Television is a vast wonderland. It can used as a way into so many aspects of the culture.
There's this kind of TV and that kind of TV. Reality TV and scripted TV. Conventional comedies and unique comedies. In the United States and Canada, shows are made that are so generic they can be seen and understood anywhere in the world. Trends come and trends go.
One of the abiding truths, though, is that there are shows for a general audience and shows for grown-ups. Mad Men, returning next month, is emphatically a show for grown-ups. Its themes of adult longing and melancholy, its treatment of workplace life, put it outside the full grasp of young people.
Sometimes, as with Mad Men, there's a peculiar attempt, in media coverage, to diminish the maturity of the content by approaching the show as a soap opera. Will Don fall in love with Peggy? Nonsense like that. Ooooh, what's gonna happen next?
At the same time, sweeping assumptions are made about what actually constitutes a grown-up. What can a teenager understand? Is a twentysomething too young to savour the disconsolate brooding of Mad Men characters? So, here's a question – what if some people never grow up to have what's usually defined as adult responsibilities and lives?
That question is at the forefront of the enthralling documentary Neverbloomers: The Search for Grownuphood (CBC documentary channel, 8 p.m.), a new and vivid look at those people, especially in their 40s, who feel they haven't achieved adulthood as they understood it would be. There are early bloomers, late bloomers and, as the doc suggests, there are those who never bloom.
One of those is the filmmaker, Sharon Hyman. Neverbloomers opens with her own memories of longing to be grown-up and have adult experiences. Interestingly, she cites such TV shows as Charlie's Angels and Love: American Style. Those shows helped forge her childhood longing to grow out of childhood.
"I couldn't wait for my grown-up life to begin," Hyman says. But she also declares that, at 40, she feels that her inner child is more defining of her life than her adulthood. And she is puzzled by the fact that she always wanted to be grown-up: "I remember when I was in kindergarten. I found everybody very immature."
Thus, Neverbloomers is a search for "grown-uphood" and a series of discussions with her friends who also feel they haven't bloomed into adulthood. One of her friends says, "My kids kinda came in to my life and got absorbed into my life. I didn't change my life for my kids and I think, in that way, I still feel like I'm 16 years old."
Hyman makes documentaries that are far from conventional. She takes her time ( Neverbloomers took several years and it's a follow-up to her wonderful short film Worried, about life's little agonies) and the truths that emerge come forth accidentally. There's no thesis or point to be proven, just an exploration that produces epiphanies in asides or a casual remark.
Here, it's all about the subtle contrast between the ideas and notions of her friends and those hard truths expressed by older members of her family. There's an old friend, a guy who was a punk rocker and now holds an MBA and wears a suit to work in a business environment. He talks about the change coming when a) he didn't want his mom supporting him financially and b) he realized how absurd he looked in his punk get-up.
Along comes an aunt of Hyman's who heaps scorn on people who think they are adults because they have a job and a family. The aunt is scathing about women in their 50s who coddle husbands and kids but have no life if their own. The former punk wonders if he's now a grown-up. The aunt suggests some types of adulthood are overrated.
Neverbloomers is gloriously eccentric and a tonic in the context of so much hand-wringing in the culture today about kids who decline to conform to a parent's notion of adult responsibility. We are inundated with tales of woe about Generation Y, or whatever adult slackers are being called these days.
"Adulthood seems to be a construct. And nobody knows what it means any more," Hyman says in the doc at one point. She uses footage from TV shows and movies from the 1960s and 1970s to illustrate how a construct was created. And her friends and family point out that, really, it's all baloney.
There's a poignancy to it, too. So many people struggling to determine if they can actually be called grown-up. And yet knowing that they exist in a world where old ideals about work, family and relationships no longer have authenticity.
Now, me, I still think you need to be a grown-up to get Mad Men. You also need to be a grown-up to grasp the subtleties of Smash (NBC, CTV, 10 p.m.), because it's about showbiz seen through eyes that are at once weary and hopeful. You need to have experienced loss and disappointment to savour it.
It's just that the definition of grown-up has changed. It is no longer so easily defined by career and family. As Neverbloomers illustrates with wit and originality, the traditional definition of adulthood is just a childish construct.
All times Eastern. Check local listings.