By Michael Reed on September 6th, 2012

Remember when Sports Illustrated was a thing?  You remember SI-whoever got an SI story was a big deal in sports, and Rick Reilly wrote awesome columns about how old and fidgety he was.  I used to race home on the day my SI came in elementary and junior high school.  Sports Illustrated every year had a Where Are They Now? Issue which would showcase athletes who somehow stayed out of the public eye after sports, which is actually easy if you aren’t Brett Favre.  My favorite part of this issue though was the origin story that went along with this-I could have cared less what Scottie Pippen did after he left the Bulls (answer: did not spend his money wisely), but I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about how he grew up dirt poor and spent his early years in Chicago getting screamed at by Michael Jordan like everyone else.  I loved learning about what happened before Pippen became a Hall of Famer.

It’s not exactly a secret in 2012 that television is the new king of culture1. Outside of a Christopher Nolan movie involving an actual or fake urban apocalypse or Jay Leno engaging in Late Night palace intrigue, highbrow television is the new cultural currency.   Saying “you have to catch up on Breaking Bad” is no longer just an excuse, because OMG WALTER WHITE IS GOING TO KILL EVERYONE and you have to know now.

This “golden age” of television comes from an imperfect system, where a pilot is made first, and then the rest of the episodes are ordered after.  As a result, pilots are interesting case studies in the origin story of a television series.  They are most often never seen (if the show is canceled) and may seem totally different than the rest of the series.  Looking back at pilots then is like reading the origin story of the Where Are They Know?  It’s only fitting then that we take a look at some of the best shows of today and recent history and see where they started…

Game of Thrones

Pilot

The Good

Game of Thrones, created first by author George RR Martin and adapted to HBO by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, is a sprawling epic of a pilot that plants hooks in the viewer as deep as an angry direwolf’s fangs on its enemy.  The opening scene of the series, where we get our first (and rare) look at the horrifying White Walkers, is a masterfully edited sequence.  The scene establishes what is ultimately the long game-all the scheming, drinking, and whoring (and that’s just Littlefinger’s Spring Break Saturday!) is juvenile and a “game” compared to the threat beyond the Wall.

Based on where the story goes from the pilot, the greatest asset of the Game of Thrones pilot is how it introduces familiar tropes of history and storytelling as a way to hook us in.  There is the country pure/city corrupt dynamic, with Winterfell as an idyllic setting of family and local government, while King’s Landing, the capital for the Seven Kingdoms, is the heart of sin, scheming, and decadence2. We have our prototypical and positively blonde villains, the devilish Lannisters, with the stereotypical ice queen, Cersei, plotting in hushed tones with her brother, Kanye3 Jamie Lannister4. Our story also has the traditional outsiders of the family, witty dwarf Tyrion Lannister and angst ridden teenage Luke Skywalker prototype, bastard Jon Snow.

The most familiar and dominant theme of the pilot is Ned’s reluctance to go to King’s Landing.  He does not want power but only his unimpeachable (to him) tenets of duty and honor must demand that he go. This concept is everywhere, in fiction and nonfiction.  Whether it’s Jason Bourne, Harry Potter, or even George Washington and Thomas Jefferson wishing to just stay on the farm and not run for President, our heroes are often heroic because they do not want the immense power they ultimately obtain.  Ned Stark wants nothing more than to stay on his farm, in Winterfell, and be with his family.  Yet he knows, his wife knows, and we the viewers know he will go, because his King, his best old friend and old war buddy, has asked him to serve, and naturally, the safety of friends, family, and the entire Kingdom(!) is at stake….

As a result of all these familiar storytelling tropes, the sprawling dynastic struggle for power is seemingly easy to predict where we are going, establishing a false comfort level with the viewer.  We have seen heroes like Ned before-quiet, noble, worn down by battles long past but driven by loyalty and honor.  But what makes Game of Thrones so brilliant is how it takes those familiar traditional characterizations and tropes, and instead of going where these stories normally go, inverts them in future episodes.  Ned heads to King’s Landing, but our hero’s morality and sense of duty is a chronic weakness.  Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister are “broken things” to their elite families, but what happens when they are drawn out of the shadows, independent of their family name, and forced center stage?  The pilot sets out the board game for the future, and the great fun and drama is seeing how often the board gets turned upside down.

The Bad

If you have not read the routinely over 1000 page books, things are confusing, to say the least. Someone with no book knowledge will be able to have an idea of basic relationship between the characters, but probably will not learn anyone’s name for several episodes. The endless characters and back-stories result in frequent plot-heavy monologues as the pieces are pushed into place for the real action in future episodes. Martin’s novels extensively use inner monologue as a form of exposition for the characters, but the easiest, if not necessarily the most dramatically effective, way of doing this in television is through one character telling another character lengthy diatribes about past events. This drags on the pilot and the first few episodes.

Memorable Quotes

“Winter is coming.”

“The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”

“A Dorthaki wedding without at least 3 deaths is considered a dull affair.”

Mad Men

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”

The Good

This is a tour de force episode of television, and lays out everything Mad Men would come to be, both for its first season and series. After the distinctive opening credits of a man falling as his world collapses around him, the show opens with a long tracking shot of a dark, stylish, Manhattan bar. The show then establishes what would become a trademark image of how the camera would show our antihero protagonist- often from behind, helping to enforce how little we, the audience, know what Don Draper is thinking. Many of the best scenes of Mad Men come when we the audience are in total confusion of what Don Draper actually wants or thinks, whether it’s the mesmerizing Kodak Carousel speech at the end of season one or the non-answer to the loaded question of “are you alone?” that closed season five5.

Don’s breakthrough in the Lucky Strike cigarette pitch at the end of the episode, when he realizes that the ad campaign should just ignore the various health warnings and instead focus on something else that makes you feel happy, is a classic Draper technique-ignore the future consequences, do what you want now. It’s an unofficial slogan for Don himself and the men of Sterling Cooper. Within the hyper masculine culture of the advertising world we are introduced to over the course of the series, this juvenile lifestyle philosophy is initially romanticized by the “young guns” of the office- the perpetually impatient and unhappy accounts man Pete Campbell, the “desperately trying to stay a nice guy but afraid of falling behind if he’s not” media whiz Harry Crane, and the “aggressive bachelor with a haircut” accounts executive Kenny Cosgrove.

The episode carefully sets up each of the major arcs of the season. There is the shot of Don’s Korean War medal, emblazoned with his name on it. We learn the agency is interested in trying to land a horse in the Kennedy v. Nixon presidential campaign. There is the adversarial relationship between Don and Pete, particularly when Draper finishes chastising Campbell’s playboy behavior by saying “You’ll die in that corner office: a mid-level account executive with a little bit of hair, who women will go home with out of pity. And you know why? Because no one will like you.” We also meet Rachel Menken, the department store heiress who Don isn’t interested in listening to initially but eventually connects with over dinner (but not before telling her true love doesn’t exist).

Looking back at where this masterful show ultimately goes, it’s important to recognize the historical context that is essential to Mad Men. There is a perception that the 60s, Mad Men’s backdrop, was all about the “revolution”: the antiwar protests, drug culture, and civil rights. But the reality is far different-the 60s was as much about people trying to make the center hold, to prevent what was happening at the edges from reaching the mainstream. The people who were trying to make the center hold were men like Don Draper, who had come of age in the postwar world and mused as 1960 began, as Draper himself wondered in the first season, “Who could not be happy be with all this?” The eventual generational conflict was just seeping below the surface all around society in the early 1960s, and that is where Mad Men so brilliantly begins. Don and Roger, not identical but soldiers of the same generation, wanting to enjoy every last drop of postwar prosperity, pitted against Pete, Ken, and Harrys of the world, all trying to reach to where Don and Roger are. This conflict is a microcosm of the changing culture shifts to come. The characters, even those trying to enjoy the status quo, can sense change is coming, as recognized by Don’s concerns to his bohemian mistress Midge over the new smoking regulations for advertising:

DON The Trade Commission is cracking down on all of our health claims.

MIDGE I get “Reader’s Digest”.  (handing him a drink) This is the same scare you had five years ago. You dealt with it. I know I slept easier knowing that doctors smoke.

DON But that’s the problem. The whole “safer cigarette” thing is over. No more doctors, no more testimonials, no more cough-free, soothes your t-zone, low-tar, low- nicotine, filter-tipped, nothing. It’s over. All that’s left is a crush-proof box and “Four Out of Five Dead People Smoked Your Brand.”

The changing smoking advertising regulations are coming and Don knows it. There is a feeling they have reached a breaking point-cigarettes aren’t safe anymore, and Don admits there is no going back.

In the episode, Don disregards a research study that says people smoke, in part, because they like living dangerously. Pete uses it anyway with the client, and is practically thrown out of the room. Of course, the reality is that the most successful ad campaign ever for cigarettes was the Marlboro Man, which played right into that concept of living dangerously. Pete predicted where the culture was going, even if Don knew what people wanted in 1960. Don’s ultimate approach, which the Lucky Strike executives considered genius, focused on anything but the deadly side effects, in an effort to keep things the way they are, to make the center hold. The crushing presence of the future is front and center in Mad Men, but the characters often are trying to fight back, to keep change at bay. This is further showcased in a brief exchange between Roger and Don at the end of the episode:

ROGER So, while I’ve got you in the afterglow here, what do you say you reconsider this presidential campaign?

DON I don’t know, bunting and babies, that’s hard work– I’d just make a hash of it.

ROGER Modesty, that’s adorable. I expect significant billings on this thing. Country houses for all of us. And if that doesn’t make you patriotic, think about the product: he’s young, handsome, beautiful wife, Navy Hero, honestly Don, it shouldn’t be hard to convince America Dick Nixon is a winner.

Again, as viewers, we perk up at the reference to the Presidential campaign, we know the year is 1960, and 1960, for various reasons, is one of the most iconic Presidential campaigns6. Matthew Weiner’s script then trolls the audience, citing well-known snippets of Kennedy’s legacy-his youth, his Hollywood looks, his beautiful wife, his heroic military service in the greatest of wars, World War Two. And Weiner then drops the bomb-Roger Sterling and the ad boys want the Nixon campaign, because he’s handsome, he’s a war hero, and most importantly, he’s going to win. To Madison Avenue, Kennedy is just a rich man’s son with a goofy accent7. Weiner’s script isn’t demanding the audience to see Roger as an idiot, but rather a trick that forces us to realize that the glorious swinging 60s of cultural consumption was as much of a self-produced lie as Don Draper himself. The Roger Sterlings of the world not only were wrong about the future, but they simply did not want the future to come at all. They wanted to keep the 50s rolling, and if necessary, would make the center hold themselves.

But we all know where the story goes-the center ultimately does get shaken irreversibly so. To hammer home his message of coming change that he brilliantly set up in the pilot, by the time we reach Don Draper in 1967, he is sitting alone in his Manhattan apartment, listening to a psychedelic Beatles song, and has no idea why The Beatles matter so much8. Don Draper had seemingly become extinct.

One of the more popular theories of what Mad Men is actually about is that it’s the Peggy Olson memoir. To briefly summarize, the show begins with her first day in the advertising world, and the show’s unflinching portrayal of the sexist world she encounters and attempts to overcome serves as a “this is the way things actually were” stamp of historical authenticity. There is also the “inside baseball” explanation for this theory: Weiner’s writing staff is almost entirely female, a rare trait in television, and are thus writing the show from a female perspective.

There are several reasons for why this theory is not entirely persuasive, but the beauty of Mad Men, and why it functions as more than simply a television show, is that the evidence is there for it to be understood as a woman’s coming of age memoir9. In the pilot, there is ample evidence to support this theory. Joan’s success and feminine worldview, told to naïve Peggy, is best achieved by brutally reducing a woman to looking into the mirror with a bag over her head. Peggy’s doctor tells her not to be a slut.

What makes Mad Men great however is that it can be analyzed and understood through endless lenses, not just the Peggy Olson memoir lens. It can be a story of national decline understood through the self-made and invented man Don Draper. It can be the story of competing conceptions of womanhood through Peggy, Joan, and Betty Draper. Or it can just simply be a story of characters desperately searching for happiness, as they continually face the challenge of what they want versus what is expected of them10. All these interpretations work, and it’s part of why Mad Men transcends any other show on television.

The Bad

If there is the slightest hair out of place in this episode, it’s with one of the hallmarks of the series: Jon Hamm’s performance as Don Draper. Hamm’s pilot episode Don Draper is more openly hostile and intense then he would play him so magnificently in future episodes. Don Draper’s strength and appeal as a character is his ultimate coolness and mask of his emotions nearly all of the time. In the pilot, Draper is more a traditional dramatic character-his emotions are telegraphed through a raised voice or a faster walk. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it just pales in comparison to the depth and unpredictability of the character in future episodes.

Hamm’s performance isn’t the only issue with the Draper character, as one line in particular seems out of place. Don rants to Midge about his insecurities at work, I have nothing. I’m over and they’re finally going to know it. The next time you see me there’ll be a bunch of young executives picking the meat off my ribs.” It’sentirely within character for Draper to be concerned about this, but Don Draper would never blatantly reveal such insecurities, as the key to the myth of Don Draper is supreme self-confidence, even to his mistress(es).

Memorable Quotes

The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons. You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.”

“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK. You are OK.”

“I’m saying I had a report just like that. And it’s not like there’s some magic machine that makes identical copies of things.”

The Office

Pilot

The Good

Greg Daniels, creator of the American version of The Office, memorably told Steve Carell that the key to the Michael Scott character would be Scott talking to the documentary camera as though the character was talking to Jennifer Aniston. There are moments in this now illustrious show’s initial twenty-two minutes where Carell nails that instruction. His ending monologue, where Scott tells the story of an immigrant who came to work at Dunder Mifflin as the camera slowly zooms in on his face, is hilarious, dark, and brilliantly acted; Carell brought endless depth and complexity to the Michael Scott character simply by playing him be so sincere in his absurd and often insensitive dialogue.

The Jim and Dwight characters, and their archetypal rivalry, is in full blossom in this initial episode, as Dwight obnoxiously and with violent intensity hums Christmas Carols while Jim responds by putting Dwight’s stapler in Jell-O. The funniest moment of the episode though is Michael responding to Dwight’s pleas for punishment towards Jim, and as Michael begins halfheartedly to attempt to investigate, the camera slowly pans to Jim, chair reclined, eating Jell-O, opining, “How can you be sure it’s me?”

One of the great strengths of The Office is it’s ability to stick it’s landing, incorporating both the absurd humor of the episode and tugging at the show’s ever present emotional center. This initial foray into the doldrums at Dunder Mifflin, while problematic, ends on a pitch perfect note. Not surprisingly, the romance of Jim and Pam has a typically minimalist and subtle moment at the end of the pilot before Pam dashes out to her fiancé11. There is a brief moment of angst from our likeable yet ruffled twenty something slacker Jim, but as the show’s theme song begins to play, he willingly signals the documentary crew to follow him, revealing that he has put Michael’s beloved “World’s Best Boss” coffee mug in Jell-O12.

The Bad

The pilot is a near shot for shot recreation of the British version, so critical reception was not kind. Frankly, the critical consensus was not unreasonable; the first episode is simply off compared to future outings. The Office took its “leap”, that overused Simmonsian analogy, from the brief few episodes of season one to season two.  Two things happened: Steve Carell became a movie star for 40 Year Old Virgin, and the show decided to branch out from the constant bleakness of the British original. So the second season literally and figuratively made The Office a much brighter place; the lighting is much brighter, there is less concern about downsizing, and most importantly, Michael Scott became a somewhat likeable antihero13 The softening adjustments made to the central character were both in appearance, as Carell lost weight, was given a more modern haircut and more fashionable suits, and in the writing; Michael Scott was more of a well-meaning but immature uncle, assuming your uncle religiously followed pop culture but had no idea what it actually meant14. In the pilot, Michael Scott has the boring white shirt with the slicked back hair, and he’s an outright bully to Pam.  The fake firing of Pam in particular makes Michael seem unnecessarily cruel, as the camera lingers on her tears.

Furthermore, the pilot ignores the depth of The Office’s characters.  Hyper judgmental accountant Angela is not harassing Kevin about his considerable brownie consumption, office weirdo Creed is not using the women’s bathroom while wearing a walkman, and customer relations diva Kelly is comparing her sister’s death to Princess Diana’s.  As Greg Daniels has acknowledged, the writers’ did not know what to make of the extra characters in these early stages.

Memorable Quotes

“People I respect… heroes of mine would be, Bob Hope. Umm, Abraham Lincoln definitely. Bono… and probably God would be the fourth one.”

“This is our receptionist, Pam. If you think she’s cute now, you should have seen her a couple years ago.”

“I guess the atmosphere that I’ve tried to create here is that I’m a friend first and a boss second, and probably an entertainer third.”

(photos courtesy of splitsider, tvsurveillance.com, and theinteractive.com)
  1. Since this is the Internet and I am not so seamlessly blending pop culture and sports, it’s mandated that I MUST make at least one overreaching and impossible to verify generalization as a matter of deference to God Himself, Bill Simmons.
  2. Such connotations, while also possessing puritanical religious undertones, between the evil city and idyllic country dates back to the original universities of England, which were intentionally located in the countryside and away from the vile filth of London.
  3. “There are no men like me. Only me.”
  4. There is a deserved amount of praise for Peter Dinklage’s performance as Tyrion, but not enough credit goes to Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau for the understated performances of Cersei and Jamie.
  5. Minor spoiler if you were expecting Draper to be frozen in carbonite at the end of season 3.
  6. The advent of television coverage of the Presidential debates in 1960, considering how all-encompassing Presidential races are today, is a major factor in the cultural relevance the 1960 election, but the varying and tragic legacies of Kennedy and Nixon is part of it as well; Somehow, critiquing Michael Dukakis does not have the same gravitas of historical revisionism as does critiquing JFK.
  7. It was a widely held assertion, both among the media and in Washington, that considering the popularity of the outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower and Nixon’s status as Vice President, that Kennedy would lose, and lose easily.  A similar groupthink of conventional wisdom occurred during the 1948 election between Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey, which led to the iconic photo of victorious and fantastically happy Truman holding up the Chicago Tribune headlines “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.”  Matthew Weiner probably has a picture of that somewhere in his office.
  8. This scene occurs in the most recent season of the show, and while the show has two more seasons left, Weiner has made it clear repeatedly that by this point the Drapers and Sterlings of the world are on the wrong side of history, no matter how much they try to change.  This is a minor spoiler if those were expecting Draper to get whacked by Duck Phillips in season two.
  9. Several reasons why the Peggy Olson memoir isn’t Mad Men’s ethos:  large amounts of time spent exploring the psyche of our uber masculine antihero protagonist, and Weiner, like Aaron Sorkin, David Milch, and David Chase, writes all episodes almost exclusively himself.
  10. RIP Dr. Faye.
  11. The show brilliantly handled the slow and realistic build of Jim and Pam; Having said that, when you re-watch the early seasons, Jim is somewhat less sympathetic, because his non-Pam lady friends were Amy Adams and Rashida Jones.  Things weren’t that bad Halpert.
  12. The show’s best episodes always involved Jim and Pam carrying the emotional story with some crazy comedy involving Michael and others going on around them.
  13. The brief first season had its strong moments-“Diversity Day” and “Basketball” were both excellent.  Not surprisingly, these episodes also featured strong Jim and Pam material, giving the show it’s necessary beating heart.
  14. That sounds like the beginning of a self-absorbed 20 minute Chuck Klosterman podcast digression-“It’s interesting you say that, because it seeeeeeeeeeems like what is actuaaaaaaaaaaally going on is…”