The Dissenter’s Notebook: On Mad Men

Not the Only Reason I Watch Mad Men. Honest.

Due to a combination of inattentiveness and stubborn ignorance, I tend to fall behind the curve of the zeitgeist. Therefore it was only in the last few months that I finally got around to watching the first three seasons of Mad Men [the fourth not being released on DVD until March 29]. And, for the most part, I enjoy it as a light and fluffy distraction, and as an opportunity to allow Christina Hendricks to make my jaw fall open [this whole article serving as an excuse to post the photo at right].

But what I don’t get is the sort of slobbering devotion the show inspires in viewers and critics.  Yes, the show has impeccable set design and costuming, there’s occasionally an insight into the psychology of advertising and it’s always fun to look down one’s nose at the foolish assumptions of the previous generation, but so much of what passes for character development is a spit-shined presentation of daytime soap opera. I will acknowledge that by the last couple of episodes in the second season the show’s cylinders seemed to be firing for me, and continued to do so for a solid 70 per cent of the third season.  But that’s just not acceptable, under the FF13 Clause.

The FF13 Clause: The thirteenth installment of renowned and beloved role-playing franchise Final Fantasy fell under heavy criticism for removing what made the series so beloved to begin with: open world exploration, replacing it instead with hyperlinear progression, placing the first half of the game in what is essentially one long hallway.  FF13 apologists argue that after escaping the long hallway after approximately 20 hours of gameplay, the player does get a beautiful open world to explore, and that’s when the game gets sort of good, you just have to stick with it. Unacceptable.  The game shouldn’t ‘get good after 20 hours,’ the game should have been good from the outset.  Thus, the creation of the FF13 Clause, negating the celebration of whole works for excellence in their later movements.

If I’d been watching Mad Men as it aired weekly on AMC, instead of daily doubleheaders through the magic of DVD, I doubt the show would have kept me interested.  People I know have contested this argument by pointing out that the first season of The Wire started painfully slow, but that doesn’t matter because The Wire is the most perfect show ever committed to film.  See? Stubborn ignorance!

As it turns out, while I was trying to figure out how to express my mixed feelings about the show, Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Review of Books has set the Twitterwebs a flutter by saying it better than I ever could.

It’s a meaty read, but Mendelsohn’s main point of contention is the acclaim lauded on Mad Men when other shows like The Wire, Battelstar Galactica and Friday Night Lights get relegated to ‘cult’ status:

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.

The main issue for me, I think, is that Mad Men is all form over substance.  Mendelsohn mentions an opportunity the show missed that I also noticed during my marathon viewings:  Copywriter Paul Kinsey’s black girlfriend, and his trip to Mississippi to protest for civil rights.  For a show that purports to say something meaningful about a moment of sweeping social change in American history [at least according to what the critics would argue], Kinsey’s story goes completely undocumented. He leaves, and we as viewers never see him again until he comes back a few episodes later, praising the experience, a flippant comment on his girlfriend dumping him used to sweep her out of the storyline, never seen again.

And this is the problem I have with Mad Men, it never seems to fulfill on the promise it’s trying to make with the viewer:  events of historical importance might pass through the various betrayals and deceptions at Sterling-Cooper, but they never seem to greatly impact the lives of the characters.  The diegesis the characters inhabit is so tightly wrapped to themselves and their careers, even Kennedy’s assassination will be remembered as much for ruining Margaret Sterling’s nuptials as much as killing America’s age of innocence.

And this would be fine in and of itself if it wasn’t for the metric tonne of acclaim that gets heaped on the show at the start of every season.  I’ve had numerous conversations about the show that start with me asking, ‘I grant it’s a good show, but explain to me why it’s a capital-G, Great show.‘  I’ve yet to hear an answer to convert me to that viewpoint.  I imagine I’ll get over it by adjusting my attitude towards the series, and appreciating it for the fun, soapy, melodramatic show it is, singing my Pete Campbell song whenever he comes onscreen and letting its delusions of cultural importance roll down my back.

Mendelsohn has lots more to say about the show, including how  it eroticizes what it invites you to look down on, as well as the eerily eloquent children that populate the program, and who they’re standing in for, it’s a worthy read.

Not like any of these criticisms are anything that can’t be solved by watching Joan Holloway walk across my screen.

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