Daniel Mendelsohn on Mad Men

EDIT: I just realized that this is a super old article. My bad. 

Listen, I don’t expect everyone to like everything that I like. That would be boring. That being said, I am flabbergasted by how completely Daniel Mendelsohn, writing for the New York Review of Books (behind a paywall, unfortunately), misunderstands Mad Men‘s dramatic scheme and its appeal to fans:

I am dwelling on the deeper, almost irrational reasons for the series’s appeal—to which I shall return later, and to which I am not at all immune, having been a child in the 1960s—because after watching all fifty-two episodes of Mad Men, I find little else to justify it. We are currently living in a new golden age of television, a medium that has been liberated by cable broadcasting to explore both fantasy and reality with greater frankness and originality than ever before: as witness shows as different as the now-iconic crime dramas The Sopranos and The Wire, with their darkly glinting, almost Aeschylean moral textures; the philosophically provocative, unexpectedly moving sci-fi hit Battlestar Galactica, a kind of futuristic retelling of the Aeneid; and the perennially underappreciated small-town drama Friday Night Lights, which offers, among other things, the finest representation of middle-class marriage in popular culture of which I’m aware.
With these standouts (and there are many more), Mad Men shares virtually no significant qualities except its design. The writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the acting is, almost without exception, bland and sometimes amateurish.

Boom. That’s a motherfuckin’ gauntlet.
There’s little sense in wasting energy refuting the critiques of someone who absolutely does not like the show. And Mendelsohn has some qualitative judgements with which I will never be able to find common ground (for example, where Mendelsohn believes, “The acting itself is remarkably vacant, for the most part—none more so than the performance of Jon Hamm as Don…you sometimes have the impression that Hamm was hired because he looks like the guy in the old Arrow Shirt ads: a foursquare, square-jawed fellow whose tormented interior we are constantly told about but never really feel.,” I’d say that Hamm is a tremendously skilled actor who manages to play basically two parts at once: the Don Draper that needs to be cool and composed at all times and the Dick Whitman who is never far below the surface, insecure and fearful.), others simply do not fit with my interpretation of the series. I’d like to respond to some of those:
The core appeal of the show: In what is probably his real thesis, Mendelsohn writes:

he people who watch Mad Men are, after all, adults—most of them between the ages of nineteen and forty-nine. This is to say that most of the people who are so addicted to the show are either younger adults, to whom its world represents, perhaps, an alluring historical fantasy of a time before the present era’s seemingly endless prohibitions against pleasures once taken for granted (casual sex, careless eating, excessive drinking, and incessant smoking); or younger baby boomers—people in their forties and early fifties who remember, barely, the show’s 1960s setting, attitudes, and look. For either audience, then, the show’s style is, essentially, symbolic: it represents fantasies, or memories, of significant potency.

Obviously I cannot comment on the appeal that the show has to the generation that are contemporaries of the children of the show’s main character. And I think that it is definitely true that Sally and Bobby Draper function, to some degree, as audience stand-ins (a point he expounds upon later in the essay). But he severely misunderstands the appeal to at least some of us on the younger end of the audience.
The main dramatic engine of Mad Men, for me, is that of watching a car crash in slow motion. The employees and families of Sterling Cooper are of a very specific class. They are separated from the average American of their time by a variety of factors: they are urban, wealthy, white, socially and politically connected, at the peak of their careers, and are in a prime position to influence the culture at large.
In short, this is the class of Americans that are going to be most affected by the societal changes that come in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s. The unique genius of the show is that the drivers of those changes, the feminists, gay rights activist, civil rights activists, are always just barely out of frame. In their present, the show’s characters deal with whatever crises arise, but we, with the extra perspective of history, know that any victory will be Pyrrhic and that any survivors will soon be plunged into more upheaval. Situations that Mendelsohn sees as facile winking–Don’s dismissive conversation with the black Sterling Cooper janitor, the gay Sal Romano’s storyline, Kinsey’s bohemian party–become dramatically supercharged because what we know what events those encounters foreshadow, and the show’s characters don’t.
Similarly, when Mendelsohn writes, “To my mind, the picture is too crude and the artist too pleased with himself. In Mad Men, everyone chain-smokes, every executive starts drinking before lunch, every man is a chauvinist pig, every male employee viciously competitive and jealous of his colleagues, every white person a reflexive racist (when not irritatingly patronizing).,” I think he’s watching a different show. There is a tremendous variation in the personal sensitivities of the characters in the show. There’s clearly a spectrum of misogyny, of racism, of classism. The fact that even the most openminded of characters on the show seem backwardly regressive to us shows how much societal norms have changed, not that people in the present are good and people in the past were bad. One of the tragedies of Don Draper is that, even as he sometimes appears to be ten years ahead of everybody around him, he never questions the societal norms that allow him to behave the way that he does and treat others the way that he does.
Verité and Mad Men’s style. As an incredible left-handed compliment, Mendelsohn writes, “With these [standout television shows of the last decade] (and there are many more), Mad Men shares virtually no significant qualities except its design.” And yet he takes exception to the direction of the show as well:

“The show’s directorial style is static, airless. Scenes tend to be boxed: actors will be arranged within a frame—sitting in a car, at a desk, on a bed—and then they recite their lines, and that’s that. Characters seldom enter (or leave) the frame while already engaged in some activity, already talking about something—a useful technique (much used in shows like the old Law & Order) which strongly gives the textured sense of the characters’ reality, that they exist outside of the script.”

It seems to show a tremendous lack of imagination to attack the show for having a house style that is substantially different from other shows on television. Mad Men is much slower paced than most shows on television. Its shots are carefully composed; it’s one of those shows in which almost every frame could work as a still image. And every aspect of the show is heavily stylized. When we like a television show, we describe the show as “having a voice.” When we dislike the show, we get pedantic ramblings like Mendelsohn’s.
Futhermore, one of the benefits of having such a controlled house style is that it heightens the drama in those places where the show chooses to break that style (off the top of my head, I’m thinking of Peggy’s delivery in season two, and Don’s notebook voiceover in season four). This is a feature, not a bug.
Elsewhere, Mendelsohn takes issue with the show trafficking in the same slick, sexualized, advertisement-like imagery that it ostensibly critiques, describing it as the show having its cake and eating it too. This is a valid criticism. There’s certainly a superficial appeal to the show that has everything to do with large breasts, retrosexual men, and amazing clothing. I, and perhaps here I speak as a young person, am fascinated by the slick style of the show and the advertisements within the show for another reason: the world that I live and grew up in is a world shaped by the advertising techniques that are still in their infancy in the world of the show. Season one, which featured Don’s work more than subsequent seasons, was often driven by conflict between two different paradigms of advertising. The kind of advertising that Don has made his name with are the same kinds of advertising that now permeate every aspect of our culture. Again there is a car crash element to this: we know how this story ends, and it is completely fascinating to see people making crucial decisions with now knowledge of the consequences of their actions.

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