Monday, May 18, 2015

The American Dream Always Comes True: Mad Men's Unironic Denouement

Happy endings all around: Everyone got what they wanted in the final episode of
Mad Men (except for Betty who was disposed of like the wife
in the golf joke in episode 1) 
I was there at the beginning so I felt I had to be there at the end. Like the Sopranos, the show where Matthew Weiner cut his teeth, Mad Men ended with a whimper not a bang. When I reviewed the pilot episode a million years and two trouser sizes ago I said that it was an "intelligent, reflective television show that cast a witty and introspective light on the recent past." 
Mea culpa. Mad Men wasn't as smart or as introspective or as piercing as it or I thought it was. As if digesting fully David Foster Wallace's criticism that "irony is the song of the bird who has learned to love its cage" Mad Men decided to ditch irony and go for sincerity as the series progressed. In the final season Don quits McCann Erickson, has a mid life crisis, drives through the west having adventures like John Steinbeck in Travels With Charley or Kane in Kung Fu and then in a hippy colony comes up with the idea for the I'd Like To Buy The World A Coke ad and returns to work. That was it. Mid life crisis leads to a great idea for an ad for sugar water. This was basically the plot of every season of Mad Men. Mid life crisis, attempt to introspect or extrovert or find love and this attempt leads to a great ad idea for a client. Mad Men wasn't a rejection of post war American materialistic culture it was an attempt to shore it up. It wasn't Matthew Weiner's critique of his parents generation. It was a love letter to these parents. Even Ad Men Get The Blues: ahhhh. Occasionally Mad Men would have a straw man hippie attack Don as "the man", but we were supposed to know better. Don was on a journey, Don thought about things, you're wrong greasy hippie. But the greasy hippie was right. The Mad Men martini shakers, Mad Men tie clips, Mad Men whisky decanters attest to the fact. Mad Men wasn't a TV show at all really, it was just a vector to sell us ads on AMC, DVD box sets and Mad Men merchandise. 
You don't have to have an interesting political message if you can dazzle us with your writing. True Detective, for example, had a hoary old plot and old fashioned archetypes but my God the writing on that show: the brilliant structure, the superb dialogue, the idea that working class characters could be philosophically literate. Mad Men's writing declined precipitously after the first season when the ideas began to run out and then even dumb TV critics noticed that it was going in circles (but they thought the circles meant something). In the final episode the inconvenient first wife gets terminal cancer, the flighty second wife never gets mentioned at all and everyone else gets a happy ending: Peggy and Stan get engaged, Eyepatch guy gets to be head of advertising at his father in laws company, Roger marries again, Joan forms her own company, even Pete Campbell (who I guess we're supposed to forget raped a German aupair in Season 2) goes off with Trudy to run LearJet and become super rich. Everybody wins except boring Betty and Don takes the cake by creating the most iconic ad of the 70s.  
I'm not going to talk in depth about the overrated acting on Mad Men

Jon Hamm can do two emotions, this:     :|    and this:     :\   

but I will talk about Mad Men's production values. Mad Men always looked cheap compared to an HBO or a BBC show. The sets looked fake, the few exteriors that were filmed were always in California, the back projection in the car driving scenes always looked terrible. (In a sitcom you can get away with horrible back projection but it doesn't work in a drama that's going for neorealism.) For a programme that made a boatload of cash for the network, the cast and the showrunners they sure didn't spread a lot of that cash around to the people who did the actual filming.
I suppose we get the culture we deserve. And we deserved Mad Men. We're a shallow, silly lot, who don't like to challenge the status quo and prefer things the way they are. We're not going to swim the Hellespont or work in an orphanage in Lesotho. We're going to watch telly and drink Coke and eat caramel corn. The Prime Minister of the UK is man who went to Eton and Oxford like a score of Prime Ministers before him. The 2016 Presidential Election will be another round of Clinton V Bush. Mad Men was perfect for us & that's why there's been so much lamenting about its departure. But don't worry, like a bad Coca Cola ad or an insincere politician or an entirely invented pop band there will be another Mad Men along soon enough to distract you and me from what's really going on.