Tag: Mad Men

Full Circle

by on Oct.02, 2009, under television

In a 1975 essay for Saturday Night, Morris Wolfe wondered,

given Sesame Street’s forty to fifty different items per hour and its assumption that children have at best a three-minute attention span, is whether one can reasonably expect a child who’s been taught the alphabet this way to focus happily on a static printed page. My guess is that the answer is no, and that what Sesame Street is doing more than anything else is conditioning kids not to read but to watch television. One study has already shown, not surprisingly, that the least popular segments on the programme are those in which books appear.

Not just to watch television, but, in the bite-sized wonder of Sesame Street’s vignettes, to watch commercials in particular. Brought to you by the letter B and the numeral 4 today, Archer Daniels Midland tomorrow. However useful irony is, it always piggybacks its overt message onto its intended subversion. The short form and the quick cut would reach adulthood and apotheosis in the launch of MTV, and stick around forever after. And Maria begat Tabitha Soren.

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.

Which is just to say that this below is not only very funny,

but also kind of vertiginously ouroborean. And reminds me of this, and what someone once told me, I don’t remember who:

“All television is educational television.”

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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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