Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Mad Men

In the 23 Oct. issue of LRB, Mark Greif took on the television show "Mad Men." Greif warns British audiences that the show offers a double-barreled dose of deceptive pleasure, both self-congratulation and a prurient vicariousness: "Mad Men is an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better. We watch and know better about male chauvinism, homophobia, anti-semitism, workplace harassment, housewives’ depression, nutrition and smoking... [and] Beneath the Now We Know Better is a whiff of Doesn’t That Look Good. The drinking, the cigarettes, the opportunity to slap your children! The actresses are beautiful, the Brilliantine in the men’s hair catches the light, and everyone and everything is photographed as if in stills for a fashion spread."

The possibility of these reactions to the show's lustily artificial (or artificially lusty) nostalgia is undeniable—but these are not, as Greif seems to expect, the inevitable and exclusive reactions a viewer might have.

The deployment of nostalgia—particularly when its deployment is aimed largely at an audience that is not old enough to judge its accuracy—is an immensely dangerous undertaking. A number of months ago I made this point about Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) and Goodbye, Lenin!, reading these films as so weakly critical of East German repression as to almost celebrate it: "In an era where the politics of memory has become, for better or worse, one of the most contested battlegrounds of ideology, no two films have mounted hollower attacks or leveled featherier blows at the ostensible villains of history."

Yet I would question whether Mad Men is as slyly exculpatory as those films, whether it truly activates little besides "Now We Know Better" and "Doesn't That Look Good," but I wonder if my reaction to the series isn't predicated on the fact that for the better part of both seasons, I was watching it alongside another workplace series—the American version of The Office. This confluence of two cultural products is probably not uncommon, as both shows are tremendously popular, and, I believe, popular among the same demographics.

It would be difficult to watch these shows simultaneously and congratulate oneself and one's society for all the progress we have made in many of those areas Greif singled out for the "Now We Know Better" category: "male chauvinism, homophobia, workplace harassment, nutrition." The first three of those are self-evident if you've ever watched an episode, and, as for nutrition, obesity is a quietly integral issue for the show. And you can add racism, which as of the first season, Mad Men barely touched.

Though the character of Michael soaks up most of the negative exemplarity of the show's treatment of these topics, enough is usually left over to challenge the audience, and the genius of the show is in giving enough humanity to Michael (unlike David Brent from the British Office) to encourage us to identify with him periodically, making it more difficult for us to distance ourselves from his prejudices. Moreover, it is Michael's fumbling attempts at addressing and correcting his prejudices that touch closest to home—his struggles to figure out how to interact with difference are in many ways only exaggerations of our own.

But this is meant to be a defense of Mad Men, not an exhortation to watch more episodes of The Office. What is important to recognize about the shows' relationship to one another is that The Office is understood to be (and understands itself to be) addressing our actual anxieties and conflicts in today's middle class culture, albeit on an extravagant and ludicrous scale. It's a hit because people recognize that homophobia and sexism and obesity and racism are unresolved issues in our society, and that we run into them incessantly. I'm not convinced that this recognition is entirely suspended even when watching more obnoxious forms of these social ills, distanced by time and glossed with glamour.

Moreover, the shocking baldness of the prejudices on display in Mad Men is not consistent, as we begin to form allegiances to certain characters and begin to compromise on their behalfs—I like Paul Kinsey far more than he deserves, and my feelings for his character challenge me to evaluate his foibles (and more than foibles) as things acceptable or unacceptable to me. That's true for Peggy Olson as well, or Pete Campbell and, I imagine for some people, for Don Draper.

One of the first things Greif points out about Mad Men is that it "has a long, unfolding storyline, costs millions of dollars per episode to make, and seems largely intended for home-recording or DVD viewers, who will trouble to watch it in sequence." Yes, the plot is strongly linear and strongly unified and yes, undoubtedly more viewers watch the series in a period of time considerably more condensed than its run on television. But I do not think that this justifies the unmitigated holism of Greif's approach to the show, reading it as a powerful conjunction of two pleasurable feelings carrying a single, self-reinforcing statement: You'll Love the Way It Makes You Feel.

In the end, it is my feeling that most people recognize the balance Greif presents between self-congratulation and vicarious indulgence as a precarious one, and that those feelings tend to undermine one another rather than mutually reinforce. This is, in part, because most viewers approach Mad Men more tentatively and more personally than Greif's reading suggests—not as a whole product, a coherent statement or thought on American culture and values, but as a sporadic and uneven amassing of passions, repulsions, observations, intuitions, identifications, alienations.

But more than that, the arc of the story (and maybe I'm cheating a little bit because Greif only covers Season One) reinforces the disjuncture of self-congratulation and indulgence: a key motif (which Greif partly picks up on, and which I know is hinted at—by Pete—in Season One) is Freud's theory of the Death Drive, thanatos, introduced in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Dr. Greta Guttman, the in-house psychological researcher (whom Greif refers to humorously as "a cross between Hannah Arendt and the Wicked Witch of the West") offers Draper a report implying that ad copy subliminally encouraging a certain amount of self-destruction might be enormously effective. Draper bins the report, but Pete picks it out of the trash and tries to use it later, ineptly, embarrassing himself and the company.

But that's not the end of the Death Drive. Acts of self-indulgence are ruthlessly—even mechanically—shown to be acts of willful self-destruction. You can call this a cheapened form of tragedy; it probably is. But it's pretty clearly evident, even if its name goes missing. And I'm not sure how the centrality of the Death Drive to the show doesn't, in the end, break up the opiatic bliss Greif imputes to the series. "You'll Love the Way It Makes You Feel," sure, but not because it makes you feel good.
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Sarah said...

My friend just ordered the first season of Mad Men on Netflix, and we'll start watching tonight. Nice timing on this post.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Great post, Andrew, and I agree that watching Mad Men is a more nuanced experience than Greif's Manicheanism allows for. You write:

"most viewers approach Mad Men more tentatively and more personally than Greif's reading suggests—not as a whole product, a coherent statement or thought on American culture and values, but as a sporadic and uneven amassing of passions, repulsions, observations, intuitions, identifications, alienations."

I'm wondering how much that "sporadic and uneven" quality of the experience has to do with the formal qualities of the show? Doesn't it seem to you that it's even more "dispersed" and slow than the Sopranos (the occasional episode notwithstanding) ever allowed itself to be? The time gaps are impressive, the way that tying together plot threads is left to the viewer . . . the inscrutability and blankness of many of the characters (also a feature of the Sopranos, but again, even moreso here, imo) . . . the quietness / stillness / patience of much of the camera work . . . These things, in concert with the content, for me made the series oddly gripping; at times it even seemed like the show's producers were competing with themselves to see how much (or rather how little) they could get away with. I don't think I have any full-scale "reading" of these features yet; I'm wondering what you might make of them.

Also, I think your point on the death drive is right on; as I was reading I immediately thought of the way that Don's experience at the So. Cal. aerospace/defense industry conference and the next episode's take on the Cuban Missile Crisis encapsulated this at the level of the whole culture.

I just discovered your blog, by the way, via Jacob Russell's Barking Dog, altho' this particular post I came to from Kugelmass Episodes. Glad I found it!

Andrew Seal said...


Thank you for your comment--it's a wonderful description of something in the series which I had a great deal of trouble articulating.

I think another big contributor to the "dispersed" character of the show is its main setting--New York, in its impersonality and its diversity (even its impersonal diversity) is almost ineffacable--the characters, even the powerful ones, have seemingly little effect on the city. Thus the dramas that are played out don't get a chance to accumulate or cohere.