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Formative TV Experience No. 9: The Day After the Day After
The Fascinating No-Consent Fantasia of Dollhouse and Mad Men

Static: Random TV Patterns

  • 10/19/09 at 3:20 PM

I'm working up a piece about Mad Men, because people! The backlash must stop. I'm not saying the show is flawless, but a panicky jump-the-shark reflex is a reliable phenomenon among audiences during the third season of almost every great series — and it's hit the AMC hit even harder. People are not unreasonably desperate for great television in this, the season of post-Sopranos, post–The Wire anxiety. We're mid–Jay Leno, trapped in the Lost hiatus, it's an economic and aesthetic 1962 of the televisual soul! Don't panic! (Although I admit that Betty is pretty off-putting.)

In the meantime, I advise you fans of Adult Cable Shows to watch the fourth season of Dexter, which has been outstanding, genuinely chilling, and powerful. I'm going to respectfully disagree with our Vulture recapper who complains that "once again, Dexter identifies with a murder victim. Stifle that yawn." This is, to me, sort of like complaining that Six Feet Under has too many funerals. From my perspective, Dexter might look like just a jokey killer's-eye-view procedural, but the show is at its best a dark, funny, stylized allegory about masculinity. Each season hacks a fresh path through Dexter's pathology, as he murders his way into self-knowledge, contrasting himself with the evil people he tracks down in order to work his way toward (delusional, grandiose, but strangely genuine!) emotional health.

In the first two seasons, Dexter quickly established himself as a hilariously grim metaphor for a certain kind of male personality. Intimacy-impaired yet hyperrational, he was a loner who hid his true self under a shield of manners, terrified the world could sense his secret urges. Then came the show's third season, which actually deserved the backlash: It dwelled on friendship, which (bromance trend to the contrary) just isn't as charged a topic as the family-of-origin traumas and addiction themes that began the show.

But the fourth season has been kicking on all engines, because right now the show is about Dexter as a father, a rich new topic with all sorts of scary undercurrents. Sunday's episode was particularly tense, funny, and sharp, confronting at last the obvious question about Dexter as family man: Given how exhausting, demanding, and boring family life is for Dexter, isn't he ever tempted to, you know, kill his family? Watch it, watch it, I need someone to discuss this with ...

I also feel like talking about the terrific It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Sure, it's great to have classy, smarty-pants, sophisticated sitcoms like 30 Rock, The Office, and Modern Family. (And The Middle: watch it, watch it.) But IASIP has a wilder, fuck-everything kick that fulfills my sitcom needs in a totally different way.

The characters (a bar full of horny, potty-mouthed idiots) are funny, but since the series has been around for a few years, it regularly veers away from any semblance of plot into raw, ragged, skitlike bits of social satire. (Similar to what happened on The Simpsons, but Sunny has kept up the quality far better.) It's a throw-spaghetti-against-the-wall sitcom with an appealing and unforgiving amorality, a nice change of form from your more warmhearted options.

This week featured random jokes about Jonestown, Vietnam, and Stalin — but for some reason the bit that made me laugh the hardest was when one character advises another earnestly that if they want to re-create Girls Gone Wild at the bar, they need to recruit not at sororities but at the library. "It's important to see the transition!" he moans. "You want to watch the prooocess."

Last night's episode of How I Met Your Mother also hit the spot, given that I was watching with my Canadian husband. He laughed his head off at every joke ("this money is blue," an entire nation without a tailor), and by the end of the episode had vowed to get his American citizenship so that he could slowly turn us into Canada. Thank you, sitcom!

I'm a long-term Ugly Betty fan, but though the premiere had many bright spots, it left me with mixed feelings. I don't want to see Daniel grieve! Even the surrogate-baby plot was better than this absurd Wilhemina's daughter thingy. And if I have to hear another of Betty's endless attempts at closure with an ex-boyfriend about how poorly she handled their breakup, I'm going to break through the screen and wire all their mouths shut!

That said, I'm strangely vulnerable to any internal-politics-of-magazines thing, because hey, I work at one. The other major fascination: Justin's bonding moments with Mark over being gay-bashed at school. There are so many flaming-gay teen boys on TV right now, what with this, Glee, and United States of Tara. And of course, it's always great to see Kristen Johnston, although a little scary to realize she was playing the same character she played on a great final-season ep of Sex and the City: moralistic lesson in the form of a played-out party girl. Look into the light, Kirsten: I don't want to see the woman pop up on Cougar Town anytime soon.

Finally, check out this interesting discussion on the Schott's Vocab blog at the New York Times, picking up my earlier entry and exploring whether "Aspie" is an offensive term to use.