February 16, 2011
The Mad Men Account (Daniel Mendelsohn, 2/24/11, NY Review of Books)
I am dwelling on the deeper, almost irrational reasons for the series’s appeal—to which I shall return later, and to which I am not at all immune, having been a child in the 1960s—because after watching all fifty-two episodes of Mad Men, I find little else to justify it. We are currently living in a new golden age of television, a medium that has been liberated by cable broadcasting to explore both fantasy and reality with greater frankness and originality than ever before: as witness shows as different as the now-iconic crime dramas The Sopranos and The Wire, with their darkly glinting, almost Aeschylean moral textures; the philosophically provocative, unexpectedly moving sci-fi hit Battlestar Galactica, a kind of futuristic retelling of the Aeneid; and the perennially underappreciated small-town drama Friday Night Lights, which offers, among other things, the finest representation of middle-class marriage in popular culture of which I’m aware.
With these standouts (and there are many more), Mad Men shares virtually no significant qualities except its design. The writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the acting is, almost without exception, bland and sometimes amateurish.
Worst of all—in a drama with aspirations to treating social and historical “issues”—the show is melodramatic rather than dramatic. By this I mean that it proceeds, for the most part, like a soap opera, serially (and often unbelievably) generating, and then resolving, successive personal crises (adulteries, abortions, premarital pregnancies, interracial affairs, alcoholism and drug addiction, etc.), rather than exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena it regards with such fascination: sexism, misogyny, social hypocrisy, racism, the counterculture, and so forth.
That a soap opera decked out in high-end clothes (and concepts) should have received so much acclaim and is taken so seriously reminds you that fads depend as much on the willingness of the public to believe as on the cleverness of the people who invent them; as with many fads that take the form of infatuations with certain moments in the past, the Mad Men craze tells us far more about today than it does about yesterday. But just what in the world of the show do we want to possess? The clothes and furniture? The wicked behavior? The unpunished crassness? To my mind, it’s something else entirely, something unexpected and, in a way, almost touching. [...]
As I watched the first season, the characters and their milieu were so unrelentingly repellent that I kept wondering whether the writers had been trying, unsuccessfully, for a kind of camp—for a tartly tongue-in-cheek send-up of Sixties attitudes. (I found myself wishing that the creators of Glee had gotten a stab at this material.) But the creators of Mad Men are in deadly earnest. It’s as if these forty- and thirty-somethings can’t quite believe how bad people were back then, and can’t resist the impulse to keep showing you.
This impulse might be worth indulging (briefly), but the problem with Mad Men is that it suffers from a hypocrisy of its own. As the camera glides over Joan’s gigantic bust and hourglass hips, as it languorously follows the swirls of cigarette smoke toward the ceiling, as the clinking of ice in the glass of someone’s midday Canadian Club is lovingly enhanced, you can’t help thinking that the creators of this show are indulging in a kind of dramatic having your cake and eating it, too: even as it invites us to be shocked by what it’s showing us (a scene people love to talk about is one in which a hugely pregnant Betty lights up a cigarette in a car), it keeps eroticizing what it’s showing us, too. For a drama (or book, or whatever) to invite an audience to feel superior to a less enlightened era even as it teases the regressive urges behind the behaviors associated with that era strikes me as the worst possible offense that can be committed in a creative work set in the past: it’s simultaneously contemptuous and pandering. Here, it cripples the show’s ability to tell us anything of real substance about the world it depicts.
It has the MacBeth problem--there is no drama in bad stuff happening to unlikable people. Posted by Orrin Judd at February 16, 2011 5:36 AM