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From Mad Men to Sprawling Cities

October 16, 2009
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madmen

I must admit, like many of our Internet generation, that I’ve become a full-fledged tv-series junkie. The download-the-entire-season-and-watch-offline kind. I know, I know. And so as I clicked through my morning dose of mainly architecture-related scoops, I was at once giddy and annoyed to find a great Infrastructurist post (watch video there) on Mad Men’s portrayal of the demolition of Old Penn Station, and subsequently a handful of other articles on it, published back in August. I downloaded too late!

Anyway, it got me thinking again about certain contemporary tv shows (we usually talk about architecture in film) that have essentially told stories about the cities they take place in through the stories of their characters. Or is it the other way around? Without going too far back and because I’m not that much of a loser (besides, only a select few shows are worth watching), there’s just two other series I’ve followed in addition to Mad Men that somehow delve into the identity of place. If you have more, do tell.

Mad Men

In the case of Mad Men, it’s a historical account. It takes us back to an era where most of us were little Sally or Bobby or not even born yet. But it’s a treasure chest nonetheless for architecture and design buffs–the graphics, the interiors, the furniture, the objects, the backdrops, the buildings, the wardrobe (oh god, the wardrobe), and most of all its references to pivotal moments in architectural history that make us feel like some sort of Ghost of Christmas Past looking onto our foolish mistakes of yore. Creator Matthew Weiner says of the show, “If we have a message to anybody, it’s stop tearing stuff down. Because you will miss it. It’s amazing, it’s valuable, and there is nothing new that is going to replace it.” And all the while these portrayals of the city parallel the same ideas of novelty, beauty, ageing, loss and renewal in the lives of its residents. Do the times make the people or do the people make the times?

The Sopranos

I’ll never forget the resentfulness with which someone once said to me “Everybody always pisses on New Jersey.” Everybody from New York, that is, particularly Manhattan. New Jersey is a bit of an ugly duckling, notorious among other things for its suburban sprawl, McMansions and random roadside eyesores. Now who does New Jersey better than The Sopranos. Its unsophisticated opening credits have become a classic in television history, depicting the bland New Jersey landscape, odd remnants from the 1950’s, shabby warehouses and oversized statues over diners, bowling alleys and cocktail lounges. Again, a brilliant reflection of (not-necessarily-just) American popular culture, right there, in the very fabric of the city.

Entourage

entourage opening credits

Finally, let’s hop over to the West Coast for some plastic fantastic. Welcome to Los Angeles. Entourage may be way more “light” in terms of storyline and character exploration, but then again, so is everything about LA. It’s fitting. So much of that city is in the imagination. LA is freeways, sprawling suburbs, the Hollywood sign…virtually every person you meet there is somehow connected to show business–and what is acting if it isn’t faking it? Does LA really exist? What’s real and what’s fake? (The title sequencing on the buildings is a wink at this). The show does a great job in demystifying LA precisely by exaggerating its stereotypes, and that includes the backdrop. From gaudy “Mediterranean-style” mansions and cookie-cutter coffee shops, to fraught-ridden trips to the valley or all the way to Malibu, these people spend at least half of their lives in a car getting from point A to point B. There’s a lot to say about how the layout of a city influences its mentality, its habits, and ultimately, its culture.

Going back to Don Draper’s line in the Penn Station vs. Madison Square Garden episode,  in which he says “I was in California. Everything’s new, and it’s clean. The people are full of hope. New York City is in decay,” it’s certainly ironic to revisit the sentiment that existed back then about the same places that today, are portrayed in quite a different light.

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