Yes, I’m talking about Mad Men again. And it’s not even on the air right now. But my friend Jason Mitchell tweeted an article by the New York Review of Books and I felt the need to respond. Because the author seemed to miss one of the most brilliant parts of the show, even as he wrote about it painstakingly for three pages. You can read it in its entirety here (note: there are general spoilers) but here’s the part that made me shake my head in disbelief:
The problem with Mad Men is that it suffers from a hypocrisy of its own. As the camera glides over Joan’s gigantic bust and hourglass hips, as it languorously follows the swirls of cigarette smoke toward the ceiling, as the clinking of ice in the glass of someone’s midday Canadian Club is lovingly enhanced, you can’t help thinking that the creators of this show are indulging in a kind of dramatic having your cake and eating it, too: even as it invites us to be shocked by what it’s showing us (a scene people love to talk about is one in which a hugely pregnant Betty lights up a cigarette in a car), it keeps eroticizing what it’s showing us, too. For a drama (or book, or whatever) to invite an audience to feel superior to a less enlightened era even as it teases the regressive urges behind the behaviors associated with that era strikes me as the worst possible offense that can be committed in a creative work set in the past: it’s simultaneously contemptuous and pandering.
Oh, Daniel Mendelsohn. Yes. You are correct. Mad Men is trying to do two things at once: It is trying to expose the shadow side of life in the 1960’s, and it is trying to do so within the slick and image-conscious aesthetic of advertising. But honey, this is not sloppy. It is attempting to do exactly what you said- invite us to be shocked by what it’s showing us, and eroticize it, too. But this is on purpose, and it is one of the main reasons the show is so brilliant. The characters are living imperfect, often repulsive, lives. But they look soooo pretty that we almost —almost— forget. (Maybe this is why the characters have to be so repulsive. Otherwise, we’d be sure to forget.) The viewer is thrown into the deep end and forced to experience two incredibly conflicting questions. Do we loathe these repulsive people who smoke while pregnant and crack racist jokes, or do we appreciate them (and want to emulate them, even) for their dapper style and cool charm?
This is not contemptuous and pandering. This is the way our culture IS. Exhibit A: Britney Spears. Do we loathe the mother who can’t strap her child in a carseat or seem to get her act together, or do we appreciate the performer who can mesmerize an entire live audience better than just about anyone?
The 1960’s setting of Mad Men is a great part of the show’s appeal, certainly. But one of the most powerfully subversive things it does is provide us a cushion of time and space from the present so that we don’t realize it’s exposing exactly what’s wrong with US, right now. We are the people in the office. We are the people in those relationships. We are the people who buy magazines and watch television shows that allow us to peer into celebrities’ lives with a mixture of disgust and desire. It’s a terrible side of humanity, really. It’s everything that gets manipulated in advertising when we attempt to falsely bridge a world between reality and the image we want of ourselves. It’s a disaster. And Mad Men is the most brilliant show that has ever been written to expose it. And they do it by placing stories of racist misogynistic people in impeccably decorated rooms and mesmerizing camera angles. The medium IS the message, Daniel. DUH.