PTSD TV.Posted: February 14, 2009
Trust Me (TNT Tuesday nights, repeated through the week) is my favorite show, but that’s not surprising, since it’s about me.
Written by two ex-Leo Burnett advertising agency creatives, the show, which is about two Leo Burnetty creatives, gives me (an ex-Leo Burnett creative) a chance to relive my life there, and to spend time again through the show’s characters with many of the real-life characters I knew. I feel safe in saying the show will have a devoted following among about five thousand people. Will anyone who is not an advertising creative find the show equally compelling? I have no idea, but if you don’t happen to be an ex-Leo Burnett creative, but are looking for a show that pretty well captures what it’s like to work at a modern big-time ad agency, trust me, Trust Me is it.
I have a friend (also an ex-Leo Burnett creative) who can’t watch the show because it gives him bad dreams. I understand this. Advertising (if you do it right) is a business of manic highs and crushing, murderous lows. Stress is what both moodstates have in common. So reliving one’s good old days in advertising is a little like reliving one’s good old days in Vietnam. Oh please, I hear you saying, advertising isn’t brain surgery. You’re right. It’s harder. Brain surgeons, to relax before an operation, tell themselves, “Hey, it’s not advertising.”
In advertising, you are never as good as the thing you did just before the thing you did last — only as good as the thing you did last, and then only for five minutes. Psychological platitudes like “they’re not rejecting you, they’re rejecting the work” are meaningless, because the work is you — brought up from your innards in an attempt to break through to people as they’ve never been broken through to before. Emotional trauma, all-consuming jealousies, fear of death are all in a day’s work. The thick-skinned would survive it well, but the thick-skinned tend not be the sort who make ads so brilliant they’re unlike any the world has ever seen. Now as in any profession, it’s possible to do respectable, journeyman work and go home at the end of the day with not a thought in your pretty little head, but that’s not the work a Leo Burnett is asking you to do. So, you dig. But you mine your soul for emotional truths inside a corporate structure with conflicting demands. Are you working for yourself, are you working for your client, or are you working for your boss? Yes.
Doctors and lawyers must also be brilliant, and clearly (unlike ad people) hold people’s lives in their hands — okay, let’s give them that — but are they asked to reinvent the wheel every time, as advertising creatives must do? Firemen have to storm into burning buildings (which, all right, I’ll grudgingly admit, is harder than advertising), but do they have to storm into a burning building a whole new way for no reason other than that the other way has “been done”? Most professions have precedent and a canon of best-practices to rely on. Ad folks go it alone every time. By definition, if they rely on precedent, they are creating a product that is not fresh enough to set the world on its ear.
If there’s something missing from the show so far, it’s that it hasn’t portrayed the manically exhilarating upside of a life in advertising as much — the orgasmic pleasure of a music session that goes great, or a multimillion dollar film shot that captures everything you dreamed of, or what a blessing it is to go to work with smart, funny people every day. But these, I guess, are not the stuff of drama, and would just make the audience jealous. The show’s writer/creators, Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny, are doing a bangup job of capturing the downside. After watching the first true-as-far-as-they-go episodes, I’m convinced they are using the show to work through their own personal recovery from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Cleverly, Baldwin and Coveny have found a way to recover from Advertising PTSD so as to amuse and entertain, and in the process have conquered a whole new, and equally challenging, art form. I hate them. Hats off.