Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Lighting Up

My favorite TV shows smack of ethnography. Story is important, but story is only one part -one eye, one lung- of a hulking, shambling world jolted to life every week in your living room. Ethnographic T.V. shows are the exception to the (mostly sucky) rule: it takes enormous effort to breathe life into a narrative, let alone into a whole universe. But to me, the payoffs -complexity, depth, and scope- are worth it.

The ethnographic show I've been watching lately is Mad Men (others that come to mind include The Wire and, oddly enough, the first season of the high-school football drama Friday Night Lights). Mad Men may not be Great Art, but its exploration of a mid-century Madison Avenue advertising firm has me welded to the set. I'm fascinated by the switchboards, the shellacked hair of the men, the Nixon campaign. I can't look away from the weird underwear, the unending sexual harassment, the casual assertion of male prerogative.

Not to mention the smoking. The cast must burn through 30 packs an episode. Every character smokes -young, old, male, female- and they do so with gusto. Rain or shine, indoors or out, alone or together: everyone is lighting up.

I'm disgusted, yes, but there's something about it that tugs at me. I've never been a smoker. The closest I've come is trashing an ex-boyfriend's cigarettes on the sly. Perhaps because of this, I never recognized the role cigarettes can play -once played- as filler. Life is a rough road: the cigarettes in Mad Men smooth out the gaps, make it easier to pass over difficult minutes or painful breaks. A cigarette is a piece of stage business, something to fill the silence, distract the eye, give yourself space to breathe.

Of course, you won't be able to breathe for very long if you're smoking, and I am in no way advocating that we jump back into Big Tobacco's pocket. But I think we lost something when we put down our cigarettes. Just a little thing: a flare in the dark, something to do with our hands.