Compressed TV reality -

Compressed TV reality


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I think the divergent reactions to Mad Men‘s “The Other Woman,” especially the Joan story that took up the bulk of the screen time, was an interesting window into how tricky it is to say that a particular plot development is believable or in-character. This issue is there with every plot development: if you don’t believe that a person would behave this way, it changes the way you view a scene. But it seemed to loom much larger in this episode, because the story was so extreme and hinged entirely on making us believe that these people would behave in a certain way. If you believe the men would act the way they do, and that Joan would act the way she does, then the entire plot works as a commentary on the way men treat women and as the melodramatic story of one woman’s decision to turn the whole rotten system to her advantage. If you don’t believe it, then you don’t buy the message the show is trying to sell: you feel like the writers are twisting the characters to make the point they want to make. Those who dislike the episode certainly see it that way.

Did the characters’ behaviour make sense? I didn’t really think so, though I wound up enjoying episode (and the plot) on its own terms as a nod to the ’50s melodramas it resembles. I will say, though, that I find it hard to say definitively that these characters wouldn’t act that way. What I think, and this is a disadvantage TV has always struggled with, is that they wouldn’t act that way so quickly. Even TV shows like Mad Men, whose episodes can build on previous events and have callbacks going back five years, have to have some story points that begin and end within a single episode, and they’ve only got 47 minutes to do it in (which is more than most shows have). If “The Other Woman” were a movie or a play, then all the basic plot elements could be included but spaced out more, given more buildup. In one episode, and interwoven with two other plots, it’s a mad rush just to fit the whole story in, never mind set it up; and a lot of it requires us to take things on faith or on our experience of watching previous episodes.

So it’s not like you could put it past any of these characters to behave the way they do, but having them act that way within the space of about two minutes of screen time probably contributes to making it seem a little unreal. It’s the suddenness of the decision that does it, not the decision itself. It’s like in those sitcoms where characters are arguing one moment and hugging the next: these things do happen in real life, but having the reconciliation take place in 30 seconds (all that TV time allows) is what makes it seem fake.

But lack of time is just a TV convention we all have to accept; the question, usually, is whether the writers can come up with a convincing “turn” in the time they have — a way of convincingly setting up a character’s decision, even if we accept that it happens much faster than it would in real life. I think within that shorthand, the writers sort of did that for Joan, or at least they tried to do it. You can certainly make the argument that the Joan we know would not do what she does in the episode. But at least there are scenes that show her motivation for it; in a very compressed and not always believable sort of way, but there is build-up. The behaviour of the male characters, on the other hand, had so little setup that it seemed to be predicated on the assumption that the whole issue would be discussed in little more time than it takes to discuss any other unpleasant business tactic. For viewers who watch the show with an explicitly political or feminist reading – and it certainly is a political and feminist show – this may work better than it does for other viewers. This review, for example, chides commentators who dislike the unsubtlety of the sexism that goes on in the show: “‘Why can’t it be more complex?,’ they whine, posing as if they have secret knowledge that the pre-second wave era wasn’t as bad as it was.” If there are no depths to which these guys will not sink, then they probably don’t deserve any more time than they get to make this decision.

On the other hand, I think discussion of the reality of the era doesn’t exactly get us anywhere. It’s possible that something like this really happened – even probable, if you assume that people who go through this in real life are less self-aware about what they’re doing. But it’s never about what’s real, it’s about what you can make us believe. And what we can believe isn’t based so much on what would happen in real life as whether we feel the show has set it up properly. One of the questions that I think will divide people in evaluating this episode is whether the show has sufficiently set up a world where men are capable of anything. If it has, then the theme here is a logical extension of what the show has been saying for a long time. If not, then it might seem like it’s straining to make the situation look worse (when the reality, in fact, was bad enough) and we might be resistant to the moral of the story. Sure, it makes thematic sense, but I suspect the episode may have assumed too quickly that if something made thematic sense, it would also make dramatic sense. It didn’t work terribly hard to convince us that this was the way it would really happen.

Still, that they could pull off a plot like this – even with the controversy among the viewers as to whether it worked – is in itself a tribute to the power of series TV to build up a sort of library of character and thematic devices that can inform a skeletal story: even though the storytelling was rushed, the writers counted on the fact that it would be informed by our prior knowledge of the characters and the mythology around them. I doubt, for example, that they could have done this story the way they did if it weren’t for Joan’s previously-established status as the show’s sex symbol. Take that away, and it would seem totally implausible that everyone would reach the conclusion that she, and only she, can rescue this deal. But we’re not just watching a story about one advertising firm and one secretary; for the show’s fans and writers, she’s a near-mythic figure, and that’s the way she’s played in the episode.

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Compressed TV reality

  1. What exactly is supposed to be unbelievable? That Joan would sleep her way to the top? That the creepy car guy would demand it? Or that the struggling agency would pay for it?

    If anything, it would’ve been unbelievable if she turned down the offer: that would’ve been the typical moralist tripe you’d find in big network sit-drams. In the real world, someone turning down a big opportunity for idealistic reasons is the improbable. One might imagine the average woman has prostituted herself for a lot less at some point in her life.

    The show’s plot ran deep based on a criticism of Western materialist culture: that people are unsatisfied, longing for things they can’t have and do corrupt things to get what they want. The car dealer wanted the exquisite large-breasted redhead and exploited his position to get it. Joan prostituted herself for something she’d probably earned. Lane played the chivalrous role suggesting she demand a stake in the company — because he had embezzled the $50,000. Don wanted to win the account based on the sales pitch alone. Megan, an accomplished copywriter, struggles but fails to become an actor. It culminated in the sales pitch: “Jaguar: At last, something beautiful you can truly own.”

    (In a sub-plot, Don takes his protégée Peggy Olson for granted and loses her to a rival agency: you don’t know what you have til it’s gone…)

    Thank #$&% for cable TV series! Most network TV is brain-dead prole-feed.

    • I think it depends, as I said, on what you think people are capable of. I’m not talking about Joan here — the episode did set up the idea that she had an opportunity and, after some deliberation, she took it, and that it might be the best option she had given the limited choices available to her (though the idea that “the average woman has prostituted herself for a lot less” sounds more like thematic theory than a description of the way people see their own lives). The puzzlement for me came more from the behaviour of the men, who seemed to decide rather fast to become pimps (except Don, and even he had selfish motives for not wanting to get involved, and couldn’t think of a reason why it’s wrong other than “she’s married”). It is plausible that they would become pimps; I don’t think it’s plausible that they would not take some time to convince themselves that they’re not really being pimps. Maybe that would have happened if there had been more time; as it was, they relied on dramatic shorthand, sort of like the way a TV mystery will just assume that anyone can become a murderer for any reason.

      • But the show has cast these men as pimps before, Pete even possibly pimping his wife at one point. The themes of prostituting oneself have been present from the first episode of the first season. How else do we see Joan’s marriage to a date rapist? See was willing to trade that for the status and position of Dr’s wife. This seemed more like a natural extension of that.

  2. i just cannot believe roger would not have made a bigger deal about pimping out joan, it’s just not possible . in fact the sexism of the 60’s might make him feel more entitled to be protective of her.