Discover more from IPAs and Cupcakes: Alisa's Pop Culture Lair
We're in an Age of Niche Pop Culture
"The Diplomat", "Mad Men" and Getting People to Watch the Shows You Like
When was the last time you organically watched the same show as someone, without having to tell them to?
I watched The Diplomat on Netflix because my brother told me to, then I went around telling other people to watch it.
Because that’s how television works nowadays! There’s such a glut of content – very little of it any good – and we’re all caught in our little echo chambers of Twitter and niche recommendations for what algorithms think we might enjoy. Nothing is worth word of mouth anymore. (Same brother suggested Shrinking, which I … oof.)
Not to mention, it’s been a good minute since I was impressed by Netflix content. The shows should be movies and the movies should be … edited. Like, MAJORLY EDITED. The concept is there, but the script is in workshop mode and the beats don’t hit.
Which is why I was so pleasantly surprised by The Diplomat!
It’s fun, it’s snappy, and the muzh gets his geopolitical fix. And Rufus Sewell? Who plays the husband Hal? Is literally perfect in this role and I can’t imagine anyone else playing him? (There are six women other than Keri Russell who could play Kate, but she does a great job with the whole no-makeup/no-blowout/showing-only-measured emotion thing.)
Political shows are not really my jam. I feel cheap when a show eschews the politics to focus on the characters’ personal lives (see: Scandal), versus overwhelmed when a show can only focus on the politics and not the characters’ personal lives (see: Veep).
I’d say The Diplomat reminds me most of that highest echelon of modern television occupied almost solely by The Good Wife: enough politics to keep the plot engine running, but it’s really about the relationship between a highly capable professional woman and the other highly capable professionals around her, who may or may not be putting American democracy at risk with their antics.
The Diplomat writers made a show about politics that caters to people who know nothing about politics. This in itself is not a chidush.
What is VERY VERY COOL to me is that they made it accessible without dumbing anything down, which is, frankly, shocking.
Compare that to Mad Men:
Watching MM in 2011 was an exercise in restraint. I knew I was smart enough to catch most of it, but lived in fear of missing any of it.
I’m as elitist as the next English major. But the way Mad Men refused to even give a proper “Previously, on …” to catch up viewers in A WEEKLY SHOW, before binge watching was the norm, was SO superior and smug.
There were storylines that picked up episodes – even seasons later – and you were just supposed to remember the connection. A meaningful glance was a terrible thing because more often than not, YOU DID NOT KNOW WHY MEANINGFUL GLANCE. WHY?? WHY MEANINGFUL GLANCE???
It was an extraordinary show, one that influenced so many other shows, blatantly or otherwise. My own writing was probably influenced by Mad Men. But it was maddening to know how much I was missing.
The Diplomat, on the other hand, has a fair share of exposition to get through. It has to explain political climates and relationships that both do and don’t exist in the real world. It accomplishes this savvily, making the main characters work in different departments, constantly having different levels of information.
The other smart thing it does is to have Kate- and Hal’s relationship be infused with in-jokes they have to explain to their co-workers. They laugh about the deputy foreign minister of Iran (Bijan Daneshmand) having a bad stomach, because it proves his identity.
But it goes beyond exposition – when Kate requests a banana bag, also known as the post-hangover IV favored by partying med students and Bachelor Nation alumni, Hal jokes that one of the Brits is going to show up with a banana. And at the end of the scene, that’s what happens. So everyone, including people who have never heard the term “banana bag” (me), can be in on the joke.
But Think Of The Future
Obviously, The Diplomat and Mad Men are two very different kinds of shows.
And despite my effusion, I don’t know that we’ll be talking about The Diplomat in ten years, the way we still talk about Mad Men now. That might be because of the current landscape (wasteland?) in the land of TV, which results in approximately 7 billion less people watched The Diplomat than Mad Men in its heyday.
But will we ever talk about a show the way we talked about Mad Men again?
I’ve heard tell that Game of Thrones – which, unfortunately, botched that kitty when its last season became a punchline, so no, we won’t be referring back to it as a prime example of storytelling unless it gets some kind of Gen Z renaissance in a decade – was the last true unifying moment in American culture before the streaming wars exploded.
With Mad Men, we identified the care and precision that went into its making and rewarded it with obsession. Of the shows currently on air, Yellowjackets is getting a similar treatment, but how many people actually subscribe to Showtime?
Will that kind of post-show discussion every happen again outside of niche subreddits?
There was something lovely about a cultural experience everyone could see and dissect at their own level of comfort. You could have watched Mad Men the way I did, determined to pave over meaningful glances with beautiful production values and hoping everything would make some kind of sense (it did, roughly 70% of the time). Or you could have been a megafan and taken notes to follow all the many threads throughout the seasons to reach a higher appreciation.
I’m hoping we’re in a pendulum swing right now. That with the streaming providers slowing down on original content production, we’ll start seeing less quantity and more quality. The kind of quality that inspires MLM-levels of word of mouth, the kind that makes you want the people around you to see the same show as you so that you can see it through different perspectives and talk about it with different minds.
I hope we get something like that again. Until then, enjoy some brain candy with The Diplomat – whether or not you’re still following the war in Ukraine.