Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Taste of Madison Avenue

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?


Eric Henderson said...

One thing that I can't quite put my finger on but which nags me every time I watch MAD MEN (I'm a few episodes behind you, about to wrap S1) is that it also seems to harbor extremely latent but pervasive hints to the counter-countercultural notion that sex (and work, but mostly sex) was more fun before free love moved in and ruined it for the half that actually has fun during sex in the first place, at least so far as heterosexuals are concerned.

But damned if the show isn't handsome.

Michael Whalen said...

"in 50 years the popular art of tomorrow will no doubt disparage us in ways that are unfair and self-congratulatory."

We don't have to wait 50 years for this. "The Sopranos," which Cambell mentions, disparaged us without mercy. It offered pity and empathy to soothe the bite, but "The Sopranos" cut modern viewers no slack at all, condemming us for even watching the show in the first place.

ZC said...

Eric - though I hear season 2 has some more "feminist" stuff (scare quotes there because I've not let myself hear anything more about the show than this), I think you're right--though I'm not sure how extremely latent any of it is. Mad Men is in many ways a show openly fascinated about its nostalgia for the 1950s. Not all of it is 'repressive,' right-wing, what have you (i.e., all the stuff we're conditioned to believe about the '50s), but certainly certain mores about tact and restraint, the utility of social convention & conformity, are presented--sometimes in sophisticated ways--by the show. And part of the show's pitch is, of course, it's indulgence in sheer license--the license of these rich white (occasionally charming) assholes on top o' the world ... I almost wrote a few words about how the show operates so that our fantasy, as viewers, is of inhabiting these characters' own fantasies (cf. the scene where Pete tells Peggy about his imaginary hunting scenario). It's almost as though this mediation, of the show itself that is, gives us the OK to fantasize about such brute caveman bullshit & retrograde gender politics. Otherwise we'd be forced to admit we're a little bit like Mel Gibson.

(Whose nutty Apocalypto is a very interesting and even surprisingly kinda good film, by the way. I saw it not long ago and have come close to posting a few words on it ... but I digress.)

Michael - you're right about The Sopranos; though I've really only seen the first two seasons and a sprinkling of later episodes. It's very canny about brow levels & the tastes--the very different ranges of tastes--of its own viewers. And though The Wire is the holy grail of this decade's American TV drama, and sure I love The Wire like everybody else ... really The Sopranos seems to me much more sophisticated and intelligent about a few key points.

Marcelo said...

I think it's possible to identify clearly that treatment of symbolism in Breaking Bad (an AMC series which I hereby recommend), but I also think the show does not, at all, place the viewers as more aware than the characters. Many people describe the show as "hard to watch", which to me is fascinating, since it's probably for the same reasons that I find it so compelling.

Fernando said...

Good article, always good to read an article that is somewhat harsh on a beloved institution (has Mad Men reached institution level?)

One complaint I have about critiques of Mad Men (not just this one, I've read it several places) is that it highlights how far we've come as a culture when I think it subtly does the opposite. Outside of the health, drinking-and-smoking-all-day issue (though the 2 biggest characters (Kinsey and Harry) might be in the middle of the pack in any office today, weight-wise), I think the stuff about sexism and race speaks on how different they are practiced today.

No one would says something like "easy enough for a woman to use" her face. Just think of any woman driver joke you've heard amongst your friends. The sexism and racism in Mad Men, isn't just behind closed doors, its said to peoples faces, where as today its mostly moved strictly behind those doors.

ZC said...

Marcelo - I think I have to sit down and watch Breaking Bad in the near future. I've heard good things about it.

Fernando, good points. I can't improve upon them.

Unknown said...

Whenever I watch Mad Men, I long for the days (only vaguely remembered by me) when everything was made better, when people had less STUFF, when homemade meals were a given, when people had manners, when you didn't leave the house unless you looked presentable, etc.

I digress.

Anyway, I think you made too much of the smarminess. This was indeed a slight weakness of the early episodes, but the social commentary starts to pay off in startling ways in Season Two (one of the best seasons of any television series, ever) and Season Three. In fact, the show starts to get downright messy and shocking - even weird. It ain't Frank Tashlin, but then what is?

(and no offense, but if you think Ernie Kovacs, Norman Lear and Frank Tashlin have never been surpassed, I'd say you're pretty hard to please. lol)

Clenbuterol said...

It is so good that there are such shows on TV!