Saturday, February 5, 2011

Mad Men Sucks?

For four years Mad Men haters have been sitting in their decidedly non Danish Modern armchairs waiting patiently for the backlash to begin. That is not a long time, and they should consider themselves lucky, I've been waiting for the Harry Potter backlash for a decade and it still hasn't arrived. Fortunately for the Mad Men heretics their time may be now. In a well argued piece in the New York Review of Books Daniel Mendelsohn attempts to demolish Mad Men using the Karl Rove method of attack - going after the show via its strongest bastions by hurling ballista at the writing, the directing and the acting. Mendelsohn got in my bad books almost immediately in his article by talking snarkily about "popular entertainments," here we go I thought he's going to go on for a couple of thousand words about how Mad Men isn't as deep as novel, because of course he's writing in the New York Review of Books, after all, not Entertainment Weekly; but then he had the wit to defuse that bomb by mentioning the TV shows he does like:

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;

which are the ones I like too (obviously he must not have seen the final episode of Galactica which catastrophically ruined the entire mythology). Mendelsohn continues: 

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. Worst of all—in a drama with aspirations to treating social and historical “issues”—the show is melodramatic rather than dramatic. By this I mean that it proceeds, for the most part, like a soap opera, serially (and often unbelievably) generating, and then resolving, successive personal crises (adulteries, abortions, premarital pregnancies, interracial affairs, alcoholism and drug addiction, etc.), rather than exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena it regards with such fascination: sexism, misogyny, social hypocrisy, racism, the counterculture, and so forth.

That a soap opera decked out in high-end clothes (and concepts) should have received so much acclaim and is taken so seriously reminds you that fads depend as much on the willingness of the public to believe as on the cleverness of the people who invent them; as with many fads that take the form of infatuations with certain moments in the past, the Mad Men craze tells us far more about today than it does about yesterday. But just what in the world of the show do we want to possess? The clothes and furniture? The wicked behavior? The unpunished crassness? To my mind, it’s something else entirely, something unexpected and, in a way, almost touching.

I started losing interest in Mad Men in Season 3 and while I'm not quite in the haters camp I think Mendelsohn makes a lot of decent points. However TV, like cinema, is a visual medium, and it doesnt hurt that Mad Men cast several beautiful actresses in leading roles. Is it all about the visuals then? You can read the rest of Mendelsohn's piece at NYRB, here.