The Best Damn Thing

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It's funny that two of the best shows on television right now air in the summer, at least on network television for one of them (some might argue True Blood also stands strong as another summer entry, although Emmy voters may disagree). I'm talking about two programs that are inherently, dramatically different, yet find ties in their collective strengths.

The first just ended over the weekend, DirecTV's / NBC's brilliant Friday Night Lights. To be fair, the show is the more flawed of the two, often sacrificing realism for my most hated plot technique, 'slate wiping', but it's still one of the best things on the small screen these days. I honestly don't get why it doesn't have more of a following, particularly in the US of A - it's a show about football with plenty of hot dudes and dudettes to drool over! Regardless, FNL remains one of my most-looked-forward to programs on a weekly basis, and this last season still delivered with another tally in the 'W' column.

The other show is the much more publicly lauded Mad Men, which airs on AMC in the summertime and fall. Set in the 1960s world of advertising, the show plays out like a film, sometimes at an oppressively tedious and dense pace, although it still manages to provide plenty of watercooler chat every Monday. I've found the people that are the most fervent supporters of the show are the ones that watched early on - I caught up with Season 1 in a very short period of time so I could start watching Season 2 immediately. I've noticed many of the people who joined up for Season 3 (or afterwards, due to the hysteria around it) are less enthusiastic about Matthew Weiner's attention to minutiae, and how the show is really about more than just some pretty faces acting out dramatic scenes.

There are flaws to both shows to be sure, but they are ultimately two of the best written, best paced shows on television (I only wish they had a few more episodes each per season). But what does a show about present-day small town Americana have to do with a show that is diligently obsessed with 1960s culture set in the Big Apple? Plenty:

Ensemble Casting - this is a 21st century trend, to be sure. Over the last decade we've seen a plethora of shows flourish with the stream of thought that there is safety in numbers, a big turnaround from the earlier decades where stars named shows after themselves (translation: if a show aired called The Mel Gibon Hour, you probably wouldn't watch it). A few of the more famous examples include Degrassi: The Next Generation (a format they piloted in the 80s), Gilmore Girls, and Lost, and the failed drama FlashForward that was cited as 'too broad' of an ensemble. Both FNL & MM have thoroughly embraced the ensemble cast, or in the case of Gilmore Girls, the 'community' cast wonderfully.

On FNL, we have a core couple - Coach Taylor and his wife Tami Taylor - played with brilliance by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, both finally earning Emmy nods this year. From there the tendrils spiral outwards: football players on Coach Taylor's multiple teams and their families and their girlfriends and their friends, members of the cheerleading squad, pushy booster club members, school administrators, and even the city's mayor are all part of the narrative here, even if they don't all have major storylines. The show does an excellent job at providing you with a familiar cast of faces that populate the town of Dillon beyond a core cast, and make it seem more wholly realized (something Gilmore Girls 'Stars Hollow' did perfectly).

On Mad Men, we have the natural office setting for a range of core, mid-level, and fringe characters. Although Bert Cooper (one of the founders of the show's agency) has never had a standalone storyline, the show wouldn't make sense without him. Beyond the office we also get glimpses into the personal lives of the office workers (and even further beyond that through the eyes of leading female Betty Draper's relationships with friends, family, and various men). Matthew Weiner is smart though, as the majority of his storylines outside of the office still tie into what's going on in the office: Don Draper's constructed lifestyle is enabled by the very fact he is in advertising. Weiner demands you remember characters that may have only appeared once in the last few seasons when they randomly pop up again years later (as Anna, Don's pseudo-wife / sister did in this last episode).

Either way, both shows are fantastic at creating a pyramid of characters that don't hog the spotlight - they each get their times to shine while quietly developing their major moments with small moments episode to episode. FNL this past season struggled a little with letting their increasingly diverse cast have equal playing time, but overall I still felt a connection with the new characters while satisfied with the resolution of the old ones.

Moving Forward, Moving On - Another major hallmark of both of these series is their ability to let characters move on with their lives (and leave the narrow nexus of the show's focus).

Friday Night Lights stumbled with this a bit by having some of their early regulars stick around a year or two past when they should have presumably graduated high school, but for the most part, when you leave Dillon, they give you a nice swan song and goodbye. It's very much like real life - there are reasons why someone might come back to their small hometown, just as there are reasons we might not have seen the last of Smash, Jason, Lyla, Julie, Tyra, Matt, Tim, and Landry (the original cast of teens that have since moved on). Although the show strained against letting go of its stars early on, I give it kudos for working hard this transitional year to introduce new faces while saying a long goodbye to old favourites.

Mad Men is perhaps a more jarring version of this rarely seen phenomenon. When Sterling Cooper dissolved itself into Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, a slew of beloved second-tier characters were caught in the crossfires. Smug accounts man Kenny Cosgrove, second-rate creative guy Paul Kinsey, and closeted graphic designer Sal (among a few even more minor characters) were on the chopping block. In some ways, it's been a creative coup for Weiner - instead of chipping away and stringing out Sal's homosexuality, he was able to write him off the show with ease and relative legitimacy, while still providing a bookend to his primary storyline. Rather than ride out the tensions between an increasingly bitter Pete and chockful of goodness Kenny, the writers sagely let Pete prevail...for a day or two anyway.

Going back to my earlier point about Mad Men's community cast, some might argue it has a smaller cast of leads than FNL, and I would agree to a certain point - at the end of the day Don Draper takes way more prevalence over anyone else (unlike Coach Taylor, who is always present, but doesn't always have a lot to do). Weiner will let his regulars lapse (see: Joan in Season 3, who, as expected of her, quit her job when she got married only to find she really actually needed the money and disappeared for about half the season) for episodes at a time, because the real true focus is Don, and to a degree Betty, but even she can disappear, as she has so far in this season. The amount we see a character largely has to do with their orbit around Don Draper.

I could go on and on about the strengths and similarities between these two seemingly different shows - great casting, fantastic writing, authenticity - but at the end of the day, the two reasons above are what makes each show really special. They are willing to break the television rules - and while I doubt we'll ever see Don Draper leave and the show continue on (ahem, The Office), or that Tim Riggins will be a non-entity on next year's FNL, I don't doubt the creators will continue to entertain us by making surprising, sometimes hard choices and deftly deleting people from the lives of our stars...just like in real life.

Orbiting around,

- Britt's On


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