Getting Mad

Since returning to America I have participated in many quintessentially American activities such as: Voting! Eating cheeseburgers and macaroni and cheese and beef stew and apple pie! Watching Mad Men! Eating apple pie while watching Mad Men!

As usual I am very late to the party of a thing that people have been making the worst kind of common-denominator water-cooler conversation about for a year already. “I like this thing so much, do you also like it?” “Yes, I do. This thing is good.” “I especially like this aspect of the thing.” “I also like that aspect!” A year into the universally lauded cultural artifact’s life cycle, though, people become bored of just all mutually liking the thing and they start to read and write ‘Here’s Why You Don’t (or At Least Shouldn’t) Really Like [Thing X]‘ type pieces.  That is my cue to notice belatedly that the thing exists and weigh in on it long after everyone and their Mom has already formed an ironclad opinion.  It’s sort of like the Undulating Curve of Shifting Expectations except it’s all about me.

Anyway so my friend Mark just wrote a very good one of those ‘Here’s Why …” pieces about Mad Men.  As I continue to watch the series — I’m watching it in reverse order, stupidly — I’m finding that I disagree with a few of his arguments, though not with his central critique of the show, which is that it works by evoking undeserved self-congratulation: “Mad Men is an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better.”  And: “Beneath the Now We Know Better is a whiff of Doesn’t That Look Good. The drinking, the cigarettes, the opportunity to slap your children!”  Well, yes!  It doesn’t just look Good, it looks Unspeakably Gorgeous and Ideal.  The difference between me and Mark, at least in terms of our critical responses, is that I can know that something is pleasing me for all the wrong  reasons and continue to be pleased by it, but he can’t.   Maybe this means that I am a less ethical human being than Mark.  Oh well. At least I can still enjoy TV.

So we agree that Mad Men’s Captain Obvious winks in the direction of stuff its audience was born being smarter than its characters about are distracting and annoying.  But the thing for me is that even though I know better — EVEN better — than to be affected by those winks, I still can’t resist the knowing chuckle, the wincing “really?” moment of recognition, even as I’m annoyed.  And also I disagree with Mark that the characters are “a toybox of tin stereotypes.”   True, their personae are as stylized as the sets and costumes they inhabit, but they’re also just as specific, just as detailed.  I think it’s facile to read Betty as merely another cardboardy iteration of the “Stifled Wife” type.  I think Betty — the imaginary person Betty, not January Jones who plays Betty — knows she’s acting out a Stifled Wife role and so very pointedly says and does the things a Stifled Wife does,  and that’s why even her ‘out-of-control’ mode — which, to be fair, we don’t really get to see til Season 2 — seems so stilted and stagey.  I think this show is actually about what it was like to live in an era when social interaction was a lot more scripted and proscribed, and that its real theme is the ways people constructed their identities in that context.  I wasn’t there, but I think probably people in the early 60s did walk around very theatrically trying to enact these early-60s archetypes, the same way you will occasionally meet someone in 2008 who is clearly putting a lot of effort into being, say, That Fabulously Gay Guy or That Funny Jewish Literary Agent or That Brooding Bookish Brooklyn Damsel.  And so the fun of the show, besides the pleasure of patting yourself on the back for knowing about lung cancer and cholesterol and not littering, is the pleasure of watching people’s human — or really animal — impulses seep through the seams of their starched and tailored ’selves.’

And I can understand how you wouldn’t be able to see this if, like Mark, you find Don Draper unconvincing as a ’social savant.’   Actually, Mark finds Don, as played by Jon Hamm, unconvincing in general: “Either he is playing the hero as a schlub in deference to a 21st-century idea of masculinity as fundamentally hollow and sham, or he’s completely underequipped to convey male menace.The most necessary thing that he can’t do is to justify viscerally why strong women keep falling for him, or why the competitive males in his office accept him as an Alpha.”

Mark’s viscera may fail to respond to Don/Jon, but then, Mark’s viscera, not to put too fine a point on it, are heterosexual dude viscera.    I myself have a vagina and consequently I have never once questioned Don’s appeal or Alphaness.   His emotional unavailability!  His mysteriousness that might not even conceal anything interesting! These man-attributes are just as hackneyed as the tactics of The Game, and just as diabolically effective.  Also dude is just hot.  True, Mark, he’s no Tony Soprano — he is much, much hotter than Tony Soprano.  Jon Hamm doesn’t have to convince us, as James Gandolfini did, that his character exudes power and scary sated-animal charisma and so consequently gets to eff secretaries.  You just kind of look at him and know.

8 comments to Getting Mad

  • The scene of picnic littering was so spooky and beautiful. Nothing but nothing can make me not love that show.

  • tommy wilhelm

    I think this should be known as “playing the penis card.” Or, possibly addressing “the penis in the room.”

  • Oh man, your vagina cracks me up.

  • scooper

    i keep trying to get a boner for draper but it just isn’t happening.

  • Adman

    God I hate that show. Everyone who works at my ad agency is nuts about it. I swear they all sit in front of their TVs and jerk off to what they imagine is a reflection of their own coolness. Then they come into work the next day. “Dude, did you see Mad Men? I came so hard when he sold the Kodak guys on the new name for the projector thingy.”

  • ALec

    I think the show’s central premise is a lot more interesting than ‘Now We Know Better’-it seems to be that it sets up the fifties as both endlessly unfamiliar (the basic rhythm of the show is that an expectation is set up and then violated-after guy slaps other guy’s son, the father tells off his son rather than the guy who clocked him, etc.) and closely linked to the present (we’re witnessing the gestation of an industry that has made capitalist hegemony damn-near uncontestable all ’round the world). You CAN watch that and just feel smug, but I don’t think the show particularly encourages you to.

    But what I REALLY don’t get about the LRB article is why The Sopranos gets a free pass, morally speaking. I don’t know of any show that gives more opportunity (if the viewer so desires) to blend censoriousness withvicariously sharing the excitement of life as a charismatic racist misogynistic asshole. The Sopranos DEFINITELY plays with ‘We Know Better’ on the surface (OK, it isn’t set in the ’50s, but its race- and sex-politics definitely are) with a strong undercurrent of ‘Doesn’t That Look Good’.

    The Sopranos is a better show (though ‘Not as good as the Sopranos’ isn’t the most damning of critiques) but that’s different from being morally superior.

  • John

    Your first paragraph sounded like it was from Fox in Socks.

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