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Daniel Mendelsohn on (gulp) Mad Men

It's not good for your aesthetic self-confidence when a critic you much admire takes on a favorite show. A taste:The writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the acting is, almost without exception, bland and sometimes amateurish.

About the Author

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.



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I like Mendelsohn (but have only encountered him in the NYRB), but I find myself wondering what he thinks makes for a good television series. What's his point of comparison? I guess I am always a bit suspicious when the lit crit slides down from Mount Olympus to take a gander at the ol' boob tube. Can someone point to some of his other writings on television for purposes of comparison?

I have to admit that I gave Mad Men a try a couple of seasons ago and for whatever reason, it never hooked me. Now, thanks to Mendelsohn, I'm fortified with rationale. :-)

John: I stumbled over those exact lines when I read that article, and I wanted to say, "Compared to what?" It's TV not Shakespeare for Pete's sake. (And Pete would agree.)

He's soooo wrong about sooooo many things. (And pompous in an Aristotelian and Euclidean way.)Smoking? Everyone DID smoke. Has he ever watched movies made at the time? Ever seen a doctor walk into a patient's room in a hospital and light up? One example: Notice the scene in "A Summer Place" (1959) where Troy Donahue's college classmates come out of the building after class and light up on the steps.He says: "Scenes tend to be boxed: actors will be arranged within a framesitting in a car, at a desk, on a bedand then they recite their lines, and thats that. Characters seldom enter (or leave) the frame while already engaged in some activity, already talking about something . . ."Baloney. One of hundreds of examples -- the great scene when the old secretary died at her desk: in the foreground a meeting goes on while in the background Joan et al. wheel the corpse out of view.And criticizing the great Jon Hamm, one of several great actors trained by Wayne Salomen at John Burroughs School in St. Louis? Lame.

Jim: Pete would agree. Although he is a good dancer....

That's just WRONG. Mad Men is exploring the present in light of the past. How did we move from Pillow Talk to Annie Hall in just a few short years?And if you want to see a movie about the dark side of the late 50s, see the Apartment. But being spectacularly wrong is a good way to get yourself discussed.

Totally agree. I did not see the appeal of Mad Men. I watched some episodes and never felt that the characters were three dimensional. Way too charicatured across the board.As far high brow soap operas, you stll can't beat The Sopranos.

Hmm. It would be interesting if somebody compared Mad Men and Thirty-Something.

"And Pete would agree." Having never met Pete, if Pete would agree, I will assume that he is someone, like John, who has "the ability to detect all the ingredients in a composition" but at times, like all of us, would rather be intellectually lazy:-)Having watched an episode of Mad Men, I can only say, (double gulp), I agree with what Daniel said.Sorry, John.

Gerelyn & Prof. Kaveny are right. One wonders how many episodes Mendelsohn actually watched. And for George D to say the characters are not three dimensional is laughable (which episodes did you watch? not "The Suitcase" or "The Mountain King") Is there an equivalent to "RTFA" for people who comment about TV reviews for shows they don't watch?

MikeD - fwiw, he claims in the article to have watched every episode.

From what I'm able to ascertain (having wasted several minutes trying to research it), Mad Men's overall Nielson Ratings wouldn't place it in the Top 20 cable network ratings. The Closer, an outstanding series with good writing, memorable characters, fine acting, engrossing story lines and high production values, seems to draw somewhere between 7.5 to 9 million episodes when new episodes air. Not sure what ratings tell us about quality. American Idol, aka "The Death Star" for its ability to mow down all competitors in its time slot, draws about 25 million viewers in its early-season episodes; I'm sure those numbers are much larger for the finale. And the top-rated cable show a couple of weeks ago was - gulp - Jersey Shore with 8.8 million viewers. Compared to Jersey Shore, Mad Men really is Shakespeare.

Jim,I saw that, but based on his commentary, I'm not sure he was paying close attention to them all or may have forgotten what happened when he wrote the articel (whether that's his fault or the Mad Men writers' is unclear). In particular, I recall the resolution of Paul Kinsey's african american girlfriend story involved her dumping him while they were in Mississippi registering voters while Mendelsohn says: " we briefly see the couple heading to a protest march in Mississippi, and thats pretty much itwe never hear from or about her again." Other examples in the article stand out for anyone who actually followed the show. There are points in the article I found interesting - the perspective of the children being one - but I got the sense that he wanted Mad Men to be more preachy in its presentation of 60s era immorality - sort of like the way Law & Order (which he approvingly cites) treats issues that are presented, analyzed and "solved" in an hour without leaving many loose ends for later episodes.

Weird to watch every episode of show he hates. And to write such a long article about it. He says: "To my mind, the picture is too crude and the artist too pleased with himself. In Mad Men, everyone chain-smokes, every executive starts drinking before lunch, every man is a chauvinist pig, every male employee viciously competitive and jealous of his colleagues, every white person a reflexive racist (when not irritatingly patronizing). Its not that you dont know that, say, sexism was rampant in the workplace before the feminist movement; its just that, on the screen, the endless succession of leering junior execs and crude jokes and abusive behavior all meant to signal sexism doesnt workits wearying rather than illuminating." For those of us who were in our twenties in the sixties, it's an accurate picture of the good old days when stewardesses (heh) placed little four-packs of cigarettes on our trays on airplanes, and people had smoking stands in their houses (along with silent butlers and those t.v. trays that stood in the hall in Don and Betty's house). Drinking? Yes. The generation that had been through WWII drank a lot. Don's Korean war generation drank a lot, too. Sexism? Leering? Crude? He's lucky he doesn't remember and has the luxury to find it wearying.

Jim, my husband and I enjoy The Closer and Leverage. I have not seen every episode of either show but have enjoyed all the episodes that I have seen.

Nancy, I like the Closer too- and NCIS ( which I started watching when I broke my ankle a couple of summers ago.) The Good Wife has good stories and writing too.

I like Mad Men a lot, and if it's badly written I haven't noticed--and I usually notice. Could be the visuals are so awesome that who cares about the writing.On the other hand, it does seem somewhat, shall we say, androgynistic.

I am not sure is we shall say that, because I am not sure what you mean.

Fair enough. I mean that the motivations of the male characters seem, generally speaking, puerile and base.

PETITION: BRING BACK MAD MEN IN 2011! AMC has hinted that they may not try to make room on their schedule for Season 5 of Mad Men until 2012 and the prolonged negotiations between AMC and Lionsgate further threaten Mad Men in 2011. Maybe no Don Draper this year, they say? No Peggy Olson, no Joan? Oh, really? Well, Im mad as hell and Im not going to take it anymore! We've started a petition to urge AMC and Lionsgate not to take Mad Men fans for granted, and hurry the fuck up and get us our dose of our Mad Men and women in 2011. And weve gathered over 300 signatures in a matter of days. PETITION: BRING BACK MAD MEN IN 2011! Please paste this to your Facebook, My Space, or Linkedin page, Tweet, Reddit up, and do whatever else you can to help this petition go viral. Maybe no Don Draper this year? Ill bet youre mad as hell, and wont take it anymore, either:

I do not know if my Dean (John McGreevy) will be edified or disgusted but until I read his post I had never heard of Mad Men.

I find Mendelsohn's review illuminating. He approaches the show and its dramatic lines with the sensibility of a classically trained scholar, and--more than just about anyone I've read commenting on "Mad Men"--he seems to get the tease, the underlying hypocrisy, of those obtrusive cartoon scenes that invite us to be shocked, while at the same time they indulge our appetite for titillation. As he observes, the show plays constantly on a have your cake and eat it, too, motif, in which we're officially instructed to find the world of the recent past it depicts with loving detail bafflingly alien, and at the same time alluring, the world we've lost.To me, this love-hate dynamic is nowhwere so evident as in the show's depiction of the "lost" masculinity of the pre-feminist era. Party line: wasn't male domination of women gruesome? Sub-scripted wink-nudge: ah, but look what we've lost, the kind of men we were in the past, the masculinity we've relinquished as women have attained autonomy and power in recent years.I suspect that the large audience of younger people watching the show are, in key respects, deeply attracted to the very aspects of this culture that they're being told by the script's official voice to find quaint and disreputably archaic. And I suspect that the show's popularity depends on a strong desire of many viewers to emulate, even enact, what the show pretends to place beyond the pale: above all, the retrieval of gender arrangements of the past.But I have to admit one among many biases here: I find Daniel Mendelsohn one of the most instructive, deeply humane folks writing English prose anywhere in the world right now. His book "The Lost" is one of the few books of the past decade--probably the only book of the last decade--that I'd pick up and read all over again, if I had two uninterrupted days to read it as carefully as it deserves to be read.And if I could bear the pain of the story it tells all over again. (Mendelsohn's deep classicism isn't irritating to me, as it seems to be for some readers. For me, it provides a humanistic framework for his insights that's often lacking in other contemporary works. His use of Virgil's "sunt lacrimae rerum" as the constantly recurring thematic focus of "The Lost" is brilliant and exceptionally moving.)

But if it takes "deep classicism" to "get the tease", etc., then "the writing" isn't really "extremely weak" after all, is it?It's sad/funny when people denounce dramatic or literary or artistic depictions of the past for being authentic. Those who see fit to alter the language in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because the way real people really talked in Missouri and Arkansas in the 1840s is too crude are the same as those who think the creators of Mad Men should be telling a different story, one less "wearying" and more "illuminating". Analyzing all the "underlying" and "sub-scripted" levels of Mad Men belies the claims that the show is weak, haphazard, preposterous, shallow, incoherent, glib, smug, etc., etc., etc. The posters at Comics Curmudgeons do the same kind of Aristotelian/Euclidean dissection of Mark Trail, Mary Worth, Pluggers, et al.

Points well taken, Gerelyn. I suppose what I'm thinking about when I zero in on Mendelsohn's classicism as the frame of his analysis (the frame I see, at least) is this: that frame allows him, or anyone grounded in the classics, to look at a dramatic work and quickly spot ways in which the ostensible narrative line subverts itself through twists and turns in which what seems plain suddenly becomes less plain. More complex. Not that this is a particularly novel insight or one that doesn't occur to many people as we watch any dramatic enactment. It's embedded in our culture.But I'm suggesting that Mendelsohn is thinking about this subversion in "Mad Men" explicitly--he's recognizing it and pointing to how what many of us imagine the show is doing is quite different from what it's really accomplishing--because of his grounding in classical thought. And so to me, that gives a very different coloring to the Aristotelianism you rightly lift up as a primary theme of Mendelsohn's thinking. I don't find it pompous.Is he really denouncing the show's depiction of the past for being authentic? I hadn't seen that in his review. I'm more inclined to think he's trying to tease out the double levels at which our repulsion-attraction appears to be functioning, as we watch.But, then, I don't fall chronologically quite into either of the target groups on which his analysis focuses, so I may be seeing with different eyes than those of key groups of viewers. I was a little beyond childhood in the period in which the story takes place, and so I don't remember it quite with a child's eye--but I do remember it well, and one of the reasons I watch (and am hooked, even as I kick against the game I sense the show wants to play with me) is precisely to see a world I remember well depicted in such stunning, even gorgeous detail.And at the same time a very alien world, since I encountered that world in what H.L. Mencken once called the miasmic jungles of Arkansas, and not the bright and shining enclaves of Manhattan and Connecticut, as they pointed their way to the bright and shining future for the rest of us.

And, of course (postscript), I am defending Mendelsohn--quite specifically--against the charge of pomposity. Which in my view, doesn't fit his work at all. And seems a bit ad hominem, like sprinkling a review of his work with meretricious quotation marks to make it seem ridiculous.In my view, anyone who can write a book like "Lost" deserves more serious attention. And more respectful treatment.But that's just me.

William --No, it's not just you. Euclid has also been called "pompous". Please tell me how a statement such as "A straight line is the shortest distance between two points" can possibly be "pompous"?Methinks I smell the fires of the 60's burning still.

And, of course (postscript), I am defending Mendelsohnquite specificallyagainst the charge of pomposity. Which in my view, doesnt fit his work at all. And seems a bit ad hominem, like sprinkling a review of his work with meretricious quotation marks to make it seem ridiculous. Sorry that using quotation marks to quote someone seems like "sprinkling" to you. I noticed Mendelsohn did quite a bit of sprinkling, too. I wondered why words like "stock" and "images" and "about" and "message" and "Sixties people" and "get" and "treatment" and "issue" required quotation marks. It got a bit Aeschylean. (And "meretricious" is a harsh adjective to use, even when accusing someone of being "a bit ad hominem". Was Mendelsohn being ad feminam when he used the word against Don's poor mother?)

Mendelsohn's commentary does make me fear the possibility of the show entering the cocaine-filled '70s, but only before the entire office has a one-day Situationist International-style upheaval.But then, the carryover from the 1960 Nixon campaign to the 1968 Nixon campaign would be interesting.

Denise --What you said. There is always the danger of having the worst of any bunch of people become an icon for the whole. Thirty-Something was about some relatively young and very attractive boomers who work in an ad agency. The general function of the agency is to manufacture lies. In one of the last episodes the boss Miles Drentell, as loathesome a character as you'll ever meet, excoriates Michael, a goody-goody who works there. Miles reminds Michael in scathing terms that he is an integral part of the the whole sleazy business. In that scene, Miles, who is usually presented as the snake that he is, is seen to be the most honest person in the agency. It's one of the all time great performances in TV history. Moral: don't generalize about people.

I think there's always a danger of taking a few sound-bites from the past, amplifying them, and pretending that they are gospel. I'm sure this offends some people who actually lived and worked in those times, and didn't see it that trivially at all. Television does have a smugness about our life in the present. We won't have the luxury of seeing how "we" are portrayed in 50+ years.

I had the opportunity to watch "The Social Network" over the weekend. I was very pleasantly surprised - I had feared it would be a superficial lionization of multi-gazillionaires, but it was much more substantive and thought-provoking. Istm that it deals with many of the themes that Mad Men purports to explore: ambition, ruthlessness, relations between the sexes, the harnessing of talent and creativity to commercial ends, conflict, lust, substance abuse, etc.

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