The Mad Men Can’t Quite Get Hold Of Me

A year or so ago, I wrote my first brief response to AMC’s Mad Men. Three episodes in, I described it as ‘grim’ and a ‘serious downer’. Now, five seasons in, I’m still inclined to that description. (The fact that it has  taken me this long to come close to exhausting Netflix’s online repository of its episodes should indicate I haven’t indulged in any kind of binge viewing and have been happy enough to suspend watching the show for a variety of reasons–like watching other television series and movies.)

I do not mean to be reductive in my take on Mad Men. I find its writing enjoyable and like many other viewers find Roger Sterling‘s lines particularly memorable (indeed, I often find myself wishing he was given more screen time); I appreciate its careful attention to its ‘look and feel’ – its sumptuous interiors and clothes most notably; I am cognizant the show attempts to highlight the misogyny, gender discrimination and racism of days gone by. This is a very slick and smart show in many ways.

But for all that, it simply isn’t compelling enough. I do not know if there is a story in there somewhere or whether I am merely paying witness to an episodic dysfunction of family, society and business. Perhaps I have made matters worse by watching it in the distracted fashion I have employed, but this consideration seems to involve a rather insuperable chicken-and-egg question: Was I distracted because Mad Men didn’t grab me, or was I not grabbed because I was distracted?

Perhaps it’s because I find Don Draper utterly vapid and uninteresting. I do not know if Draper is supposed to cut a tragic figure or whether my reaction is the appropriate one to have to a man of Madison Avenue. Perhaps the writers of the show have succeeded in making me realize the shallowness of the advertising executive.

Perhaps the show’s attempts to serve as a chronicle of the times don’t always work; I’m not sure why, but its references to, and attempts to integrate, ‘the world outside’ –as in its incorporation of the JFK assassination, the civil rights struggle, the death of Marilyn Monroe–sometimes feel forced.

But in the end, I think the reason I don’t find Mad Men as compelling as many others do remains the same as I articulated in my original post: I find advertising and its business and supposed creativity not very interesting at all. (It doesn’t help I consider mass advertising to have had a ruinous effect on political discourse in the US.) I am not intrigued by the processes that bring ad copy and art to life; I do not imagine those who work in advertising’s creative departments to be inspirational geniuses; (I am intrigued to hear so many of the shows fans say they find Draper’s pitches ‘clever’); I find talk of ‘account servicing’ tedious. These prejudices, I suspect, get in the way of my being able to enjoy the show fully.

Still, the show exerts a peculiar fascination on me; I intend to watch it in its entirety and will write on it again. This post, and my first one, have been rather superficial takes; perhaps my summation will be rather more synoptic and thoughtful.

The Mad Men Are Serious Downers

I’m only three episodes deep into Mad Men, and I’m already struck by how grim the show is. There’s misogyny, sexism, racial and ethnic prejudice, sexual prudery (of a kind), depressing suburban life, loveless marriages, loveless affairs, rigid gender roles, corporate language, the vapidity of advertising, and smoking indoors. And alcohol, lots of it. Mainly martinis and scotch, consumed at all hours of the day, in offices and homes, and during kids’ birthday parties. (I’m not sure if I’ve missed out on anything; I’m sure fans will correct me if I have.)

In using ‘grim’ as a description for the show–which I intend to keep watching for the time being just because it is morbidly fascinating–I do not mean to look past the stylish dressing, the carefully designed interiors, the loving caresses of the whisky and martini glasses, the nostalgia for a time when boys could be boys, white folk could be white folk, and women knew just how to be women, that apparently captivate so many of the show’s fans. Rather, I find that adjective appropriate because despite the apparent cheeriness and cleverness of the office banter, the endless drinking and dining in fashionable Manhattan restaurants, and the freedom to drink in one’s office, no one in the show seems to have had the most minuscule ration of any kind of happiness doled out to them. This is one serious downer of a show.

This should not be entirely surprising. Advertising consumer products requires the careful manufacture and sale of a fantasy, one underwritten by a corporate imperative. What Mad Men does quite well, whether deliberately or not, is to depict participation in that fantasy-mongering as an ultimately soulless, dispiriting enterprise. After all, if you’re shoveling it all day and all night, wouldn’t you find your life a serious drag? Once this is realized, the near-constant drinking suddenly becomes much more understandable; who wouldn’t need a few stiff ones to navigate through the lives these folks lead? Pour me a large one, please.

The dispiriting effect of Madison Avenue is not restricted to the office and the boardroom; it spreads out into homes and suburbs too.  As an advertising account executive, if you spend one-third of your life talking in platitudes, and spinning yards and yards of not particularly clever mumbo-jumbo, there is a good chance you’ll bring home that contagious emptiness with you and let it infect everyone and anyone around you. Resuming drinking at home seems like a good way to deal with these domestic blues.

The show’s writing is clever in parts, and the pretty displays of archaic behaviors and attitudes are certainly generative of the morbid fascination I mentioned above. For the time being, I will plough on, hoping that the Mad Folk don’t harsh my mellow too severely in the weeks to come.

Note: I read Daniel Mendelsohn‘s memorable review of Mad Men a while ago, long before I had seen a single episode of the show. I intend to reread it once I’m a couple of seasons deep.