Why Is Most Popular Commentary on Mad Men So Terrible?
August 4, 2010
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.
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.
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.