Thursday, August 16, 2007

"The bear is not talking. It's what the hunter imagines the bear to be thinking.": Mad Men

I know a lot of people love that the show finally confirmed that Don Draper was, at one time, Dick Whitman. And I know that a lot of people feel that this is the show finally kicking in with something resembling a "storyline." But I, well, I. . .kind of don't like this aspect of the show. I don't think it's awful, and they're certainly doing a good job of making it believable and having it tie into the show's themes and such, but it just feels so prosaic, like Mad Men is down in the muck, having a game try at doing what all of these popular "serialized" shows are doing and sort of not getting the hang of it. It's like a kid who's only ever seen football on TV getting together with his pals and trying to play for real -- he sort of gets the idea, but he spends most of his time standing off to the side with a bemused smile on his face (OK, I was that kid).

I'll give Mad Men that the deployment of this device wasn't as ham-fisted as I feared it might be a couple of weeks ago when that guy approached Don on the train and ranted to him about Dick Whitman. The long-lost brother who sees his presumed-dead brother in the newspaper and comes to visit him was straight out of soap opera boilerplate (as was the rather cliche revelation that Don Draper has mother issues -- yes, we know you worked on the Sopranos, Matthew Weiner), but the whole thing worked in spite of itself, mostly because Jon Hamm is just so compelling in this role (and the young actor playing his brother was no slouch either). Somebody else suggested this first, but if they ever get away from Bryan Singer's youth-y Superman (or if they ever make a Captain America movie), they should sign Hamm up. He's got the gravitas and the old-school charm to play the role.

Every week, after Mad Men, I log on to my various haunts and see what people thought of the episode. Most of the big media critics who do a week-by-week recap of the episodes seem to enjoy the show (Sepinwall, Johnston and Poniewozik all enjoy the show to varying degrees), and the TWOP boards are filled with love for the program. But at other corners of the Web (most notably over at New Critics), the show is admired but from a respectful distance. It's as if people are afraid to touch it, so otherworldly does it seem. The most frequent complaints leveled at the show from such quarters say that it dabbles in cliche (well, yes -- but I would argue the show reinvigorates those cliches, which we'll get to), has very little plot momentum and has little to no "likability" (I use the term as a summarization of a prevailing attitude that there seems to be no joy to the characters or the storylines).

But those latter two things are some of the things I LIKE about the show. Indeed, they're almost the WHOLE reason I like the show. The plot doesn't move like a rocket, and everything (even the outright cliches about the era, largely taken from Cheever and Updike and the like) is played completely straight, without the sort of ironic affectation that we take for granted in a story of this sort. We're meant to scoff at the self-involved, swaggering white males of the 50s and early 60s. We're supposed to sneer at the people living in the suburbs in their little boxes of homogeny. Somewhere along the line, in the midst of all of this Desperate Housewifery, we've forgotten the people who populate these stories are just that. We're always stuck with the shrill caricatures of American Beauty (though I liked Kevin Spacey in that -- go figure) or the easy laughs of Weeds (though I like Mary-Louise Parker in that -- a lot). That's not to say that any of the above are awful or anything; it's just to say that Mad Men takes stories that could be stultifyingly dull and remakes them in its own image. It is telling old stories in an old way, and that's invaluable.

Earlier in the week, I managed to kill a comments thread at another blog where someone was complaining about a critic who didn't like enough of the new cable series (prompted by said critics pan of the mostly uninvolving Californication). The prevailing sentiment in a lot of TV writing seems to be that something was "good for TV." It's an attitude that stretches back to the birth of the medium, a medium that has always been seen as inferior to nearly every other one (ranking somewhere above video games and comic books, I wager, in the popular consensus). The problem is that we're living in an age where we see just what people who have the full capabilities of the medium's unique qualities in mind can do -- witness The Sopranos or The Wire or Friday Night Lights or even Lost when it's not too busy chasing itself down a rabbit hole. Just saying that something is "good for TV," that it was passable entertainment, is no longer good enough. I realize it's not exactly the popular thing to do, but when we're confronted with something as unique and singular and differently told as, say, The Wire or Mad Men, I think we owe it to ourselves to back up and figure out what, exactly, is going on here, not bray about how it should be more like the rest of TV (can you imagine how awful this show would be if it sped up the plotlines and turned itself into just another suburban soap?). Yes, Mad Men has its minor problems, but it's also an intimately told tale of the end of an era, full of the kinds of portents and hidden tensions that could provide enough subtextual gas to run a dozen other lesser shows.

(Lengthy aside about John from Cincinnati follows: I'm still decidedly mixed on the quality of the show, but recent interviews with Milch in Variety have me believing people will be hailing it as a classic 50 years from now. It feels like one of those genre-busting things that no one really gets in its time but seems to warm to after a few decades get into the rear-view mirror. We certainly shouldn't fault Milch for completely abandoning conventional storytelling logic for an examination of the very tenets of that logic and the language that builds it up. It's just a question of how much of it you "got," and the show was probably the sort of thing that one couldn't "get" without pondering it for a good long while. And we haven't had that good long while yet.)

OK. Yes. Back to Mad Men.

I'm really taken with the way this series portrays women. Granted, none of them are exactly in a position of power, and they all have to kowtow to men to get what they want, but I'm impressed with how Mad Men portrays many women at different PLACES in their lives. Betty and Joan are probably the most stereotypical (the bored housewife and the vampy secretary), but Midge, Peggy and Rachel aren't exactly the types you'd see in a story like this every time. They feel like people on the edge of something new, like those who might break through in a few years.

I'm sure some aren't liking the way that Pete was made into a jerk again (willing to whore out his wife like that), but I found it all of a piece with his character. He's beginning to get desperate, and it's a nice touch that he's not very talented (or, indeed, that most of the characters aren't very talented). He's feeling more and more trapped, and that's why he's willing to do such ridiculous things and take a chance on his young, fragile marriage.

But it was all about Draper and his long-lost brother (and good work on the fake-out, Mad Men! glad it wasn't a gun). That final clinch between the two men, Don's eyes lost in the past, trying to avoid coming to terms with everything he had done and given up, spoke volumes. Mad Men may not seem like it on the surface, but it's a show broiling with passion.


Bianca Reagan said...

'm really taken with the way this series portrays women. Granted, none of them are exactly in a position of power, and they all have to kowtow to men to get what they want, but I'm impressed with how Mad Men portrays many women at different PLACES in their lives.

I like this aspect, too. At first I was all consumed by the brother story because I have my own half-brother issues. However, after spending much of my day debating the sexism in Superbad, I have a new appreciation for how Mad Men clearly acknowledges the various imbalances of power.

Flower said...

I like this show more with each passing week. I enjoy the slow accumulation of plot and character details. Its the only show this side of The Sopranos to appropriate that show's deliberate, novelistic, chapter-by-chapter structure and rythm with any kind of success. I really hope Mad Men is around for a few years.