Friday, July 30, 2010

Mad Men: My Two Cents

Earlier, while taking a look at SyFy Channel's first year in my July 20 posting on that matter, I said I'd get in my two cents on the admittedly off-topic subject of Mad Men.

I haven't actually seen all that much of the show (which at the time of this writing is settling into its fourth reason). In fact I made a point of ignoring it for quite a while.

I had my reasons.

Frankly, I was annoyed that AMC was adding yet another original program to its line-up. (What ever happened to the Classic Movies that were supposed to be running on American Classic Movies?)

I was annoyed by the idea of yet another TV show about an ad agency. Simply put, it seemed to me like just more of the media's solipsistic obsession with (or perhaps, utter ignorance of anything outside of) itself--most conspicuous in the abundance of TV shows and movies about people making TV shows and movies, for instance, but also extending to the abundance of TV shows and movies about people in the ad business. While I do not suggest that such works are inherently uninteresting, very few say anything worthwhile about a subject which is, if anything, overexposed, or use their premise as a starting point for an investigation of something more compelling.

I was annoyed by the near-unanimous critical praise, which always makes me skeptical, especially when it's being lavished on an original cable drama--as this has come to seem to me a good sign the thing being praised is wildly overrated. (That's certainly how I felt about The Sopranos, which the creator of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner, just happened to have worked on. The Saturday Night Live sketch which presented a commercial parodying the critics' breathless anticipation of the show's season two premiere was only too accurate in its take on the hype.)

I was especially annoyed that even as I kept hearing about it, it was hard to tell from the praise just what made it "the best show on television," or even just good watching (which is exactly the kind of thing that reinforces my skepticism). As far as I could tell, the characters smoked and drank in it. They engaged in sexual banter. They wore stylish retro clothes and sat in stylishly retro rooms, evocative of a time when hotel stays and airline flights seemed more glamorous.

Was that all, though? It didn't seem like much--and certainly, nothing we couldn't have got out of the old movies the channel was supposed to be running in the first place.

The pop cultural attention seemed all the more disproportionate given that not very many people were actually watching the show, so that any "impact" it had, regardless of quality, was presumably among the actual residents of TV land (other Hollywood people, critics and the like), rather than the broader viewing audience. Personally I've never regarded popularity as proof of quality, but that a show is actually seen seems a prerequisite to, for instance, declaring its protagonist (Don Draper) the most influential man in the world in 2009 (a declaration that instantly got a 700 comment-long thread going, one riddled with the words of the ridiculous, the disgusting, the just plain stupid and even the legally actionable).

Nonetheless, I eventually gave in and watched some of it. Most of the episodes I saw were from season two.

I saw that the show does indeed do a lot of the superficial stuff well. It is interesting to look at the period sans Technicolor and the old Production Code. But as for story, the show's focus in those season two episodes seemed to be on Don Draper's wife acting out in reaction to his philandering.

What's new here? I wondered. What's special? What merits all the gushing praise?

It all seemed familiar, run-of-the-mill stuff, and rather slow too. Not dull exactly--just slow. Contrary to what all the celebrants said, it didn't seem to be the "good" slow that sometimes (though not always) marks substantive storytelling--just the bad slow where everything's drawn out because NOTHING'S HAPPENING.

Yes, Draper's mysterious past means a bit of extra complexity. Of course, that could be the point--the dark things hidden under the glossy surface, the packaging of ourselves the way we package products to make ourselves acceptable to the world. (How many times an hour do career counselors tell those they advise to "sell themselves," apparently oblivious to the undertone of these words?) Still, I'm not sure the show geled for me as a treatment of this theme. At least where Draper's not actually being Draper is concerned, the story seems more like soap opera-style outlandishness than anything else, at odds with just about everything else in the drama--as if the writers themselves find their premise so limited that they have to go to extremes to find a compelling twist.

I caught some of season three as well, which seemed like more of the same. The episodes had a bit more zip, but they weren't much more substantial. The storyline about a British takeover of the firm in particular annoyed me with its anachronism (especially given the endless praise for the show's meticulous recreation of the past). The show is set in 1963 after all, and foreign direct investment in the U.S. was comparatively infinitesimal, that sort of multinational corporate activity virtually an American monopoly at the time. Additionally, FDI in the tertiary, service sector was a much smaller share of the whole back then than it is today. Indeed, assuming the Leo Burnett agency really is one of the show's inspirations, it's worth noting that the company didn't become a foreign property until the turn of the twenty-first century. So it really seems like a matter of reading today into the past, and no, I don't buy the New Historicist line that that's the only thing we ever do.

Again, it occurred to me that the writers were having trouble coming up with ideas.

Still, Mark Greif's take on the show in the London Review of Books has since struck me as more compelling, and certainly more substantive, than any of the others I've come across (though admittedly Amanda Marcotte's more favorable piece for The American Prospect contained some interesting ideas).

As Greif puts it, the show's all about "Now We Know Better," with a veneer of "Doesn’t That Look Good"--which is to say less-than-perfectly-honest self-congratulation about how much more enlightened, how much healthier and less bigoted we are now than fifty years ago, combined with a guilty pleasure in how much fun that yesteryear was for members of the more privileged groups. ("The drinking, the cigarettes, the opportunity to slap your children!" as Greif put it. Admittedly, they're good for a laugh every once in a while, like the roomful of smoking, coughing tobacco executives in the series premiere.)

Of course, this too is common enough stuff. Most history's self-congratulatory, after all; it's the more evenhanded stuff, the more critical stuff that's the exception. And this certainly carries over to historical fiction, which tends to rely on a touch of "Doesn't That Look Good" anyway, especially when examining past eras easily deplored for their mores--which I suppose is just about all of them. The particular appeal of Mad Men may be the degree to which it plays up that combo, and its setting them in a time and place much nearer to our own, much more familiar, and more directly relevant (it's the 1960s rather than the Regency era or ancient Rome, for instance, that living people still remember and which remain meaning-laden reference points in our culture wars) in a sleek package. This was then parlayed, through outstanding publicity, into a bandwagon feedback loop which has people saying this is the best show on TV because people are saying it's the best show on TV.

That sounds to me like exactly the kind of thing this advertising-themed show could explore, but like a good many other things, probably won't.

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