Thursday, May 21, 2015

Letterman, Mad Men, and TV's Future

In 1982 Andy Kaufmann and Jerry "the King" Lawler did their legendary wrestling feud on Letterman's show

It’s an interesting coincidence that Mad Men and The Late Show With David Letterman both had their last episodes this week.  Both are shows that radically challenged venerable genres, and their trip into the sunset ought to prompt questions about those genres’ futures.

Mad Men was the first “new TV” show to hook me in.  I didn’t have HBO during the heyday of The Sopranos and The Wire, but when Mad Men came on I was working my first job, and at least had the dough for basic cable.  While there have always been aspects about Mad Men that bug me (especially the smugness about how far we’ve come as a society), I think it’s a great show, and more importantly, a pathbreaking one.  It introduced a drama of true complexity and characters of great depth, qualities absent in the television landscape at the time.  It felt less like older dramas like NYPD Blue or thirtysomething and more like European art cinema.  It allowed space for the equally important and morally complex Breaking Bad to appear on AMC.

The finale showed just how vital and inspiring Mad Men could be.  With this show gone and Breaking Bad before it, I feel a real emptiness.  Sure, there’s plenty of good television out there, but nothing that really MATTERS like Mad Men did in its earlier days.  To put it another way, current television drama lives in world created by that show, but does not seem poised to generate a program as revolutionary for the foreseeable future.  (Adam Kotsko puts it better than I can.)  In terms of narrative television, it's the satirical comedy shows that I make time for like Veep and Silicon Valley.

David Letterman's been on TV so long that it is very hard to remember just how revolutionary he was in his early days.  Since moving to CBS in an earlier time slot, his show has gotten glitzier and his guests higher caliber.  As a child in the 80s I was rarely awake late enough to see Letterman's show, but the times I did I was struck by just how DIFFERENT it was.  I was the kind of strange kid who idolized Johnny Carson (I was a very old soul in my youth), and was thrown by Letterman's deliberate amateurishness. There were jokes beneath and between the jokes I didn't quite get.  Once the early 90s rolled around my sense of humor had matured, and started to "get" it.  Thinking back on my youth in the televisual dark ages, when network TV aimed for the lowest common denominator and cable was reruns and cast offs, Letterman was providing the one outlet for truly edgy humor and an out of the mainstream sensibility.  Until shows like In Living Color and The Simpsons came on the scene, you'd have to stay up real late to get a dose of comedy that wasn't just overcooked sitcom gags or glib Carson-esque joking.  (Keep in mind I still loved Carson, though.)

The "guy in a suit who tells a monologue then interviews guests with a comedian or musician thrown in" genre of late was perfected by Carson in its original form; Letterman made it more responsive to the 1970s revolution in stand-up comedy.  Hosts who've come later, from Conan to Fallon to Kimmel have followed in Letterman's footsteps, not Leno's.  Leno got the plumb gig at the Tonight Show, but lost out to Letterman when it comes to respect and influence.  The current late night landscape has become rather calcified, however.  None of the current hosts seem willing or able to break the basic mode that Carson made and that Lettermen altered.  This isn't to say that I don't enjoy watching the occasional Fallon episode, but that the genre of late night, like that of TV drama after Mad Men, doesn't seem poised to outdo that which has come before.  I hope someone is out there to prove me wrong.

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