Sunday, May 31, 2015

What Mad Men Can Tell Us About Contemporary Culture

Mad Men recently ended its seven-year run as one of the most rewarded and respected shows in cable television history, even as it has its many detractors (see here, here and here). There is no question that the show captured something deep in the American psyche and was a second coup for creator, director and writer Matthew Weiner (of Sopranos, for those not paying attention). The final episode certainly elicited a wave of reactions, with many disappointed by the too tight wrap-up of the many interconnected stories, while others were disappointed by the ambiguity of Don’s denouement. Rather than add yet another analysis of that episode, I thought I would consider some of the broader implications of the show’s critical and popular success:

1. Misogyny is still alive and kicking across the dial: for all the claims that more female voices are being heard and seen on television and in film, the industry is still dominated by male writers, producers and directors (to the tune of over 80 percent). And Mad Men is a show that seems particularly disturbing on the question of female empowerment. Sure it shows the struggles of working women in the 60s and 70s trying to garner success and respect, but are any of the female characters truly redeemed in the end? Trudy takes back Peter after years of betrayal and a relatively long abandonment, Joan is still a single mother who literally sold her body for success (and chose a career over a man, and probably happiness), Megan has a million dollars but at the expense of the loss of her youthful exuberance and Sally Draper is dying. Peggy does finally find love in the end, to be fair, but it felt somewhat anti-climactic and overridden by the endless procession of women used as objects by the male characters throughout the show’s run. Maybe more troubling than the way they used and abused women throughout the show is the way the women seemed to adapt to this abuse and to pile more abuse on themselves. We see this with the last love interest of Don Draper, who can’t accept his love because she continues to punish herself for abandoning her own family – with sexual shaming her preferred form of self-flagellation. And really, one could make a compelling argument that all of Don’s crimes relate back to his childhood in a whorehouse and a mother who just didn’t love him enough (or at all, to be fair). Women are the enemy and their destruction the collateral damage of men trying to find themselves and an elusive contentment with the American Dream.

2. That transitions smoothly to my second point. Like The Sopranos, it does provide an image of a troubled man who seems to have it all – money, power, sex on the offing and a loving family off in the background – but who is rarely happy and constantly questioning all that he has accomplished. That was the central premise of The Sopranos from the start and thus offered, as did The Godfather, a metaphor for the problem of American capitalism itself. Francis Ford Coppola was overt in his attempt to draw parallels between the destruction of the Corleone family and America, based on their shared lust for power and money against the backdrop of loyalty and tradition, along with the violence that accompanies that search. With Sopranos, it is unclear if this was Weiner’s intention, but it is still clear to see, and it is even more apparent in Mad Men, where characters both living and essentially creatively selling the American dream have trouble finding real pleasure in the former (nor real satisfaction in the latter). By capturing the advertising industry in the 60s, the first few seasons of the show accentuate the battle for the soul of America and the ways the spectacle of consumer culture overtook the fading idealism of the post-War period. The problem with this critique is that it was arguably encased within a narrative that too many men, and maybe women, found so compelling the underlying critique was lost in the desire to live these shallow and unfulfilling lives themselves. One could argue, instead, that it is actually schadenfreude (pleasure in the pain of others) that really drove its loyal viewers, but a combination of the two seems more accurate.

3. While substantially more complex and lyrical than Entourage, hip hop videos or Iron Man, I thus think Mad Men ultimately fits smugly within the genre I like to call “male lifestyle porn.” It is a genre that tends to focus on overgrown boys with money, power and sex drives that would put Hugh Hefner to shame; generally combined with the ultimate importance of male friendship bonds over healthy relationships with the opposite sex. The overgrown boys tend to sleep around, use women for sex, hurt them in their search for self-actualization and never seem to truly overcome their desire to exist in a state of perpetual adolescence. Sure Don Draper has suffered in his quest to break the half century mark of conquests on the road to being loved, but isn’t the sex really his only escape from a life of misery and loneliness, only amplified when he actually grabs that love he so desires? We can also see this with Roger’s endless sexcapades, Peter’s discontent with whomever he happens to be with and the general disregard the majority of the male characters on the show have for women in general.

4. Quality, contemplative television is possible: among the spectacle-addled world of reality television, endless series, remakes, reboots and sequels, sports extravaganza and news as entertainment, Mad Men stood out as a more artistic, tempered experience, unafraid to let the camera linger, to eschew conversation and to draw out storylines across seasons. While it did sometimes play with the tricks of the post-MTV generation, which cut the average movie shot from 10 to 6 seconds, it tends to have longer takes, quiet cameras and more or less follows the Classic Hollywood rules of continuity editing. Some have criticized this aspect of the show, calling it little more than a pretty costume drama, and the mis-en-scene has been stunning throughout, with great color, sets, costumes and the like, but it appears an essential part of the world Weiner is recreating before our eyes. Sure it sometimes used history as a largely pointless backdrop to the narrative, but there was a sense that the show followed Christopher Nolan’s desire to again marry narrative and form into one cohesive whole, rather than two related parts. To a large extent, I believe it succeeded in this daunting task, creating a reality within its fictitious world that felt genuine and authentic.

5. Finally, it is worth noting all of the lines of print and online pixels spent deconstructing the show as I am doing here. Fred Jameson argued a little over 20 years ago that contemporary popular culture WAS culture in America and that history was little more than stylized visions of an idealized past unrelated to the political, economic or social tumult they entailed. Both observations seem particularly relevant to the show, which has become not only a part of our popular culture canon but part of American culture itself, an embodiment of a country that seems more enticed by the fictitious world of others than their own lives. Our obsession with celebrity, with popular culture marginalia with the psychology of characters within fictional worlds all seem to indicate a general malaise outside the world of the spectacle we have so fully embraced. Television changed America from its birth, abetting the Civil Rights Movement, feminist advances, the mobilization against the Vietnam War and, in a broader sense, helped define the normative in American life itself. It changed the nature of neighborhoods, the nature of leisure and, of course, the nature of politics. But the first few decades of television still saw a public that was both politically and socially active. Today, I sense it has gone further, coming to define our political and social lives in ways wholly new and arguably equally troubling. Mad Men was a great television show that challenged audiences to contemplate what the show meant and why we cared. In the process, did it challenge us to ask why we watched it at all? That would be the most worthy legacy of a show that did demonstrate how advertising and TV were overshadowing our past and redefining our future.

Mad Men fascinated me from the beginning as a show that captured a lost America, ultimately the result of the very characters the narrative follows as that slow death occurs. I thought it faltered in the middle before a strong final two seasons where it began to reconcile with its own problematic politics, even if in an unsatisfactory manner. In the end, it was a springboard for other slow moving dramatic television series, like True Detectives, and a show that will probably be written about for years. The real question we should ask ourselves, however, is if the America it showed us is really the one we want to live in and whether, if the answer is no, we can do something to change our collective future.

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