Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Christie Whelan in SHOW PEOPLE! One night only at Chapel Off Chapel

Christie, in what was supposed to be Pure Blonde,
which then became Show People

There’s no people like show people
They smile when they are low...

I’ve seen Christie Whelan-Browne on stage numerous times – in many Production Company shows (like The Boy Friend, Sugar, The Producers), at the Melbourne Theatre Company (in The Drowsy Chaperone and The Importance of Being Earnest), in big musicals (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Xanadu), small musicals (Once We Lived Here) and cabaret (Britney Spears: The Cabaret).

She’s the kind of performer whose name will make me want to see a show more, if I’m ever uncertain. Each and every time I see her, I still wish I saw her on stage more often – because she can sing and dance and always creates rich and complex characters, when the show requires it. She’s been in three shows with Geoffrey Rush and has pretty much stolen the show from him each and every time.

If this feels like I’m getting carried away, it’s true. But this is the kind of roll I get on when I talk about her work. This is the kind of excitement I get when I hear she’s in something else.

I’m also a big fan of writer/director Dean Bryant’s small scale musical projects – Prodigal, Once We Lived Here and Britney Spears: The Cabaret. The Britney show, a one woman show written for Christie, accomplished something I didn’t think was possible – a narrative where I cared about Britney Spears. I mean, it’s not like media attention lavished on the pop starlet has been kind, so it was a bit of a revelation that Christie and Dean were able to make a show filled with nuance and sadness and pop music madness.

After hearing they were collaborating again on a show called Pure Blonde, I was excited. When I read reviews from Adelaide, the show had morphed into Show People – a collection of six characters, mostly monologues, for Christie to show off her amazing range.

You know how much I gushed in the opening two paragraphs? You know how much I already enjoyed her work? Show People raises that several more levels. Each character clearly defined. Each character a progression through the life of an actor: from WAAPA grad tearing tickets at Chapel Off Chapel, through regularly working  but “just” the Elphaba stand-by, and then “straight acting, bad acting” gay chorus boy, to a well-known “name” actor who sexually harasses his co-stars, to an ageing actress who got her start on Young Talent Time but whose star is fading, to end with a man who has seen it all on the Australian stage over his seventy year career.

It’s the progression from hopeful youth to wistful nostalgia that makes this more than just a showcase for Christie – the writing is superb, the direction is tight and to the point – and she elevates Show People into a tour de force. When the show was developed as Pure Blonde, it was supposed to undermine the “dumb blonde” cliche. With Show People, its focus is much wider – show business itself, from its glitz out front to the awful stuff that can happen back stage.

It’s not that the show marches from the hope of the graduate to the bitterness of the actor at the end of his working life, it’s that there’s something in the struggle that has always been there and always will. As the first character says “When you study to become a doctor, you become a doctor. When you study to be an actor, you are rarely employed as an actor. And Christie didn’t even go to drama school!”

There’s a bit of self-reflexive wit in the show, about Christie, about Dean Bryant and his collaborator Matthew Frank, but about the industry as a whole, that they know so very well. We are given a rousing musical medley at the start, because that’s what you expect from a Christie and Dean show. And then something darker and more troubling weaves its way in.

And somehow, even on a stage all by herself (with Matt on piano), Christie – with each passing character – manages to steal the show from herself. Over and over again.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

I AM A MIRACLE: Challenging abuses of power (Or, How to change history)

Adam Goodes. Sandra Bland. Cecil the Lion. Bronwyn Bishop.

Four vastly different stories that have filtered through news and social media over the last few weeks, that have basically nothing in common – except they are all about systemic abuses of power. Goodes and Bishop are intensely local stories that have vied for our attention in Australia. Sandra and Cecil are both stories we’ve heard a hundred times before – and this week, we argued about which should outrage us more.

All of them important. None more important than any other. Bishop may have resigned today, but the system she was using to her own advantage continues. Goodes may not have played football this weekend, and the tide of support has turned toward him – but those who booed him last week probably still wish they could boo him this week. And some, hopefully, have woken up to themselves.

I Am A Miracle. Photo by Pia Johnson

I Am A Miracle by Declan Greene and directed by Matthew Lutton, currently playing at the Malthouse Theatre, was inspired by a miscarriage of justice – a severely mentally-handicapped man executed in Texas in 2012. In some ways, the play is about that miscarriage of justice – but the full scope of the work touches on the divine and the structural problems of society that lead to his impoverished upbringing and his death.

It’s a response to Marvin Lee Wilson’s execution, but actually tells three entirely different stories: a soldier in an 18th Century Slave Colony in Surinam; a man – suffering from Alzheimers - and his wife in modern day Australia; and the story of an Angel, watching over Marvin Lee Wilson, trying to change the course of history.

Comparing Goodes to Bishop or Sandra to Cecil, the media – both traditional and social – reduces the importance of all of them, except in the way questions have been raised. The status quo has been questioned. The public won’t just accept “that’s the way it is” anymore.

We don’t think an Indigenous football player should be abused for being proud of his heritage. We don’t think a politician should get a free ride. We cannot accept the narrative of a healthy, happy black woman dying while incarcerated. We don’t believe a dentist should be able to hunt and kill lions for sport.

But what will change exactly? What can be changed? How can we affect change?

That is the question at the heart of I Am A Miracle. This is society as it has been built by history. These are the problems that history has caused. What can we do about people who are marginalised? What can we do about these systems of power that create the spaces for people to be marginalised.

The solider in Surinam (played with such power by Melita Jurisic) is part of a society that keeps slaves, but he has empathy for them. Can he change the world he lives in?

The man with Alzheimers (Bert Labonte in another outstanding performance, after his multiple characters in Birdland) loses his memory before our eyes. How can we change the outcome of his story?

And the Angel (vocalised by Hana Lee Crisp, in a stunning operatic performance) can do nothing so much than try to change all of history – create a miracle – to save Marvin Lee Wilson’s life.

Is the only thing that can change the outcomes of all these stories the titular miracle? Or can we be inspired by this piece of work to challenge our assumptions and find the miraculous in the every day?

In an interview with Radio National, director Matthew Lutton – recently appointed the Artistic Director of the Malthouse Theatre – was asked whether it was the Malthouse theatre’s responsibility to always tell new Australian stories.

Lutton said:
“It’s certainly not going to be a company where every story we see on stage is explicitly about Melbourne right here now in tangible ways but it will always be connected to the contemporary thought, the contemporary moment. But Malthouse needs to think broadly... we need to be re-evaluating ourselves in history, re-evaluating ourselves politically and personally.”

I Am A Miracle were the last words of a man executed in 2012 in Texas. This play, written for him, is about him, about a soldier, about a man and his wife and the pressures of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s set now and at the beginning of time itself.

It’s not about Adam Goodes or Sandra Bland or Cecil the Lion or Bronwyn Bishop or asylum seekers locked up outside the arms of our laws or enemy combatants still in Guantanamo Bay or Al Jazeera journalists imprisoned in Egypt for doing their job.

But, by some small miracle of theatre, it is.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Love, Shit and Birdland: Extraordinary work on Melbourne's mainstages (and elsewhere)

June has been an incredible month for theatre in Melbourne.

Even though my theatre-going month started with MTC’s The Waiting Room, which was inept on most levels – it’s hard to know where to place the most blame, with MTC’s Neon season in full swing and the premiere of three more mainstage works (two at MTC, one at Malthouse), the quality of work picked up considerably. I also saw a great show at La Mama and the Owl and Cat.

But let’s begin with the cream of the crop – three shows that are still running through next weekend.


Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information is given a stunning production at the Malthouse, with superb direction by Kip Williams, populated with stunning performances on a modular set (David Fleischer) with evocative lighting (Paul Jackson).

The script is divided into seven sections. Within the seven sections there are seven scenes. The sections must be played in order but the scenes within the sections can be played in any order. This sounds like chemistry, like alchemy. It seems both too prescriptive and too anarchic to work.

But what Churchill’s script evokes is our modern-day consumption of information – scrolling through Facebook or Twitter – and perhaps an obscuring of love or a full dose of it in mere words. Some of the scenes are seconds long. Others are a few minutes. Some are wordless. Most of them are funny. Many are heart-wrenching.

Theatre is a collaborative medium. With a script like this – that doesn’t attribute dialogue, that doesn’t define setting – it asks the director and actors to work hard. And the production draws the audience in, telling stories we’ve heard a hundred times before – but in a way we’ve never experienced them.

This is a top-notch production that is not to be missed. It travels to Sydney in July.


Patricia Cornelius and Susie Dee’s collaborations stretch back years – and it’s great to see them together in an MTC theatre, if not on a main stage. Their work together is so forceful, so tough, perhaps it doesn’t belong in a 500 seat theatre. Maybe it’s just enough that we squeeze into the black box of the Lawler to witness this striking use of profanities, these rough – and toughened – women, explaining how they never had much hope. How their upbringing has forced them to not feel pain and to not shed tears. What good are tears, says one character. Unless she has to use them to get her own way. These characters describe the tools they’ve had to develop in themselves to survive – and that mostly means shielding themselves from emotion.

Cornelius’ writing is often tough to watch, but never less than poetry to listen to. She has an ear for reality, but in its exeuction – under Dee’s smart direction – it’s a theatrical insight into a kind of character we don’t see on theatre stages very often. And never on our main stages. It’s enough that Neon has invited Cornelius and Dee onto an MTC stage and while they deserve a bigger audience, their theatre might be better on the fringes.

The play is called SHIT but its title is not descriptive of its content or execution at all. Kudos also to the three actors Peta Brady, Sarah Ward and Nicci Wilks – and to designer Marg Horwell whose set is as hard and unforgiving as the text and these women.


When MTC announced they were producing a Simon Stephens play in 2015, I was excited. His plays On the Shore of the Wide World and Pornography are smart and unrelenting and haunting. Birdland premiered at the Royal Exchange Theatre last year and while its subject matter is slightly more palatable – how we build celebrities up and then tear them down – its no less memorable in its end result.

Birdland is a two-hour portrait of rock star Paul, in a never-leaves-the-stage bravura performance by Mark Leonard Winter – whose performance in Hayloft’s Thyestes is seared into my brain. His work here is just as magnetic. And the tension created in the script – how far will Paul go, how much will he hurt others for his own pleasure and amusement, how much will the people surround him hit back – is riveting.

I’ve loved Leticia Caceres’ other work at MTC – Constellations and Cock, but this play asks a lot more of her. Constellations is a two-hander. Cock is mostly just three characters. Birdland is a central performance surrounded by an ensemble of actors playing dozens of other characters. Girlfriends, sex workers, journalists, agents, band members, fans, parents, friends... all slipping into and out of moments on a stage that gets more and more filled with the detritus of Paul’s life. (Another amazing set by Marg Horwell.)

At moments in the show, it feels like everything might be spinning out of control, but that turns out to be deliberate. Paul thinks he’s in charge, but sometimes he’s really, really not. Most of the blowback hits the people around him, but by the end, it hits him harder and harder.

Besides the central performance by Winter, there’s some surprising transformations by Michala Banas, Bert Labonte, Peta Sargeant and Anna Samson. All stuck in Paul’s orbit, trying to get out – while Paul is confronted over and over by the truth and never cares to look at it.

Also at MTC is Simon Phillips’ and Carloyn Burns’ stage version of Alfred Hitchock and Ernest Lehmann’s North by Northwest. This is an odd beast, a show which doesn’t demand you know the film at all, but probably is more enjoyable if you have. It’s full of smart theatrical trickery, which I enjoyed until is became too distracting. There’s some smart dialogue in there that’s obscure by the clever stage craft and the story – while flimsily based around a maguffin (just as in the film) – is lost beyond the flashiness of the set and the deliberate cheesiness of the back projection.

At La Mama earlier in the month, I saw Christopher Bryant’s new play, Home Invasion – which was recently short-listed for the Griffin Award and you could see why. It’s a smart deconstruction of our obsession with celebrity and how television is part of our lives – sometimes to the point where we lose the divide between reality and fantasy.

And at the Owl and Cat, Renee Palmer and her actors devised a work called I Am Katharine – an examination of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew from a feminist perspective. It was an engaging series of scenes exploring how society expects women to act and how women expect to be treated. It’s about taking power and sharing power and not letting Shakespeare have the last word, especially with each of the women penning their own final monologues to share parts of their lives with the audience. It’s a work in progress, but I am excited to see this show develop.

Home Invasion and I Am Katharine have closed, for now.

Love and Information and North by Northwest close on July 5.

Shit finishes on July 5.

Birdland has been extended to July 11.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Fuller’s Unfinished Symphony: HANNIBAL begins its Third Movement

When it was announced that Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies) was making a TV series about Hannibal Lecter, I was skeptical. An ongoing narrative about the cannibal psychiatrist? It seemed like a concept that wouldn’t work. It seemed like another show that was using name recognition to sell it, rather than a compelling story.

Thomas Harris’ first two novels that featured Hannibal Lecter, "Red Dragon" and "The Silence of the Lambs", had both been turned into films – Manhunter in 1986 and Silence of the Lambs in 1991. Lambs won five Oscars and is still the only horror movie to win Best Picture. If, indeed, you think it fits neatly into the horror genre.

(Also, Silence of the Lambs is in my top five films of all time and it has influenced a lot of my writing - if only by learning that you can use genre tropes to tell compelling human stories.)

But the books, and the adaptation of the books, had taken a turn for the worse. Harris didn’t want to continue the story of Hannibal and Clarice Starling, so his novel titled "Hannibal" twisted that relationship to breaking point. They didn’t seem quite like the same characters anymore, least of all FBI Agent Clarice Starling. The prequel novel and film, "Hannibal Rising", did nothing to persuade us that these characters were worth exploring beyond the first two books.

Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter
As soon as the first episode aired, I changed my tune. Actually, based on the premise and the casting of Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), I reconsidered the series’ potential. The first season is one of the strongest first seasons of television I’ve ever seen, and I was effusive with praise.

The series certainly plays on our expectations – it takes that name recognition and turns it on its head. It’s a prequel series that doesn’t play by the rules. It takes events only hinted at in the first novel, "Red Dragon", and fleshes them out into season long narrative arcs.

Season two built on the promise of the first, continuing to explore Harris’ characters – by being both faithful to the characters as written, but also by upending our expectations. It’s not just that Fuller changed the race or gender of several characters, but he teased at parts of the story we knew and turned them in different directions. The fate of Freddie Lounds in "Red Dragon" (and the two film versions of that story) is explicitly shown in season two – but in a different context. Freddie lives. Her fate on the show is not yet decided.

Now that the third season has begun, getting closer to what feels inevitable – Lecter’s incarceration and the explicit plot of "Red Dragon" – Fuller and his writers are subverting expectations even more. Three episodes in and we’re seeing elements of the third book mixed with the fourth book and placed before the events of the first. A character that barely appears in "Hannibal Rising" became a central figure of episode three.

Bryan Fuller, when talking about his approach to telling this story, describes the process as Thomas Harris DJ mashup. He takes dialogue and character, plot and circumstance, and repurposes them. Bedelia Du Maurier, an original character to the show, is in the Clarice Starling role of late "Hannibal" (the novel). Detective Pazzi is tracking Hannibal (and the Butcher of Florence) before Lecter is incarcerated, not after he escapes.

Thomas Harris DJ mashup doesn’t quite do the series justice, because in a way, the execution – pardon the pun – is more like a symphony. Fuller has planned out five movements and the show has reached its climactic third movement. While the sound design and score of the show is like nothingelse on film and television, Fuller uses a lot of very specific symphonies and operatic tunes to convey the world his Lecter lives in. This has been particularly apparent with Lecter and Bedelia currently living in Florence, with a brief sojourn to Paris in the third season opener, “Antipasto”.

“Antipasto” used music from the first act of Don Pasquale by Donizetti :

Sweet and chaste dream 
from my early years, farewell. 
I longed for wealth and splendor 
just for you, my love: 
poor, abandoned, 
fallen to a low state, 
ere seeing you miserable, 
dear, I must renounce you.

By episode three, we’re up to act three of the same opera:

Turn to me and tell me you love me, 
tell me that you are mine,
when you call me your beloved
life redoubles in me.
Your voice, so dear,
revives the oppressed heart:
safe while close to you,
I tremble when far from you.

For a show that ostensibly began as a crime procedural, it has evolved through a psychological cat and mouse game to an operatic story of love and obsession. The tagline of the book "Red Dragon" and the film Manhunter is:

Enter the mind of a serial killer... you may never come back.

That was always the danger for Will Graham in the book and the movies. In the TV series, the dramatic tension is about whether he’s already gone too far. Much of the second season plays with the notion that Will is working with Hannibal – and nothing in season three really works to disabuse us of this notion.

Knowing that actor Richard Armitage has been cast in the role of the Tooth Fairy (played in Manhunter by Tom Noonan and in Red Dragon by Ralph Fiennes), we can see the story is hurtling towards more familiar territory. We might be in the middle of a story of Hannibal Lecter in the wild but Will Graham’s moment of truth – and moment of triumph – seems to be at hand. Lecter might well be behind bars soon.

And yet nothing is really certain in Fuller’s Symphony with the devil. I read a great theory recently that the events of Harris’ "Red Dragon" could be told without Lecter behind bars. Would he play with the canon that much? Or are viewers eager to see the character behind bars? Perhaps, with Lecter in Baltimore’s Institute for the Criminally Insane, it might allow Will Graham to come back from the mind of a serial killer. But with this series, who knows?

Today it was announced that NBC, which broadcast the first three seasons of Hannibal, would not be renewing the series for a fourthseason. As producers, the De Laurentiis Company said, a show with this subject matter was always in danger of being cancelled. But they also said there were other avenues being explored. Amazon has an exclusive deal to stream the show once it’s aired on NBC, and they are always looking for new content. Netflix has saved cancelled shows before.

In this new age of television and streaming content, TV shows aren’t ever really cancelled. Most are allowed the dignity of enough time to finish. Bryan Fuller has already touted has crazy plans for a fourth season (no details, except to say it would explore Hannibal and Will’s relationship is more depth than any other story), even before NBC’s announcement. And we know he has five seasons planned. (At some point, he wants to tell the Silence of the Lambs story, but MGM owns the rights to Clarice Starling – so he might have to mash up Harris’ work enough for the lawyers not to notice.)

Fuller has also said that this third season ends with another “mic drop” moment – just like the end of the first two seasons. I’m not sure he can quite top the second season finale, which left most of the good guys for dead (the fates of some are still up in the air), but if this season is indeed the last, any cliffhanger – even a small one – will seem monumental if the series just stops.

Gutav Mahler’s Symphony Number 10 was unfinished when he passed away in 1911. Like Fuller’s Hannibal, it is a symphony in five movements. Its third movement is titled “Purgatorio oder Inferno” – and this season of Hannibal has explicitly referenced Dante and Hell. But while Hannibal Lecter dances around Florence, it’s not the titular character who suffers in purgatory – it is the audience (and the writer) who must wait in the seventh circle of televisual hell for divine intervention.

Or Amazon. Or Netflix. Or Showtime. So that Fuller may complete his masterwork – a Thomas Harris mashup opera.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

See, Watch, Hear: May 2015

A monthly round-up of what I've seen, watched and listened to.

SEE

I took a trip to Sydney this month, plus a whole lot of new work opened in Melbourne - mainstage, independent and a combination of the two in MTC's third Neon season.



Spotlight on... Wizard of Oz at Belvoir, directed by Adena Jacobs

Adena Jacobs' work is often interested in the cinematic, while being transposed into the theatrical. Her production of Persona was a revelation - somehow she was able to capture the essence of that film while making a memorable stage work. Her Wizard of Oz is even more remarkable - it's bold, it's unforgettable and it's confronting and troubling. She knows you've seen the film a hundred times and this is the nightmarish version of that Oz that was once Dorothy's dream; now it's a nightmare about growing up - where brains, heart and courage can also put you on a path to doing terrible things.

There are touchstones in there, characters we know but barely recognise - two notes from Somewhere Over the Rainbow that morphs into Always Chasing Rainbows, after Dorothy gives courage enough to the Cowardly Lion to find his voice.

This production was not for children, but for adults who grew up with this story in their memories and in their hearts - but also knew that growing up wasn't as easy as clicking your heels together.

Elsewhere... Human Animal Exchange's The Dust and Us is an an exquisite exploration about how people connect with the earth, how we harness it, exploit it and think we can tame it. The performances and the text are outstanding and the integration with music was just divine. Lally Katz's Timeshare at Malthouse was a deceptive show, that seemed to be light and silly and amusing, until reality found its way in. Well, as much reality as one might expect in a play with a narrating turtle. Finally got to see Red Stitch's production of Grounded, while I was in Sydney, and the play is confronting and subversive - but the performance by Kate Cole was phenomenal.

MTC's Neon Festival is back. MKA's Double Feature was a mixed affair, but more hit than miss. I was particularly captivated by the powerful text of Lord Willing & the Creek Don't Rise by Morgan Rose. Zoey Moonbeam Dawson's Calamity was a mess, with some striking moments.

WATCH


TV

Spotlight on... Mad Men finale

I still don't want to say too much about the very end of Mad Men. I have friends still watching, some with a few episodes to go and some with a few seasons. And I've already written about the show as a whole.

While the last seven episodes of the show were a bit hit-and-miss, which is not something I'd ever really thought about the show before, overall I was really satisfied with how the show rounded itself off after seven years on air. Yes, some of the stories were wrapped up quite neatly, but the nature of the show suggests that even when characters are left in a good place, you never know what's around the next corner.

And the last scene is suitably ambiguous. I'm just glad, in the end, the thrust of the series wasn't "people can't change" because if there was any time when people could change, it was the 1960s.

Elsewhere...

The first season of Grace & Frankie didn't change the world, but there's something amazing about four septuagenarian actor gracing the screen - and being this fun. How can you not love Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, no matter how middle of the road the script is?

Game of Thrones has been a bit of a problem this season - though this past week's episode is finally bringing the season (and the show) into focus. But it's taken until episode eight to get there. I'll say more once the season has ended.

I had a ball with the first season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

FILM



Mad Max: Fury Road is as good as you've heard it is. It's better. It's astonishing. It plays by its own rules. It's plot is simple but its characters are complicated. The performances are understated but they will blow you away. For a chase movie, it's got surprising depths. It's a thrill ride, and it's a bold feminist piece. It's tough and confronting and exciting.

Well done, George Miller. This is the best Australian film I've seen in years. (To be fair, I still haven't seen The Babadook.)

Also... Ex Machina is a stunning film. Smart, deliberately paced and upsetting in places, this is the kind of first feature that makes me excited to see what the director does next - and cements Oscar Isaac's place as one of the great modern screen actors.

HEAR



Spotlight on... The "Birds & Bees" episode of This American Life was quite amazing - stories about how to explain things to children. No surprise, there's the expected story of how to explain where babies come from. Then there's a story from a black comedian who has to explain to his daughter about racism. And, finally, there's an amazing story about how to explain death to children - with a focus on a group that counsels children when a loved one dies. The matter-of-fact way this group explains the hardest thing in the world for us to deal with is quite extraordinary.

This week's episode, Game Face, was pretty great, too.

Elsewhere... to be honest, I've been listening to a lot of podcasts about Mad Men and interviews with the creator, Matthew Weiner. He's a smart guy and I like listening to him talk about his inspirations for the show.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Pain from an old wound: MAD MEN, nostalgia and the end of an era

No spoilers.


In the first season finale of Mad Men, Don Draper – an ad man in 1960s New York – defines nostalgia, from the Greek, as “pain from an old wound”. He’s pitching a campaign to Kodak, who are trying to sell their slide projector wheel.

Nostalgia is delicate and potent, Don says. The carousel is about evoking memories, eliciting emotion. Nostalgia and the wheel arouse “a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone”.

Throughout the presentation, we see photographs of Don and his family – telling us more about their lives and their history, arousing emotions for a family at the centre of the series. A family we know that is slowly breaking apart.

The wheel "isn't a spaceship, it's a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards... it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called the wheel, 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."

Mad Men is like the Carousel. It’s a time machine. And it’s made me nostalgic for a time before my time. It’s a glimpse into the quickly changing society of America in the 1960s, told by people who are mostly don’t witness history. History happens around them, barely noticed, scarcely glimpsed.

The 60s is a well-documented era, especially when it comes to nostalgia. One of my favourite TV series as a kid was The Wonder Years, which was set between 1968 and 1973. Before my time, but also of my time. I was Kevin Arnold’s age as I watched that show. Nostalgic for an era I didn’t live through.

That decade, because of its political turmoil, its turning points in social change and epic moments of history like the Apollo missions and Woodstock, is always fascinating to me. Setting a TV series around an advertising agency in those years seems like a smart choice, but when it premiered in 2007, Mad Men was a risk on a small-time cable network.

And I didn’t stick with it, not the first time. I stopped watching halfway through the first season and I can’t tell you why. Honestly, even rewatching the first season, I cannot imagine how I could have stopped. The first episode is really strong, still one of the series’ best episodes. Don Draper is so clearly defined – he’s at the top of his game, but he’s also mysterious.

And the supporting characters are all great, even if the pilot only gives hints of their future greatness. It’s hard to imagine a show without Joan, who was originally only meant to be in the pilot. But we do get to meet Peggy, who is there to garner our sympathies, while Don Draper is difficult to like or love.

I tried the series again after the first three seasons had aired and I tore through those first thirty-nine episodes in pretty quick succession. Even rewatching the first season episodes didn’t feel taxing at all; it’s an imminently rewatchable show. Which is odd, because the style of the show is slow-paced and nothing too dramatic happens from scene to scene.

Somehow, though, over episodes and seasons, the depth of the characters and the complexities of their lives bring a greater weight and dimension to stories that could, on the surface, seem quite inconsequential.

In a show set when and where it is, with so much change happening – and these characters only peripherally aware of society shifting, one of the big questions of the series is, “Can people change?” Will Don Draper remain the eternally damaged boy with a secret? Will Peggy remain the put-upon secretary who always seems so lost? Will Joan continue to make poor choices in men? Will Roger ever find something more than hedonism? Can Pete learn to approximate an actual human being?

These questions are slight and reductive. None of these characters are easily pigeon-holed. None of their stories are so easily summed up. But, like the Kodak wheel, they are stuck on a carousel, travelling around and around, looking for a place to be themselves. Looking for themselves, even when most of the time they are just desperate to make the best of their time in advertising.

One of the most remarkable things about Mad Men’s seven seasons is its commitment to making you feel the passage of time. It might have been seven seasons for us, spread out over eight years. In the show itself, more than a decade passes – and you feel it in how they change and how the world changes. A lot of series last five to seven years, but many of them are eager for you to forget time is passing – or, at least, they don’t want you to dwell so much.

Breaking Bad ran for six seasons, but is set over only two years. Star Trek: The Next Generation ran for seven seasons, but Patrick Stewart looks the same at the end as he did at the beginning. Sure, actors age and kids grow up, but Mad Men ran with that – marking time and ageing its characters believably and sometimes quite dramatically.

For most of the first two seasons of the show, it’s hard to get a grip on when the episode takes place. There’s a March 1960 calendar in the first episode, but pinpointing exactly where in time you are is almost a game. Snatches of news heard on the radio. TV footage in the background. The march of time moves on, but you might not recognise it. Martin Luther King Jnr makes his “I Have a Dream” speech and these middle class white characters barely notice.

But as the series continues on, the weight of history starts to press down. Subtly at first and then harder and harder as the 60s progress. These characters, as oblivious as they are to the civil rights movement or first wave feminism, can’t help but notice when the country is at war and losing its grip by 1968. They might have missed King’s speech, but when he’s assassinated, they see. And when the American military gets bogged down in Vietnam, these advertising execs finding themselves pitching for work from Dow Chemical – makers of napalm.

Just as the country and the times change, creator Matthew Weiner is happy for the circumstances of the characters to change. They might all work together, fertile grounds for a lot of TV series, but that doesn’t mean some regulars can’t get fired or the business itself can’t be threatened with a hostile takeover or two. Characters divorce and remarry. Some disappear, never to be heard from again. Circumstances change, but do these characters?

Are their fundamental virtues and flaws the same at the end as they are at the beginning? You’d hope, from a dramatic point of view, that the entire cast of characters doesn’t tread water for a decade. You’d hope that one or more of them might see the light, change their circumstances. Or, as Don Draper once spouted, “If you don’t like what they are saying about you, change the conversation.”

Don talks about change, but is resistant to it. He’s still wearing a hat, while the rest of the characters embrace louder colours – and the women start wearing pants. It’s a long way from the first episode when Don doesn’t want to deal with a woman as an equal at work, and slowly, over a decade, that facade is cracked in numerous ways. But Don remains that hurt little boy, who has grown up to be a depressive and an alcoholic. Always on that carousel. Going around and around, trying to find a place he will be loved.

Don is a consumate ad man. He knows how to tell a story and how to spin a yarn. That’s what his whole life is, a story, a secret. He has to keep pitching to keep that lie going. And that narrative thread lasts longer and less time than you might expect. The truth comes out several times. Don must admit who and what he is over and over again, while trying to maintain the life he has built for himself and his kids. But the consequences of that first lie endure from first episode to last. Just as all our lies and doubts and insecurities endure. So do we change or do we figure out ways to deal with those insecurities? And is that enough?

I’ve talked a lot about Don Draper. He’s the main character, the spine of the story. He’s the first and last person we see on screen in the series. His fall (spiritual and emotional) is animated in the opening credits each and every week. But he’s not my favourite character. He’s not why I stayed watching the show. He’s a good introduction, but the show is so well populated by fascinating people across the decade – both at Don’s work and outside of it. Friends, family, colleagues.

Come for Don, but stay for Peggy and Joan and Roger and Pete and Betty and Sally. Meet Duck and Sal and Bob and Megan and Ken and Anna and Lane and... the list goes on and on. Mad Men is deeply populated with fascinating characters with complex inner lives. You want to know all about them, but sometimes you just scratch the surface before they are gone.

It’s hard to compare this show to any other. It’s almost like Six Feet Under, but not quite. I think both series were most interested in exploring how people live and work and love, without being too worried about where they go or where they end up. In both shows, each episode feels like a short story. Connected, sure. Adding up to something greater, definitely. But each week, in Mad Men’s New York and Six Feet Under’s Los Angeles, you just get to spend time with these people. Six Feet Under might have dealt directly with life and death, but Mad Men makes you feel like advertising has similar stakes.

Mad Men has just finished airing. Its final episode is a fitting end to ninety-two hours of television told over eight years set over a decade that was half a century ago. The characters might have been on a carousel, but the show kept moving in one direction. Forward. Another Don-ism.


The series is one of my all-time favourites, along with Six Feet Under and Twin Peaks and... on and on that list could go. Mad Men made me nostalgic for a time I never lived through and for a life I never lived. And as Don told us, nostalgia is pain from an old wound. Sometimes losing a TV series feels a little like that. But just like that carousel, at least I can hop on again. Not just because I want to go around again, but because it’s a time machine.

Friday, 1 May 2015

A Thing Isn’t Beautiful Because It Lasts: Avengers in the AGE OF ULTRON


The latest film in the Marvel Universe series feels like nothing so much as a season finale. And since Joss Whedon was once the master of creating season finales that were both emotionally satisfying and thematically resonant, it’s good to have him in charge for the second Avengers movie, Age of Ultron.

I’d like to compare it to the epic scope of Buffy’s “The Gift” but it feels more like Angel, if anything. Things change, the world moves on – and the best you can do is keep fighting. And embrace change.

Tony Stark has always been flawed, but by the third film in his own trilogy, he seemed to have found an emotional peace. But with that peace comes the idea that he can use his technology – his faith in machines being his tragic flaw – to create a replacement for the Avengers. He births an army of robots to calm the populace and fight alien foes.

Robert Downey Jnr’s Stark is such a towering figure in the Marvel Universe films – and to make him partly the villain of this new film is a strong dramatic choice. He creates the seeds of his own destruction, as Ultron later explains to the twins – the newly introduced to this series, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff.

But his egocentric schtick is getting slightly old. He is the only character we believe could make these choices, but when he keeps making them, as the narrative decides that he must, it makes little sense. Yes, I’m applying logic to a superhero film that contains a super soldier, a giant green man and a Norse God.

Luckily, though, in an ensemble film like this, other characters are allowed to shine – and Whedon smartly chooses to put a character or two at the centre that don’t have their own series yet. Much like Black Widow was the central figure of the first film, Hawkeye is the emotional centre of Age of Ultron. Natasha’s relationship with Bruce/the Hulk is a fine showcase for Scarlett Johannson and Mark Ruffalo, even though their subplot seems tangential to the main narrative.

And it’s the moments that don’t quite fit in this film that makes Ultron somewhat tricky to love. It is like a season finale, because you can’t appreciate this film without seeing where all the characters have been – and have some investment in where they are going. The main story is clear but the character motivations make sense only in the context of other films. Some plot machinations rely on Marvel Universe knowledge – and even then, I was confused about Thor’s visit to the plot resolution cave.

I described the first Avengers film as a character-drivenblockbuster. Ultron is definitely plot-driven, but it allows the characters to shine. And the contrivance of getting the gang to a farm to rest and recuperate allows Whedon the explore the characters in their down-time, while the villain formulates his next plan. And let it be said that James Spader is excellent as Ultron.

Age of Ultron is the longest Marvel Universe film and it has to be. It’s resolving plots that have built over 11 previous films and setting up stories for at least three future films (Civil War & Infinity War, Parts I & II). It has a cast of thousands – and makes that work most of the time. It’s amazing what multi-film contracts can look like on the big screen. Marvel Studios has figured out a way to bring back the classic Hollywood studio system, but in a way that the actors – and fans – win.

By the end of the film, change has come. The Marvel Universe will no longer be the same. The Avengers you once knew will be different the next time you see them, in the aforementioned future films. No one film can be everything to everyone – that’s an aphorism usually directed at the audience. In this case, this one film can’t be everything to every character – but it gives it a damn good go of it.

And now, because the Marvel Universe is everywhere, I guess it’s back to Netflix to keep watching Daredevil.