Cable vs. Network: Mad Men and the Poetics of Television Narrative Revisited

Michael Z. Newman's picture


Here is a postscript to my 2006 Velvet Light Trap essay “From Beats to Arcs: Toward a Poetics of Television Narrative” to appear in an anthology of literary theory. Ever since it was published, I have thought about writing a sequel of sorts to account for differences between conventional broadcast network dramas and the more upscale cable serials (at least as far as narrative structure is concerned). This is work in progress toward that end, so feedback is welcome.

Ten years have passed since I wrote “From Beats to Arcs.” Television and the kind of shows I wrote about have changed in many ways major and minor in that time. From the vantage point of the present, disruptions can appear more prominent than continuities, and despite some of the shifts and novelties I observe in TV storytelling (along with TV as business, technology, and experience), I also see a stable and adaptable system. Advertising-supported TV narrative is still written around commercial breaks and seasons. Beats and arcs are no more or less significant than they were generally speaking as tools of narrative design and construction, though many network shows break for ads more frequently than in the past. In all genres of TV, episodic unity tends to be a strong value. Like anyone who has been paying attention, though, I have been aware of emerging forms and new modes of viewing. 
I made a point to discuss broadcast network shows in “From Beats to Arcs” and avoided focusing on the more prestigious premium cable dramas like The Sopranos, which seemed in some ways to differ in narrative form. Their lack of commercials, shorter seasons, and apparent absence of industrial constraints often make them appear altogether different from network serials, which by contrast sometimes look quite formulaic. I emphasized commercial network fare in order to appreciate its aesthetic achievements in the face of widespread denigration. The network/cable dichotomy is often oversold, even more now than ten years ago, and can function as much to affirm conservative taste distinction as to identify two sets of conventions.* But the differences reveal that some forms of serialized TV storytelling work according to their own constraints and opportunities, which we can appreciate by looking at one exemplar of the cable style of the past decade: Mad Men, which ran from 2007 and is ending later this year.
Like any television show, Mad Men is the product of extensive collaboration, but its creative authorship is strongly attributed to the showrunner Matthew Weiner, whose previous work included both network comedies and The Sopranos. As a prestige product adding luster to the basic cable channel AMC’s brand identity, Mad Men draws on the cachet of premium cable HBO, whose original dramas have set a standard for artistry in television. It follows the HBO style in many ways.
What is the effect of episodes having no clearly marked acts? Acts in conventional TV storytelling build toward endings. In many instances, the break to commercial comes at the moment of greatest tension and uncertainty. Visual and musical techniques amplify these moments. A need to bring the drama to such a point four or more times in an hour produces patterns of rising action, raised stakes, complication and development. By ignoring the need for such moments, Mad Men perversely calls attention to the interruptive quality of commercial breaks. Perhaps a more ideal viewing situation is a binge on DVDs or streaming video. When viewing this way it is impossible to tell where the commercials would have appeared. And perhaps by refusing to adapt to the convention of interruption, Weiner signals his desire for autonomy from commercialism, adding authority to his creative identity.
And yet there is still pattern and rhythm in Mad Men’s episodes. Many of them introduce a new character, client, or situation in the first few scenes, leading up to a series of further events, some of which are resolved within the hour, and some of which provide material for further storytelling. An episode might be based around a trip to California or the development of a new campaign to be pitched at a meeting. Many episodes build toward parties, whether at home, in the office, or in another location. In the fourth-season episode “Waldorf Stories,” the Clio awards are first mentioned in the expository scenes, and later the contingent from the ad agency wins their Clio and faces implications and consequences of the characters’ drunkenness after the ceremony. This pattern is not so different from less prestigious shows like Revenge typically building up to their third- or fourth-act parties with their confrontations and revelations. 
While, unlike HBO, AMC is advertising-supported and breaks the episodes of Mad Men into segments between commercial breaks, the episodes are clearly written and shot without these pauses in mind. Like many cable series, a season consists not of 22 or more episodes as remains typical on broadcast networks, but thirteen (the seventh season has fourteen, divided into two halves of seven). These two conventions of the cable drama, the absence of breaks and the shorter season, are both products of their own commercial logic. Success might not be defined as much by how many viewers watch a live airing, and audiences tend to be smaller though perhaps more desirable for their affluence. But unlike networks, cable channels earn income from cable or satellite providers per subscriber (“carriage fees”) and have an interest in being desirable both to consumers and cable and satellite companies. It would be an odd blunder to see cable channels, whether they are ad-supported or not, as somehow less commercial than broadcast networks.
Unlike many network shows, Mad Men’s beats tend to lack recapitulations of basic information. The subtle style of storytelling here avoids recapping, and rewards the audience for having paid close attention all along. For viewers who track the characters’ trajectories carefully over the seasons, there are pleasures in knowing what characters must be thinking without being reminded overtly. In the first few episodes of season three, the developments from the end of season two are never formally explained in dialog, and the control of Sterling Cooper by the British firm Puttnam, Powell, and Lowe is taken as understood. So many elements of the story work like this: you need to remember them. You need to remember that Don is Dick, that Peggy had Pete’s baby, that Joan was Roger’s mistress, and who knows what about whom. Occasionally, at moments of heightened drama and as payoff to a long series of episodes of development, one character learns another character’s story, as happens at the end of season two with Peggy telling Pete that she had his child and gave the baby away, and at the end of season three with Betty learning of Don’s past identity and family history. At these moments characters narrate their secrets in dialog, and the audience is granted the pleasure or pain of witnessing the characters’ reactions to deeply meaningful news. But the ordinary recapping in dialog scene-by-scene and episode-by-episode is absent. 
While it might be tempting to see this as an aesthetic advantage, perhaps we can also see tradeoffs. The more obvious style of beats that introduce new information while reminding the audience of old information produces its own pleasures. The Mad Men style, while more obscure, emphasizes unspoken thematic or symbolic meaning often as a complement to more action-oriented plot developments. And by saving the repetition of key plot information for so many episodes, it boosts their impact. The dedicated, attentive viewer is rewarded for their insight and interpretive work, and their long-term investment in a slowly, elegantly unfolding canvas rich with historical and psychological insight and attention to detail in the show’s mise en scene.

Network and cable styles need not exist in hierarchy. Mad Men and “quality TV” more generally is addressed at more than one audience, and increasingly the afterlife of such shows is not so much cable reruns as DVD or Blu-ray discs, video on demand, and streaming services like Netflix. In all of these secondary distribution outlets, viewers often watch many episodes in rapid succession, rendering recapping somewhat superfluous. The network drama is also addressed at this market, but its live audience (the audience for what Netflix’s CEO calls “linear TV”) is still most crucial to the business model of the broadcast networks who sell audiences to advertisers. AMC’s business model is more complicated, and more than the networks, it has an interest in burnishing its brand identity. AMC’s reputation as a source of high-quality original programs, which Mad Men established, helped its clout in negotiations over carriage fees with cable providers, which ultimately increased its revenue from subscriber fees. Many observers saw putting Mad Men on as a way for AMC to become the next HBO, a cable channel with “brand buzz,” as Anthony N. Smith argues. Mad Men, according to an industry trade paper, put AMC “on the map with ad buyers and cable operators.” Unlike the typical broadcast program, then, Mad Men has been a loss leader for the network putting it on, appealing as prestige programming to bring benefits in addition to revenue from advertisements during breaks between segments. Its value is not equal only to the revenue its has earned from advertising, which does not cover the program’s costs. Mad Men is a product not of a less commercial production context, merely of a different one.

As for the macro units of the narrative, the unity absent from many seasons of network TV is much stronger in a shorter cable season. This is evident from the heavy marketing and promotion at the debut of each new season, and from the packaging of the show, like many other upscale cable series, in DVD and Blu-ray box sets and iTunes and Amazon downloads by season for sale to consumers. The logic of the aftermarket in TV distribution is strongly invested in seasons as a unit of narrative consumption and of meaning. Mad Men, like any show, is produced a season at a time. The writers break the story into thirteen episodes, seeing a shape for the story in advance, a task more likely in a thirteen-episode season than in a longer form.

A season of Mad Men forms a well-defined arc. Season three, for instance, has a strong dimension of narrative unity as the intersecting stories of Don and the Draper family, the agency, and the other key characters (particularly Roger, Pete, Joan, and Peggy) have patterns of rising action, complication, and climax. When watching the season finale, “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” many of the threads of the plot are revealed in the significance they might not have had all along. We see the story of the family’s breakdown and Betty’s impending marriage to Henry; the agency’s struggles suffering under foreign control, only to break away in establishing a new firm; Peggy’s effort to assert her independence in her new professional role and be taken seriously by the men, until finally she is recognized (and tells Roger she won’t get him coffee); Pete’s business acumen being seldom rewarded until he is chosen over his rival Ken to join the new firm; and Joan’s return to the agency after her absence, having suffered from Greg’s failure to be named chief surgical resident, which showed the danger of a woman’s fortunes being tied up in her husband’s. (Roger’s conflict with his ex-wife and daughter after marrying the much younger Jane, culminating in the matching trauma of the Kennedy assassination and his daughter’s wedding on the same day, happens in the penultimate episode.) One of the effects of watching the season-ending episode is regarding the previous twelve installments as moments leading up to the climactic plot developments: the Drapers’ failure to keep their family together and the agency breaking off on its own. So many of the points along the way (such as the introduction of the at-first mysterious characters of Conrad Hilton and Henry Francis) were in anticipation of these events, which then push us forward into season four as we are introduced to a new office space for the firm with new characters, a new family for Betty, a new apartment for Don, new clients to pitch, and a new set of narrative questions to be answered over thirteen more hours.

One way Mad Men and shows like it have much in common with conventional TV network dramas is in the unity of their episodes. Despite a fair bit of open-endedness, a typical Mad Men has strong coherence both in its plot and its theme. Episode titles convey, perhaps obliquely, not just a key moment of plot made into an abstract for the story, but often an allusion suggesting deeper meanings: “Babylon,” “The Wheel,” “The Gold Violin,” “Meditations in an Emergency,” “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” “Tomorrowland,” “Lady Lazarus,” “The Monolith.” Sometimes questions raised in the early scenes of an episode are answered by the closing credits, but just as often they are deferred, as is typical of serial narratives. The third season episode “The Arrangements” is a good example of Man Men’s episodic unity. The episode’s heaviest moment is the death of Betty’s father Eugene, presaged by one scene in which he shows her the arrangements of the title for what to do in the event of his passing, and another in which he gives his grandson a dead German soldier’s helmet he brought home from the First World War. But there are two other storylines about relations between parents and their adult children that resonate with the death of Grandpa Gene: Peggy disappoints her mother by moving to Manhattan with a new roommate, and upsets her mother further by giving the gift of a television set (as if it can substitute for a daughter’s presence). And the agency takes on a new client, a rich kid who wants to make jai-alai into a major sport in the US (clearly folly), and whose exasperated father is a friend of the agency’s founder Bert Cooper. The satisfaction of “The Arrangements,” a combination of episodic and long-arcing storytelling, is in some ways not much different from any serialized narrative, no matter how distinctive the upscale cable style of this particular program.

There is no natural reason why a serialized television series would have episodes with strong coherence and unity. It is a convention of production and reception, and it would seem no less vital to cable than to network series. Episodic unity works well in a system where episodes are the unit of consumption, whether in weekly doses or more rapidly. It works well in a system of production for managing labor and resources. Whether the unity is of story or theme, this convention works to the advantage of both the audience and the television industry. Episodes fit into patterns of both media work and audience leisure.

It is tempting to see the creative autonomy of quality TV writers and producers as a value in opposition to the compromised commercialism of traditional broadcasting. But it also functions within the capitalist media system as an appeal in its own right, a selling point to a desirable market segment and a means of product differentiation. And like all creative agency under capitalism, this autonomy always works in tension with the imperative of economic productivity. No action is unconstrained. The art of the cable drama is not greater or lesser than that of the network drama, and perhaps not even less bound by convention, but it is a somewhat different form as a product of its own industrial circumstances.


*Network and cable are simplifications, as both categories admit a fair bit of variety within, and Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming online venues for programming overlap with cable without being traditional TV channels.
Previously on zigzigger: recapping s4e1,s4e2, s4e3, s4e4, and after that I gave up. 

Publication date (from feed): 

Mon, 12 Jan 2015 20:39:00 +0000