Sunday, March 25, 2012

Not So Mad About Mad Men

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

As the fifth season of Mad Men begins tonight after a somewhat lengthy hiatus, there has been almost unanimous anticipation. Therefore we thought it would be in keeping with the spirit of Critics at Large to reprint here some of the more skeptical views of both Kevin Courrier and David Churchill on the previous season of Mad Men.

Tabula Rasa: The Return of Mad Men

I wish I could share the enthusiasm expressed by many who have been eagerly awaiting the return of the hit series Mad Men, whose fourth season premieres tonight on AMC. But I’m not sure what there is to be so enthusiastic about except the show’s tantalizing ambitions, ambitions that have never travelled far from the shallow end of the pool.

Mad Men is set in the 1960s and examines the lives of the advertising men who work on Madison Avenue in New York City at the firm Sterling Cooper. Created by former Sopranos’ writer Matthew Weiner in 2007, Mad Men does have a clever premise; creative ad men selling us dreams of an American life they themselves can’t possibly live. The main character, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the creative director at the firm, isn’t even who he claims to be. He’s a con artist living out his own fantasy while selling products to others. Placing a con artist at the center of a story of self-made men is definitely appetizing. It draws significantly on the corruption of the American ideal where you can make of yourself anything you wish. In doing so, Mad Men tries to examine the changing mores of American middle-class culture from the post-War comforts of suburbia to the social upheavals of the sixties. But I’m afraid that the show ultimately fails to live up to its promise. Rather than capture an era in turmoil, or characters at crossroads between what they sell and who they are, Mad Men fixates itself on the details of the period, the minutiae of sixties kitsch, to compensate for its lack of dramatic coherence. Rather than go deeply into the characters behind the facade, the show chooses to illuminate the facade. In short, I think Mad Men is itself a slick bit of advertising.

When the show first debuted in July 2007, I was initially excited by the set up including the program’s fixation on the drinking, cigarette smoking, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism because it was a significant part of the American culture of that time. I was also old enough to remember visiting my mother who was a secretary at an affiliate of the CTV Television Network. The people of Mad Men to a degree occupied portions of my memory about the ambience of a media environment where ideas and ambition commingled in a haze of smoke, booze and flirtations. I took the rigorous attention to details in Season One to be merely a set-up for the payoffs to follow in subsequent years. But something truly went wrong between the first two seasons.

My guess is it was Mad Men’s instant success with viewers and critics. By seizing on a clever idea, Mad Men was suddenly acclaimed as this great drama to stand alongside Sinclair Lewis in its unbridled comprehension of failed American values. But I suspect that Matthew Weiner, knowing he had a hot property on his hands, did what other promising programs (like AliasLost – even, ultimately, The Sopranos) did. He decided to play to an audience rather than cultivate one. Sometimes when a potentially good show draws a solid following the creators (and the networks) become afraid of losing those viewers. So they don’t take risks by going somewhere the audience might not wish to go, instead they play to their expectations. Mad Men has that skill down to a science.

Weiner is pretty clever. He knows it would be too easy to look back on the early sixties and approach the material nostalgically, which is why Mad Men isn’t really about nostalgia. (I’m afraid audiences think that’s part of what makes Mad Men deep.) But Mad Men only appears smart because of its absence of sentiment, with its cool precision cloaked in ironies we can now appreciate in hindsight. But if you look into the evolving storyline, you’ll find nothing but vignettes sketched with no dramatic resonance, or follow-through. For example, Roger Sterling (John Slattery), one of the two senior partners of Sterling Cooper, has a life-threatening heart attack in Season One which has him fearing for his life and marriage (especially since he was happily mounting a young woman in his office when it happened), but nothing ever comes of it (except a divorce which still told us little about his marriage). Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), who rose from Don Draper’s secretary to become a copywriter, becomes pregnant with the child of co-worker Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), who is initially kept ignorant of the pregnancy. While she eventually has the baby and reveals the secret to Campbell, the revelation doesn’t develop into anything more than a deepening of their rivalry in the office. More blatantly, Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis), the agency’s creative copywriter and Princeton grad, is an active liberal who dates a black woman and even joins in the Freedom March in the South. But she soon mysteriously disappears from the show, as does any trace of why he dated her and how the experience of fighting desegregation might have affected him, or even changed his views on the office politics he has to endure. Speaking of politics, Sal Romano (Bryan Batt) is their Italian-American art director who is also a closeted homosexual. But Mad Men puts him in another closet by redundantly tracing his inner turmoil, but never fully examining the means by which he must remain invisible. Mad Men’s enthusiasts applaud the Pinteresque silences and pauses as part of the show’s depth, while not recognizing that silence isn’t always subtext.

Mad Men focuses primarily on Don Draper and his wife Betty (January Jones) and their turbulent marriage, but even that grows ultimately forced and monotonous. Don is a rampant womanizer; Betty knows it and endures it until she gets some revenge of her own. But their marriage seems more a plot convenience to illustrate the growing ennui of suburban emptiness rather than a depiction of marital conflict. But that is what irks me most about Mad Men: its absence of drama. The best TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Six Feet Under, were driven by a dramatic purpose, they had a coherent arc that had payoffs within their structure. Buffy was a perfectly thought through series that used the demon world as a paradoxical reflection of adolescent struggle. Six Feet Under focused on a family who ran a funeral home and, within that premise, took us (with humour and pathos) inside our own unease with mortality and our fragile relationship with life. Mad Men is more a shifting motif, highlighted in the Saul Bass inspired opening credits of the man falling through skyscrapers filled with reflections of period advertising posters and billboards, casting superficial shadings on the characters.

The season premiere tonight opens with the question, “Who is Don Draper?” But that question could be equally applied to most of the characters that walk through the show. It may even apply to the man who created it. Mad Men is all about the selling of images. And, so far, it’s successfully hustling itself. 

- originally published on July 25, 2010 in Critics at Large.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

Ambivalent Viewing: Season Four of Mad Men

The problem with Mad Men this season, and in fact sometimes in every season, is that creator Matthew Weiner is obsessed with letting character trump story (ironic for a network whose cutline is “Story Matters Here”). As a result, we have episodes such as one and three this year (and large swathes of Season Two) that have been nothing but character bits attached to little narrative drive. This is the exact opposite of films such as, let's say, Tranformers, which are nothing but plot/story and character is never even considered – I think both approaches are ill-conceived. The show's only thread this year that seems to connect it to 1964/1965 have been bits of dialogue in episode one (“Buy her some Beatles 45s.") and episode four (“Did you hear Malcolm X was shot this week?”). This is laziness. At least last year, the handling of the assassination of John F. Kennedy was masterfully staged, as two characters discussed their problems as if it were still November 21, 1963. In the background of the scene, unnoticed by them, a TV announces a new era has begun (Kennedy's death). And yet. And yet. I still find myself compelled to watch this year.

After the disastrous first episode of Season Four of Mad Men a few weeks ago, I decided to give the show until episode four to find its legs. I was willing to do this because Season Three took until then to get at something. After episode two this season, I thought it was getting on the right track, and then episode three came. The show went on and on about Don's seemingly pointless pause in California when he again visits (this was the setting of the terrible Season Two) the one person, Anna (the wife of the dead man he impersonates), who knew he was Dick, not Don. It didn't seem to serve any purpose until it was revealed that she was dying of cancer. The news seemed to completely unmoor Don. Fortunately, the latter half when Don returns to New York, featuring Jared Harris as Lane Pryce – the transplanted, conflicted Brit partner in the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency – took hold and the episode seemed to at least leaven the fractured, unfocused nonsense Mad Men has occasionally descended to.

So far this season, seeing Draper come completely unglued has been simultaneously deserved and sad. He deserves it, yet seeing someone so confident and focused on the surface start to show to the world the terrors he faces is fascinating. Watching Peggy and Pete reconcile, ironically over the announced pregnancy of his wife Trudy, was also strangely moving. At the end of episode four, as Peggy goes out with the young “in crowd” and Pete is meeting the old guard in the lobby, they exchange glances and smiles. It sums up the mutual acknowledgement that they have both made choices they are very comfortable with.

Sure, Mad Men is forced and fragmented, but there is still, for me, something worth hanging on to that I cannot quite define. Perhaps it is the era, an era of my childhood (even if in Seasons Two through Four, it has never seemed to really embrace what this era meant to the characters, or to us, watching from 2010); or perhaps, it is the characters I really like (Don, Peggy, Sterling, Pete, Joan and Cooper). It sure as hell ain't the story because quite frankly there barely is one. I'll continue to watch, though, because it's kinda easy to just leave the channel there since its lead-in, Rubicon, is becoming rather interesting (more on it as its first season comes to an end in a few weeks). What I am saying is I cannot really defend why I continue to watch Mad Men because there are so many reasons to stop, but for what it's worth – and it might not be worth much – I just want to see if it ultimately will get anywhere. That alone just might be enough to keep me coming back.

- originally published on August 19, 2010 in Critics at Large.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is the author of the novel, The Empire of Death.

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