What I Think of Mad Men (So Far)
Last night, having just finished watching all five seasons of The Wire for the second time in my life, I found myself flipping on “Mad Men” out of a hunger for something to fill the new TV series void. I’ve been a vocal opponent of Mad Men’s popularity for some time, mostly just to be contrarian (for the record, I have seen isolated episodes). Nonetheless, I approached the show from its beginning with serious interest and a genuine desire to be either entertained or impressed, or both. As it turns out, my posture of a priori hating has been vindicated… at least so far. If I may make my case, here are my primary gripes:
1. The seeming arbitrariness of the historical setting. The creators were clearly very preoccupied with creating a sense of place, an historical milieu in which every minute detail has been recaptured and brought back to life. My question is, Why? In a work of fiction that takes its historical subject so seriously (unless, of course, serving an educative function), one wonders what the writer hopes to accomplish beyond the aforementioned achievement of documenting a set of styles and mores that are unfamiliar to contemporary audiences. Is the objective here to juxtapose our current era with that of the show – a motive that underlies many works of historical fiction? If so, there have been no clues – at least so far – as to what, if anything, we are supposed to learn from the time in question. If there is something about the world of advertising that can illuminate a larger truth about the social, political, perhaps ethical reality we inhabit today, why must the show be set (so painstakingly) at mid-century and not now? The choices being made seem to spring from an unreflective antiquarianism – the fetishization of a more stylish, sexier past. Much as the writers glibly set out to show their scorn for an era in which women were treated like objects and Jews were restricted from prestigious advertising firms, the joke is ultimately on them, for they have Romanticized this moment. To return, though, back to our original qualm: The historical setting of the show has been chosen without regard to several critical questions: Why advertising? Why the late Fifties? Why do we care?
2. This show infantilizes its audience. The writers violate rule number one of fiction, time and again: Show, don’t tell. Is the young associate after Don Draper’s job? No doubt about it; he said so himself. Is Don Draper alienated, alone, secretly suffering in contrast to his outward appearance? Well, his Jewess client sure pointed it out, and judging by his stunned reaction, it must be true! Does Salvator like men? Wow, even for a potential plot line as minute as this, the writers bang us over the head with it where he makes an open admission of his attraction to men (so much for historical accuracy)! The one conspicuous area in which the show does do a LOT of showing – that is, misogyny, both institutionalized and casual – it’s exaggerated to the point of utter caricature. To sum up: it’s one thing for writing not to be subtle, and yes, this is the first episode of the show. Undoubtedly, there is a need to establish very quickly and firmly WHO these people are and WHAT their story is. But I find it strange that the first episode of a series so often criticized (or praised) for being “slow-moving” is characterized by such blatant impatience to wring all sorts of admissions, give-aways, and self-descriptions from its characters.