Anachronism: Why are so many shows bad at mining the past?

Mad Men: period piece done right. (Also, I needed an excuse to post a Peggy photo.)

Mad Men: period piece done right. (Also, I needed an excuse to post a Peggy photo.)

There’s been a few recent stories about HBO’s Vinyl, and the fact that HBO recently fired its creator and will install a new showrunner.

I thought the show was dreadful for a number of reasons, but primarily because it mines a lot of territory that Martin Scorcese already covered in many of his movies, and for which he has nothing particularly new to say.

(I’m also biased, because I’d love to create a show covering some of that era in music – but yeah, I’ll let you know when I sell that treatment.)

Vinyl fell victim to one common trap, the “Let’s Make It Really Super Obvious What Era We’re In!”  The premise of the show, and its era, were hammered home again and again.

Yeah, I get it — recreated performances of classic, existing music performances will be a part of this show, but nothing about these scenes, ones that were supposed to be “setting the mood,” felt at all organic. It all felt incredibly posed, and underlined for our benefit.

A few lines of dialogue are one thing, but for me, part of my willingness to buy into a show is how well they navigate that tricky territory.

This is particularly true, it seems, of shows based in the 1960s and 1970s.

There’s a really interesting Amazon series called Good Girls Revolt, based on a book about women journalists, and the pilot was interesting (Nora Ephron is a character in the show).

But it was guilty of the same sort of over-the-top-hey-look-it’s-the-60s business in trying to set the tone.

Yes, we know it’s 1969. We don’t need it hammered home with every line of dialogue. Yes. Vietnam War. Yes, Nixon. Those references end up feeling so forced (and so unnatural).

Granted, it was the pilot, and pilots are not known for emerging fully formed out of the womb, so to speak.

But I think there’s so many interesting things that can be done and said with a period piece, and the fact that it is a period piece doesn’t mean that the audience needs a little bouncing red ball to follow along. We’re pretty smart, after all.

M*A*S*H, for example, allowed the writers to use a previous war (Korea) to talk about Vietnam.

It’s certainly spoken to cultural trends. CNN’s The Seventies’ piece on TV touched on the trend of deeply traditional shows like The Waltons and Little House on The Prairie in the midst of the 1970s, a chaotic decade that saw a lot of change.

In terms of more current or recent shows……

Downton Abbey may have had some softer edges and some sympathies for upper-class British society, but it also had some interesting things to say about class divisions and socioeconomics, a topic we almost never see discussed (even badly) in any US television show.

Call The Midwife is another fascinating show to me, and despite its time period, it’s provided an often unflinching look at the lives of women – their short list of choices, and the ways in which they were limited in society.  It also often brings faith into the conversation (the main midwifery practice, after all, is run by nuns).

Perhaps I was spoiled by Mad Men, a show that managed to hit the right notes so often, a show that was often far more allegorical than literal, and had stronger stories and narratives as a result.

Rule number one, though, was a hard one for Vinyl to learn: if you’ve got to drop anvils on your audience’s head to convince them where they are and what they’re watching? You’ve already lost half the battle.

One thought on “Anachronism: Why are so many shows bad at mining the past?

  1. There’s nothing I love more than a period piece done right. Mad Men and Downton Abbey were probably my two favorite series in recent years.

    Mad Men got it right. Downton Abbey got it right. Although they were set in the past and took the time to recreate that era exceptionally well, the past was just a part of the overall flavor. They also had fascinating characters dealing with intriguing situations.

    As much as I wanted to like Vinyl, I found it tedious. I struggled to get through three episodes. There are still five or six more sitting in my DVR that I doubt I’ll ever get around to watching. Vinyl committed the cardinal sin of not making interesting or relatable characters. Perhaps if I had cared about one of them, I might have been willing to sit through all the rest of it. But I didn’t like the characters enough to try to figure out what was going on. And the show did very little to help us figure it all out. Vinyl seemed more interested in waving a neon sign saying, “Hey, look at us. We’re in the grooviest, hippest, druggiest time of the 70s. Aren’t we cool!”

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