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Meditations in an Emergency: Some thoughts about Mad Men

mad-menWith two series already in the can in the US and a third well into production, AMC’s multi-award winning Mad Men finally makes it to Australian free-to-air tonight. And, to celebrate, the hype machine has been running hard for several weeks (I hope regular visitors are taking note of my restraint in not going on about the pathetic and disrespectful attitude of Australian networks towards their viewers, but I feel like a broken record on that score).

The most recent – and substantial – addition to the promotional material filling the newspapers is a long piece by Clive James in The Australian Magazine (and which is, I suspect, a repurposing of a piece he wrote for the TLS a while back). Sadly it isn’t online, but if you can lay your hands on the hard copy it’s well worth a look.

James’ piece is constructed around two points. The first is a desire to deconstruct the sociologial significance of “quality” (or what I’d call the “new”) television in general, and Mad Men in particular. James rightly points to the manner in which these shows have been embraced by audiences traditionally averse to what they perceive as the downmarket pleasures of television (and particularly American television).

It’s a point that’s been made before but it’s a valid one (that said, please, please check out Stuff White People Like’s take on The Wire and Mad Men). As James rightly observes, at least part of the appeal of shows such as Mad Men and The Sopranos is the reassuring sense that they are written and produced with the cognoscenti in mind, a feeling that is only reinforced by the fact that much of their success has been driven by DVD sales, which in Australia and the UK at least, suggest one is seeking one’s pleasures away from the great unwashed.

I think it would be naive to think television networks didn’t factor these sorts of considerations into the structuring of their programming. But James wants to tie this argument to a second argument about Mad Men in particular, which is that there is something essentially dishonest about the show itself. Like a number of other commentators in the UK, perhaps most notably Mark Greif, he believes the show trades in a sort of inverted nostalgia, in which contemporary vanities are flattered by the show’s careful airbrushing of the past:

“The media world we live in now has generated mad men, and it’s a high end product, with a sure sense the smart audience would rather find it than be hit over the head with it. Even when they are hit over the head with it by an adroit international campaign of promotion they are still convinced that they are finding it all by themselves. But what they are finding is another illusion, though a remarkable nuanced and fascinating one. The illusion is of a past where even the smartest people weren’t quite as smart as us. There is much talk in the press about how the secret of the show’s appeal lies in nostalgia – nostalgia for a time when a man was a man, a woman shaped like an hourglass had no ambition but to stay home and cook, and everyone smoked like a train, with not thought of ever hitting the buffers. But the show does better than that. It doesn’t make the mistake of presenting life on the avenue as a fairground. Indeed it’s a prison, and young Peggy will have to fight her way out.

“But nobody will think their way out, and the awkward truth is that a lot of them, in reality, were already thinking. They just hadn’t figured out what to do next, mainly because they were involved in a paradox: it was the wealth they produced that would give them the freedom to question their lives. Stuck with the same paradox, we revel in the opportunity to look back and patronise the clever for not being quite clever enough to be living now.

Mad Men is a marketing campaign: what it sells is a sense of superiority, and it sells it brilliantly.”

While I suspect there’s something to be made of the markedly different responses the show elicits on opposite sides of the Atlantic, what’s interesting in James’ argument – and indeed in Greif’s – is the notion that Mad Men fails because it declines to do justice to the vigour and intelligence of the world it ostensibly inhabits. Both argue that its historical account of one of advertising’s most innovative periods is shortchanged by what James describes as its “lingering emphasis upon character”, a failing both also see as intrinsic to its appeal to elite tastes.

The problem with this analysis is that it fundamentally misunderstands the show. Mad Men is not a show about advertising any more than The Sopranos is a show about gangsters. One only has to watch the almost photo-realistic recreation of the fashion, architecture and even cinematography of the period to be reminded of the show’s fascination with surfaces, their ambiguity and, ultimately, their deceptiveness. Not for nothing, I suspect, does the show’s portrait of the 1960s often more closely resemble a film set of the period than the period itself. The stillness of the show, its refusal to spell out meanings, even its oddly static storylines all speak to its fascination with the mystery its characters’ inner lives offer not just to each other, but to themselves.

The mistake, it seems to me, is thinking that the drinking and smoking and sexual anxieties the show depicts in are its true point, when in fact the true point is the fragility of the world the characters inhabit. They might be the Masters of the Universe, but the universe they rule is one the viewer knows is about to be swept away. Not for nothing does the series move in fits and starts forward in time, jumping from 1960 in the first season to 1962 in the second, and on again in the third (this time to 1965 if reports from the set are to be believed) revealing each time the deepening cracks in the facade of the world it inhabits. Seen from this perspective there’s something of the memento mori in the way the characters live, oblivious of what lies just around the corner.

Indeed if the show is nostalgic at all, it’s nostalgic in a quite different way to the one James and Greif accuse it of being. Clive James may remember the early 1960s, but Mad Men’s creator, Matthew Weiner, who was born in 1965 does not, except in the way any of us who were born in the 1960s remember it, which is through the medium of our parents, and our memories of early childhood, childhoods that were lived against the backdrop of precisely the upheavals the action of Mad Men prefigures.

It’s usual, of course, to see the shadow of John Cheever and Richard Yates hanging over Mad Men, but I wonder whether it doesn’t owe more to novels such as Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm. For in some powerful sense it is less about what we see and more about what we know is coming, and about trying to make sense, from the vantage point of the children who grew up in its aftermath, of the dislocation and confusion the 1960s and 1970s engendered.

The children of the 1960s – X-ers – are often accused of being judgemental, even priggish. But whether we are or not, I don’t think there’s anything priggish about Mad Men, nor even what Mark Grief acidly describes as the “whiff of Doesn’t That Look Good” that lies beneath the “Now We Know Better”. Instead there is a ruefulness, a sense of loss. As we watch the world begin to come apart at the seams, we cannot help but anticipate the damage these characters will do to one another in the years to come.

Admittedly this is less evident in the early episodes, which are rather too insistent in their foregrounding of the sexual politics (it’s actually the racial politics, which are largely unspoken, which are more disturbing, presumably precisely because they are pointed out to us less deliberately), and in the constant drinking and smoking. But it is very obvious by the final episodes of the second season, in which Don vanishes to California, and into a sort of Paul Bowlesian fantasy of freedom, and in the deeply uncertain tone of the season’s wonderful finale, ‘Meditations in an Emergency’, which plays out against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Mad Men begins Thursday 16 April at 8:30pm on SBS.

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. franz #

    Thank you so very much for this well-written and insightful commentary, a response and defense. I have just begun to watch this series online, from the very start, and I became entirely engrossed, fascinated, and impressed, not having been exposed to any of the promotional marketing; except for knowing that the show won many awards, I had no clue so was refreshingly surprised once I got to about the third episode.

    I have no investment in cutting this show down to fit media-constructed trends in “critique”, as I suspect writers who write of the “new tv” do. Mad Men is a creative force that is in no way a documentary. Quality tv is quality, not because of pre-assigned expectations or demands, but because they embody the transgression of these. Mad Men certainly transgresses its “surface”, its status as an illusion, and I see what you do in it”, this sense of existing in a paradigm shift about to take place. Its historicism is a brilliant frame for loss, personal and historical… societal.

    I too was born in 1965 and the weight of the show being “about trying to make sense, from the vantage point of the children who grew up in its aftermath, of the dislocation and confusion the 1960s and 1970s engendered” is a powerful draw, but the characters, the visuals, the constraint, and the multiple forms of violence is part of that draw as well.

    May 28, 2009
  2. RE: your opinion that part of the appeal “is the reassuring sense that they (i.e., The Sopranos and MadMen) are written and produced with the cognoscenti in mind”, makes me think that you most certainly have hit that nail square on the head. But what’s a little nod to ‘we cognoscenti’? Harmless, wouldn’t one agree?

    February 24, 2011

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