Nothing &*%!ing Happens: Against Mad Men

by on Sep.19, 2009, under television

I feel like I’ve given Mad Men a fair shot. I watched the first five or six episodes of season 1, tried a few of season 2, and have even sampled a few of season 3. But I still don’t get it.

Very little happens in Mad Men. There’s some office politics, a little adultery, a closeted gay man, the occasional kid born out of wedlock or in it. Don Draper is impersonating himself but that never seems to matter in any way other than giving him an excuse to look brooding now and again, as if he needed one. Basically humdrum lives.

So the show has to capture our interest in one of two ways: either we are convinced that the world of advertising during the early 1960s is an important subject or we are brought to care about the characters enough to get invested in their ordinary successes and failures.

Now, Mad Men does trade a great deal on its fascination with the early 1960s. In nearly every episode I’ve watched we’re put off by some reminder of how different things were then. In the most recent episode, for example, we sit with the men in the waiting room while their wives have babies. In an earlier episode, a character entertained his guests by singing in blackface. These bits nearly always invite the viewer to feel superior: we are more enlightened now.

At the same time the period is unmistakeably romanticized, especially in the person of Don Draper. To flip something I saw one character say, men want to be him, women want to sleep with him. As troubled as Jon Hamm may make his face, his life is pretty damn sweet. He sleeps with hot women, smokes without a care, has a big house that’s entirely his wife’s responsibility, and drinks during the workday. If you don’t think all of that invites envy, you’re nuts.

But neither reaction—alienation or romanticism—gives a clue as to why this period should matter to us. There are arguments one could offer about why advertising in the early 1960s is really important to understanding American culture today, but if Mad Men actually does offer them I’ve completely missed it.

Which brings us to the second possible source of interest: the characters. I can only assume that they are why a relatively small number of rich, culturally influential people love the show. Since this is a matter of taste, I can’t really argue with it. I just know that I really couldn’t care less about any of the people in the Mad Men universe. Some of them barely rise to the level of likability; most of them don’t. The majority that are unlikable are not unlikable in any interesting way, they’re just weak, venal, cowardly, or ambitious in small, conventional ways. I know that I’ve never once cared the slightest bit whether any of them got what them wanted, which for me kills the narrative interest dead.

I think that Mad Men wouldn’t bug me so much if it were recognized as a very carefully written and lovingly directed escapist fantasy that appeals to a select group of people. The fact that it’s so lionized is what gets under my skin.

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6 Comments for this entry

  • Josh K-sky

    Mark Greif also found the show to be a case “in which criticism of the past is used to congratulate the present.” That complaint rings hollow with me. I’ve never thought the show places as much emphasis on those moments as you and he do.

    Still, it’s a strong charge, and I’m going to pull on it for a few days and see if I can turn it into a post. I’ll say this: I think where you read the show as having its characters come up short in comparison to our time, I think they come up short in comparison to their own.

  • Joshua Malbin

    I think where you read the show as having its characters come up short in comparison to our time, I think they come up short in comparison to their own.

    There’s no reason they couldn’t come up short in both departments. Indeed, they clearly often do.

    I don’t think the show’s dominant mode is criticism of the past. I think it glamorizes the past more often than it criticizes it. But in each episode there’s at least one moment of, as Greif puts it, Now We Know Better. I agree with a lot of what Greif says there in the beginning. His assessment of Jon Hamm as “wimpy and underslept,” on the other hand, or the Mug who loses out to Cary Grant or Spencer Tracy, seems way off.

  • Josh K-sky

    Yeah. There may be some superficial resemblance to Ralph Bellamy. But I think if Cary Grant tried to steal a girl back from Jon Hamm, they’d just end up making out. Well, that wouldn’t be too likely, but I’d enjoy it.

  • Joshua Malbin

    It would depend on how much Eve Sedgwick they’d been reading, I imagine.

  • Eustacia Vye

    Though I love the show, I totally saw where Greif was coming from, and his piece made me reassess my devotion… except for his take on Jon Hamm. Jon Hamm is no longer a subjective phenomenon. I know at least three men in monogamous relationships who feel actual sexual jealousy toward Don Draper, who last I checked does not exist. Denying Hammness is like denying gravity, evolution, mortality. To “justify viscerally” said Hammness, flash his picture in the general vicinity of a conveniently located heterosexual female and observe as her eyes dilate.

  • Josh K-sky

    Seriously. A three-episode arc of 30 Rock can’t be wrong, can it? Greif has to acknowledge that he’s on the gusty bus there.

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  • Full Circle - Joshua Malbin

    […] Upper-middle-brow television has for some years been dominated by a reverse trend — the rise of multi-season arcs, of harnessing television to tell stories that run far longer than even a trilogy of features can. In an odd twist, the current king of long-form television is a show about the rise of commercial attention fragmentation: Mad Men. […]

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