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Bad Men
February 4, 2011 6:03 AM   Subscribe

'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.' Daniel Mendelsohn dislikes Mad Men.
posted by verstegan (152 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
I disagree.
posted by saturday_morning at 6:09 AM on February 4, 2011 [14 favorites]


sleekly suited, chain-smoking, hard-drinking advertising executives dream up ingeniously intuitive campaigns for cigarettes and bras and airlines while effortlessly bedding beautiful young women or whisking their Grace Kelly–lookalike wives off to business trips in Rome

somebody's jealous.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 6:10 AM on February 4, 2011


Here's another telling paragraph:

As I have already mentioned, the actual stuff of Mad Men‘s action is, essentially, the stuff of soap opera: abortions, secret pregnancies, extramarital affairs, office romances, and of course dire family secrets; what is supposed to give it its higher cultural resonance is the historical element. When people talk about the show, they talk (if they’re not talking about the clothes and furniture) about the special perspective its historical setting creates—the graphic picture that it is able to paint of the attitudes of an earlier time, attitudes likely to make us uncomfortable or outraged today.

This "central thing" has almost nothing to do with my enjoyment of the show. This dude is a hater, and his point is moot. Pshaw I say to him. And fooey.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:10 AM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Don Draper doesn't like haters.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:12 AM on February 4, 2011


the actual stuff of Mad Men‘s action is, essentially, the stuff of soap opera: abortions, secret pregnancies, extramarital affairs, office romances, and of course dire family secrets

I suppose he has a stunning script written for television that relies on zero of these scenarios? Good luck with that.
posted by hermitosis at 6:13 AM on February 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


I kind of hated this review. It's like he's watching a completely different show. To take just one especially bad moment: "In Mad Men, everyone chain-smokes, every executive starts drinking before lunch, every man is a chauvinist pig, every male employee viciously competitive and jealous of his colleagues, every white person a reflexive racist (when not irritatingly patronizing)." Given that there are myriad exceptions to each of these blanket generalizations, I feel like the piece's judgment ultimately relies on Mendelsohn's own refusal of any possibility of subtlety on the part of the writers, directors, and actors -- which is frankly Mendelsohn's problem, not Matthew Weiner's.

I also can't imagine how Mendelsohn can possibly find it surprising that most people who watch Mad Men aren't Don Draper's age. He'd be in his eighties! He's a bit out of the demo.
posted by gerryblog at 6:14 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


what is supposed to give it its higher cultural resonance is the historical element.

And you go on to prove this in your next sentence, dude. Did you not read what you wrote? It has cultural resonance because of its historical context. Duh.
posted by rtha at 6:14 AM on February 4, 2011


Daniel Mendelsohn is an idiot.

Works of art are unavoidably metacommentaries on life in the present; what good would a show about the past be if it didn't speak to our present experience?

Also, I hate, hate, hate, the criticism of any type of storytelling as "merely a soap opera". Many of the best stories are soap operas, eg, serials based on archetypes. It's a wonderfully flexible method of storytelling that allows for relatability and excitement right from the first chapter and can be infinitely extended because it follows the pace of life.
posted by lesli212 at 6:16 AM on February 4, 2011 [25 favorites]


Well, You know. It's TV.

I disagree with you Daniel. Loudly. And when I am cool enough to be published in the New York Review of Books I too will become a glib contrarian.
posted by IvoShandor at 6:17 AM on February 4, 2011


As I watched the first season, the characters and their milieu were so unrelentingly repellent that I kept wondering whether the writers had been trying, unsuccessfully, for a kind of camp—for a tartly tongue-in-cheek send-up of Sixties attitudes. (I found myself wishing that the creators of Glee had gotten a stab at this material.)

I'm sorry, but you cannot call out Mad Men for shallow acting and incoherent plots and mention Glee anywhere in the same article, even if to backhandedly compliment its campiness. I love Glee despite its autotune, unawesome acting, shaky writing, and WTF? plots.
posted by rtha at 6:20 AM on February 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


I've never seen the show, so I can't say if Mendelsohn's comments are accurate, but I liked his conclusion:
The point of identification is, in the end, not Don but Sally, not Betty but Glen: the watching, hopeful, and so often disillusioned children who would grow up to be this program’s audience, watching their younger selves watch their parents screw up.

Hence both the show’s serious failings and its strong appeal. If so much of Mad Men is curiously opaque, all inexplicable exteriors and posturing, it occurs to you that this is, after all, how the adult world often looks to children; whatever its blankness, that world, as recreated in the show, feels somehow real to those of us who were kids back then. As for the appeal: Who, after all, can resist the fantasy of seeing what your parents were like before you were born, or when you were still little—too little to understand what the deal was with them, something we can only do now, in hindsight?
posted by russilwvong at 6:23 AM on February 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


...on the screen, the endless succession of leering junior execs and crude jokes and abusive behavior all meant to signal “sexism” doesn’t work—it’s wearying rather than illuminating.

This is the main reason I found the show unwatchable. Yes - I get it: all men were sexist, backstabbing pigs hellbent on drinking a screwing around. And just when the writiers think you may have forgotten this important aspect, BANG! they hit you over the head with it again. At least the Sopranos had the common courtesy to not treat it's viewers like complete idiots.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 6:27 AM on February 4, 2011 [16 favorites]


Disclaimer: I watched about half of the first season.

Yeah, I found the constant sexism offputting, but even more than that was just that it was boring. The sequences where the ad guys were pitching to the customers were interesting, but by and large it was people I couldn't get interested in having problems I couldn't find interesting. I thought the "soap opera" criticism was valid- it's drama drama drama, and while I'm fine with that if I like or am interested in the characters, the stars of Mad Men were alternately repellent and boring.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:30 AM on February 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


The first half of the first season is the clumiest in the entire show and I also found it a bit tiresome at times. That being said, it gets way, way better after that.
posted by proj at 6:32 AM on February 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


hermitosis: I suppose he has a stunning script written for television that relies on zero of these scenarios? Good luck with that.

So your point is that all TV drama is terrible? I'm glad we agree.
posted by public at 6:34 AM on February 4, 2011


Well, I like Mad Men enough for the both of us Daniel.
posted by Hop123 at 6:34 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, I hate, hate, hate, the criticism of any type of storytelling as "merely a soap opera".

QFT.

Soap Operas and Mad Men are both melodramas. You can not like melodramas, but it's a perfectly good means of telling stories.

It's not the first time that mid-century America has been used a setting for melodrama and a foil to current issues, see Far from Heaven for example.

I also think he's wrong about the generational appeal of Mad Men. Anecdotal, but I bought my parents the first season, and they went out and rented the rest. They enjoyed reminiscing, the story, comparing to today, etc.
posted by device55 at 6:37 AM on February 4, 2011


My god, Daniel. You've just described all plotted TV. De gustibus non disputandum est and all that.
Kill your TV but don't waste my time with your drivelations.
posted by beelzbubba at 6:37 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


At least the Sopranos had the common courtesy to not treat it's viewers like complete idiots.

I still love how The Sopranos has, a couple of episodes in, that episode where Tony takes his daughter to visit colleges and oh by the way brutally murders an informant. Just in case you were thinking this guy has some kind of moral center, just in case you'd forgotten, since this episode is about a guy and his relationship with his child, here he is brutally murdering a man for testifying against him and his.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:38 AM on February 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


Mark Greif in the LRB didn't like it much either.
posted by Mocata at 6:39 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure how you could write a show set in the early 1960s and not have the characters be horrible sexist and racist. It really was a different world back then.
posted by octothorpe at 6:39 AM on February 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


But surely we can agree that the lighting design at least shows a degree of professionalism? And the dialogue editing is the work of a true artist.
posted by Naberius at 6:41 AM on February 4, 2011


Warning: spoilers!

(shit)
posted by mahershalal at 6:43 AM on February 4, 2011


"The point of identification is, in the end, not Don but Sally, not Betty but Glen: the watching, hopeful, and so often disillusioned children who would grow up to be this program’s audience, watching their younger selves watch their parents screw up."

That's it, he has no idea what he's talking about. Or maybe dismissing an entire show's writing as soap opera-y and cliche and then listing all sorts of examples about that completely contradict that statement is just a rhetoric strategy that flies way over my head?
posted by hermitosis at 6:43 AM on February 4, 2011


I dunno, I personally hold nearly every criticism he has (though I don't think he's giving Weiner et al enough credit when he criticizes the "acting and often airless quality of direction, both of which seem like obvious strong stylistic choices, and both of which totally work) but none of them have ever made me enjoy the show any less.

It's a wonderfully engaging, funny, beautifully crafted show full of characters I love to watch. As a viewer, I really don't think I'm owed any more than that.
posted by incomple at 6:44 AM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I agree with this review. I did sort of enjoy the first two seasons of the show, but then it turned into... something else, something in which difficult characters (Sal, Cosgrove, Betty's interesting friends) simply disappeared to be replaced by nothing much, in which historical events were shoehorned in yet given zero plot impact, and even the camerawork seemed to shift perceptibly into frequent, strange full-body catalogue-esque shots, particularly of Betty, often adjacent to fabulous furnishings - almost always THAT FUCKING COUCH! - most complementary to her now fabulous, era-ambiguous apparel, available now at your nearest...! Fuck off. Where's the story gone?
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 6:45 AM on February 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


So your point is that all TV drama is terrible? I'm glad we agree.

You must hate 95% of all movie dramas too.
posted by hermitosis at 6:46 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Your favorite band TV show sucks.
posted by caddis at 6:47 AM on February 4, 2011


So your point is that all TV drama is terrible? I'm glad we agree.

You must hate 95% of all movie dramas too.
posted by hermitosis at 8:46 AM on February 4 [1 favorite +] [!]
Don't forget Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crap
posted by jtron at 6:52 AM on February 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


hermitosis: You must hate 95% of all movie dramas too.

You're right! We have so much in common.
posted by public at 6:52 AM on February 4, 2011


PLEASE someone stick the spoiler tag on this - it gives away a LOT of the plot.

" This is to say that most of the people who are so addicted to the show are either younger adults, to whom its world represents, perhaps, an alluring historical fantasy of a time before the present era’s seemingly endless prohibitions against pleasures once taken for granted (casual sex, careless eating, excessive drinking, and incessant smoking"

I am a 'younger adult' and for me, this is the least interesting aspect of the show. For me, it's a programme about women in the workplace - Peggy, who is on the way up, but has to sacrifice her personal life and her relationships with colleagues, and Joan, who was the Queen Bee and is now aging out of her role. The interesting thing about Don isn't his suits, martinis or mistresses. The 'weren't we awful' parts were larded on a bit in season one. but not so much afterward. It took some time for me to notice that you never saw a black character outside the lift or the maid's room.

"Paul Kinsey, a Princeton graduate who turns out—how or why, we never learn—to be living with a black supermarket checkout girl in Montclair, New Jersey."
We do - because he's a faux liberal, with his beard and his brand new second-hand copy of Kerouac. She didn't stay with him because ultimately his interest in civil rights was a pose.

The acting comments are balls as well - there are scenes where Sal, Joan or even Sally say so much with a single expression.
posted by mippy at 6:53 AM on February 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


Not even harsh enough. This is a show for people who follow Oprah's book club.
posted by puny human at 7:02 AM on February 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


Mad Men would be much better if it were, like, one-fifth of its current length. Watching that show is like watching a fourteen hour long movie that could have been edited down to three.
posted by painquale at 7:04 AM on February 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


This is a show for people who follow Oprah's book club.

Considering the probably negligible overlap between Oprah's audience and Mad Men's audience, this doesn't even make any sense.
posted by hermitosis at 7:06 AM on February 4, 2011 [10 favorites]


Going against my typical behavior for links that seem critical of something I like, I actually read the entire linked article. I'm not the world's biggest fan of Mad Men, but I enjoy it. A lot.

I think Mendelsohn's points about lolpregnantladiessmoking and lolsexism do have some resonance with season one (which, to me, seemed a little to intent on mattering), but the bulk of his piece constructs, I think, an overwhelming argument that Mad Men is of the caliber of the Sopranos, the Wire, and their ilk. The moments he casts as the few meaningful ones, are some of the best on TV in recent memory, and allude to situations and arcs that drew viewers in (I think honestly): they are not merely moments.

He complains about the show being too simplistic, and then accuses it of not explaining Layne's or Betty's inner thoughts to us. The part of the article where he talks about Weiner, and the kind of espionage of pre-parental parents a show like this affords a certain generation, I think, is quite powerful. And exactly what I like about the show. I think this theme is behind that kid in the Glo-Coat ad that won Don the award; we're both trapped in a world and allowed to imagine it at the same time. I wonder what a 60s Mendelsohn wouldn't consider "re-imagined" would look like, but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have an audience like Mad Men's.

Also, this article totally reads like it was written by someone who resents having to sit through 52 hours of one show in a run. I'm just about finished with a a 4 week binge on the Sopranos (which I had somehow avoided), and I can see myself making some similar arguments about it just because I feel like I've been taken hostage.
posted by activitystory at 7:10 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Not even harsh enough. This is a show for people who follow Oprah's book club.

I can't tell if you're being fiendishly ironic or ignorantly smug.
posted by theefixedstars at 7:15 AM on February 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


I disagreed with the review also. Not least because I think Mad Men acts as an antidote to traditional drama. The setting (time or otherwise) and characterisation (one dimensional at times) acts as a back drop to the production of one of Television's most complex characters: Donald Draper.

I am not American, and so looking over the pond as I do, I admit my perception of the show will be very differently coloured. When I find myself talking about Mad Men it is never about the styles (at times a series of product placements), the historical couplings (Kennedy is killed etc.), or trite revelations ("Pregnant women smoked then..." etc). All these act to maintain the illusion of a single American psyche, constantly engaged in its own fictionalisation.

Mad Men is not a time piece, a period drama. It's a walking, talking, thinking embodiment of America with Donald Draper as its homunculus.
posted by 0bvious at 7:17 AM on February 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


I will never understand why "many other people like this, and I don't" has to lead to "I will now explain WHY other people like it irrationally while I dislike it rationally." It is, to me, literally the least interesting thing you can do with your disagreement. This piece is just a variant of the "why we respond to culture as we do, and by 'we,' I mean 'other people but certainly not me'" cultural criticism that bores me to tears.

I can't understand why he's so uncomfortable holding a minority opinion or why he feels like holding a minority opinion is a quandary requiring close examination. I have lots of them. I didn't particularly respond to The Sopranos, and I have a handful of reasons, but I don't assume other people liked it for irrational, indefensible, or non-quality-related reasons. Inherent in this kind of analysis is the idea that if we were all smart and rational, we would all like and respond to exactly the same art in the same way, which is just patently absurd on its face.

An essay about Mad Men is about Mad Men. An essay about why other people like Mad Men is just an essay about yourself and where you believe you reside in a very regimented world of people who respond to art and culture correctly and incorrectly.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 7:24 AM on February 4, 2011 [43 favorites]


the_very_hungry_caterpillar likes mad men.
posted by the_very_hungry_caterpillar at 7:27 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I hate Don Draper. I hate that Betty is a "bad mom." I hate that this is as good as television gets at this moment. I can't think of a better drama in the recent past that wasn't a police procedural or the story of some other large, violent organization driven and fractured by competing male egos (the mob, Rome, fringe Mormanism) or plagued by the same sexism and mediocrity on lots of levels (Friday Night Lights). I want better. (I want John from Cincinnati!) I hate that it's brutal towards women and yes appears to be romanticizing it on some inescapable level. But I'll still watch it, and I'll still enjoy it. Provided it comes back.
posted by theefixedstars at 7:27 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, agreed with Mippy. I'm a youngish woman in a male-dominated workplace and I love, love, love the Don/Peggy relationship as it's matured since the first season. It is fascinating to watch and easy to identify with (even if things are, in many ways, better today).

The ad campaigns are interesting to see them brainstorm, regardless of how realistic they are. The racism, sexism, and homophobia can get a little "O HAI LOOK AT ME" but they're not inaccurate. The occasional pregnant woman smoking, or picnic litter being left behind, or whatever are, for me, jolting and a good reminder that as I'm all caught up in the (relatively timeless) soap opera portion, this is taking place in a really different world than I'm used to.

I hated the first season. Hated it. Felt like I was forcing myself to get through it. I hated all the characters and found every single one completely unlikable. Now I'm at the point where there are still plenty I don't like, but the interplay between them is really fun and really interesting to watch, both within and outside of the context of the time period.

And I wonder if part of the attraction for the 20s set is that this show makes a big deal out of the Young Whippersnappers In the Office Thinking They're So Great -- Pete and Peggy, mainly. Since everyone loves to tell us Millenials how we act so entitled and above our stations while we try to navigate our workplaces, it's interesting to see Pete and Peggy being treated much the same way by their elders, and see how they work through it. "Kids these days" -- another timeless theme.
posted by olinerd at 7:30 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I loved the first two seasons of Mad Men. The last season deserves all this criticism and more. The first two seasons were strong not because of the story or the soap-opera relationships among the characters. It was interesting because in those first two seasons we were watching the birth of Guy Debord's spectacle and what would become Baudrillard's simulation. Those season were populated by people who are little more than shells, ghosts, moving across a field of magazines and television, either sending or receiving the message "You are nothing without the things you don't have."

The show was richly psychoanalytical in those two seasons--notice that Don's mistresses are all look like his mother (birth and adopted). When Don' meets with his mistress in the first episode of season 1, his first line to her is something along the lines of "I don't want to go to school today"-the words of a boy spoken to his mother. The show was bringing us behind the curtain not to show us the people who brought us the media-saturated world we live in, but rather to show us the condition society was in--the growing alienation--that made consumerism an inevitability. It was television showing the audience what was wrong with it that it likes what is on screen.

Consider also the complete and utter sidelining of Draper's son. Look at the scenes of Don's son carefully - he is always filthy, clothes disheveled, dirt on his face, etc. But we never hear from him, he's not an important character. But his sister is very important. Why? Because as the show hammered home repeatedly in those first two seasons, it's about exploring "What do women want?" with the presumption being that men simply want women. The truth within each characters tragedy is that what they all really want is love and meaning, but that isn't on offer.

Where Medelsohn is correct is in noting how the third and particularly fourth season, driven by the ups and downs of their interpersonal relationships, becomes largely about nothing except those ghosts moving over the face of the television. But those are not characters I can or even want to empathize with, nor is it possible to make them appear likable. Like the Sopranos, ever single character in Mad Men is loathsome, sick, and broken. Their lives are tragic and should descend into the abyss without interruption, and insodoing reflect that the the society they built, the consumerist fantasy that has driven millions into the arms of Prozac and alcohol, was equally sick.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:33 AM on February 4, 2011 [10 favorites]


the endless succession of leering junior execs and crude jokes and abusive behavior all meant to signal “sexism” doesn’t work—it’s wearying

Isn't that how it's supposed to make us feel? Weary? I'm sure that's how it felt for the people of that time/place.
posted by mikepop at 7:36 AM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is a problem I run into frequently when I talk about pop-culture with people.

I like Mad Men. I was pretty disapointed with season 4, but I was very excited when season 5 looked like it was going to head back in the right direction. I literally counted the days of the week down until a new Mad Men every week. I am confidant to say that I am a fan of the show. But I am also very comfortable admitting its faults, flaws and imperfections. It might be one of the best dramas currently airing, or it might not make the list, but either way it's a damn sight from perfect: the camera framing, as mention above, has gone to hell, the show can never decide what story lines matter, so it dabbles in many but seems to think very few out thoroughly, it's riddled with long scenes or story lines that are not slow moving but in fact deliberately added even though they will only be discarded two episodes later, so on and so forth. And tell me about how Joan kept her secret baby and how that was anything other than pathetically weak writing. But somehow, in some people's eyes, that means that I don't actually care for the show. I don't see how that works.

TLDR: I wish "fan" didn't have to be short for "fanatic" for so many people.
posted by paisley henosis at 7:39 AM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's all been downhill since the first season of Dallas.
posted by COBRA! at 7:40 AM on February 4, 2011


Oh bugger, replace all mentions of season 4 with season 3, and season 5 with season 4. I, apparently, can not count.
posted by paisley henosis at 7:41 AM on February 4, 2011


Whoa, this new comment updating feature is blowing my mind! LOVE IT.
posted by activitystory at 7:42 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


A great deal of interest for me isn't the clothing or the booze or the WASPy swagger. Those things seem spelled out for comic effect. I find the depiction of cultural transitions simply fascinating. Joan and Peggy have to be some of the most fascinating characters ever on TV, representing not only a changing of the guard but of America. Both full of ambition, willing to make great sacrifice, you can feel Joan's bitterness seeing Peggy's success develop in a way she could never foresee, the opportunities she could never really hoped for. Peggy's determination and willingness to endure a great deal of pain to escape the world where she came from, even if she can't quite put her finger on what it is she aims for. Just something more. Draper 's remarkable ability to roll with the punches demands a huge degree of detachment from everyone around him. He seems to have a kind of soul mate in Peggy, recognising in her the same desperate drive to reinvent oneself. His patronage of Peggy is but one small step toward the broad cultural change of the time, yet he still seems baffled by some of the circles where he travels, bohemians, ethnic and sexual minorities, unable to figure out their angle.

This is in contrast to Betty, who's fundamentally broken, with no meaning in her life, the closest thing to a soul mate she finds is a similarly isolated boy.

The world of Mad Men is fun for the depiction of all the coarseness, style, and privilege of another class in another era. But I find it riveting for the way the characters deal with each other, and the world around them as they try to carve out a place for themselves.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:46 AM on February 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


I think the article was actually pretty good. I greatly enjoy the show, but I think that sometimes that show does fall prey to some of the flaws he describes. It can be a bit unsubtle at times, and I absolutely agree that the show sometimes tries to have it both ways in terms of its relationship to the era it depicts. But I disagree strongly about the quality of the acting.

Also, I hate, hate, hate, the criticism of any type of storytelling as "merely a soap opera". Many of the best stories are soap operas, eg, serials based on archetypes. It's a wonderfully flexible method of storytelling that allows for relatability and excitement right from the first chapter and can be infinitely extended because it follows the pace of life.

I agree with you 100%, but for my money, I think there's another aspect to the "soap opera" criticism (in general; not so much in the context of this show) that is valid. It happens with a lot of these new-style serial dramas from time to time; the question is whether or not the drama takes the story anywhere, or is it drama for the sake of something "interesting" happening? There is something to defend about the nature of soap operas as long form entertainment. However, there's something else worth criticizing about drama that doesn't move the characters or the story forward. When shows do this, it can be like an action movie for grown ups, in the sense that it's cinematic junk food. Also, when you sense that the writers are just trying to find something for the characters to do, it can be flat out boring.
posted by Edgewise at 7:46 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Inherent in this kind of analysis is the idea that if we were all smart and rational, we would all like and respond to exactly the same art in the same way, which is just patently absurd on its face.

No, that is exactly the wrong conclusion. If we were all smart and rational--and we aren't--we would still like the show for different reasons but we would know why we like it, especially why we like it more than we like other things that look like it.

Let's consider the Sopranos as the last in a long line of mafia stories in film and television. That begins with the original Scarface in the 1930's and extends through the Godfather, the Oliver Stone Scarface remake (remember the rifle Bobby Bakala gives Tony? It's the same gun Tony Montana uses at the climax of Scarface), and through Goodfellas.

The gangster is presented first as an unjustly wronged and misunderstood reactionary, then as a dignified, family-oriented, loyal, even aloof cultural figure set against a corrupt WASP-dominated discriminatory society. In Goodfellas we see them as presented more authentically, as hard drinking, hard living "blue collar guys" (that's the in-film description).

One thing I always hated about Goodfellas was how much certain kind of guys like it. They emulate De Niro or Pesci's mannerisms, and conclude that the characters on film are real men. These men also identified with the sensitivity to respect-who gets it and who gives it.

These people don't seem to realize that Goodfellas was subversively undermining exactly that image. Scorcese depicts these gangsters as pigs. They are ultimately gluttons and brutes. Nearly every single scene of goodfellas includes food in it. And a certain kind of food-cheap--unhealthy comfort food in gross quantities. Always eating and drinking. And there is no respect, there is only fear. What they call respect is only a thinly veiled threat of brutal violence. Do what I say or I'll kill you.

Which is what Goodfellas is really about. Gangsters are not the bullies, they are the bullied, the people who have been so beat up by everyone that they don't have a shred of self-confidence or dignity left. They eat like pigs to soothe their depression. They can easily draw a distinction between violence that "business, not personal" because nothing is personal to any of them. The are incapable of relating to others as people.

The Sopranos drove this point home with the ending of the series. Of course Tony got shot. He's a disgusting horrible monster that has destroyed the lives of everyone around him. Why the hell does anyone want him to live in the end?

This is why I liked Goodfellas and the Sopranos, because they very accurate depicted gangsters, and the people who are enamored of that lifestyle, as gluttonous, depressed narcissists and sociopaths.

There are other reasons to like these films, but those aren't my reasons. But and important part of the statement I quoted at the beginning of this comment is its implicit requirement of insight. Smart and rational should also be insightful. If you liked Goodfellas because you though it was a good "guy movie" and you think that's how real men act, then you aren't smart, rational or insightful.

Same for Mad Men. If you like it fine. Why do you like it? What is resonating with you, and why do you think that aspect resonates with you but not other people?
posted by Pastabagel at 7:54 AM on February 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


This is one of the best pieces of tv criticism I've read in a long time. For a long, long time I've been tired of hearing people gush about the "brilliance" of this incessantly stupid, utterly ahistorical show.

I've gotten to the point where I'm fairly convinced that people shouldn't be allowed to make television shows about history. They inevitably miss the point entirely, giving us some safe, cartoonish view of the past. And when I tell people this, they say it's not about the past, it's about the characters; but that's clearly a canard. The show is supposed to be about characters in the past. And all of it is just a lazy confirmation of everything we liberals (the political faction) feel about the fifties and early sixties: they were a vile, hateful, racist, sexist, evil period, filled with lies and abuse and mordant revelry. That's what we've always thought about that time period, so the show gives us absolutely nothing new; it's easy for us to hate. Those of us who are gen-x/y-ers never saw it, but we love our time far too much, in our typically American, closed-minded way, to love the fifties and early sixties. And those of us who are baby boomers only know this time as the ascendancy of our parents; so it's easy to hate that time, and the 'restrictiveness' against which baby boomers rebelled so vociferously later on.

So the show's stance toward history is, in my mind, notably lazy. And yes, I am aware that television shows have no duty to portray the past accurately. But what bothers me, what worries me a great deal, is the fact that we're rapidly forgetting times that ought to be easy to remember – it's not as though there aren't people alive today who were alive then – through the proliferation of false stereotypes about the past. So vast chunks of the legacy of the late fifties and early sixties fall down the memory hole; principally, in my mind, the fact that the time before the second world war, a time that was undoubtedly and unmistakably in the back of everybody's mind in the fifties and early sixties, was a time of sexual and social freedoms that many of us can't even dream of today. That's one (but only one) of the things that the show utterly misses; the cold, dark, frightening conservatism of the fifties and early sixties was reactionary – and many of those young conservatives we seen in Mad Men would have had parents and aunts and uncles who were more free-thinking than we can imagine.

Having watched a lot of the show, I was consistently disappointed. And over and over again I get the feeling that it's all very indulgent of the way we'd like to see the past: as a terrifying place, and thank god it's different now, right? This is a very common, drab, unfortunate temporal provincialism.

You know what would have been interesting? A show that attempted to portray the early sixties as better than today; a show that went beyond nostalgia and actually offered an indictment of the present in terms of the past. I actually had some hope that Mad Men would do this before I watched it; but it's clear that the people who produce the show are only interested in offering the present fashion tips, not anything so sweeping as a cultural critique.
posted by koeselitz at 8:02 AM on February 4, 2011 [14 favorites]


Well, I found the direction and acting incredibly wooden. I like melodrama that's dramatic, preferably with lots of yelling (the Sopranos, Breaking Bad, etc.) and they just kept showing weird people being non-emotive in an office which is just...meh. Peggy and Joan were awesome but just like in real life, were too often pushed aside in favor of the very dull Don Draper, the irritatingly true-to-life Pete, and other boring self-important men.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:03 AM on February 4, 2011


"One thing I always hated about Goodfellas was how much certain kind of guys like it. They emulate De Niro or Pesci's mannerisms, and conclude that the characters on film are real men. These men also identified with the sensitivity to respect-who gets it and who gives it."

This kind of thing ruins so many good movies or shows. I knew someone who liked The Sopranos in a similar way, and Clerks.
posted by mippy at 8:06 AM on February 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Mad Men, the show, is very much like Don Draper - charismatic, attractive, fun to watch and lost, shallow and boring to listen to. I think the review was about 90% right on. No problem here.
posted by victors at 8:09 AM on February 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


"So vast chunks of the legacy of the late fifties and early sixties fall down the memory hole; principally, in my mind, the fact that the time before the second world war, a time that was undoubtedly and unmistakably in the back of everybody's mind in the fifties and early sixties, was a time of sexual and social freedoms that many of us can't even dream of today. That's one (but only one) of the things that the show utterly misses; the cold, dark, frightening conservatism of the fifties and early sixties was reactionary – and many of those young conservatives we seen in Mad Men would have had parents and aunts and uncles who were more free-thinking than we can imagine."

I'm not American, so the early 60s were a very different time - the 60s proper here really started with the Beatles and McMillan - and maybe this is why I find it so fascinating. There are parts of the history there which I just wasn't aware of - I've read the Feminine Mystique, so Betty the Bryn Mawr housewife made sense to me, but the other archetypes had to slot into my mind.

The show you describe would be the equivalent of, say, one set in 1977 where everyone is a punk, when in reality, punk happened in the cities and the rest of the country still wore flares, listened to Julio Iglesias and shopped at Woolworths, planned their Jubilee parties, and went about their lives without making comment on it.
posted by mippy at 8:10 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not going to read this review and I'm not going to watch this show, but I'm certainly glad SOMEONE is criticizing the shit out of it. I prefer grittier TV shows (just my preference) and Mad Men had always struck me as more of a soap-opera style melodramatic sort of TV show; slow, uninteresting; a good "couples" show perhaps. So it's gratifying to know that my ignorant first impression of a show I never cared to watch is at least SOMEWHAT shared by others in the world.
posted by ReeMonster at 8:15 AM on February 4, 2011


mippy: “The show you describe would be the equivalent of, say, one set in 1977 where everyone is a punk, when in reality, punk happened in the cities and the rest of the country still wore flares, listened to Julio Iglesias and shopped at Woolworths, planned their Jubilee parties, and went about their lives without making comment on it.”

So sort of like This is England. Heh.

No, I really meant I'd like to see a show go past nostalgia into actual indictment of the present. There are plenty of things wrong with the way we are now, and it would be interesting to see a TV show provocatively take the side of the late fifties and early sixties against the present.
posted by koeselitz at 8:16 AM on February 4, 2011


I love the show myself, and I suspect that even though Daniel Mendelsohn dislikes the show, he's going to continue to watch it when it comes back.

"The acting itself is remarkably vacant, for the most part—none more so than the performance of Jon Hamm as Don." - "What?"
posted by rodmandirect at 8:17 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


The show he describes is a successful one, while the alternative he suggests would die miserably after a season on AMC. You figure it out.
posted by cellphone at 8:19 AM on February 4, 2011


it's a programme about women in the workplace

Quoted for emphasis. The review makes some interesting points, particularly the riff at the end about it being a child's eye view of adults behaving badly. But the most telling thing about it is that it mentions Peggy once. In passing. Glibly.

Reasonable people can disagree and all that, but how could you possibly claim to have a clear read on the show and miss entirely the key secondary story arc, the one that gives the show its messy, conflicted moral centre? I.e. the story of Peggy's heartwrenching, quietly tragic, beautifully detailed escape from the cage of traditional midcentury womanhood. Don Draper's brash, alluring culture is a sexy mess in decline - yes, that's the surface gloss. But Peggy's world is ascendent, for good and/or ill - and it's entirely to the show's credit that it has mostly dodged the standard tropes of longsuffering motherhood and sacrifice and eleventh-hour redemption in favour of making Peggy so flawed, so keen to learn to be more ruthless and so agonized by those lessons.

Shallow? Insufficiently gritty? Not if you're paying any attention at all to what's happening with the mousy girl from working-class Brooklyn.
posted by gompa at 8:23 AM on February 4, 2011 [16 favorites]


cellphone: “The show he describes is a successful one, while the alternative he suggests would die miserably after a season on AMC. You figure it out.”

It's not hard to figure it out. Of course Mad Men is a successful show. People love having their biases confirmed.
posted by koeselitz at 8:23 AM on February 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


I should add: The opening sequence of the show introduces the ad agency from Peggy's bewildered perspective. I can't imagine anyone who cut his teeth on Sopranos-scale story arcs did that without a ton of forethought.
posted by gompa at 8:25 AM on February 4, 2011


koeselitz: "You know what would have been interesting? A show that attempted to portray the early sixties as better than today; a show that went beyond nostalgia and actually offered an indictment of the present in terms of the past."

What specifically was better then?
posted by Chrysostom at 8:26 AM on February 4, 2011


The one advantage of this article is that it makes me want to watch "Mad Men," not having up until this point paid much attention to it. Daniel Mendelssohn is one of the most smug, pedantic, and ossified critics in the US media, and anything he likes is something that I know that I'll probably intensely dislike, and vice versa. He's unfortunately a perfect fit for the New York Review of Books because they give their contributors free rein to vomit 5000+-word epics onto the page/screen with almost no editorial intervention, and that's a self-perpetuating wet dream for him. Where else would he be able to indulge himself in words like "aperçu" and "semaphoric" without so much as a moment of hesitation?
posted by blucevalo at 8:30 AM on February 4, 2011


Chrysostom: “What specifically was better then?”

Well, the music, for one thing (not just jazz, but jazz principally). And the first wave of the civil rights movement was just past its peak – a fascinating and noble movement in many ways. People didn't fetishize early adolescence, there was more of a sense of dignity and honor about American life, people were more open-minded in some ways about the lives and cultures of others. Casual sex was more accepted in certain quarters.

These are all interesting and surprising things about the fifties that the show seems to pretty much ignore; insofar as it deals with any of them at all, it shows them negatively.

Finally, I don't know that I would have preferred to live in that time. But it would chiefly be more interesting to see a show that tried to convince me that I should, and that actually had something constructive to say about the way we live now beyond a glowing, happy endorsement of our present lives by way of a detailed negative narrative.
posted by koeselitz at 8:34 AM on February 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


"I knew someone who liked The Sopranos in a similar way, and Clerks."

Where in Jersey was he from? What exit?
posted by Eideteker at 8:34 AM on February 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


So sort of like This is England. Heh.

Sooooort of. More like Citizen Smith.

The interesting thing about Peggy, too, is that *massive spoiler alert* her pregnancy didn't send her home in disgrace. It seemed a bit implausible that it would just happen and disappear (but then perhaps it did with girls who got into trouble then) but we see her slowly leaving the world she's been in - her family, her religion, her part of town, the boys she dates. It's telling that the first actual friend we see her with is very much an outsider too.
posted by mippy at 8:41 AM on February 4, 2011


Eideteker - the M1/A43 junction. That's American cultural imperialism for you.
posted by mippy at 8:42 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah the dignity and honor of my mother having to go to law school in a building with no women's bathroom (only to go on to be the president of a state Bar Association and a judge)

My father being told in front of everyone that he'd get a C in Torts, just like all the other Mexicans

That was awesome. So much dignity and honor.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:44 AM on February 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


People didn't fetishize early adolescence, there was more of a sense of dignity and honor about American life, people were more open-minded in some ways about the lives and cultures of others. Casual sex was more accepted in certain quarters.

How can you say this and decry nostalgia?
posted by rtha at 8:44 AM on February 4, 2011 [7 favorites]


Well, the music , for one thing (not just jazz, but jazz principally).

Nah, music is better now. We have the jazz of the 1960s PLUS everything that's come along since!
posted by mippy at 8:44 AM on February 4, 2011 [7 favorites]


I'm starting to really dislike critics that actually burn calories being judgmentally critical, without offering any real constructive solutions.

I'm thinking that the future of media criticism looks more like RedLetterMedia than anything else. The Mr. Plinkett character provides a take-down, sure, but he also shows you why it's being taken down in the way it is, comparing and contrasting against what could have been.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:46 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


me: “You know what would have been interesting? A show that attempted to portray the early sixties as better than today; a show that went beyond nostalgia and actually offered an indictment of the present in terms of the past.”

Chrysostom: “What specifically was better then?”

me: “People didn't fetishize early adolescence, there was more of a sense of dignity and honor about American life, people were more open-minded in some ways about the lives and cultures of others. Casual sex was more accepted in certain quarters.”

rtha: “How can you say this and decry nostalgia?”

Ah, so this is a trap, isn't it? You get me to give examples of things that might have been better, then you say I'm just nostalgic.

It's not necessarily nostalgia to be critical about the present. That was my point. And it's not necessarily nostalgia to offer examples of things that other times have done better than ours.
posted by koeselitz at 8:53 AM on February 4, 2011


Today I learned that my total apathy about Mad Men extends even to contrarian critics bashing Mad Men. It's like this show is composed of pure anti-interest for me, which annihilates any incoming particles of interest I emit and releases a tiny burst of distraction.

Oh hey what's that shiny thing?
posted by rusty at 8:56 AM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Kind of weird to post in a thread about how you are utterly uninterested in the content of the links or any of the discussion.

*goes to do this in every Star Wars/Python thread ever minted*
posted by mippy at 8:58 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


It took me a season and a half to like Mad Men. My biggest complaint was the constant overt reminders that this was the early 1960s and how things were sooooo different then. People smoked, and drank at work, and didn't wear seatbelts. They were sexist and racist, and did I mention they smoked? There was no subtlety to it and it overshadowed the actual plots.
posted by rocket88 at 9:02 AM on February 4, 2011


The main thrust of that article is one that I find so tiring in media criticism, that of not just criticizing the work, but making judgements about those who hold a different opinion of the work than the critic. So many critics these days are more interested in telling the public why their opinions are wrong than to keep the focus on the work itself.
posted by xingcat at 9:09 AM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


My biggest complaint was the constant overt reminders that this was the early 1960s and how things were sooooo different then. ... There was no subtlety to it and it overshadowed the actual plots.

I see the point, but part of that is the television medium itself. You cannot assume that all of your viewers will have seen everything that has gone before, so you must do something to reintroduce characters and themes in every episode. Plot-wise, you can get away with "Previously, on Mad Med..." introductions to catch people up. But thematically, you have to hit it on some level just about every time.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:11 AM on February 4, 2011


So this guy waited four seasons before saying he didn't like it?
posted by orme at 9:12 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ah, so this is a trap, isn't it? You get me to give examples of things that might have been better, then you say I'm just nostalgic.

No, I'm saying that saying something like there was more of a sense of dignity and honor about American life, is a huge nostalgia trap in large part because it's terribly subjective and incredibly vague. What do you mean by dignity? Honor? And who had that sense? At what cost? Better for whom?

Nostalgia is something that allows us to gloss over nuance and difficulty and moral grey areas (as well as outright terrible ones); all we can see is a warm glow that hides what reality actually was for millions of people.

And the first wave of the civil rights movement was just past its peak – a fascinating and noble movement in many ways.


This right here is nostalgia. It's historical distance + the privilege of never having to risk getting killed for wanting to vote or go to school or sit anyplace you like on a bus. To ignore its imperfections, internal struggles, and the very real risks that its participants took is to do it a great disservice.
posted by rtha at 9:14 AM on February 4, 2011 [11 favorites]


The main thrust of that article is one that I find so tiring in media criticism, that of not just criticizing the work, but making judgements about those who hold a different opinion of the work than the critic. So many critics these days are more interested in telling the public why their opinions are wrong than to keep the focus on the work itself.
posted by xingcat


This, big time. I can't stand that approach; and honestly, when people take it, I wind up seeing the critic as a sulking teen, sitting on the sidelines reassuring himself about how much cooler he is than the herd.
posted by COBRA! at 9:15 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Favoriting beezlbubba for "drivelations".
posted by whuppy at 9:17 AM on February 4, 2011


The show he describes is a successful one, while the alternative he suggests would die miserably after a season on AMC. You figure it out.

By that logic CSI is the pinnacle of televisual art.

The show is trite and hackneyed and maybe if it were played just for fun it could still be good but it is so endlessly earnest about itself and its boring little world that it's just completely unbearable.
posted by enn at 9:20 AM on February 4, 2011


I want better. (I want John from Cincinnati!)

Does not compute. And I enjoyed the ridiculous experimental mess that was John from Cincinnati, but only because it was a ridiculous experimental mess.
posted by eyeballkid at 9:22 AM on February 4, 2011


...the problem with Mad Men is that it suffers from a hypocrisy of its own. As the camera glides over Joan’s gigantic bust and hourglass hips, as it languorously follows the swirls of cigarette smoke toward the ceiling, as the clinking of ice in the glass of someone’s midday Canadian Club is lovingly enhanced, you can’t help thinking that the creators of this show are indulging in a kind of dramatic having your cake and eating it, too: even as it invites us to be shocked by what it’s showing us (a scene people love to talk about is one in which a hugely pregnant Betty lights up a cigarette in a car), it keeps eroticizing what it’s showing us, too. For a drama (or book, or whatever) to invite an audience to feel superior to a less enlightened era even as it teases the regressive urges behind the behaviors associated with that era strikes me as the worst possible offense that can be committed in a creative work set in the past: it’s simultaneously contemptuous and pandering. Here, it cripples the show’s ability to tell us anything of real substance about the world it depicts.

Does Mendelsohn not realize that this is a show about advertising? in particular, advertising for a cigarette brand is a key plot point throughout multiple story arcs. Teasing "the regressive urges behind the behaviors" depicted is what advertising is all about. The whole damn point of the show is "eroticizing what it's showing us." I find it difficult to believe that a writer for NYRB could miss the allusion here. Not to mention, the show's obsession with smoking makes the end of Season 4 that much more interesting.
posted by Guernsey Halleck at 9:23 AM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


rtha: “This right here is nostalgia. It's historical distance + the privilege of never having to risk getting killed for wanting to vote or go to school or sit anyplace you like on a bus. To ignore its imperfections, internal struggles, and the very real risks that its participants took is to do it a great disservice.”

Okay. That's why I said that last bit – this is why it would be interesting to see a show do this. I am not some heartless lover of the 1950s. It seems difficult for me to imagine that most people living in the 50s – particularly anyone who was black or didn't have a penis – would have preferred their own time to ours. But it would be fascinating to see a show that tried to say that our time is problematic, and that their time was better than ours in certain ways. Much more interesting than seeing a show simply confirm our negative biases.
posted by koeselitz at 9:24 AM on February 4, 2011


"If we were all smart and rational--and we aren't--we would still like the show for different reasons but we would know why we like it, especially why we like it more than we like other things that look like it."

I think I agree with you, I just disagree with how you apply this to this situation. You're talking about the responsibility of a viewer to analyze and understand why that viewer likes something. Everyone is, just as you say, wise to understand and analyze and talk about why they like something. We agree there -- you owe it to yourself to look critically at your own responses, especially when they are counterintuitive (for instance, as you say, when you like something that seems similar to something you don't like).

I am talking about the futility and, to me, the arrogance of writing about why other people like something, and -- as he does here, crucially -- assuming that what they like about it can only be the same things you don't like about it. In other words, he considers the show a silly view of history, so his angle is, "People like it because it offers a silly view of history; that is irrational." He assumes that his evaluation of the show is objective rather than subjective, and concludes that since the show has bad acting (objectively), the people who like it are irrational, because it's irrational to like objectively bad acting. He leaves no room for real subjectivity, in the sense that ... you know, maybe they don't think it is bad acting.

It's the difference between saying "I don't like Two And A Half Men because I find it sexist," which is insight into your own response, and "It's disappointing to me that other people love how sexist Two And A Half Men is," which is foolish and fixated on your own viewpoint. That may, in fact, not be what they like about it, because they may see things you don't see or they may not agree with you about the qualities it possesses. He's assuming other people like the very things about Mad Men that he dislikes -- they like its melodrama, they like its false look at history, they like its stupid writing and bad acting, because they are irrational. That's just bad logic.

In short, this guy has no idea why other people like Mad Men more than he does and no evidence to support his claims about why they do. It's just conjecture, and to me, it's uninteresting. Not offensive, just not enlightening -- or not enlightening in any respect other than the parts where he actually discusses his opinion of the show, not of other viewers.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 9:25 AM on February 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


I enjoy Mad Men and would watch it for Christina Hendricks and Jon Hamm alone, but I do agree that some of the acting and some of the writing is lacking.

Writing: I'd like to understand Peggy's character a little better, for one thing. She is ambitious and is breaking through the glass ceiling, and we see that, but we don't see how she became this motivated. And the way she reacted when she was pregnant, not with panic but Denial, was just so strange. I wish we would have known Peggy better before the show took her character in that direction, to see how she processed what was happening to her.

I'd like the dialogue to clip along a little faster, too. I could do without a lot of the awkward silences which, I assume, are meant to add tension. There's plenty of tension. Get on with the action already.

And yes, stop hammering home the sexism/smoking/alcoholism of the time. The casual acceptance of the characters has more impact when you just let it flow along with the plot.

Acting: January Jones. She just simply cannot act. And I miss Sal so much! He was one of the most interesting characters on the show!

But Mad Men is still one of the best shows on television. No laugh track, no easy lets-fix-this-all-up-in-one-episode plot twists, and three-dimensional characters that are continually getting more fleshed out as the series goes on.
posted by misha at 9:26 AM on February 4, 2011


Nostalgia is something that allows us to gloss over nuance and difficulty and moral grey areas (as well as outright terrible ones); all we can see is a warm glow that hides what reality actually was for millions of people.

Yes, but what Mad Men does is the opposite of nostalgia; all it can see is a vague unpleasantness, now happily vanquished. And this is no more reflective of reality than a Thomas Kinkade soft-focus vision of the past.

Out of all the amazing, fascinating, still-poorly-understood things that were happening to society at the time that the show portrays, it chooses to focus on things like hey, rich people are starting to smoke weed and feel a little bad about being sexist—the most cliched 60s tropes imaginable. It's all surface.
posted by enn at 9:28 AM on February 4, 2011


Just finished the first season last night. I don't know what kind of film-magic they use to get the images on the screen to look so.... good. The laptop's wretched, third-party DVD software applied some "TruTheater" effect or something - it seemed to double the frame-rate and strip away all of the duskiness of the original visuals. It was as though we were watching a play. Suddenly, the show lost all interest for me. If it were a play, I was only fascinated by how absolutely bad the acting was. Especially the guy who plays Pete Campbell. He looked like a high school drama student who had stumbled onto the set. Finally, after fiddling with the settings for far too long, I was able to restore the visuals to their intended murkiness. Everything went back to normal, the show became awesome again, it looked like film instead of video, and I realized precisely why I find BBC dramas so uniquely unwatchable.
Frame-rate.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 9:36 AM on February 4, 2011


People didn't fetishize early adolescence, there was more of a sense of dignity and honor about American life, people were more open-minded in some ways about the lives and cultures of others. Casual sex was more accepted in certain quarters.

I'd like some concrete examples of these please. I'm not sure exactly what you mean by "fetishize early adolescence" for one. We're talking about the golden age of the teenager here, where buying power was suddenly in the hands of young people, they had cars and music and Rock 'N Roll. Songs like "Sweet Little Sixteen", "You're Sixteen", "Teen Angel", "A Teenage Romance" all romanticized the ideal teenage girl; who was expected to drool chastely over teenage heartthrob Ricky Nelson and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.

People being open minded in some ways- what ways? Miscegenation laws were in place. Sundown Towns were rampant, as suburbia burgeoned. Casual sex? Before the pill? Sure, beatniks and free love existed, but casual sex was not a cultural characteristic of the late fifties and early sixties except among certain subsets of the population (including married men who banged their secretaries). Open minded about other cultures? Really? When the majority of white Americans couldn't even see black people as their equals? When nearly all the women I know who lived during that time can attest to the casual sexism that was a part of their everyday lives? I'm not seeing it. I asked my dad how realistic the sexism in Mad Men was, because he worked in west Coast advertising at the time. He said it was pretty realistic, depending on the firm in question. Some place treated women more overtly bad than others, but it was still pretty much a givien that most women in ad firms were secretaries, possibly creative, but certainly not executives. Certainly there were good people, people fighting for equal rights and against sexism and traveling and meeting other people. The big changes in the later half of the sixties had to start somewhere. But they also would not have been big changes if everything was generally as dignified and honorable as you seem to think. Again, I'm not saying this about individuals or groups; I'm talking about American culture as a whole, as your statement seems to imply.

On preview:

... and that their time was better than ours in certain ways. Much more interesting than seeing a show simply confirm our negative biases.

that show was Happy Days. Seriously, in my life the fifties have been whitewashed in the most ridiculous ways. Drive-Ins! Hot rods! Rock 'n Roll! Teeny Boppers! Sock Hops! I blame Don McLean and "American Pie" for starting that crap, but unfortunately it didn't end there.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:37 AM on February 4, 2011 [9 favorites]


>So vast chunks of the legacy of the late fifties and early sixties fall down the memory hole; principally, in my mind, the fact that the time before the second world war, a time that was undoubtedly and unmistakably in the back of everybody's mind in the fifties and early sixties, was a time of sexual and social freedoms that many of us can't even dream of today.

What?

Chrysostom: “What specifically was better then?”

Well, the music, for one thing (not just jazz, but jazz principally). And the first wave of the civil rights movement was just past its peak – a fascinating and noble movement in many ways. People didn't fetishize early adolescence, there was more of a sense of dignity and honor about American life, people were more open-minded in some ways about the lives and cultures of others. Casual sex was more accepted in certain quarters.


These strike me as some pretty ahistorical things to believe. I think you may be criticizing Mad Men for not being an alt-history show.

The idea that the show should wax nostalgic so that it could say something about today is odd. It seems crazy to hold the "peak" of the civil rights movement in such high esteem, rather than the actual civil rights that were gained as a result. To say people didn't fetishize early adolescence, and that there was somehow more dignity and honor back then, sounds like a kind of fairytale recollection of the time. And the idea that people were more open minded in some ways back then about other cultures and sex may be true, though it's vastly outweighed by (I daresay, a healthier) acceptance of much broader spectrum of cultures and sex today.

I can accept criticisms of the show on several points. But the reasons you've given seem a bit absurd.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:49 AM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm just watching Mad Men so I'll be up to speed for the premiere of the spinoff, Joyce.
posted by box at 9:49 AM on February 4, 2011


oneirodynia: “I'd like some concrete examples of these please. I'm not sure exactly what you mean by "fetishize early adolescence" for one. We're talking about the golden age of the teenager here, where buying power was suddenly in the hands of young people, they had cars and music and Rock 'N Roll. Songs like "Sweet Little Sixteen", "You're Sixteen", "Teen Angel", "A Teenage Romance" all romanticized the ideal teenage girl; who was expected to drool chastely over teenage heartthrob Ricky Nelson and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.”

People who were young in the late 50s and early 60s, maybe. That wasn't by any stretch the whole of culture in the 1950s. Not by any stretch. And what you're pointing to was the beginning of the change I'm talking about.

“People being open minded in some ways- what ways? Miscegenation laws were in place. Sundown Towns were rampant, as suburbia burgeoned. Casual sex? Before the pill? Sure, beatniks and free love existed, but casual sex was not a cultural characteristic of the late fifties and early sixties except among certain subsets of the population (including married men who banged their secretaries).”

I'm talking about the legacy of the thirties, a legacy that was still alive in some quarters – that's been steadily and almost completely forgotten, partially through the efforts of many influential people during the fifties and sixties.

“Open minded about other cultures? Really? When the majority of white Americans couldn't even see black people as their equals? When nearly all the women I know who lived during that time can attest to the casual sexism that was a part of their everyday lives? I'm not seeing it.”

There are ways in which our time is very, very closed-minded. I can go into that, if you'd like. That was kind of my point; not that the fifties and sixties were good, but that being all self-congratulatory about how awesome we are now (and Mad Men is nothing if not self-congratulatory) is kind of uncalled for.
posted by koeselitz at 9:54 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


This conversation about nostalgia and generational attachment and who is attracted to the show for what reason reminds me that for most of the late 80s, my favorite show was Cheers, and I was, oh, about 11 years old. What did Cheers have to do with my life? Nothing. But Boston bar culture in the late 80s was completely different from the world I'd grown up in and difference can be just as fascinating and attractive as nostalgia.

Why, for example, in the late 90s did television viewers in Denmark and Germany become obsessed with Beverly Hills 90210 and Baywatch? The word "prom" didn't translate into anything that occurs there, not even remotely - it was like watching an alien culture.

One person's nostalgia may be another's science fiction.
posted by jardinier at 9:55 AM on February 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


People didn't fetishize early adolescence, there was more of a sense of dignity and honor about American life, people were more open-minded in some ways about the lives and cultures of others.

I sort of see what you're getting at, because there are times when I think I'd have fit in as a young adult in the late sixties rather than having been a drooling toddler during it. It's hard not to fetishize the sixties, because the baby boomers have made sure for 25 years now, from the Nike "Revolution" ad and "The Wonder Years" onward, that part of the business of the mass media was and is damn well going to be to embalm and worship that period of time.

But at the same time, dignity and honor? The honor of Lyndon Johnson yanking his beagles up by the ears in front of a camera and scratching his balls in between ordering a new pair of trousers over the phone and monitoring troop movements into Ia Drang? The dignity of Robert Kennedy calling Bayard Rustin an "old black fairy"? The honor of cigarette ads on TV and advice columnists telling women to take hormones because they will make them "adaptable, even-tempered, and generally easy to live with"? The open-mindedness of cops pushing drag queens and lesbians into paddywagons on Christopher Street? The honor of a San Antonio saying that "Sending a homosexual to prison is more like a reward than a punishment"? The dignity of "Bewitched," "I Dream of Jeannie," and "Green Acres"?
posted by blucevalo at 10:01 AM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


The honor of a San Antonio judge saying ..... sorry
posted by blucevalo at 10:02 AM on February 4, 2011


I can't figure out how clever the show authors are, but in a way the show runs against our own era by featuring ad men. The huge collective progress in the 60's was made outside the marketplace- going to the moon, civil rights, interstate highways, the war on poverty, and so forth. Advertising in the 60's is like the little cancer that has turned us into the declining, politically ossified, selfish marketplace we are today, no longer capable of collective progress.

So to answer Chrysostom, depending on how you look at it the show is in fact critiquing our own era. The show is featuring the seeds of our own decline.
posted by efbrazil at 10:10 AM on February 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Cool Papa Bell: I see the point, but part of that is the television medium itself. You cannot assume that all of your viewers will have seen everything that has gone before, so you must do something to reintroduce characters and themes in every episode. Plot-wise, you can get away with "Previously, on Mad Med..." introductions to catch people up. But thematically, you have to hit it on some level just about every time.

That is definitely a constraint of TV the way it is done, but it isn't inherently imposed by being shown on a small screen. i don't want to get into a semantics thing, but it seems to me like Deadwood and The Wire both pretty much content to let you sink if you missed the back story.

Chrysostom: What specifically was better then?

Pensions. Fuck a 401(k).

misha: Writing: I'd like to understand Peggy's character a little better, for one thing. She is ambitious and is breaking through the glass ceiling, and we see that, but we don't see how she became this motivated. And the way she reacted when she was pregnant, not with panic but Denial, was just so strange. I wish we would have known Peggy better before the show took her character in that direction, to see how she processed what was happening to her.

Seriously! Talk about show don't tell, all this time she has been a theoretical main character, and really she is still pretty much a stranger to the viewer, or maybe an acquaintance who you know by name and have seen around the area but have never spent time with.
posted by paisley henosis at 10:11 AM on February 4, 2011


Pensions. Fuck a 401(k).

Now we're talking sense in here!
posted by enn at 10:20 AM on February 4, 2011


But it would be fascinating to see a show that tried to say that our time is problematic, and that their time was better than ours in certain ways.

That 70s Show?
posted by mikepop at 10:20 AM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't know what kind of film-magic they use to get the images on the screen to look so.... good.

Not sure how much of what you're describing this accounts for, but my photographer wife absolutely gushes over how good the lighting design is on Mad Men.
posted by gompa at 10:23 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why, for example, in the late 90s did television viewers in Denmark and Germany become obsessed with Beverly Hills 90210 and Baywatch? The word "prom" didn't translate into anything that occurs there, not even remotely - it was like watching an alien culture.

In the past 10 years, proms have become a really big thing in the UK. Not the whole date thing that was the meat of teen books - people just go with their friends - but the formal dress, photographer, hiring a limo business. Maybe because parents are happier if their teenagers get drunk in a relatively supervised environment than heading to the local park when school ends, or because we consume teen shows from thge states relentlessly...
posted by mippy at 10:25 AM on February 4, 2011


There are ways in which our time is very, very closed-minded. I can go into that, if you'd like.

No, I think most of us are cognizant of the ways in which our current society is deficient. I'd be more interested hearing you talk specifically about the ways in which the 50s and 60s had more honor and dignity, and were more open-minded about other peoples and cultures.
posted by rtha at 10:33 AM on February 4, 2011


Really, the post-war period depicted in the show was the period with the lowest income inequality in the history of the US. It had the highest union densities we've ever seen here and some of the strongest economic gains ever for the working class. To say that there's absolutely nothing positive to say about this period is just ridiculous. We congratulate ourselves on our state of enlightenment but we've essentially eliminated the actively anti-racist policies of the 1960s like busing and we have schools that are more segregated today than they were in the days of Sterling Cooper. To see the last 50 years in the US as an uninterrupted and unqualified improvement in the human condition is pretty ahistorical. Many things have gotten better; some have gotten worse; things are complicated.
posted by enn at 10:35 AM on February 4, 2011 [7 favorites]


rtha: “No, I think most of us are cognizant of the ways in which our current society is deficient. I'd be more interested hearing you talk specifically about the ways in which the 50s and 60s had more honor and dignity, and were more open-minded about other peoples and cultures.”

I disagree. You're not cognizant of the ways in which our current society is deficient. Mad Men certainly isn't cognizant of them; it's like a nostalgia show about the present, the way it reflexively disdains the differences between our time and the past. I mean, I would be more interested in hearing that, too. That's why I said I'd like to see a television show do that. I wasn't making some didactic point about the superiority of the early sixties, although I suppose one might be made. My stabs at sketching the possible direction of a show were pretty bad, but not nearly as bad as the knee-jerk past-hatred that seems to be endemic today.
posted by koeselitz at 10:38 AM on February 4, 2011


It would be very interesting if someone who had a strongly negative opinion of Mad Men and someone who had a strongly positive opinion of Mad Men both wrote a comparison/contrast essay about Putney Swope.

There is a continuum between pure social commentary and the melodrama of a soap opera, and most films or television shows fall somewhere between the two in the spectrum. Putney Swope and Mad Men, despite both being about Madison Avenue in the 60s, work from opposite sides, and I would imagine those who dislike the "soap opera" nature of Mad Men would appreciate Putney Swope's direct satirical criticisms, and those who enjoy Mad Men would find Putney Swope agitating due to the intensity and bluntness of those criticisms.

(Far from Heaven, mentioned earlier in this discussion, is an interesting case. Todd Haynes -- both in Heaven and his earlier Safe, has created works that provide an almost perfect balance of melodrama and social/cultural criticism that is rarely found elsewhere.)
posted by eschatfische at 11:10 AM on February 4, 2011


I disagree. You're not cognizant of the ways in which our current society is deficient.

This is getting dumb, but can you specifically point to ways in which you know I am ignorant about the ways in which our current society is deficient? Or at least, can you point to anywhere in this thread in which I have extolled the awesomeness of our current time vs the 1960s?

I wasn't making some didactic point about the superiority of the early sixties, although I suppose one might be made.


koeselitz, you said:

there was more of a sense of dignity and honor about American life, people were more open-minded in some ways about the lives and cultures of others.

I read the "more" there as "more than today," which I'm not going to call flat-out wrong because you have declined to say exactly what you mean by that. So. Can you explain more specifically what you meant?
posted by rtha at 11:17 AM on February 4, 2011


Obviously Matthew Weiner was a Sopranos writer (David Chase hired him on the strength of the Mad Men pilot, which can be found online). After The Sopranos ended, David Chase was asked if he admired any particular show and he unsurprisingly answered ‘Mad Men.’ Mad Men is a direct descendent of The Sopranos in more ways than one.

Don’s character, who is similar to Tony Soprano in his sociopathy, self-indulgence and soul-searching, is an archetypal American hero who gets to break the rules that bind the rest of us. He’s a cowboy. The 60’s are the Wild West. The rules were different then, but still he ignores them. Come to think of it, when my Dad was watching westerns in the 50’s, he was watching a glamorized depiction of an era about 50 years earlier.

The Sopranos could be obtuse, and plots occasionally went nowhere. The most famous example is the disappearing ‘Russian’ from the Pine Barrens episode. David Chase has said that he wanted to represent reality in a way that is rarely tolerated in television - sometimes things just happen, or don’t. Mad Men takes this idea further.

Like Chase, Weiner takes a dim view of humanity. People are cruel to each other and never stop fucking up. Drama is conflict. Characters don’t have to be likeable, indeed, it is often to the detriment of drama when a writer tries to make them so. Characters have to be compelling.

Mendelsohn is trying to argue against the show’s popularity. But the show isn’t very popular. It’s popular among a certain literate group. Part of its perceived success comes from the fact that it is extremely popular among members of the entertainment industry, including actors, who in my experience do not agree with Mendelsohn’s assessment of the acting as ‘amateurish.’ In fact, the ensemble, again, like that of The Sopranos, works within a specific style, (epitomized, in my opinion, by Vincent Cartheiser and Elizabeth Moss) that recalls pre-Method film acting of the 50’s and early 60’s. I don’t find it arch or kitschy. It’s very well-calibrated, especially considering how many directors the show has.

It’s impossible for me to say whether the sexual and racial attitudes of the first few seasons are represented accurately or not – I wasn’t there. I will say that my parents do not like the show, and their primary complaint is that the depiction of sexual and racial attitudes of the era is not accurate.

But it is undoubtedly part of the appeal of the show. When I started watching it I felt I was being transported to another world, and my wife and I (we are in our 30’s) would finish every episode with a conversation about how amazingly different everything was ‘back then’. Occasionally we would remind ourselves that it was not a documentary, but a reimagining of an era by people close to our age, shot in Downtown LA a few months before we watched it.

So yes, the ‘period’ quality was hypnotizing. I say ‘was’ because the show has gotten away from that in the past two seasons, relying more on the conflict between characters and less on the conflict between eras. Still, we are eager to see Don interact with Hippies once the show resumes. That doesn’t make the show a nostalgia-fest, it means it has a fascinating and transporting setting.

Mendelsohn impugns the show for romanticizing that setting, specifically the regressive attitudes of the time, too much to criticize it. The Sopranos often made mob life seem immensely appealing before waking up the audience with some character’s pathetic, vicious behavior. Mad Men does the same thing. Joan Holloway is the undisputed sexual and professional master of the office, and then she goes to see her doctor, where she is treated with excruciating paternalistic insensitivity, and she looks like a scared child. That doesn’t strike me as hypocritical romanticization of the era. It’s a pointed dramatic contrast, and devastating, at least when I watched it.
posted by ivanosky at 11:23 AM on February 4, 2011 [11 favorites]


rtha: “This is getting dumb, but can you specifically point to ways in which you know I am ignorant about the ways in which our current society is deficient? Or at least, can you point to anywhere in this thread in which I have extolled the awesomeness of our current time vs the 1960s?”

I'm sorry; I wasn't clear, and that comment sounded a lot more abrasive than it should have. The object of "you" should be "most of us;" as in (as you said) "most of us are aware..." And I made the dispute because you basically dismissed my entire point by saying, to paraphrase, 'well, most of us are already aware of that stuff.' My point was that Mad Men is, as a show, clearly and distinctly not aware of ways in which the present might be deficient. The whole show reads as a thinly-veiled, thoroughgoing praise of how wonderful the present is.

“koeselitz, you said: ‘there was more of a sense of dignity and honor about American life, people were more open-minded in some ways about the lives and cultures of others.’ I read the "more" there as "more than today," which I'm not going to call flat-out wrong because you have declined to say exactly what you mean by that. So. Can you explain more specifically what you meant?”

I indicated above that that was a bad example. I can explicitly retract it now, if you like. "Dignity and honor" is pretty hand-wavey. enn made this point better than I have. As I said in my last comment, the poorness of that example, or any of my examples, has nearly nothing to do with the point.
posted by koeselitz at 11:30 AM on February 4, 2011


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

... but the lighting is sublime.

Great criticism. I enjoyed it and agree with a lot of his conclusions.

Daniel Mendelsohn dislikes Mad Men.

I'm not sure I would agree. Maybe read the piece again ... he certainly makes a (good, imo) case that it's not a very good show, but I'm pretty sure he likes it.

I'm also with incomple here. I like the show OK, but it's clearly very flawed.

I'm starting to really dislike critics that actually burn calories being judgmentally critical, without offering any real constructive solutions.

It's not a critic's job to offer solutions. That's for the artist.

So this guy waited four seasons before saying he didn't like it?

Again, I don't think he said he didn't like it. In fact, I think it's pretty clear he does like it.

Regardless, I wish there were more of this experienced criticism, particularly with music albums. I don't want to know what a critic thought about it on her 3rd or 4th listen. I want to hear what she thought about it after her 500th listen.

(I want John from Cincinnati!)

A fucking men.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:00 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Writing: I'd like to understand Peggy's character a little better, for one thing. She is ambitious and is breaking through the glass ceiling, and we see that, but we don't see how she became this motivated.

I think it has a lot to do with wanting to escape her stifling family. It's pretty clear Peggy wants to distance herself from them. I tend to think that Peggy herself doesn't know exactly what she wants or how to get it, only that she doesn't want to resign herself to the fate of her mom or older sister. Being relentlessly ambitious at work is one way to not be like the women in her family.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:01 PM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


present era’s seemingly endless prohibitions against pleasures once taken for granted (casual sex, careless eating, excessive drinking, and incessant smoking"

Speak for yourself old man.

(I want John from Cincinnati!)

You, me, and about 14 other people.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 12:05 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


My point was that Mad Men is, as a show, clearly and distinctly not aware of ways in which the present might be deficient. The whole show reads as a thinly-veiled, thoroughgoing praise of how wonderful the present is.
- posted by koeselitz at 2:30 PM on February 4


I think that's simplistic. I think one of the great things about Mad Men (and as I said before, art in general) is how it is always a commentary of the present. I've had many moments of self recognition, of identification, while watching Mad Men, that really highlight the old saw, 'the more things change, the more they stay the same'

To take a poorly done example - Betty's fundraiser for a Republican gubernatorial candidate, where the white, wealthy lon-gislander ladies discuss how shamefully Blacks are treated in the south, while treating Carla, the maid, like furniture. I felt it was too obviously done, but I'm sure there were more than a handful of people who didn't quite get the point of that scene until well after the fact. In fact, I wonder if the reason that scene was so overplayed was because of the producers' fear that today's Mad Men audience -- largely liberal, white, and wealthy -- might not have otherwise notice Carla's presence and the intended irony. I absolutely see that as a commentary on a type of "silent racism" that persists today.

And now a well-done example - The episode that focused on Peggy and Joan's workplace struggles [the one where Peggy fired her art buddy]. It was about how, as women, they were screwed regardless of what oath they chose. That's still true, and I believe the writers wanted us to focus on that. It was an unwinnable situation for Peggy and Joan. Even today, with explicit workplace policies and more subtle sexism, women still fear reprisals for speaking out. Women, then and now, have difficulty being powerful without being perceived as bitchy, so they have to temper their power by presenting as slutty, ditzy, or maternal. That still goes.
posted by lesli212 at 12:13 PM on February 4, 2011 [11 favorites]


My point was that Mad Men is, as a show, clearly and distinctly not aware of ways in which the present might be deficient. The whole show reads as a thinly-veiled, thoroughgoing praise of how wonderful the present is.

To whom? Your views are one thing- to assume that everyone comes away from MadMen thinking the same thing you do is just plain kooky. I never watch the show and think "how peachy everything today is!" I seriously doubt that anyone who has ever faced sexual or racial discrimination thinks things are great now, no matter how far we may have come from the overt, institutionalized -isms of the late fifties and early sixties. Implying that people are too dumb to realize that current American society has a hell of a lot of issues, and if only MadMen idealized the America of fifty years ago they'd realize it, suggests that people are only capable of viewing the world through the lens of a TV show. In which case, why would MadMen be a more significant lens than The Daily Show? Or you know, anything else on TV?
posted by oneirodynia at 12:17 PM on February 4, 2011


The object of "you" should be "most of us;"

That makes more sense (although I still disagree, given some of the discussion about the US I've seen here on mefi - it's not as though there's an absence of discussion about how much we suck and in what ways). Thanks.

My point was that Mad Men is, as a show, clearly and distinctly not aware of ways in which the present might be deficient. The whole show reads as a thinly-veiled, thoroughgoing praise of how wonderful the present is.

I dunno about that; I think it's very much a matter of interpretation on the point of the viewer. But even taking it as a given that one of the things it explicitly sets out to do is highlight the downsides of the era it's set it (rather than just being a soap opera with cooler clothes and sets and lighting), I don't think that automatically means that it's unaware of our current deficiencies. I think it's entirely possible that it's choosing to ignore them in order to tell a story in a particular way.

Any contemporary film or TV show (dramas, at least) that's set in the past is going to make choices about which historical things are portrayed and in what way. Those choices don't have to mean that its creators are ignorant of how things work (or don't) today. I'm quite sure that Matthew Weiner doesn't think that we are currently at the pinnacle of our civilization, and the fact that he makes a show that includes portrayals of sexism and racism in the 1960s doesn't actually prove that.
posted by rtha at 12:27 PM on February 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


These are all interesting and surprising things about the fifties that the show seems to pretty much ignore; insofar as it deals with any of them at all, it shows them negatively.

I'm a fan-- pretty much, to put it simply, because of the female characters; where else on TV can you find such a range of complex women?-- but I have my reservations, and one thing I dislike intensely is the show's treatment of the Beats/art scene during the early 60s. To watch the show, you'd think that there was nothing made or painted or written in NY between 1960 and 1965 that was worth a moment of serious consideration. The Beats are simpering caricatures who end up whoring themselves for drug money; the one glimpse we had of something vaguely Factory-ish with a generic Velvet Underground drone in the background was played for weirdo value. You'd never guess that by 1965 Warhol was a mainstream media sensation, embodying an entirely new and dangerous (and gay) type of cool. Mad Men treats 60s artists with a kind of middlebrow smugness that really conflicts with the metacommentary around sexism and racism that it often pulls off really well. As far as this article, I read it the other day and while I disagree with it almost entirely, I loved the ending and it really rang true for me: if I'd been a member of the Draper household, I would have been born between Sally and Bobby, and from my recollections of childhood during the Sixties they evoke it perfectly.
posted by jokeefe at 12:40 PM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


The aspects documented in the text of the post are pretty much why I like the show. If it was less flawed, it'd be boring.
posted by mikeh at 12:48 PM on February 4, 2011


I really enjoy Mad Men. Probably because the 60s were so romanticized in my upbringing in the 90s and 00s. In school we learned about the civil rights and antiwar movements, but not much about the conditions that inspired them. Sure, I knew that things were bad, but I didn't really understand... in school you get the impression that most people were noble open-minded activists working against "the man".

I'm also impressed how Mad Men avoids having a mouthpiece perfect character to demonstrate "correct" ideals. It shows how bad things often were, and shows a few people trying to change things, but those people are just as vulnerable to hypocrisy or self-aggrandizement as everyone else. Peggy's not a noble person. Neither is Paul Kinsey or Helen Bishop, though they're all associated with progressive movements.

So to be honest, Mad Men was a big eye opener for me. I discuss it with my mother and aunts sometimes, and wow. The things I've heard about their experiences at the time. For inspiring that conversation alone, in my mind, the show deserves praise.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 12:48 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Was Oscar Wilde 'merely a soap opera writer'?

Mad Men is an Oscar Wilde play for the 1950s.

It is that well written, that well observed (a big part of it is a comedy of manners) and that sharp. Like much good art, it touches on huge issues through the lens of individual responses to society and their systems.
posted by lalochezia at 1:16 PM on February 4, 2011


...the way in which Mad Men has seemingly percolated into every corner of the popular culture... suggests that its appeal goes far beyond what dramatic satisfactions it might afford.

To my mind, the picture is too crude and the artist too pleased with himself.

...I kept wondering whether the writers had been trying, unsuccessfully, for a kind of camp—for a tartly tongue-in-cheek send-up of Sixties attitudes.

...you often feel that the writers are so pleased with this or that notion that they’ve forgotten the point they’re trying to make.


Yes, yep, uh-huh, and ayup.

I'd like those hours of my life back for sure.
posted by herbplarfegan at 1:18 PM on February 4, 2011


I tried getting into Mad Men a couple times during earlier seasons after hearing people rave about it. Neither episode I watched compelled me to keep watching, which was okay with me, but what bothered me most was the almost pitying/personally-disappointed way in which I was regarded by these people once I said I didn't like the show. As if it automatically put me in a lower class of society. They always offered inaccurate reasons why I must not have liked it - reasons that insulted my attention span or just my intelligence in general. I found that really weird.

I actually did start watching the show again during this last season, mostly because everything else I watched was in reruns and there isn't much else I feel like doing at 10PM on a Sunday, and I ended up enjoying it. The things I didn't like about it before seemed to have gotten better or were at least less emphasized. So I'll watch it again when it comes back on. I still don't understand the people who think everyone who doesn't like Mad Men is either a moron or just doesn't get it.
posted by wondermouse at 1:25 PM on February 4, 2011


Chrysostom: "
What specifically was better then?
"

Well you could smoke at your desk at work. What else do you need to know about the 60s to make it more awesome than the puritanical aughts?
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 1:49 PM on February 4, 2011


This article sounds exactly like the sort of papers I wrote when I was too busy living my oh-so-important-and-sophisticated life to give any of my community college English assignments serious consideration: I'd skim the material--or rely on my memory of it, since we were assigned a lot of stuff I'd already read and couldn't deign to re-read--and then write a scathing critique based on a general impression that ignored crucial details and totally missed the point of the whole piece. (I got As anyway, but that's another post.)
posted by rhiannonstone at 1:59 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


As I watched the first season, the characters and their milieu were so unrelentingly repellent that I kept wondering whether the writers had been trying, unsuccessfully, for a kind of camp
Well, it is a form of camp, isn't it? I find it pretty entertaining.
The writers like to trigger “issue”-related subplots by parachuting some new character or event into the action, often an element that has no relation to anything that’s come before.
He makes an interesting point, I think. Think about the spoiler, wouldn't it have been more interesting to have one of the main characters deal with a real drug addiction? Obviously that kind of thing happened in the 60s.
The other problem, I think, is that the show doesn't have enough action. The focus is mostly on people's personal issues, and frankly I'd personally actually like to see more of the business aspect. Really, I find that stuff interesting.

I also think the actress who plays peggy kind of sucks, although she's gotten better. I feel like she didn't get as much play in season 3 specifically because the actress was having trouble breaking out of the 'timid girl' steriotype. She was better in season 4, though. Maybe she's been taking lessons.
Acting: January Jones. She just simply cannot act. And I miss Sal so much! He was one of the most interesting characters on the show!
See this argument I find weird. I think it's kind of weird, when she's angry it seems very real, but when she's "happy" she seems really fake. I thin the thing is, when she seems happy and 'pleasant' her character is faking it. The fact that betty is a woman who, most of the time, has a 'shell' around her makes people say she's a bad actress, when that's not what's going on at all.

posted by delmoi at 2:51 PM on February 4, 2011


a better drama in the recent past that wasn't a police procedural

Treme?
posted by kid ichorous at 3:27 PM on February 4, 2011


Breaking Bad is much better, and it's definitely not a police procedural.
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:31 PM on February 4, 2011


Breaking engages with the issue of supernatural axemen like no other show today. But it is a precarious thing. Add just one superfluous pigeon and you get Face Off.
posted by kid ichorous at 3:38 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


kid ichorous: Treme?

Jeeze, talk about nothing ever happening. I'm really, really looking forward to season 2, even if it's just something to make me listen to jazz for 30+ mins each week, but I'll be damned if I can think of more than 2 actual plots that actually happened at all in season 1. I don't care at all, it can keep being exactly what it has been and I'll watch it for years, but with so little plot, I have a hard time calling it a drama.

the young rope-rider: Breaking Bad is much better, and it's definitely not a police procedural

But the writing… I've come to really enjoy the pure surrealist spectacles the show sets up at least once a season. But I'll be damned if anyone anywhere in real life is ever anything at all like any character on the show for any amount of time. I mean, most Crime Shows you can tell the writers have never met a criminal, lots of them you can tell they've never really known any cops, but Breaking Bad makes me wonder if the writers have ever met any human beings, to find out how they act and interact.

Breaking Bad: try not to think about it, eventually something completely fantastic will happen that will make you glad you sat through the rest.
posted by paisley henosis at 3:38 PM on February 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Some of the characters are awesomely real! Like, Walt wants to be a criminal but he's just so, so bad at it. He's awful at being a criminal. And kinda an asshole. That asshole teacher you always sorta wanted to punch because he acted like everyone should know the shit he was teaching you. Jesse wants to be a rich gangster criminal but he has a conscience. He's actually quite sweet underneath it all, and a bit lonely and desperate for love.

Sal, well...heh.

I love big characters, though.

And the visuals in Breaking Bad...just...wow. Beautiful show.
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:45 PM on February 4, 2011


I'll be damned if I can think of more than 2 actual plots that actually happened at all in season 1. I don't care at all, t can keep being exactly what it has been and I'll watch it for years

That's pretty much it. I feel like there's only one moment of drama distributed over an indefinitely large number of characters and timelines. Weather the place, or leave it?
posted by kid ichorous at 4:02 PM on February 4, 2011


The fact that betty is a woman who, most of the time, has a 'shell' around her makes people say she's a bad actress, when that's not what's going on at all.

delmoi, I'd honestly like to believe this, because I think that January Jones, who plays Betty, is absolutely beautiful, and if she were a great actress just acting fake I'd be fine with it. But if you had ever seen her in anything else--even her SNL gig!--I can't believe you would still think she could act.
posted by misha at 4:26 PM on February 4, 2011


These days I find myself watching two kinds of TV show:I've discovered the trick to overcoming this ambivalence is to prime myself beforehand by watching a TV show which is unequivocally terrible.

For example, I continue to love The Simpsons, even though everyone goes on and on about how much it has declined since whenever. I manage to do this by prepping for each new Simpsons episode with an episode of Californication, which is so horribly awful I die a little inside every time I watch it. Immediately afterward I fall upon The Simpsons like a starving dog on a sausage.

(Maybe Californication has fans too, but I'm not sure what TV show you'd have to watch to make it seem bearable by comparison - Rock of Love, possibly?)
posted by Ritchie at 5:11 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've only watched maybe 10 minutews of Mad Men ever, so I can't really comment on whether he's right or not, but I have to admit it's nice to hear something besides th usual ceaseless fawning.
posted by jonmc at 6:03 PM on February 4, 2011


Bryan Batt played Patrick Stewart's boyfriend in Jeffrey.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:55 PM on February 4, 2011


Which is what Goodfellas is really about. Gangsters are not the bullies, they are the bullied, the people who have been so beat up by everyone that they don't have a shred of self-confidence or dignity left.

Donnie Brasco explores this pretty explicitly.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:01 PM on February 4, 2011


Goodfellas is also a good flick if you liked The Sopranos, because each new scene has another "Hey, wasn't s/he in The Sopranos?" moment.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:02 PM on February 4, 2011


What specifically was better then?

Oh, don't get me started.

I stumbled across some old LIFE magazines while cleaning out my parents attic last fall. The sheer amount of text in those things is just astonishing. Today, you open a magazine, and there'll be a massive, exquisitely shot full-color photo with maybe two or three words. A sentence at best. That's an ad. Then, you'd get a couple of small-ish black-and-white images, sometimes drawn, sometimes photos, and a couple paragraphs sometimes more than a dozen, talking about the product. Why? Because people were literate then. Yes, true, not everyone went to a good school just like today, but today only something like 13% of the population is functionally literate. It was way higher then.

Which is even more surprising considering that in 1950 only about 5% of the population had a college degree and 35% a high school diploma! They had significantly worse educational attainment but significantly better public literacy. Dude: our schools suck.

You know what else was better? Public civility. Go back and read congressional speeches from the 1950s and 1960s. McCarthy was more polite to his targets than most congresscritters are today, to say nothing of news anchors and journalists. Yes, it may have been a consequence of there really only being three channels on TV, but there was a vibrant journalistic culture that's just gone.

Society was also far, far more tolerant of reasonable risks than we are today. We're freaked out about the barest hint of elevated risk. Remember Vioxx? It's an absolutely awesome drug. But it was pulled from the market because it made heart attacks fractionally more likely in an at-risk patient demographic. We're scared about gluten for crying out loud, something humans have been eating for millennia with no demonstrable ill effects.

Hell, let's get more general. In 1960, a high school graduate had a pretty decent shot at making a decent living, provided he kept his nose clean and worked hard. There were jobs for people like that then. Now even our college grads are finding it tough to get ahead.

So yeah: there were definitely things not to like about the 1950s and 1960s, but there were definitely things that were better then than they are now. In that sense I totally agree with koselitz: Mad Men would be a lot more interesting if they dealt with those sorts of issues.
posted by valkyryn at 7:23 PM on February 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


I don't feel up to writing a long, in depth comment just to back up my personal tastes, but I am a HUGE fanatic of Mad Men's time period. I thought I would adore Mad Men, but I ended up hate hate hate hate hating this show. For much the same reasons as cited in the above quotation from the review. Well, I have one person who agrees with me, at least.
posted by Mael Oui at 8:23 PM on February 4, 2011


today only something like 13% of the population is functionally literate.

That's not at all what the information in the wikipedia article you linked to implies. The article states that 13% of the population are proficient in three measured areas of literacy.

If you follow the link from the summary on the wikipedia article, you'll eventually come to the breakdown of the results of the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. Those statistics indicate that, when measuring prose literacy in the US population over age 16:

14% are below basic literacy: they have no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills.
29% have basic literacy: they can perform simple and everyday literacy activities
44% have intermediate literacy: they can perform moderately challenging literacy activities
13% have proficient literacy: they can perform complex and challenging literacy activities

(The average percentage of those proficient in each area happens to be 13%, and my assumption would be there would be substantial overlap.)

As such, it's dangerous to confuse those considered proficiently literate with those who are functionally literate. By most definitions of functional literacy, 86% of the US population over 16 would be considered functionally literate.
posted by eschatfische at 8:32 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


50's fantasy nostalgia is a stupid and ugly thing.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:35 PM on February 4, 2011


What specifically was better then?

Comic Books.
posted by Scoo at 9:23 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


What specifically was better then?

Comic Books.


I'm breaking my new "don't comment while drunk" rule.

I can't tell whether you are being facetious or not. If you aren't....Jesus fucking christ. Comics are so much better now.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 9:32 PM on February 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Not to mention that it was the golden age of graphic/advertising design. Have the writers even heard of Paul Rand, or Tadanori Yokoo. No I guess they were too busy making the same tired point that everyone in the '60s smokes, and that they advertise cigarettes.
posted by puny human at 9:59 PM on February 4, 2011


And no, modern comics are the stupid and ugly thing.
posted by puny human at 10:00 PM on February 4, 2011


Cut out the superhero comics of whatever era and it gets less cut and dry. We don't have anything quite like the EC crime/horror comics these days, but they didn't have Hellblazer in the 50's, either.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:37 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


In 1960, a high school graduate had a pretty decent shot at making a decent living, provided he kept his nose clean and worked hard. There were jobs for people like that then. Now even our college grads are finding it tough to get ahead

The post-WWII middle class and the lack of a modern equivalent is something that Krugman has gone into depth about. Tax rates, income gaps, etc. "The Conscience of a Liberal" is the work that contains a great deal of discussion on the topic.
posted by IvoShandor at 2:04 AM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


If it's any consolation koeselitz I'm totally on your side. The problem I have is that the prejudice displayed in the characters in Mad Men is still with us, so getting all smug about how we're so much better now is really off. The point about cultures of the past is that their problems were inspired by human nature, just as they are now. We're not all of a sudden a different, better species.

I read a book recently set in the 19th century called The Crimson Petal and the
White
that dealt with the issues of female inequality without making the past feel like a different planet. I would recommend it.
posted by Summer at 5:51 AM on February 5, 2011


Okay, I wanted to talk about other stuff here, but never mind: You can't really say that comics were better in the '60s, because "comics" covers too much ground. You can probably say that superhero comics were better in the '60s, but even that requires a few qualifiers. No question were superhero comics a richer imaginative field then, but to be honest, that has to do mostly with creators inventing shit for corporations (for free!) in a way that no sane creator would dream of doing now. So I mean, we have the imaginations of Kirby, Ditko, Lee in full flower here and that's great, but they're getting screwed by the gangster-like business ethos of the time -- an indication that, in a very important sense, comics was not better in this time period at all. Now superhero comics are primarily creators doing their best to work with the tools that previous creators made decades ago, and while they may be very talented people, they (mostly) are not free to shine as creators once did; they have more creative latitude, but less room to invent (at least if they'd like to hold on to their inventions). I'd say it's kinda six of one, if you wanna be fair about it.

Which actually does bring me back to Mad Men, because I don't think it's really trying at all to have its cake and eat it too w/r/t lifestyle porn vs. oh-the-terrible-people-we-were-then. I think it's saying that this world -- which, to most of us, may as well be BSG's Caprica or something for all that it exists in our living memories -- is both amazing and deeply fucked up, that it lacks so much but has so much, and wouldn't you kind of want to live there except you wouldn't, of course, but then again you kind of would. If that world is not seductive, then it makes no sense for it to have been a world where anyone ever lived. I'm not actually sure why the notion of "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times" is so hard for some people to grasp (I blame that stupid monkey), but there you have it.

Oh, and Breaking Bad is better. Doesn't everyone know that, though?
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:11 AM on February 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Can someone answer me this - why is it that people get so upset when a series/movie set in historical period X does not deal with all the cultural/political currents we now associate with said period? Can we not understand that not all people were affected by all things all the time? So for Mad Men, can we not accept that a white hetero high-earning male maybe didn't have much to do with the civil rights movement, modern art and various other movements every day of his working life?

For Mad Men I take my (admittedly Australian) grandparents as comparisons - they sure dressed well, felt cosmopolitan (my grandmother cooked with olive oil made by her Italian friends for goodness sake) and took an interest in the world. They weren't part of the free-love movement. They only cared about Vietnam when it looked like one of their sons would be drafted. They voted for Aborigines to get citizenship but didn't really care either way. They didn't know or care about the 'beat' movement or most other art/cultural movements we associate with the late 50s and early 60s. But they were normal* people. I guess what I am trying to say in my inarticulate way that shows like Mad Men seem more real to viewers like me because they don't try to shoe-horn in absolutely everything - they have their own little discrete universe from that period and they try to stay true to that. And that is good enough for me.

*Admittedly they were both the children of divorced parents, and mothers who kept the children at that, which was not normal. But they were very middle-class in their community and time.
posted by Megami at 11:40 AM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


poor metafilter. just a little troll in the new york times. it's gonna be ok guys. we all know he's in the wrong.

take a deep breath and have a plate of beans.
posted by es_de_bah at 2:06 PM on February 5, 2011


"...it would be interesting to see a TV show provocatively take the side of the late fifties and early sixties against the present."

Fox News offers a number of news/social commentary shows that do just that.
posted by Jacqueline at 3:39 PM on February 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


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