Perhaps as with women, I suffer from commitment issues with regards to episodic TV and web series content as well. At best, I can watch a show like Sherlock, Rick and Morty, or Modern Love which has several unrelated, stand-alone episodes, without a continuous central narrative and climactic cliffhangers. I haven’t yet watched a single episode of popular and acclaimed shows such as Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, or even sitcoms such as Friends and The Office, despite receiving passionate recommendations if not threats, from my friends and well-wishers. My pop culture knowledge is thus pretty abysmal; I’m often clueless when someone mentions a piece of trivia or meme in a social situation; my Bumble dates have ended on an awkward note more often than not. It’s not that I’m a purist or a cynic, an allegation I have now become quite used to. It’s just that the quasi-perpetual run times of these multi-season, multi-episode content pieces spook me. I’m not a fan of the ways such as cliffhangers and red herrings, that the writers employ to make viewers leave everything else and binge-watch. I would rather pick a two-hour long film, a brief but intense love affair over a lifetime of commitment episodic content appears to be, unless of course, something extraordinary comes my way.
But we all have our moments of weakness, and the lockdown was mine. I had too much time and nothing substantial to do so I decided to give long-form content a chance and started with some of the recent releases which do not carry the weight of past seasons. The first one was the HBO miniseries Mare of Easttown, headlined by the ever-amazing Kate Winslet. The show somewhat faltered by the end, but it did manage to keep me engaged throughout. More importantly, it made me acknowledge the inherent potential of long-form TV writing, a world I was thus far oblivious to (a pity for someone who is studying to be a writer-director in an era when OTT platforms are ruling). I picked up Succession next, another show my friends implored me to watch, and I ended up binge-watching all the three seasons premiered so far (In India, the show is available to watch on Disney+ Hotstar and is worth devoting one’s time to).
Succession (2018-); HBO
As an aspiring filmmaker, I loved how much freedom long-form TV writing provided, in terms of developing characters as well as exploring their backstories and subplots. In movies, due to their limited run-time by design, writers often struggle to keep the balance between developing the setting and the characters, and developing a progressive narrative. Long-form TV format, on the other hand, provides ample scope for establishing the universe in which the story is set. Take for instance Indian shows such as Mirzapur or Paatal Lok, which garnered widespread popularity. In shows like these, the central plot/conflict is quite run-of-the-mill, but the shows’ respective worlds, characters, and subplots kept the audiences hooked to their seats and want for more. And then one fine day, I decided to watch Mad Men, a period drama about charismatic advertising executives of Madison Avenue in Manhattan, New York. Mad Men is regarded as the epitome of the current Golden Age of Television, and I was awestruck as I watched it. Seven seasons, 92 episodes, 92 hours of total run-time. I watched all of it, as quickly as I could. The show, and particularly the fourth season, opened me up to the immense writing possibilities inherent in the long-form episodic format. I was as smitten with the world of the advertising professionals of Madison Avenue that the show created, as I was with its suave protagonist, Donald Draper.
The ensemble cast of Mad Men (2007-2015); Weiner Bros. Productions, Lionsgate Television, AMC Original Productions
Back in IIT Kharagpur where I was a graduate student, we used to have an inter-hall event called ‘Ad Design’ (hostels are called Halls of Residence there). We would be given a fictional product for which we were supposed to create an entire ad campaign. The deliverables included a brand name, a 60-second video ad, a print poster and a billboard ad. We would have to submit these within two weeks from the announcement of the problem statement. I looked forward to this particular event even though I wasn’t into inter-hostel competitions in general. Most of the participants from other halls were my friends and collaborators from the Film Club I was a part of, and this was a rare event where we got to compete with each other. We didn’t have a Madison Avenue, but we did have a quite happening street called Scholars’ Avenue, a circular road of just above 2 km in length (2.2 km, to be precise) along which the students’ gymkhana, the sports stadium, canteens, and most hostels were situated. For two whole weeks, one could find several mad men brainstorming in closed rooms, secretly shooting their video ads, or taking a walk down the Scholars’ Avenue to shake up their brain cells. As one would expect, some of the more passionate participants of the event also had the now-iconic Mad Men posters in their dorm rooms.
Scholars’ Avenue in IIT Kharagpur
The showrunner Matthew Weiner has often cited Alfred Hitchcock as a major influence on the visual style of the show. The title sequence, posters and other publicity materials of the show are acknowledgements to Saul Bass who created title sequences in his own unique style for some of the most iconic Hitchcock films such as North by Northwest, Vertigo and Psycho.
There are several hostels in the Kharagpur campus, some of them probably as old as the Republic of India and some as recent as our current Prime Minister’s ‘New India’. The older ones have built a rich legacy, ritualised traditions, experience, infrastructure, as well as budget. They competed in inter-hostel events with immense passion because podium finishes in individual events got them closer to the General Championship trophy, the highest glory that could be in a large but closely knit residential campus that Kharagpur was. It was almost like the boarders were more loyal to their halls of residence than they were to their country. Even Sundar Pichai who left the country to build an illustrious career in the US, visited his hostel room when he came to India after becoming Google CEO. In fact, when I briefly met Arvind Kejriwal, another IIT Kharagpur alumnus, the first question he asked me was which hall I belonged to.
I was a resident of a newer hostel. Rather, it was technically an old hostel but before students from my batch moved in, only research scholars used to live there, who hardly ever participated in any inter-hall competition. For all practical purposes, it was similar to a new hostel with no legacy, experience, infrastructure or budget. If I were to participate in the Ad Design event, assembling a team itself was going to be an uphill task. But we did participate and how.
The problem statement that year was to create a campaign for an intra-city goods delivery service similar to Dunzo or Swiggy Genie of the present day. We came up with the name ‘Tranzit’. I decided to take care of the video ad while for the logo, print ad and billboard designs, I reached out to a senior who was good at graphic designing. He designed our print and billboard ads which were the only presentable deliverables in our otherwise outrageous ad campaign.
Since shooting a video ad would have required actors, crew members, time as well as money, the resources we didn’t really have with us, we decided to game it. We downloaded sonographic footage from YouTube which showed a baby moving in the womb. Since we couldn’t find the right sound effect of a woman crying while delivering a baby, we settled for the sound of a scared woman crying because she was being chased by someone. We put it together and added the mechanized voice over at the end ‘Tranzit: For Effortless Delivery’. In essence, it was NSFW. Our chutzpah campaign was now ready to go but we also needed someone to present it to the judges among whom were one of the professors and an external expert.
The ad ‘Tranzit: For Effortless Delivery’
I convinced two of my close friends who were unprepared and had no idea what was going on, to present it. When we played the ad in front of the judges, it generated no reaction from them, not even shock, but the audience and members of other teams sitting at the back giggled. Even though we came second from last, our ad achieved local popularity when we put it out on YouTube later and that made the little effort we put, worth it. The podium finishes were deservingly taken by the usual suspects who had put in actual painstaking efforts and worked hard for the event and that was the end of my first brush with advertising.
The core theme in Mad Men is the cultural divisions witnessed by the American society of the 1960s. Apart from reflecting on racial, gender-based and sexuality-based discriminations prevalent in the time which highlight the role of identities, Mad Men also talks about the divide between dominant culture and counterculture in a turbulent society. On one side, there were the advertising executives of Madison Avenue, the flag bearers of consumerism. It was a period of great upheaval in US history. Sweeping social, cultural as well as political changes were taking place, which were to have an impact on the world later. The American economy was turning into a marketing-based from a production-based economy. The computing revolution was just on the horizon. Leaders such as Kennedy and MLK Jr. were assassinated, and civil unrest was in the air. Various quasi-religious cults and communes were popping up across all of America. A great number of youngsters were finding the East to be the new cool. On one side the establishment was busy creating a society of manufactured consent and living robots, on the other side were the rebels and proponents of free thinking. On the other side were the pot-consuming hipsters, beatniks and the commune dwellers who epitomised counterculture.
The pilot episode of Mad Men (2007-2015); Weiner Bros. Productions, Lionsgate Television, AMC Original Productions
Kharagpur too had such divisions. In fact, Kharagpur campus was probably one of the first places in India where American culture was an influence. The nerdy graduates from Brain Drain era who would move to the US for a better life would send the latest Playboy issues and Beatles records to their juniors in their alma mater. Over time, there were students who sought careers in investment banks and private equity firms, and there were the ones who were smoking pot and chasing a vague idea of a meaningful life. Soon after Indian markets were opened to multinationals, along with luxury products, India also imported counterculture and beatnik tendencies from the US. McDonalds came, but so did the rebellious music of the ‘60s. The rich elites might have been the first users of luxury products, but the alternative of it first came to India via college campuses. Surprisingly, the ones participating in the Ad Design event were closer to beatniks in nature than to consumerists. They were more likely to be a part of some subculture or the other (arthouse cinema, metal rock, graphic novels, dark web etc., to name a few) and they loathed most things mainstream. These quintessential creative hipsters would be the least likely buyers of the products they themselves were to help sell.
In the final scenes of the seven-season show, the protagonist Don Draper leaves behind his established and celebrated career in advertising, takes a road journey across America and ends up in a commune in California, presumably to have found true happiness. It’s worth mentioning here that in the very first episode of the entire show, Donald Draper, while making the famous ‘It’s toasted!’ pitch for Lucky Strikes cigarette brand, declares that advertising is only about one thing: happiness. But the show creator Matthew Weiner doesn’t end the series at the Californian commune. He ends it with the famous Coca Cola ‘Hilltop’ commercial, where we see a bunch of young people singing a song about an ideal world, similar to their recent ‘Open Happiness’ campaign. He ends it with a commentary on how consumerism appropriated cultures eventually and prevailed over counterculture.
The ‘Hilltop’ commercial featured in the series finale of Mad Men (2007-2015)
Like their predecessors, the current crop of beatniks in college campuses across India know it too. But that doesn’t stop them from dreaming of a better world and being idealistic in the few years they have got in college. It’s such a sweet irony that in college campuses across India, counterculture is also yet another tradition.
(Disclaimer: the writer is a part of the Incurato founding team)