Pop or Popular

This is spoiler-free, for two reasons: one, I haven’t seen an episode of Mad Men, and two, I don’t want to spend an hour trying to figure out episodes and times for story points in NCIS.

From Ricochet guest writer, Richard Rushfield.

Next March, AMC’s Mad Men will return to the airwaves after a year and a half absence. It’s return will be treated as the most significant cultural event of the year. Its stars will blanket the covers of our glossy magazines. Articles will be written in the New York Times and our most elite literary journals dissecting the show’s meaning. Banana Republic will promote its high end Mad Men line.

Mad Men at its height was watched by 2.9 million viewers. In contrast, CBS’ military police procedural drama NCIS last week was seen by 19.7 million viewers. As far as I can tell, NCIS has never been featured on the cover of any major American magazine apart from TV Guide and one issue of Inland Empire, the magazine of California’s suburban Riverside and San Bernadino counties.

First, let me say– as polished and stylish as the guys in Mad Men look, let alone the lovely lady, I gotta prefer Gibbs and co. It’s nice to hear that there’s a decent number of my fellow Americans who are likewise getting their dose. ;^)

This is not to say that NCIS is more deserving of a magazine cover than Mad Men, or that ratings numbers alone should determine what gets coverage and critical attention and what gets ignored. With its layered, morally ambiguous plotting and characters, Mad Men no doubt provides much richer fields for critical inquiry than the straightforward crime of the week NCIS.

I’d say that NCIS is more deserving of a cover. There’s no shortage of writers who lived through the sixties– there’s a definite shortage of those who can write modern military stories and get it right often enough to be enjoyable. (My biggest complaint is on technology, for crying out loud, not military.)

Then again, I also think that NCIS is a lot more worthy of consideration than he’s giving them credit for. Mad Men is, from the promotional stuff, pretentiously ‘deep.’ It’s got a great big sign hanging over it with flashing neon lettering saying “I AM SERIOUS AND DEEP. DEEPLY SERIOUS.”

NCIS, on the other hand– Elf borrowed the entire series up to season six from a coworker, and I’m constantly surprised at how good it is.  If you pay attention– or if you’re watching two or three episodes in order, two or three times a week– they are amazing.  At least once a week– usually once an evening– while we were burning through the series, I’d suddenly get hit over the head with things they’d been hinting at for weeks.  The relationships between the characters, especially, are very well done.

  I hate being manipulated by a show, and I know enough about narrative structure, musical tricks and basic production to catch on to the things that shows usually do as shortcuts.  Can’t count the number of times Elf has ordered me to stop thinking and enjoy something.

 NCIS not only doesn’t lean on those shortcuts, it generally uses them correctly as intensifiers when they’ve already laid the story-and-acting ground, or to give a misleading impression that heightens the payoff.  (Misleading, not false.  There is a difference.)

Unlike the umpty-bazillion police shows, I generally can’t tell you who will be the bad guy in the first five minutes of an episode of NCIS, and if I can there’s a good reason for it.  (Such as that the characters know it, too, or they’re the bad guy for totally different reasons than I assumed.)

Probably part of NCIS’ success is due to their lack of pretension.  Just like actual military folks I know, they are serious, silly, noble, immoral, utter jerks and have hearts of gold at different times with different motivations.  Some things strain credibility from an outside point– like Abby’s antics– but reality does that, if you are introduced to a situation with no background.  Failure to realize that is part of why so many workplaces are soulless; new boss comes in and destroys any character that a places had.  (I’ll agree that the repeated failure of new powers to succeed in wiping out the awesome characteristics of the NCIS workplace is a bit unlikely, but there’s got to be some wish fulfillment here.)

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3 thoughts on “Pop or Popular”

  1. As usual, there are comments as good as the article:
    Andrew Barrett
    I watch Mad Men, and enjoy it; the show is well written and the acting is top-notch. NCIS is my favorite show on television, however. The big difference between these two programs, beyond the obvious–one is about a 1960s advertising firm, the other a modern day cop show–is the tone. Mad Men is about a world where everyone is depressed and self loathing, while adultery is as routine as brushing one's teeth. Despite the gruffness of its lead character (who actually has a heart of gold), NCIS is about a group of law enforcement officials who love and respect one another. They enjoy their work–as much as homicide detectives can–and their colleagues.

    I'd probably add that the sort of folks who tend to report on TV shows tend to be infatuated with the '60s, and not so much with mostly enlisted military folks.

  2. I started watching Mad Men on dvd with high hopes. It is very polished visually, but didn't hold my attention. It's boomers sneering at their parents and preaching at their children, and it got boring after three or four episodes. Haven't seen NCIS, but I'll take a look.

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