Summer has become the main season for cable TV networks to premiere new series and specials, as the broadcast networks give themselves over to reruns and game shows on the assumption that nobody wants to watch television on warm summer nights.
That’s probably a good bet — and certainly a good thing if true — and it has a further benefit in that the cable networks tend to be a little more creative than the broadcast majors in the kinds of series they offer. Chasing a smaller audience allows them to be more adventurous in what they’ll try — and sometimes they succeed. Two good examples are AMC-TV’s Mad Men and TNT’s Saving Grace, both of which premiered in the past few days.
Mad Men, which runs Wednesday nights on American Movie Classics, was created by a former writer for HBO’s The Sopranos and tells the stories of late 1950s-early ‘60s advertising people in New York City, the “mad men” of the title. The program shows a critical time in America’s transition from a morals-based culture to one centering on personal pleasure and fulfillment.
The consumer culture really began at the start of the 20th century and was strongly in place by the 1920s. But it was only after World War II that the pursuit of pleasure was openly touted as the purpose behind life in America. The American advertising industry quickly learned to pitch its appeals directly to the senses, bypassing the reasoning process altogether whenever possible, and television made such an approach even more effective than printed media had allowed.
Mad Men depicts this transition vividly, with the people who led these changes placed right at the center of the story. A central element of the narrative is the struggle of the protagonist, a midlevel account executive at a top Manhattan advertising firm, to find a way to advertise cigarettes in the wake of the federal government’s edict that tobacco companies cannot make claims about the health effects of tobacco.
In responding to 1950s revelations about the connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, the cigarette companies had been making claims that each one’s product was healthier than its competitors’. The federal government moved to put a stop to it.
That might seem a reasonable response at first glance, but it certainly runs afoul of the First Amendment, and it exemplifies the twentieth-century trend of government increasingly overriding people’s personal choices. This ham-fisted action by the feds resonates, of course, with the current crusade by all levels of government to eradicate cigarette smoking from the United States altogether.
Thus Mad Men deals with issues that are still relevant today, and its approach is relatively sophisticated politically, showing the temptation toward perfidious behavior by both the government and big business. It’s well worth watching, and watching critically.
The consequences of the transition from a rule-based society to a pleasure-oriented one are vividly depicted in Saving Grace, which premiered this week on Turner Network Television. In the first episode, Holly Hunter gives a superb performance as Grace Hanadarko, a cynical, sensual, tormented Oklahoma City police detective.
Hunter shows an impressive emotional range in this role. Grace drinks too much, sleeps around (presented in extremely vivid detail in the opening episode), flouts authority, uses foul language, looks like a slob, lives in a pigsty, and generally acts in a thoroughly trashy way. After killing a pedestrian while driving drunk, however, she sinks to her knees in despair and asks God to help her — not at all sincerely, as she does not believe in God, but desperately and without hope.
God does answer, however, in the form of a disheveled, tobacco-chewing angel named Earl (played by Leon Rippy of HBO’s Deadwood). Grace is understandably appalled and unwilling to believe in this intervention, but her subsequent investigation proves it to be real. Plus, she cannot deny the power the angel shows when he places his wings around her protectively and gives her a moment of great peace. Nonetheless, Grace remains resistant to the angel’s ministrations and wishes only to go on with life pursuing her own will as always. This is both admirably realistic and dramatically smart.
Yet Grace really does want to be good, and the program makes it clear that she has indeed believed in God from the start; it is that just that the temptations of the senses have lured her away from Him. Plus, she feels immense guilt and worthlessness for her accidental part in her sister’s death in the 1996 Oklahoma City federal building bombing. Hunter and the show’s other creators depict that struggle admirably, with sympathy, understanding, good sense, and humor.
Also impressive is the program’s depiction of Christians in general. Grace’s brother is a priest, and her best friend, Rhetta (Laura San Giacomo), is a Christian — and both are portrayed as eminently reasonable and kindhearted. They are about as far as possible from the wretched hypocrites shown on programs such as NBC’s awful The Book of Daniel of a year ago and rampant on television during the 1970s and ‘80s.
Although it is now common for fictional TV series to portray believers and religious faith in a positive light, the emphasis has often been on a rather vague belief in a “higher power,” and churchgoing and religious observance are usually not a big part of the lives of the believers shown in a positive light. Yet even that is changing, with programs as varied as Friday Night Lights, Supernatural, Bones, Prison Break, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Lifetime’s Inspector Mom, and the recent PBS adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula showing positively portrayed characters who are comfortable with church and other manifestations of faith in God.
Saving Grace takes the next step in showing a warm, benevolent Catholic priest. One suspects that he will be revealed as by no means perfect, but that’s reasonable and realistic, and in the right hands can only add to the program’s value as an investigation of the strains our sensate culture places on each person’s conscience and desire to be good.
Saving Grace is about more than just one woman’s struggle; it depicts the struggles we all go through, to greater or lesser degrees, in a culture that says we can do anything we want while we live in a world where that is anything but true — and wouldn’t be good if it were.
– S. T. Karnick maintains the American Culture website.