Reviews Too Late: Mad Men
In this particular case, the answer would seem to be No.
I don't insist on sympathetic characters in my fiction. (Hell, my favorite book is Lolita.) I've written my share of unsympathetic protagonists. But there's something in me that objects when the entire fictional landscape is so completely devoid of what for lack of a better term I shall call "ordinary decent human beings." I think that's what's always got between me and Faulkner: his books were so totally populated by the miserable, the psychotic, the brainless, the losers, the criminal, the useless, the deluded, and the wannabes, that there was no room for anyone that I recognized from my actual life.
Mad Men takes place in an ad agency in 1960--- the ad agency, in fact, that is assigned to sell to the American public a young, good-looking naval hero, Dick Nixon. (It has to be said that the series does very little with this subplot.)
Every male in the place is an utter swine: vain, ambitious, ruthless, priapic, and totally consumed with his own selfish needs. Any one of them would kick his grandmother to death for a chance at the corner office. Any one of them would stab the other in the back for a chance to bang a secretary.
While I'm perfectly willing to believe that ad agencies in the 1950s were full of such people, I'm not yet convinced why it's supposed to matter to me. If I'm supposed to be interested in shitheads, they better damn well be really fascinating shitheads.
The shithead-in-chief is Dick Draper, a highly successful ad man with a house in the suburbs, an ex-model wife, two lovely children, a couple of mistresses, and a rivalry with a junior copywriter who wants his job. Draper is a master manipulator, and it's clear early on that "Dick Draper" is in fact a construct--- he's a fictional persona created by a man with a compulsion (and pretty good reasons) to hide his own past. This is potentially interesting--- why would a character from an abusive background, now masquerading as someone else, choose advertising as a career? (Because it gives him every opportunity to lie and manipulate in his own interest, apparently.)
(It's a measure of the cynicism of the milieu that when Draper's big secret is finally revealed, nobody cares. The ad agency is in the business of constructing huge fabulations, and if one of their executives is a fabulation himself, that is of little interest. He's a huge rainmaker, and that's all they care about.)
It's Draper's job to sell the American dream to the public. And he's sold himself on the dream as well--- hence the suburban home, the lovely wife, the children, all part of his con but a con he seems determined to act out. He keeps his wife under his thumb by ruthlessly undermining her self-esteem, and in the meantime passes his time by pursuing more intellectually interesting Manhattan career women.
Where Draper fails is in his attempt to con me. He fails to convince me that he's fascinating. Oh, I can admire his clever advertising campaigns, at least insofar as I can admire anything designed to sell me something I don't want. I stand in awe of his ruthlessness. But by the end of the series I was cheering his defeats and feeling chagrin at his victories. I wanted the rat-bastard to lose. He couldn't lose fast enough for me. And at the end, when his house of cards crumbled and he found himself staring oblivion in the face, I was cheering. I was just sorry that it had taken so long.
I don't think that's what the writers intended.
In opposition to the ad men are the series' various women, all of whom are victims. Scarcely a quarter-hour goes by without one of the male characters taking time out of his life to exploit and/or demean one of the women.
This may be true to the period, but again I found it problematical. I started by being appalled, then sympathetic, and then gradually the sympathy went away. The women were so complicit in their own misery, so much willing partners in their own degradation, that I stopped being interested in their problems. (Am I sorry because a masochist gets whipped? Not much, no.)
Which brings us to the character of Peggy, the character who starts as a naive secretary and ends the season as the firm's only female copywriter. Her journey is probably the most interesting one on offer, but the writers stuck her with a huge reveal at the end of the season that was well beyond unbelievable. Yes, I know that such things happen, but I'm disinclined to think they happen to people like Peggy. She'd been established as too intelligent for such a surprise.
I was interested in how the creators justified throwing us such a screwball, so I listened to the DVD audio commentary for that particular episode. The actress who plays Peggy did the commendary, along with the actress who plays Dick Draper's much-abused wife, and they both went to extreme lengths to explain why the development wasn't unbelievable. "This isn't unbelievable at all." "No, some people might think it's unbelievable, but it isn't." "That's right, it's totally non-unbelievable." "This sort of thing happens all the time, it's not unbelievable in any way, shape. or form."
When you have people involved in the series going to such extremes to convince us that it isn't unbelievable, then I think we have a problem.
On the plus side, the series does a terrific job of re-creating 1960. Production values are terrific. The actors are very good, if sometimes ill-served by the writers. (Vincent Kartheiser's character in particular seems a sketch, to be filled in later.)
Toward the end of the season, the series drags quite a bit. There isn't quite enough material in the series arc to stretch to all those episodes, and so some of them end up being about nothing in particular.
Mad Men makes for an interesting case study in the creation of unsympathetic characters. It provides me with more evidence that if I'm going to spend time in the company of someone I'm going to dislike, I need to be fascinated in some way.
Ideally, I need to get into the character's psyche, so that I understand why he's behaving this way and what drives him. From the writer's perspective, this is more difficult to do in series television than in a novel, where I can literally tell you what the character is thinking. Since you can't do that in TV--- at least not without reviving the art of the soliloquy--- the television writer has to do this some other way, for instance through a carefully-controlled series of flashbacks. (The flashbacks in
Mad Men had me more interested in the way they were structured than involved in the story they were telling, but maybe that's just me.)
Another way to get me interested is to show us the evil genius in action. If he's an evil overlord, let me savor his over-the-top schemes for world domination! If he's a con man, get me involved in the zest of the con! But Dick Draper doesn't seem to enjoy himself when he's lying and cheating and bullying and back-stabbing, it's just the sort of thing he does on a daily basis, because that's who he is and that's what he does. He's not a man for reflection, he doesn't seem interested in why he behaves the way he does, and--- after a while--- neither am I.
And oh yeah, it's best if something more is at stake than who gets the Clearasil account. Let's make that clear right off. I don't care about the Clearasil account, I can't be made to care, and no matter how brilliantly you scheme to win it, I still won't give a damn.
So can we now introduce the ad man who's married to a witch? Because, y'know, we could use some humor around here.
Labels: Mad Men