I have recently watched the first season of AMC's much-acclaimed Mad Men. There are many compliments that can be paid to this show, compliments I endorse, but first I would like to express that I share more than a little empathy with the Siren's verdict:
"Such laughs as "Mad Men" affords are tethered to hindsight--"We never indulge in such sexism/racism/anti-Semitism/homophobia now, and even if we do, we sure don't smoke."
Back in those Good Ol' Days, something like clothing was considered valuable if it was durable, classic, if it lasted. Today, you can still get good custom tailoring, but a lot of expensive clothing is simply cheap. Fashionable: merely fashionable. The same sort of thing applies, just a bit, to the case of Mad Men. Very fine, very professional production values. Such good ones that they deserve more than the faint praise I'm giving them here. At the same time I feel like they're being used to hide a certain fundamental cheapness in the film's manner, a mercenary and cynical (but, due to the show's success, perhaps not inaccurate) understanding of its' viewers' minds. In the first episode, when new secretary Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) is being shown the ropes by Joan (Christina Hendricks), the latter explains as she unveils the "new technology" (an electronic typewriter) that it looks complicated, but they made sure it's easy enough for a woman to use. (It's missing a rimshot, which of course would be tasteless, but that's all it's really missing. The show provides a surfeit of moments like these.)
Who wouldn't, shouldn't grimace at this undignified gesture toward the enlightened viewer's very ... enlightenment? 'Ah, they were so sexist, so myopic, so unhealthy, so milquetoast, so closeted, so repressed, so hypocritical, so lacking in self-awareness.' And in 50 years the popular art of tomorrow will no doubt disparage us in ways that are unfair and self-congratulatory. C'est la vie (in an idiocracy). For one thing: Mad Men is good, but it's not even close to Tashlin's critiques. It remains exquisitely tasteful, on the surface, and ultimately middlebrow. Therein lie a few of the problems.
I use the term 'middlebrow' with a bit of a damning connotation, I admit, but only to continue to discussion, not to stall it. I have tried to understand just what it is about the middlebrow that causes some of us to struggle. Here, it's not that I think 'middlebrow' as an end result is the issue, but (if anything) the path that leads to the issue. Let me suggest one diagnosis: the reason middlebrow culture is tough for some of us to take is because it sets the bar for humanity too low, but then expects us to hover precisely at the height of that too-low bar all the time. Middlebrowism is fiercely intolerant of both the gonads & of magnificence. Of course, that's a harsh judgment that needs some leavening. Let's keep in mind that Raymond Durgnat wrote his great book A Mirror for England on the middlebrow British cinema, specifically to defend it even; and something like The Sopranos, which I'm also catching up with on DVD, may be a tad upmarket, but remains thoroughly middlebrow too. And it's excellent. Bertrand Tavernier is, or was, a middlebrow arthouse favorite, but Dave Kehr and Carloss James Chamberlin are two critics who've backed him, and most directors in this world surely haven't made a film as good as either The Passion of Beatrice or Capitaine Conan. The list goes on.
What strikes me in the current Age of Quality Television (not like Norman Lear's 1970s, or the classic days of old Ernie Kovacs, who's still better than anything on television I've seen, as well as most things on the big screen) is the relation to the symbol. Because we are, presumably, detached post-existentialist quasi-ironic consumer-viewers, in the 21st century (the convergence century), we cannot always take a symbol. So this is how tasteful narratives—I suppose—develop symbolism now. They take something and then make it an object of explicit or implicit contemplation for one or more of the characters. Recall: the geese in Tony Soprano's pool (season one), or in Mad Men, the pigeons & their relationship to meek wife Betty in the episode titled "Shoot." Wary of what we'd recognize as a symbol, cautious of a con job or of the exposure of stunted faculties from our high school lit courses ("in The Scarlet Letter the A symbolizes..."), we tasteful viewers demand not to be confronted with any overt symbol, but to treat them obliquely. The characters themselves bear a relation to a symbol ('birds'), ponder out loud or through their behaviors the significance of such birds ('freedom'?). Nobody then is forced to make an interpretation they take too seriously because the act of interpreting is oblique—it's for them, not for us.
How unaware they are, right?