind him continuing to keep the diary--I even liked his writing. But I wouldn't want it to be a regular thing to hear what he had in it at all. I can take it as a transitional thing, which is what I thought this ep was. It shows turning over a new leaf etc.

From: [identity profile] go-back-chief.livejournal.com


Good point about the diary being a first step for him in opening up a bit, I hadn't thought of that.

From: [identity profile] ava-jamison.livejournal.com


I like the idea of the similarities running through dramas that are as diverse as Mad Men and LHotP. I'm not watching Mad Men at the moment (I know. Every really likes it and I should be but it lost me a while back and I'm not back into it at the moment. I do think it's an excellent show. Watch Breaking Bad, though, so there's that.)

Anyway, what strikes me about what you're saying is kind of the same thing as say, a sudden new PoV showing up in a book--like with the voiceover. When I'm reading a story, if the writer's somehow woven in a way that I can be comfortable with a PoV change, usually by patterning it or the idea that it might occur, earlier in the story, then I'm okay with it. That's kind of what voiceover makes me think. It's probably hard to have an established show that's never used a voiceover suddenly use one. Did you find any of the moments jarring/surprising enough to throw you out of the story for more than a minute?

The problem with the ghost here was, I think, that it either signaled MM getting into magical realism or else it was presenting this vision as part of realism and that suggested a realism too sentimental for a sophisticated drama.

Makes sense. And to me, when a show or a book suddenly presents something like that, I'll accept it better as a reader/viewer if I'm somehow led to believe that in this setting, it's completely possible. I don't know if I would or not in Mad Men (I'd have guessed no), but I've been thinking a lot about when stories change tone, and if the reader can shift tone with them--what groundwork needs to happen in order to get the reader to go along with the shift, versus, as you say, walk away from the episode. Or when it's even appropriate to have massive tone shifts within a given piece.

Interesting thoughts! And it sounds like they were really taking some risks there, which is also pretty interesting.
ext_6866: (Hmmmm..)

From: [identity profile] sistermagpie.livejournal.com


Yeah, all I can think of is that at least the point of it in the ep seemed to be at least in part to signal Something Different. Not a new thing that was going to be a staple in the show from now on--at least I hope not--but just to say that something new was going on with the character. And that something new had to do with being introspective and looking at his actions, so they probably thought a diary was the most obvious thing.

And of course there were other things going on in the ep where there was no voiceover so those played more like the show usually did. Also now that I think about it, I think they saved the voiceover for things that were pretty obvious perhaps to signal that these were things that the character had a handle on. So it wasn't like watching him work through his feelings on something where we'd be interested in where it was going if that makes sense.

From: [identity profile] slytherincesss.livejournal.com


I can never discuss TV eloquently or in a cerebral manner (I wish I could!), but it bothers me how often proper names are spoken on TV shows.

Betty: Don, you shouldn't smoke in bed. It might light the bedspread on fire.

Don: I know that, Betty. I'm being careful and am responsibly using a large ashtray.

Betty: You never listen to me, Don. What if the bedspread caught fire, and then spread to the bedroom and the hallway and down to the kids' room? What would you do then, Don?

Don: Betty, I would simply place dry-cleaning bags over the childrens' heads and bodies, and usher them through the fire to safety, and have them wait on the curb outside of the house. I can't believe we're having this conversation.

Betty: Whatever was in those dry-cleaning bags had better not be on the floor of my closet, Don. I don't appreciate how you dismiss my things as if they don't matter and don't need to be respected. Really, Don!

Don: Betty, I'm going to the office.

I notice this trend a lot in TV shows and it just makes me squirm. I don't call my husband by his first name every time we exchange words. In fact, I'm apt to only use it when he can't hear me and I'm trying to get his attention. Otherwise, we know who we are talking to and don't need to keep repeating the other person's name throughout the conversation. I'm far more likely to call my husband and kids with a nickname or a familiar (honey, babe, etc). I have always felt that using proper names too much feels stilted and really very faux. The worst offender I can think of offhand is Nip/Tuck. Jolie Richardson's character says "Sean" in almost every sentence of dialogue she has with Dylan Walsh's character. It really got to be grating.

I thought exactly the same thing about Don and Peggy's hand squeeze - it was a moment of a character who is uncomfortable with any kind of overt anything choosing to overtly make a caring gesture, and it came across as awkward and stilted because it was. The scene with Anna didn't bother me - in fact, I thought he was going to turn it into the Samsonite campaign. As for the diary, my father was very very much like Don Draper (except not as kind as Don, because, come on, Don can be kind) kept a diary like that, and I was particularly amused at Roger dictating his memoirs, because my father used to do exactly the same thing. It was his . . . dlog? Dictaphone log/diary/journal. No way in hell would you ever catch me doing a recorded diary. It's too incriminating! LJ is best it's going to get for me as far as a diary goes.
ext_6866: (Wing!)

From: [identity profile] sistermagpie.livejournal.com


LOL! I remember reading an article once that said that specifically on Soap Operas they used the names all the time to the point where the actors found it hilarious. Because of course on the soap they wanted people to be able to jump in and follow the story so if you kept repeating the characters' names people would learn them more quickly.

I, too, thought that vision was going to turn into the Samsonite campaign--which would have been pretty awful. It's one of the reasons I can really accept it as a device because it wasn't about pulling everything together in a neat little bow.

And yeah, Don totally can be kind. It really does seem right that Roger would dictate and Don would write in a diary.

From: [identity profile] wheelerwoolsey.livejournal.com


I have nothing that interesting to say....just I have watched Mad Men on and off in the past year and this post is making me want to watch it more often....
ext_7854: (Default)

From: [identity profile] mildlunacy.livejournal.com


Something I really like (in theory) and rarely see done well (but when it's well, it's really well, as in, not boring) is 'slice-of-life' stories, where you have something that's neither harrowing drama nor point-and-laugh kitsch. I find it works especially well with a character who's dramatic or dramatized either on the show or in fic (I'm fond of Heero Yuy or Jim Kirk-- both over-the-top heroes in different ways-- being 'ordinary'). I think slice-of-life narrative captures these moments of cheesiness in the right context, which plays them down without being cynical. The reason I said slice-of-life is hit-and-miss for me so often is that I think the good stuff incorporates real drama and character growth, sometimes quite acute. You see this huge arc from a distance, and it's epic.

You'd think TV would be particularly well-suited to this style, but it's rarely done just 'cause the thing that really makes it work for me personally is the fact that these characters (Kirk, say) are living exciting lives, but to the side. They're not *really* ordinary, except they are. Reading about or watching ordinary people with ordinary lives, I just frustrated at cheese/dailiness. I need angst to get interested, but the angst has to ~matter~ and be well-done... like 'My So-Called Life'. I mean, there was nothing special about Angela except that she had a uniquely observant and insightful point of view.

Anyway, to me, a character being being 'on' all the time is boring. If a snarky person is never not-snarky, it gets old, which is why any decent snarky character falls in love, gets serious about some moral issue, gets nostalgic, etc. Even at the height of sentimentality, though, what makes it work is investment-- if you really care about the character and you can be sold their emotional vulnerability, this sudden awkwardness is going to be extra touching. One example of this is the 'significant hand-holding' scene in Star Trek movie 1 where Jim & Spock hold hands & stare at each other. I mean, if you really think it's cheesy/pointless (even if it is overdone, etc, and Shatner is... Shatner), you basically don't care at all about either Jim or Spock. If you care, that scene gets you, no doubt. It seems like it's harder to do on TV 'cause you can't have it just come at the end, and it's supposed to be semi-recurring to keep some interest. Some shows do it well, like (I think) Due South, for instance, and also the Sentinel, both male buddy shows where the emotional bond is genuine-feeling, so if the characters get a little corny, you're there with them. You-- the viewer-- are taking this journey too. We're all cheesy when we're sincere, and sincerity is necessary for bonding whether between character & character or character & viewer, but it could also remind you whether the bonding has really occurred or whether the show is counting on something it hasn't yet deserved.
ext_6866: (Hmmmm..)

From: [identity profile] sistermagpie.livejournal.com


Yes! We're all cheesy when we're sincere and I feel like people can sort of take refuge in that, always looking for ways to avoid it in either direction. It makes me think of an article in TVGuide many years ago that was about not quite the same topic. It was looking at characters that started out broadly comic but wound up having more sincere, vulnerable scenes so they could sustain that sort of sincereity. People get especially squicked when it's done badly but I think everybody really longs for it to be done right. So avoiding it isn't the right way either.

From: [identity profile] matitablu.livejournal.com


I think the only thing I had some (mild)issues with was the voice over. As someone commented, we're so used to Don being inscrutable that suddenly being inside his head was kind of... too abrupt. Even if we weren't revealed anything shocking.

The handhold didn't bother me at all; aside from the symmetry with episode 1 (and I'll admit I'm a sucker for this kind of circular narrative stuff), that moment came after a night where Don slept with his head in Peggy's lap, for crying out loud. With a vomit stained shirt and after having shared things about themselves they never told anyone else. I think they earned the right to show a certain degree of emotional intimacy at this point.

As far as Anna's ghost goes... At first I was like "oh no Mad Men, you just didn't do the ghost thing", but after a moment I realized that yeah, I had dreams like that about my loved ones and it was cleverly shot in a way that doesn't really show whether Don is still asleep or is having an actual vision (which we already had in the show, btw).

Soooo in a nutshell - I don't think there are narrative devices that are inherently bad, in the end it's all a matter of execution (and now you can call me Captain Obvious). Mad Men happens to be one of those shows that are so carefully written that even the awkwardness can become part of the narrative engine.
ext_6866: (WWSMD?)

From: [identity profile] sistermagpie.livejournal.com


Yeah, and I think another reason why the voice over was the most jarring was that it's really a meta thing. The handhold is something the character's doing, the ghost is sort of in the center. But the voice over is a stylistic choice.

But I agree I think in that this is a show that uses awkwardness as part of the narrative engine--and not always in a way that's about comedy or darker things. Sometimes the awkwardness is more of a challenge to the characters to be vulnerable.

From: [identity profile] ptyx.livejournal.com


As I promised I'd come back when I had finally watched these two eps, here I am! I hope you don't get annoyed by my tardiness.

The voiceover didn't annoy me at all. Like you, I find it plausible for Don to keep a diary in such a situation, just as swimming. It was a way to emphasize that he's trying to change. And what he wrote didn't seem to jar with what I hoped he would write in such a situation. He was still Don Draper, he was still elusive in his writing. I agree with someone above who compared this dramatic device with a POV changing in a story, or in a series. It may be jarring, but I like jarrings, now and then :-)

The ghost was a surprise, but I could totally buy it, too. Anna was a very special friend for him, an exception in Don's otherwise cynical existence. He has always seen her as a kind of angel. And, well, he was way over drunk... Although I said it was a surprise, it was to be expected. It was a natural development. He was drinking non-stop because he knew he was going to receive a phone call saying that Anna had died.

As for the handhold, I agree with what you wrote: part of the point of it was that it was supposed to be awkward and overt. It worked for me.
ext_6866: (Two for joy of talking)

From: [identity profile] sistermagpie.livejournal.com


Ha! I'm glad you came back! That was totally how it came across to me too. It is a sort of a watershed moment in the season, with The Suitcase and The Summer Man being the place Don starts falling and starts climbing back up, so yeah I thought there was reason to use those things. And I love the awkward handholding. Because that's the way a moment like that would totally play for a lot of people (including me!) in real life.
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