"American culture is nothing more than a pastiche of fixations. We are obsessed with health. We are obsessed with pleasure. We are obsessed with speed. We are obsessed with efficiency. In simplest terms, we are obsessed by the desire to accelerate every element of our existence in a futile attempt to experience as much life as we can in the shortest possible time. We have all entered a race to devour the largest volume of gratification before it kills us."- Chuck KlostermanI started watching Mad Men this year. On it's own there was nothing about the show that drew me towards it. Originally, whenever I'd flipped through channels and settled on it for five minutes, all I saw was a sharp dressed dude smokin' a pack of whiskeys and staring into the middle-distance. Based on this, Mad Men would have been a cool painting or maybe a TV screen-saver. But I didn't really see the need to invest myself in the show. However, I was keenly aware of the congregation from which I was missing out. In addition to absurdly high-praise reviews, the percentage of conversations I could join-in at a cocktail party were shrinking at an alarming rate. Hell, some of those cocktail parties were "Mad Men"-themed, meaning we'd wear swanky clothes and drink Old Fashions. I didn't NOT want to watch it, but I wasn't hooked on it, and it took almost the entire first season for me to get hooked on it. Still, I forced myself to ingest hour-long sessions of the moderately enjoyable show. I didn't hate it, but I mostly doing my cultural home-work--hoping I'd eventually get hooked (which, I did)--so that I could take part in one of my favorite things in which to participate: mass hysteria.
Cut to Tim Tebow and Ron Paul. Tebow is my sports hero, for an unlikely set of reasons. I love Ron Paul, and I'm fixated on him. I support him more than I've supported any politician. I find him to be so scarey important that I don't even know if I could vote for him, given the chance. [For two reasons: 1) to do so would be to submit to a reality that I find uncomfortable and 2) because I don't know how much of his politics actually I agree with. I probably would vote for him, but it would be a fucking thrilling moment, pulling back that lever.]
To explain why I love these men, I'd like to refer to independent film-maker Hal Hartly's best-known anti-hero, Henry Fool. In this excerpt, Henry explains the book he's writing--his "Confession"--to Simon Grim, a simple garbage-man he just met.
"The details of my exploits are merely a pretext for a far more expansive consideration of general truths.Mad Men, and shows like it (you know, slow-moving, character driven cable-dramas) really challenge an audience's attention span. They dare you to sit down and get sucked in. They have the pacing of live theatre or independent film, execpt maybe slower, since a narrative arc is spread out over several seasons. Really, they have the pacing of novels. This style of creativity does not make for traditionally pleasing American television. But these shows succeed. There are a few things helping them out. For starters, commercials are so much less a part of television viewing than they'd ever been. Between DVR, whole seasons on DVD, Netflix on your tv set, an American can sit down after work and experience the leisure of a two-hour movie within a tight forty-five minutes--and he can't wait for the sequel!
What is this? It's a philosophy. A poetics. A politics, if you will. A literature of protest. A novel of ideas. A pornographic magazine of truly comic-book proportions. It is in the end whatever the hell I want it to be. And when I'm through with it it's gonna blow a hole this wide straight through the world's idea of itself...
They're throwing bottles at your house.
Come on, let's go break their arms."
Are these shows truly genius? Or would we gravitate towards any moderately unique serial drama that's afforded with care and craft just north of a daytime soap? It seems to me that all a TV show needs to do is make you crave the next episode--hence the wild success of seasons one and two of Weeds.
[This is not meant to be a diss on Mad Men and Breaking Bad (the latter of which I have never seen as of this writing, but it's luxurious and telling how permeable the zeitgeist has become). I don't think that Mad Man is especially genius, even though I love it. There are plenty of episodes that meander into uninteresting cul-de-sacs for dredgeful periods of time, never to be revisited (as of the end of season 4). But I still enjoy the show for it's characters, who I've spent a lot of time with. And so have most of my friends.]
What does this have to do with Tebow Mania? Well, for starters, sitting through these hour-long cable dramas is not unlike watching a Bronco's game with Tebow under center. It's a varyingly mundane experience with an elevated third act (or fourth, if you will).
If you had shown an average episode--maybe even two episodes--of Mad Men (or, I'm guessing, Breaking Bad) to executives ten years ago, I really doubt that the zoo-like novelty of the inappropriate early sixties would have been compelling enough for them to order a season. Hell, I wonder if even The Wire would have appealed to pre-Soprano's execs. The Sopranos greased the wheels of character-based cable dramas with the advantage of the Mafia context--something that America (for some reason) will never get enough of.
Don't get me wrong, the average bulk of a Mad Men episode is not nearly as bad as the bulk of Tim Tebow's playing time (few things are). Nor is the final five minutes of any Mad Men episodes remotely as compelling as a Tebow playing from behind in the forth quarter. But both of these entities are telling us something important: they're changing the necessary ingredients to generate success, and changing the necessary ingredients for mass hysteria. All of the sudden you don't need accuracy to be a winning quarterback, and you don't need melodrama or violence for high-rated television narrative.
Enter Ron Paul. Ron Paul is changing the necessary ingredients for political success. [And even though he's not currently beating Romney in the polls, you'd have to be pretty ignorant to claim that what he's having isn't some type of success.] What USED TO BE required for political success is: people had to agree with your policies. Ron Paul has a set of policies that can't possibly be identical to that of any single other American. He's an basically a constitutional anarchist who believes the right to property is the most important thing in the world, possibly the only important thing. I exaggerate (only slightly) to reflect what an exaggerated version of a non-politician he is. He's a Christian who is pro-life for non-religious reasons (in fact, I've never heard him attempt to impose his spirituality on national policy, which is more important than I can ever explain). He doesn't care about mindless flag-waving and his love of proto-America is not related to being old fashioned or traditional. He lauds proto-America because he's a bizarre type of progressive. He's the most challenging political figure of any relevance to exist during my relatively short tenure as a registered voter. And challenges are important for any system so that illumination and growth can occur.
At this point I have to admit that my love for these two men goes beyond their sheer unconventionality. The American in me loves that these men have become cultural fixations. There's a great youtube video of Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless tearing each other to shreds about their opposing views on Tebow for almost ten minutes. You would think there isn't that much to say about Tebow. He's a poor quarterback with no fundamental skills but tremendous athleticism, ability to perform in the clutch, and he's inspirational to his teammates. Plus, his flamboyant spirituality makes him a polarizing figure, which draws the media to him and his franchise. That should be about it. But people are losing their minds over this guy! He's dismantling the importance of classical traits which hundreds of thousands hold dear. He's simultaneously entropy and expansion. I'm not a sadist, I don't want people to suffer from the breakdown of their values. I just want our preconceptions to be malleable and for people to realize there's a difference between fact and truth.
So that's why I love these mad men. It's not just because they're extremely unique living challenges that people have to deal with, and not just because they stir up a craze of mass hysteria--or mania, if you will. It's the combinations of both which intensify our culture's pastiche of fixations and suitably increase my experience of living.
Tonight's the night, I'm gonna take it to the limit. / I live all of my years in a single minute. -Foreigner~~~~
[There are actually two interesting Klosterman articles which deal with some of these topics, a Grantland article about the new cable super-dramas and an essay from Eating the Dinosaur about the conservative/progressive dichotomy of pro-football.]