Daniel Mendlesohn offered an incisive piece at the New York Review of Books, in which he found both its appeal to its audience, and its weakness as art, in its extreme superficiality. While
a drama with aspirations to treating social and historical “issues” . . . the show is melodramatic rather than dramatic . . . serially (and often unbelievably) generating, and then resolving, successive personal crises . . . 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.Over at New Republic, Marc Tracy's later article extends this idea, writing that
Much of the show’s meaning is ostensibly conveyed through significant glances and overwrought tableaux—women going down in an elevator together, Sally Draper scowling—that cannot possibly do the heavy work of Saying Something.Tracy judges all this as the best
contemporary example . . . of what Dwight Macdonald called 'midcult'—unexceptional art whose highbrow trappings convince consumers they are putting real cultural work into consuming it. It’s worse than something that both looks, and is, trifling. It’s empty calories that leave you feeling full.Personally I don't care much for Macdonald, or for the labeling of things "midcult" or middlebrow. Historically it has not been a really meaningful concept, this problematic territory only opened up in the twentieth century by the Modernists putting a large part of culture out of reach of even the well-educated by equating "art" with material requiring the reader, viewer, listener to do a very great deal of "cultural work"--an idea that has, by fostering a worship of obscurity and obscurantism as the criterion of artistic accomplishment, and the idea that anything else must be just mass-marketed trash, deeply warped our cultural life.
Still, this is one case where the idea fits. The accent on surface, the evocation of serious subject matter without seriously doing anything with it, the stress on Show-don't-tell technique over content (lots of subtext, which is not really saying anything at all), is all tediously postmodernist--and its easy, nearly unquestioning embrace has been absolutely what Tracy describes. And while Mad Men may have come to an end, there is for the time being little sign of this attitude giving way to a greater appreciation of greater substance.
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