Friday, 9 September 2011
Mad Men (2007- )
We’re up to season three of Mad Men, watching it out of a DVD box-set after the manner of middle class married couples all across the country—which is to say: evening routine -- supper, kids to bed, glass of wine and sink onto the couch to boot up another episode. It took me a little while to warm to it, actually; but by now the characters feel like old friends (no, that’s not right; I probably wouldn’t be friends with any of them—they feel like old work colleagues, which is appropriate enough. One of the strengths of the show is the way it puts so much of the actuality, or simulated actuality, of working in an office front and centre. There have been shows set in offices before of course, and plenty of them: but almost always the actual work has been a backdrop to the real focus of the show, the emotional interactions of the characters—and whilst that’s clearly part of the point of Mad Men too, I’m consistently impressed how large a portion of the drama is simple office work in its office-workish-ness: meetings with colleagues and clients, preparing material for projects, doing accounts, applying for promotion—all that. And this parenthesis has gone on long enough).
So, one of the reasons I’m blogging about the show here is to direct you to my wife’s post (on her blog) about it. But also to jot down some random thoughts.
Here’s one random thought. One reason I held out against the show for, roughly speaking, the first half of series one is that it struck me as too glib. Glibness, I figured, was part of the point; but glibness needs to be handled carefully, artistically speaking, or the art will melt away like icecream in front of the fire. Mark Greif’s famous (in some quarters, notorious) criticisms of the show in the LRB seemed right to me. The surfaces were all so perfectly glossy and immaculate and 1950s/60s cool; the sexism and racism was of the sort designed to flatter our more enlightened 21st-century perspectives. The episodes often struck me as having a too pat ‘Creative Writing 303’ labour of theme and story—as it might be, 'this episode is about mirrors, so we’ll build it around a Playtex ad showing Jackie reflecting Marilyn and have lots of shots of characters staring at their own reflections in bathrooms etc. Deep!’ More particularly, I thought Grief was right that John Hamm playing Don Draper was too beautiful, and not tough enough, to actually occupy the Tony-Sopranoesque alpha male role the scripts often demanded. There’s a quaver in his eyes, you see: a tremor of weakness.
I also thought, watching series one, that the show was missing two key beats. One was religion—these people (almost all of them living, at least ostensibly according to tenets of Republican respectability) would be religious, or many of them would; yet religion was absent from the drama. The other was race: the most famous achievement of the 1960s in the US was Civil Rights, after all (well, there was the Apollo programme too; but it comes second to Civil Rights). The only characters of colour occupied marginal roles in the drama. We might think ‘well, they occupied marginal roles in these sorts of people’s lives in the actual 1950s/60s’, but that is to let the scriptwriters—who have the say—off the hook too easily).
Persevering in my watching, I have come to revise all of these objections. I was wrong; I spoke too soon. To take the last first—series 2 tackles religion head on, with Peggy Olsen’s relationship to the creepy priest (Catholicism is shown to be centrally part of her social praxis). And race is given a higher prominence too, although in a slightly awkward way. More importantly, I’ve come to revise my opinion on John Hamm as Don Draper—that quaver in his eye, the melodramatic farrago about his swapping identities with a dead officer in the Korean war, all that. The point I was missing, I think, is: the core theme of this show is selling, and one of its insights is that whilst satirical mileage might be made out of showing advertising as being in the business of persuading people to buy shit, there’re more depth and drama in the idea that ad-men are trying to get us to buy stuff that, actually, is often cool. But. There has to be a but, of course. Draper is a beautiful man—my wife certainly thinks so—rich, clever, creative, superbly dressed and so on. The quaver in his eyes, much more than the creaky old hidden identity story, is the But.
I could go further: the show’s lavish visual aesthetic, its myriad triumphs of design and costume and historical recreation, work by a kind of Freudian inversion. Selling is all about implanting in people the desire to buy things; and desire is wanting, a lack, an absence. As the cocky young rich boy, trying to seduce Betty Draper at the riding stables they both frequent, observes—‘you are profoundly sad’. Betty is, too; it’s just that this matters much less than you might think. It is not, for instance, the occasion for grand existential angst and drama. On the contrary, sadness in the motor by which advertising—and by extension, Capitalism—operates. It is a necessary thing. That’s one thing Mad Men does very well, in the larger sense: rendering sadness not as depression and withdrawal, but precisely as affluent social living and conspicuous consumption.
The name that occurs to me here is Richard Yates—indeed, I’m surprised more isn’t made of the connection in reviews and online discussion (maybe it is, and I just haven't come across it). But Yates is surely one of the key influences on this show. He’s a novelist perhaps best known for the film made out of Revolutionary Road—an equally good-look portrait of postwar US period suburban sadness as Mad Men, but a touch too mournful, even maudlin, in its treatment. Unlike the film, I don’t think it would be fair to call Yates’s exquisitely judged, low-key novels and stories ‘maudlin’, but they are all fascinated by the valences of sadness in everyday life. ‘Draper’ is the name of the protagonist of Yates’s A Good School (1973)—not about advertising, this short, beautiful novel, but very alive to the way sadness can propel us onward through life. Near the end, one of the characters (who had refused the Purple Heart he had been awarded in the war because he felt he didn’t deserve it) tells Draper: ‘listen—don’t look back to much, OK? You can drive yourself crazy that way.’ The novel doesn’t record Draper’s reaction to this advice; but the Draper of Mad Men in effect takes it as his personal mantra.