Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Now We Know Better

Mark Greif aims to take down Mad Men:

Mad Men is an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better. We watch and know better about male chauvinism, homophobia, anti-semitism, workplace harassment, housewives’ depression, nutrition and smoking. We wait for the show’s advertising men or their secretaries and wives to make another gaffe for us to snigger over. ‘Have we ever hired any Jews?’ – ‘Not on my watch.’ ‘Try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology; it looks complicated, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.’ It’s only a short further wait until a pregnant mother inhales a tumbler of whisky and lights up a Chesterfield; or a heart attack victim complains that he can’t understand what happened: ‘All these years I thought it would be the ulcer. Did everything they told me. Drank the cream, ate the butter. And I get hit by a coronary.’ We’re meant to save a little snort, too, for the ad agency’s closeted gay art director as he dismisses psychological research: ‘We’re supposed to believe that people are living one way, and secretly thinking the exact opposite? . . . Ridiculous!’ – a line delivered with a limp-wristed wave. Mad Men is currently said to be the best and ‘smartest’ show on American TV. We’re doomed.
I think Greif is right to skewer these little winks to the audience, almost all of which appear in the show's pilot. The first episode of Mad Men is inspired, but astonishingly uncertain of what the show wants to be: comedy or drama, period piece or character study, indulgent or critical, idolizing or satirizing. There are odd act breaks with musical cues, as if Lucky Strike was about to come on as the show's sponsor instead of cutting to commercial. I don't think the network or its creator quite knew what to do with it. It's a little like watching the pilot of Deadwood, which almost unravels its latent genius because of its bad lighting and obviously fake mustaches.

Mad Men, like Deadwood, takes an episode or two to figure out what kind of show it can be, which parts work and which parts don't. Over the course of the first season, the writing and directing get tighter, and both the character and period studies become more focused. The stereotypes get unraveled, which even Greif confesses:
The only really moving parts of Mad Men, curiously, have to do with the further reaches of its most annoying feature: its knowingness about how everything right today was wrong back then, which could be expected to become most sanctimonious when it addresses sexual orientation. (The show barely considers race, perhaps because one can hardly say that there everything has turned out ‘all right’ in America over fifty years.) Every so often we get to see a gay or lesbian character begin to act on impulse, rather than suffering in silence or mouldering in confusion. The art director, Salvatore, meets a male client from out of town who takes him to drinks, then dinner, then offers to show him the darkened view of Central Park from his hotel room. The office sexpot, Joan Holloway, hears her old roommate confess a deep, non-Platonic love as they stand before a mirror in Joan’s bedroom: ‘Think of me as a boy,’ the woman begs. The roommate is rebuffed. The art director, too, goes away, but not before cueing us in to the fact that, though closeted, he is not utterly unaware: ‘I have thought about it. I know what I want. I know what I want to do – and that is nothing.’ ‘What are you afraid of?’ his suitor asks. Salvatore: ‘Are you joking?’ What had been condescending becomes, momentarily, tragic. Then another precisely dated song is played, and the credits roll, and we are back by the next episode to the historical-dramatic irony which is the most the show can treat us to and, finally, not enough.
I would definitely agree with Greif that there aren't enough moments in Mad Men like that, but most of what passes for good television doesn't get anywhere close to that. It seems odd to fault a show (as The Sopranos and The Wire continually were) for failing to consistently achieve its best moments.

The biggest problem of The Wire was its absence of psychological realism. For every character who was a recognizably conflicted human being, like Bubs or D'Angelo, you had a cardboard cutout, including most of the stars and nearly all of the women. The Wire had the violence and the sex and the social criticism of The Sopranos, but it generally left serious questions about character motivations outside the door.

Mad Men is what's left of The Sopranos when you cut The Wire away: it's all shadowy intimations, frayed relationships, and overcompensated trauma. There are serious problems with the conceit that we can understand a decade by watching our main character screw his way into its multiple worlds (suburbia, bohemia, Jewish department storia). But I think it does try to put some psychological depth behind those stereotypes, to understand why those men and women acted the way they did, by showing what they wanted and especially what they were afraid of. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, yes, now we know better than they did, because they are what we know.

If you want to take down Mad Men, you can't just knock off the low-hanging fruit, the jokes that don't quite work or the characters that clearly do objectionable things. You have to fiercely attack its strongest moments and show that there's something profoundly mistaken about them. With the end of The Wire and The Sopranos, Mad Men is king of cats.

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