The Mystery of "Mad Men"

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 4 2011 7:21 PM

The Mystery of "Mad Men"

In the latest issue of TheNew York Review of Books , Daniel Mendelsohn has anessay about how he watched all fifty-two hours of Mad Men , only to be sorely disappointed by the beloved series.

Mendelsohn regards MadMen the way Don Draper often does the women he beds: He's drawn to the show againsthis better judgment but he sure doesn't respect it:

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The writing is extremely weak, theplotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow andsometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and itsself-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the acting is, almostwithout exception, bland and sometimes amateurish.

Some of the qualities Mendelsohnsingles out for scorn are precisely the things that I love, or at least findcompelling, about Mad Men . Forexample, he hates how "melodramatic" the show can be, whereas I find the pulpyelements the affairs, the abortions, the addictions deeply satisfying in a verybasic, elemental way. He finds the acting "remarkably vacant," focusing particularly on Jon Hamm as Don Draper. I'm personally convincedthat Hamm's future is incomedy , but on Mad Men , I find hischaracter's Sphinx-like blankness fascinating. (Read Slate 's MadMen TV Clubbers Julia Turner andJohn Swansburg discuss Hamm's acting chops here .)And that's to say nothing of January Jones' performance as Betty. Half the funof being a Mad Men fan is arguingwith other Mad Men fans about whetherJones is a brilliant actress or a terrible one.

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Mendelsohn also finds the show's treatment of history hypocritical,in that it "invites us to be shocked by what it's showing us" the smoking whilepregnant, the slapping of recalcitrant children, the casual racism and misogyny whileat the same time it "keeps eroticizing what it's showing us, too." (Mark Greifmade the sameargument in the London Review ofBooks in 2008, calling Mad Men "anunpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better" the flip side ofwhich is "Doesn't That Look Good.") But I'm not convinced that the show reallydoes make its characters' bad behavior look seductive. The style, the texture, the look sure. But doMendelsohn and Greif really think we MadMen fans wish we could still pull out the old blackface routine at parties ?In general, Mendelsohn seems to be holding out for some purer kind of historicalfiction one in which character and behavior would be more deeply, authenticallyembedded in its time and place. Maybe it's a failure of imagination on my part,but I have trouble envisioning what that Platonically ideal show would looklike. (And I agree with Vulture'sWilla Paskin that what Mendelsohn dismisses as shallowness in dealing withcertain elements of the 60s, I've always appreciated as subtlety.)

The heart of the essay is Mendelsohn's attempt to figure outjust what makes Mad Men soirresistible, despite all its supposed flaws. His argument is a novel one: Notingthat Glen and Sally are two of the strongest characters on the show, heconcludes that the children are the points of audience identification not theadults:

If so much of  Mad Men  iscuriously opaque, all inexplicable exteriors and posturing, it occurs to youthat this is, after all, how the adult world often looks to children; whateverits blankness, that world, as recreated in the show, feels somehow real tothose of us who were kids back then. As for the appeal: Who, after all, canresist the fantasy of seeing what your parents were like before you were born,or when you were still little too little to understand what the deal was withthem, something we can only do now, in hindsight? And who, after having thatprivileged view, would want to dismiss the lives they led and world theyinhabited as trivial as passing fads, moments of madness? Who would still wantto bash them, instead of telling them that we know they were bad but that nowwe forgive them?

That's a fine explanation for fanswho, like Mendelsohn, actually were kids in the mid-60s; as Vulture's Paskin notes, though, it doesn't really explain the appeal for those of us who are younger than that.

I've always thought the secret to Mad Men ' 's success is that it's ultimately a very fannish show it's likescience fiction in disguise. There's the fetishistic attentionto environmental detail what sci-fi and fantasy readers refer to as "world-building" andall the bits of hidden trivia thatdedicated viewers take delight in spotting, collecting, and sharing. (Tell meagain what's that dirtyJapanese painting hanging in Bert Cooper's office?) And of course, the veryfact that the show has its flaws that there are rich arguments to be had about the choices it makes is a large part of why it's sosatisfying to be one of the committed throngs.

Are you a Mad Men fan? What do you think makes it so watchable?

 

Still from Mad Men © AMC. All rights reserved. 

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