Sunday, July 25, 2010

Tabula Rasa: The Return of Mad Men

I wish I could share the enthusiasm expressed by many who have been eagerly awaiting the return of the hit series Mad Men, whose fourth season premieres tonight on AMC. But I’m not sure what there is to be so enthusiastic about except the show’s tantalizing ambitions, ambitions that have never travelled far from the shallow end of the pool.

Mad Men is set in the 1960s and examines the lives of the advertising men who work on Madison Avenue in New York City at the firm Sterling Cooper. Created by former Sopranos’ writer Matthew Weiner in 2007, Mad Men does have a clever premise; creative ad men selling us dreams of an American life they themselves can’t possibly live. The main character, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the creative director at the firm, isn’t even who he claims to be. He’s a con artist living out his own fantasy while selling products to others. Placing a con artist at the center of a story of self-made men is definitely appetizing. It draws significantly on the corruption of the American ideal where you can make of yourself anything you wish. In doing so, Mad Men tries to examine the changing mores of American middle-class culture from the post-War comforts of suburbia to the social upheavals of the sixties. But I’m afraid that the show ultimately fails to live up to its promise. Rather than capture an era in turmoil, or characters at crossroads between what they sell and who they are, Mad Men fixates itself on the details of the period, the minutiae of sixties kitsch, to compensate for its lack of dramatic coherence. Rather than go deeply into the characters behind the facade, the show chooses to illuminate the facade. In short, I think Mad Men is itself a slick bit of advertising.

When the show first debuted in July 2007, I was initially excited by the set up – including the program’s fixation on the drinking, cigarette smoking, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism because it was a significant part of the American culture of that time. I was also old enough to remember visiting my mother who was a secretary at an affiliate of the CTV Television Network. The people of Mad Men to a degree occupied portions of my memory about the ambience of a media environment where ideas and ambition commingled in a haze of smoke, booze and flirtations. I took the rigorous attention to details in Season One to be merely a set-up for the payoffs to follow in subsequent years. But something truly went wrong between the first two seasons.

My guess is it was Mad Men’s instant success with viewers and critics. By seizing on a clever idea, Mad Men was suddenly acclaimed as this great drama to stand alongside Sinclair Lewis in its unbridled comprehension of failed American values. But I suspect that Matthew Weiner, knowing he had a hot property on his hands, did what other promising programs (like Alias, Lost – even, ultimately, The Sopranos) did. He decided to play to an audience rather than cultivate one. Sometimes when a potentially good show draws a solid following the creators (and the networks) become afraid of losing those viewers. So they don’t take risks by going somewhere the audience might not wish to go, instead they play to their expectations. Mad Men has that skill down to a science.

Weiner is pretty clever. He knows it would be too easy to look back on the early sixties and approach the material nostalgically, which is why Mad Men isn’t really about nostalgia. (I’m afraid audiences think that’s part of what makes Mad Men deep.) But Mad Men only appears smart because of its absence of sentiment, with its cool precision cloaked in ironies we can now appreciate in hindsight. But if you look into the evolving storyline, you’ll find nothing but vignettes sketched with no dramatic resonance, or follow-through. For example, Roger Sterling (John Slattery), one of the two senior partners of Sterling Cooper, has a life-threatening heart attack in Season One which has him fearing for his life and marriage (especially since he was happily mounting a young woman in his office when it happened), but nothing ever comes of it (except a divorce which still told us little about his marriage). Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), who rose from Don Draper’s secretary to become a copywriter, becomes pregnant with the child of co-worker Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), who is initially kept ignorant of the pregnancy. While she eventually has the baby and reveals the secret to Campbell, the revelation doesn’t develop into anything more than a deepening of their rivalry in the office. More blatantly, Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis), the agency’s creative copywriter and Princeton grad, is an active liberal who dates a black woman and even joins in the Freedom March in the South. But she soon mysteriously disappears from the show, as does any trace of why he dated her and how the experience of fighting desegregation might have affected him, or even changed his views on the office politics he has to endure. Speaking of politics, Sal Romano (Bryan Batt) is their Italian-American art director who is also a closeted homosexual. But Mad Men puts him in another closet by redundantly tracing his inner turmoil, but never fully examining the means by which he must remain invisible. Mad Men’s enthusiasts applaud the Pinteresque silences and pauses as part of the show’s depth, while not recognizing that silence isn’t always subtext.

Mad Men focuses primarily on Don Draper and his wife Betty (January Jones) and their turbulent marriage, but even that grows ultimately forced and monotonous. Don is a rampant womanizer; Betty knows it and endures it until she gets some revenge of her own. But their marriage seems more a plot convenience to illustrate the growing ennui of suburban emptiness rather than a depiction of marital conflict. But that is what irks me most about Mad Men: its absence of drama. The best TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Six Feet Under, were driven by a dramatic purpose, they had a coherent arc that had payoffs within their structure. Buffy was a perfectly thought through series that used the demon world as a paradoxical reflection of adolescent struggle. Six Feet Under focused on a family who ran a funeral home and, within that premise, took us (with humour and pathos) inside our own unease with mortality and our fragile relationship with life. Mad Men is more a shifting motif, highlighted in the Saul Bass inspired opening credits of the man falling through skyscrapers filled with reflections of period advertising posters and billboards, casting superficial shadings on the characters.

The season premiere tonight opens with the question, “Who is Don Draper?” But that question could be equally applied to most of the characters that walk through the show. It may even apply to the man who created it. Mad Men is all about the selling of images. And, so far, it’s successfully hustling itself.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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