I didn’t like R.E.M. the first time I heard them. U2 struck me as whiny and pretentious. I still think U2 is whiny and pretentious, but somehow that doesn’t bug me as much as it used to. R.E.M. is a band that really snuck up on me. Their often-impenetrable lyrics and general lack of glamor make them one of the less-accessible bands on my list of favorites. What can I say? They grew on me. “Perfect Circle” is a strikingly beautiful song, and while I’m still not sure what “Driver 8” means, I know that I like it a lot. A lot of music is like that. I’m not a fan of the Backstreet Boys, but does anyone know what the fuck they’re talking about when they say they want it “that way”? The lyrics to that song are so obtuse it’s absurd, like Meat Loaf proclaiming that he’ll do anything for love without ever making it clear what the “that” is that he won’t do. I’m not linking to either of those songs. You want to hear them (again)? Go to YouTube. Here, I only encourage people to hear stuff that I like.
I’ll never forget the first time I heard “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads. That is a song so insanely catchy, yet so deep and soulful that even after hearing it dozens, if not hundreds of times, it never fails to knock me flat. I had a similar reaction when I first got into Van Halen. (Give me a break, I was a teenager.) They’re not a great band by any stretch (although my seventeen year-old self put them on par with The Who) but I’ll be goddamned if the David Lee Roth era didn’t yield some great headbanging tunes. Great music often takes time to appreciate. Mediocre music grabs you right away. It has to, or else it wouldn’t be popular. Once you get past the catchy melodies of half of the chart-toppers out there, you realize that there’s absolutely nothing under the surface.
We live in an impatient age. People complain because their cell phone reception isn’t fast enough and most TV shows are so fast-paced and plot-driven that there’s scarcely any time for anyone to breathe. Watch a show from the 50s or 60s, any show. You’d never see a show today take its time with a big reveal the way that, say, The Twilight Zone, did. These days, a twist like who the monsters on Maple Street are or what planet the invaders are truly from would come in before the end of the first act, possibly even in the cold open. Is that better? I think not. Of course, the old way of doing things isn’t exactly superior either. Watching classic Doctor Who, I frequently find myself rolling my eyes at the methods the writers use to pad a storyline that should unfold over only three or four episodes out to five or six. One of my favorites, The War Games, is ten episodes long, yet if you cut out all the scenes of people being captured, then escaping, you could trim it down to eight at the most. Back then, TV shows followed a different structure and purpose. Now, it’s all about the ensemble and watching them grow and change over the course of multiple seasons. For some people (Joss Whedon!), that’s ideal. How would Rod Serling fit into today’s environment? He’d probably figure something out. But you gotta wonder.
I’ve mentioned this before, but Mad Men is one of my favorite shows of the moment, if not of all time. I finished season three yesterday, and if there is anything on TV today that hearkens back to the time of Serling and his ilk, it’s the trials and tribulations of everyone at Sterling-Cooper. It isn’t just that the show evokes the look and feel of its setting with uncanny precision, but that it feels like something that was made in the 60s with an added dose of self-awareness. It’s easy for us to remark upon the sexism, racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism of the characters on that series, but that’s just armchair criticism. These are people being acted upon by forces they can’t even understand, but struggle to attune themselves to. One of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever seen on the small screen is Don’s presentation in “The Wheel”, an indelible sequence in which we realize just how much has changed without any dramatic epiphanies or “Come to Jesus” moments.
In some ways, Mad Men is old-fashioned. In others, it’s fiercely modern. Either way, it’s truly one-of-a-kind. Like most great art, it rewards multiple viewings. I have no doubt that when I sit down to rewatch the series from the beginning, I’ll spot all sorts of things I missed the first time around. One cannot watch that show without an open mind and the willingness to sit still and drink it all in. Compare that to something like Lost—which I dearly love, but is easily one of the most manipulative shows ever produced. It never really mattered to me where that show was going, only that it held my attention while it got there. For the most part, it did. Even so, the most memorable moments were usually the ones in which the show posed questions rather than answered them. Fans of the show will all remember this scene. It was the moment at which I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I would love this show.
Lost was a sprawling beast of a show. I didn’t believe the creators when they assured everyone that all of their questions would be answered, so I was hardly disappointed when they failed to do so. Then again, maybe they did. Maybe I should just rewatch the series and find my own answers. That’s what The Prisoner did with its finale, turning the whole thing into something more allegorical than literal so that creator Patrick McGoohan wouldn’t have to explain the contradictions that had piled up over the previous episodes. That show, like Lost, is one that has inspired infinite debate amongst its fans and detractors. I’m happy to join in.