Monday, July 28, 2008

My Issues with Mad Men

Mad Men, AMC's premiere show, had its second season premiere last night. I watched it warily, because I had watched the first season on and off and because I hadn't sat down to watch an actual show in a long time. It was the most nominated show, and at this point in the summer, the only show that had any buzz.

I also realized why I was so ambivalent about the show last season.

Mad Men is exactly like the Sopranos in that none of the characters are likeable. This shouldn't be surprising, because Matthew Weiner wrote some of the best episodes of that show ("Kennedy and Heidi", where Christopher dies; "The Blue Comet", the action-packed and ultra-suspenseful penultimate episode). All the women in Mad Men are petty, shallow, and mean; the men are boorish, selfish, superficial. One of the points of the show is to comment on and tear apart the shiny facade of the characters, comparing them to the bright and glossy advertising campaigns they work on. Indeed, most of the characters are dressed bright and glossy, shellacked to perfection, meant to offset their inner turmoil.

Some might say this is human nature, that we are all nasty people, and that the people in this business then were that way since they could be. Fine. You can transplant the same characters in any story. But what's missing for me is a character to root for, to care about. For all the mystery surrounding Don Draper, or even his bland wife, Betty, I just don't see it. I don't even care for the actors that much (although I like Christina Hendricks). I think it's also that I tend to like spunkier characters, so those that are quiet or meek without a hint of fire burning underneath are boring to me. I'm all for complicated, nuanced portrayals of characters, but I find the majority of those on Mad Men to not be, no matter what their backstories are.

The reason to watch Mad Men is for the stylistic period details. Matthew Weiner and co. do a tremendous job of paying attention to every little pant crease and dinner dish, and the lush scenery and costumes make the show. It is in these things that we do notice how things have changed, since nobody takes the time to be that careful and put together anymore.

Mad Men has also made me realize that no matter how bad our current situation is in the world, I'm still a million times glad that I live now and not then. The fancy gowns and the free-flowing drinks do in no way make up for the crushing rigidity of the rest of the culture. Part of the fun is the cringe factor in watching the appallingly horrifying remarks and the completely inappropriate behavior that would be a lawsuit in five seconds flat--every time a woman left a room, all the men would ogle her behind in the most vulgar fashion, or when a mother remarks that her daughter has taken to cutting up her food in tiny bits and only eating a fraction of it, her friend responds that "It's good she's watching her weight," and the mother agrees. But this wears thin after a while, when it feels like the characters are just small people who do and say horrible things. Occasionally last season I saw glimpses of humanity from Peter Campbell, Vincent Kartheiser's ruthless young adman who married a terribly spoiled whiny brat of a woman, caught between his wife's wishes, his family's pride and his own dreams. My answer to Betty's loneliness was "get a job", not a nanny, a housekeeper and an equestrian hobby, though I did like that her daughter now has lines. I prefer watching the working environment, catching glimpses of history; it is here that we see how thoroughly researched and written the show is, and how much more interesting it is than Betty's stultifying home life. As Peggy Olsen gains confidence, I'm sure her character will grow on me.

I wonder if Mad Men is a show that will just become knockout good to me later on, when the characters are more fully developed, or if by watching enough, I'll learn to tolerate it and even like a few episodes. It's just a matter of whether I'm willing to invest the time to get that far.


petpluto said...

"Mad Men has also made me realize that no matter how bad our current situation is in the world, I'm still a million times glad that I live now and not then."
I hear you. My sister mentioned the show, and my father was incredibly derisive and said that the show was about his father and mother's time, and how those weren't fun times.

I tried Mad Men, mostly for Vincent Kartheiser- because even though he played someone I mostly hated on Angel I still kind of like him. But the show is way too "edgy" for me. And all of the talk about the 16 nominations and blah blah blah just makes me sad. Because it means even more "edgy" shows will start cluttering the airwaves, and soon it will be all "Big Love"s and that new show on CBS about wife-swapping. Ugh.

John said...

I only saw the first episode of Mad Men, but one episode was enough for me. To echo both your and Petra's statments, it seemed like the show spent so much time perfectly replicating the oft-forgotten details of life in the late '50s/early '60s that they forgot to create any sympathetic characters. Even the inclusion of Christina Hendricks (who played a phenomenally deep and interesting character on Firefly)couldn't retain my interest.

It's really a shame that the American version of Life on Mars is atrocious and destined for failure. The British version is a fantastic example of Mad Men's concept done right: A modern examination of an era shielded by nostalgia, exposing the ill as well as the good. Hopefully the American version will flop quickly and they'll finally release the British version on DVD.

Londonator said...

Time for a defense...

I don't watch much TV drama, so I can't really compare this show to any of Matt's previous works or Life on Mars or anything like that. And I certainly agree that many of the characters on Mad Men are the sorts you wouldn't piss on if they were on fire (here's lookin at you, Pete). But for me the little glimpses of these characters revealing their fears and hopes in spite of an un-PC world and corporate culture that is itself in the midst of transformation, makes this show so wonderful, and why it is the only television drama on my DVD shelf.

I can't think of another moment on television that has moved me as much as the season finale of
Mad Men, when Don - in a complete 180 from his selfish first-episode dictum "my life moves in only one direction - forward - realizes the importance of family and companionship in his life, but too late to recover his wife. And THAT character, Betsy, had a character arc that also changed her from a submissive barbie doll to a human with the awakening of an independent spirit. A spirit that continues to develop, if you watch, in the first two episodes of the second season.

Every character goes through this. Office-whore Joan gets lonely and jealous. Peggy becomes a surprisingly ruthless corporate ladder-climber. And Pete, god bless 'em, is truly in a state of disrepair by the end, quite a contrast to the brassier-strapping frat guy in the beginning. When I think about how far (or low) these characters have come over the course of the season, or even an episode, I really have to disagree that there "quiet or meek without a hint of fire burning underneath".

On a completely unrelated note, I think that Mad Men handles the reality of the past better than any other television show or movie EVER - not because of the costumes or props or vanished slang or other distractions, but because what you are seeing are fully-fleshed characters who exist IN a time - not a TIME expressed in characters. When people look at me or you today, they are not seeing the year 2008 - they are seeing the prejudices, fashions, and attitudes of a whole jumble of years and influences combined with the totally unique narrative that made you who you are.

This is what the characters in Mad Men are - not empty symbols of "womanizing" or "submissiveness" but, as far as the medium of television can go, complex and unpredictable characters. A person might act "shallow", but how did they get that way, why do they act that way, and how will that characteristic affect them as the world around them changes profoundly? Who will benefit, and who will suffer? Those are the kind of questions Mad Men asks, and attempts to answer.

The characters of Mad Men are not often likable, but they are rarely boring. Thats why I watch Mad Men.

Stephanie said...

Danny, I appreciate your defense. And I agree that the first season finale, especially that scene, was very moving.

First off, Don’s wife’s name is Betty, not Betsy—and a fan of the show should know that. I actually like her storyline with the neighbor kid, how they have a creepy connection.

I didn’t intend to suggest that the characters are merely “empty symbols of ‘womanizing’ or ‘submissiveness’”—or whatever nasty trait is ascribed to them—but that at times it seems that they aren’t as fleshed-out or three-dimensional as they’re purported to be. I like and prefer complex characters, and want to see those questions above addressed for characters, but for me, I need to see something more than what I’ve been given. I love Gregory House, and he’s a pretty nasty character—but I find him to be impossibly, intensely interesting, and in everything he does he’s a tangle of contradictions, passion, purpose, and heart. When he’s one-note I don’t like him, and the episode is bad (see “Whatever It Takes”). Same for Michael Scott; when he becomes just an asshole without the contradictions in his character both he and the episode suffer (see “Job Fair”). I think Mad Men could eventually get there; although I don’t consider myself a fan of the Sopranos, there are standout episodes and those are the dramatic, meaty ones where characters have to make tough decisions and we really see who they are. The show just needs time to explore, and as we learn more about the characters they can grow on me. So stay tuned.

Cinematician said...

So I saw my first episode of Mad Men two days agao, and I have to say I will be watching it again. I found it entertaining and a worthy spiritual successor to The Sopranos (at least in my mind). However, I did see flaws that may impact me one way or another and determine if I'm going to continue to follow the show.
First off, let me say right off the bat I agree with you about being glad we live in the present time. Even though the fifties are held up by some as the moral highpoint of American history, I've always seen the whole "golden age" myth as just people back then trying to convince themselves everything was perfect to hide all of the cold war paranoia that developed within the aftermath of World War II. Mad Men shows us the world was not perfect back then, and the people then were no better than the people now.
The show seems to try to break down myth of the 50s and show us that not only were people back then just as sinful as people are today, but that because of the values back then, they were even worse. In the episode I saw, a mother (forgive me, I haven't learned the characters names yet) encourages her husband to hit their son because he keeps touching things he's not supposed too. That kind of thing was common place back then. It goes without mention that all of the characters smoke and drink profusely, and yet no one says anything since it was just accepted as normal back then. Because of these things, Mad Men does succeed very well in breaking down the myth of the 1950s being American moral standard we should all try and live up to.
The problem though, is the way the show keeps trying to evoke that golden age sensibility in it's visuals. Everything in the sets and wardrobes is just too perfect. Every piece of clothing looks perfect enough to photograph and put in a catalogue. The homes are colorful and vibrant and nothing is ever out of place or unkempt within them. Even the character's hair is always perfectly coifed, even when getting out of bed.
I can see why the show's creators did this. This is the 50s as many remember it, and they want to contrast the image of this perfect world with the lying, cheating, vice ridden characters that inhabit it. However, many times all the period detail is just too overwhelming.
Everything is just too perfect, too on the nose, and at times it's hard to ever believe the characters actually live in their homes. They tried a bit too hard to make everything look perfect and manufactured, and in the ends up hurting the believability of the show. Afterall, while it was certainly the writer's intention to show the perfect world of the 1950s, more often than not it just looks like television's recreation of the perfect world of the 1950s,and I find that difficult to get past. It wouldn't be hard to show the homes as a little bit more lived in, and a little less colorful, while still retaining that image of perfection, and it would go a long way towards helping the show's believability.
Now granted, I did only see one episode, so maybe I'm completely and totally wrong and the rest of the series is perfectly fine.. However, the biggest problem for me with the show was forgetting it was a television show, which I was never quite able to do. However, even though I haven't seen enough of the plots or the characters to comment on them, they seemed well written and interesting enough to warrant looking past the shows flaws and seeing the rest of the series.