The girlfriend and I spent the last day or so watching reruns of season three and I realized something: there’s a distinct difference in the feeling of the show. In the first three seasons everything seems perfect at a moment’s glance. Only when you spend more than a minute scrutinizing just about anything do you realize it’s all an illusion. The Drapers aren’t the fabled perfect family of the 60s. Don isn’t the benevolent leader or ideal man with a perfect life. Bert Cooper isn’t the razor sharp titan of industry. And Sterling Cooper isn’t some kind of professional utopia.

Far from it. Sterling Cooper is full of horny clumsy businessmen. Betty and Don Draper are trying to convince themselves that they’re in a satisfying marriage. Betty also isn’t content being a housewife. Bert Cooper is an increasingly senile Asia obsessed businessman. Don is incredibly unfaithful and prone to crabby fits. Oh and he’s also hiding his real identity and somewhat of a homophobe. Roger Sterling thinks the solution to his dissatisfaction with life involves leaving his wife for a secretary(and in the process endangering Sterling Cooper). Conrad Hilton and Don Draper aren’t a perfect match. The list goes on but the first look doesn’t suggest any of that.

But in season 4 the illusion is lifted. It’s easy to see that nothing is perfect. Don Draper is clearly not the ace ad man —or father or husband or lover— that he comes off as. Betty is obviously a bad mother and housewife and quite possibly nuts. The office of Sterling Cooper Draper Price looks cramped and ugly and business isn’t as easy as it used to be. Just landing an account is a struggle.

The difference between season 4 and its predecessors, I think, is how Mad Men deals with the changing times of the 60s. Things are changing for the folks of Sterling Cooper but not in the way that perfectly captures everything that was going on in the 60s. Don isn’t becoming a hippie. Roger isn’t going back to war. Betty isn’t experimenting with drugs. Those things are all in the show but either a degree away or just not happening to these particular people because that’s not how it was for every single person in the 60s. It’s all there but only where it’s appropriate and makes sense.

—Daniel

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Via The Edge of The American West, Adam Curtis has some interesting reflections on Mad Men. Here’s a snippet:

In Mad Men we watch a group of people who live in a prosperous society that offers happiness and order like never before in history and yet are full of anxiety and unease. They feel there is something more, something beyond. And they feel stuck.

I think we are fascinated because we have a lurking feeling that we are living in a very similar time. A time that, despite all the great forces of history whirling around in the world outside, somehow feels stuck. And above all has no real vision of the future.

And as we watch the group of characters from 50 years ago, we get reassurance because we know that they are on the edge of a vast change that will transform their world and lead them out of their stifling technocratic order and back into the giant onrush of history.

The question is whether we might be at a similar point, waiting for something to happen. But we have no idea what it is going to be.

Read the rest here.

—Daniel

A few years ago I used to think Old Spice products smelled terrible. I toyed with the idea of buying Old Spice deodorant a few times but I could never find a type their deodorant that I actually liked. Then suddenly —I’m not sure when or why— I started wearing it,  I found a brand I liked (Arctic Force) and then kept buying it. I got approval from my girlfriend and saved a few bucks in the process because Old Spice cost about a dollar less than the other deodorant I had been buying (keep in mind I’m a lowly college student. A dollar is equivalent to about $10 for regular folks).

Soon enough I found myself buying the Old Spice body wash. This came around the time that I started noticing the new Old Spice commercials with Isaiah Mustafah —the ones that exaggerated the virtues of wearing Old Spice farther than any other deodorant commercial, and that’s saying something!

As my friends started to notice and love those commercials too, I started to check out Old Spice’s website so that I could see the newest funny videos. In the process I was introduced to the latest Old Spice body washes and I tried them out.

As I think back to the earliest days of my Old Spice use I wonder if I would be such a faithful buyer if I the commercials weren’t so funny, and if Old Spice hadn’t advertised on youtube, t.v., its website, and twitter. It may have been in part just because their product got better. One can’t be completely sure about these things but I doubt it. I think what really roped me in was Old Spice’s commitment to continually make funny as hell commercials like this one in addition to having a good product:

The larger moral of this story is that effective advertising doesn’t just have to be funny or just have to be for a good product or just have to be on t.v. and the internet, it has to be all these things.

—Daniel

In the Old Fashioned Hangover post below I inked to this blogpost at the New York Review of Books blog. In giving that post a more thorough read just now I was struck by this line:

How else can one begin to describe the series’ principal protagonists, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Betty Draper (January Jones), except in terms of their dazzling good looks, which so effectively distract us from their underlying weirdness?

This season especially, it’s becoming apparent how imperfect both Don and Betty are. Betty’s new mother in law hit the target when she described Betty as a “silly person” and it’s hard not to see that Don is not the perfect coworker, husband, and father that he appeared to be when the show began (especially lately) but did the viewer think otherwise because of how perfect the Draper family looked? Or was it an evolution of small little quirks that, over the course of four seasons, became undeniably bizarre personality traits?

—Daniel

Speaking of baffling Mad Men criticism, it looks like the Atlantic is trying to corner the market. Exhibit B: Sady Doyle’s new blog post, that begins, inauspiciously, by dismissing discussion of the show’s narrative and character development as “pointless” because the show is, ” famous for a look and a mood, not a story,” and doesn’t really rebound from there.

Here’s the takeaway, regarding the show’s treatment of misogyny:

To be fair, Mad Men doesn’t hesitate to show the ugly side of these attitudes; they’re not glamorized in quite the same way as, say, drinking Scotch five times a day. But the show also affords viewers an illusion of moral superiority. We’re encouraged to shake our heads at these men and their outdated attitudes, but by presenting discrimination as a shocking feature of a past era, Mad Men lets us imagine that it’s just one more of those things that We Don’t Do Any More.

(Aside #1: I’d seriously contest Doyle’s claim that the show “glamorizes” heavy drinking. Don Draper’s drunkenness this season is a big part of what’s made him so pathetic. And don’t get me started on Freddy Rumsen before he hopped on the wagon.)

And here’s some of the evidence (emphasis mine):

But something about the show’s Grand Guignol presentation of discrimination and contempt for women makes it feel unfamiliar: Our own lives, after all, are nowhere near this dramatic. And the fact that it’s all being undergone by people in funny, old-fashioned outfits makes it feel comfortably distant.

I don’t really know what to say to this. Essentially Doyle seems to be criticizing Mad Men for being a work of fiction. Which is pretty much inarguable, so, er, guilty?

I can’t comment on how accurately Mad Men captures the experience of being victimized by sexism, since I’m obviously speaking from a position of privilege. But it seems to me that the purpose of fiction is not the same as documentary; a successful drama does not capture unedited real life, but a fully realized aesthetic vision that should be judged more by its fidelity to the spark of life than to the mundane details of life itself. Otherwise, why even bother with narrative art?

As for Doyle’s larger point: Any good period piece is as much about the time in which it is made (not to mention the timeless human concerns all good fiction must address) as the time in which it is set. I have no doubt that some members of Mad Men’s audience walk away feeling smug and secure in their belief that we have virtually eliminated misogyny in the modern world. But Doyle’s going to have to show more work than she does here to convince me that this is a flaw in the show itself rather than a flaw in interpretation. The casual harassment, coercion and rape that occur on the show are certainly things that can and do happen today, or else the show would not be anywhere near as vital and relevant as a piece of social commentary.

Sure, some of the audience will undoubtedly miss the point. That’s the risk with good art. It doesn’t hold your hand and force a lesson down your throat, because good art is more concerned with questions than answers. Freezing the frame at a moment of patriarchy in action and having Jon Hamm appear onscreen, Rod Serling-style, to say, “And the same thing is going on in America TO THIS VERY DAY,” would sap those scenes of their visceral impact, let alone any of their aesthetic qualities. Besides: It wouldn’t be very realistic, would it?

(Aside #2: For those keeping score at home, yes, writers for the Atlantic have now accused Mad Men of failing to be a totally accurate representation of real life; and also of failing to turn its characters into Brechtian archetypes. Confusing!)

Crossposted at my home blog.

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Old Fashioned Hangover

August 7, 2010

  • Jon Hamm is in a new movie that looks kind of like The Departed:
  • Why do Miller Light ads have to make women seem like they uniformly don’t like to have fun?
  • Speaking of bad ads, will Olive Garden ever actually start trying to advertise?
  • Here‘s the sneak peak of tomorrow’s episode.
  • Not all the fashion inspired by Mad Men is a good idea.
  • Christina Hendricks on the cover of the Britain’s GQ this month. Read the interview here.
  • There’s a lot of detail that goes into warddrobe and set design on Mad Men notes the New York Review of Books blog.
  • New York, arguably the best magazine on the Mad Men beat, has a Q&A with Alexa Alemanni, who plays Don’s new secretary.
  • Brazilian ad agency Moma tries out a 60s style ad campaign for the web:

What else deserves a link?

—Daniel

One thing I should make clear is that I think Christina Hendricks is the Millenial generation’s Helen of Troy or Marilyn Monroe. But like a lot of things, I think Hendricks is also grossly misunderstood most of the time. This article is a perfect example of so much that’s wrong with the way the media has approached Christina Hendricks: Read the rest of this entry »

The new season of Mad Men has brought with it a flood of new pop criticism and commentary, but most of it has been fairly shallow, even execrable. A series of particularly lame attempts from the Atlantic, the National Review and Katie Roiphe at the New York Times left Dara and me scratching our heads. Why was it all so bad?

Here’s our attempt at an answer.

Dara: So, first things first. Are we in basic agreement that criticism of Mad Men needs to move beyond the question of whether or not the early 1960s sucked?

Ned: Good god yes. Although I’d say the problem is a little broader than that: it’s more that pretty much any political reading of Mad Men, whether it is specific to the decade or not, ends up being a dull culture war retread. Take that article you shared with me from the Atlantic, for example. You coined (or at least I think you did) the great term “anti-aesthetic representationalism” to describe that piece, so I was wondering if you might want to talk a bit about what that means.

Dara: It was actually “anti-aesthetic presentism,” but I’d be interested to see why you went for representationalism instead.

I’ve actually concluded that the critics who are obsessed with discussing Mad Men for its politics are doing so with really good intentions. They’re trying to answer the question of “Why do we, collectively, enjoy this show so much? What does it say about us?” which is the end of cultural criticism (or one of them). But it’s the end for a reason–that’s supposed to come after you’ve actually watched the thing, and related to the characters, and thought about their choices, and do all the things you’re supposed to do with drama. Not assuming that it’s some sort of medieval morality play and that, for instance, Betty is a stand-in for the Feminine Mystique, and any choices she makes that Friedan couldn’t have predicted are wrong.

So for me it comes down to letting the characters be individuals–which is why your use of “representation” is so interesting! Explain?

Ned: Slip of the tongue. Although I think it had a lot to do with all of this discussion about what characters represent. The “medieval morality play” sensibility is a good way of putting it, because it seems like a lot of these articles are predicated on the notion that these characters are Brechtian stand-ins for different ideologies and worldviews.

And sure, some of them function like that to an extent–I’m thinking of Bert Cooper’s Randianism specifically–but it doesn’t exhaust who they are. That’s simply not how interesting literary characters tend to work.

Dara: And even Cooper lets go of the Randianism when it suits him–manipulating Don to sign a contract at the end of Season Two, for example, right?

Ned: Right, exactly.

Dara: But yes. I think you’re absolutely right about Brecht. The irony is that Weiner’s so public about Mad Men being about immersing the viewer in a different world–about as far from Brecht as you can get. Which is how you have, for example, Jon Hamm coming off as really curt and flippant in that TIME interview when he dismissed criticism of the show’s exploration of race and gender.

Ned: I haven’t read that. What was the gist?

Dara: He basically said “Look, we’re not making a documentary of the 60s, this is an exploration of these particular people’s lives”

Ned: Exactly! Yes! And I think the National Review column is particularly egregious about this. The author concedes that some of Don’s philosophical contradictions could be part of his character development, but then immediately dismisses that idea, because she has a thesis to pursue, dammit.

Dara: YES. The notion that Don is The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is just idiotic. Don was weird to everyone else on the show from the first episode!

Though to their credit, I’m beginning to see a little more recognition among the critics that Don and Betty, at least, are actually just strange people.

But I’d like to see that with the rest of the cast as well. You mentioned Bert. I think Joan is a really great example–she’s a very strong woman who for much of the show has been happy, but the critics haven’t focused on that because she uses sex in a way that Ought to be degrading

Ned: True. Although it has been equally frustrating to watch this realization dawn on them four seasons and many years of academic English schooling too late. That was what irked me more about the Atlantic piece more than anything else.

“Betty is hardly an epitome of 1960s feminism.” Wow, you think so?

Dara: The critics seem about as unwilling to let Betty deserve her unhappiness as to let Joan deserve her happiness. It’s good to talk about how characters’ choices are constricted–but you should still take the choices they make seriously.

Ned: Right.

Dara: I know my take on this tends to be focused on the women, maybe because of the blogs I read, and Don is sort of an easy target. What about the rest of the cast?

Ned: Well there’s not a whole lot written about the rest of the cast, sadly. I suppose Pete, Roger and Peggy aren’t as instantly iconic as the Drapers.

Dara: Well, Roger tends to be a stand-in for the “THEY DID NAUGHTY THINGS AND DIDN’T GET JUDGED” subvariety of criticism. The Roiphe strain, if you will

Ned: Ah, true. Can we talk about the Roiphe article for a bit?

It’s basically a sequel to her famous “Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace don’t have enough hot sweaty dicking in their books” article from awhile back. I suppose I can’t fault her for consistency, but it’s an oddly blinkered view through which to tackle literature. In the case of Mad Men, her conclusions are staggeringly banal.

Maybe I’m being unfair here, but I wasn’t able to glean any insight beyond, “People watch Mad Men because they enjoy escapist fantasies about drinking too much and having affairs without consequences.” Which is really weird because, 1) look at what happens to Don this season, and 2) that’s kind of like saying, “People watch Star Trek because they like spaceships and menacing aliens.” I mean, yes. But also, no shit.

Dara: Exactly! Roiphe’s Mad Men is not a show I’d want to watch more than three episodes of. Not with the sound on, at least.

Ned: That show actually exists, though it’s not called “Roiphe’s Mad Men.” I believe the name is Desperate Housewives.

Dara: Thank heavens Desperate Housewives hasn’t captured the imagination of fashion designers. I prefer a nation of would-be Christina Hendrickses to a nation of would-be Eva Longorias.

Ned: Amen.

But back to literary criticism. As much as I’d love to talk more about Christina Hendricks.

I think the common thread running through all of these articles is how remarkably facile their conclusions are, which I blame on two things: One is the standard complaint about the sorry state of mainstream pop culture criticism and the laziness of the people who practice it for major publications.

Dara: Well, you nailed it at the beginning–it’s just another front in the culture wars. There’s no admission that pop culture might not be colored in red and blue

Ned: But the other has to do with Mad Men itself, and it’s not so much a complaint as the show’s greatest strength.

The characters really are truly deeply shaded and almost opaque. You’ve got to do a lot of work to get an impression of these people that can’t be totally upended in a few episodes.

That’s what makes it, in my view, literature.

Of course, doing that work is significantly harder than just roughly mapping the characters onto your understanding of these political archetypes

Dara: This ought to be such a rewarding show for criticism–it should take a few blog posts to understand why Peggy is dating this twerp she’s dating, or whether Don has really hit rock bottom or if he actually has a plan

Ned: Yeah. Which is why I suppose for the good stuff we’ll have to wait until either this season or the whole series ends and someone publishes a book.

Dara: Or we could write real blog posts about it for the rest of the season and hope it catches on.

Ned: Sounds like a plan.

Old Fashioned Hangover

August 3, 2010

Editor’s note: Introducing Mad Men Shrugged’s Old Fashioned Hangover, a roundup of Mad Men and Mad Men related links.

What else is link worthy?

—Daniel

Mad Men’s Love Theme

August 2, 2010

Disclaimer: I have to wait a day before I see the latest episode so I’ve avoided reading any commentary about the show, even Ned’s which, I’m sure, is excellent. The following is my immediate raw reaction from seeing the episode about three minutes ago.

I must admit I didn’t like the season premiere, this one was much better. Now that the viewer is a bit more oriented it’s easier to pay attention to the parts of the show that are most interesting. For me that’s the theme of love this season. Unlike past seasons love and romance play a much bigger role in the show. To be clear, I’m not talking about sex. There was plenty more of that in the previous seasons. Rather, I’m talking about actual physical-emotional connections.

We know things are extremely bleak for Don these days because he’s sleeping with hookers, breaking his no-sex-with-coworkers rule, and failing to capitalize on romantic opportunities that cross his path. What I like most about this theme for Don is that he’s also experiencing a highly consistent truism that when you look for love you can’t find it, and when you don’t, you can. I don’t think I’ve seen anything more timeless than that in the entirety of the show. That implies another truth about love: even the best looking among us aren’t free from the agonies and loneliness of love.

The love theme affects other characters too. We didn’t see too much of Betty and Francis’s relationship —clearly imperfect à la last episode— but we did see a fair amount with Peggy, who is often the show’s greatest enigma (at least I think so). I can understand why she didn’t tell her boyfriend that she’s had sex before, she’s in denial that her affair with Pete and their child ever happened. Completely pretending it’s a fiction means leaving no air for that truth to breathe. But what’s really interesting to me is the fear she showed in this episode about being alone on New Year’s eve. “I don’t want to be alone on New Year’s” she said. That’s a common fear for just about everyone, especially the most lovesick amongst us. And the expected result is she does something she’s not ready for: sleep with her boyfriend.

Over all I found this episode to be a refreshing, if a bit high and mighty, exploration of a few major themes about love. The moral, as Freddy Rumsen eloquently put it, is that “it’s not a joke.”

—Daniel