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Monday, February 21, 2011

Save Daniel Mendelsohn from “Mad Men”

My daughter and son-in-law watch “Mad Men” regularly and, I hope irreligiously.  I thought I would try it, and I lasted about 10 minutes.  It just seemed like a kind of mean spirited soap opera.  Full disclosure: I confess that years ago I watched “Dallas” and “Falcon Crest.” God knows why.   I was surprised when I saw that Daniel Mendelsohn had reviewed “Mad Men” in the New York Review of Books.  I always think of him as a reviewer of Greek tragedies and the like, but when I googled him to prepare to write this, I found that his brief is much broader than that.  Here is what he had to say about “Mad Men:
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.
Worst of all---in a drama with aspirations to treating social and historical “issues”---the show is melodramatic rather than dramatic… proceeds….like a soap opera, serially (and often unbelievably) generating, and then resolving successive personal crises (adulteries, abortions, premarital pregnancies, interracial affairs, alcoholism and drug addiction, etc.), rather than exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena it regards with such fascination: sexism, misogyny, social hypocrisy, racism, the counterculture and so forth.
There were still seven long columns remaining, and I was left wondering what else there was to say.  There were lots more choice phrases in just the next two columns:
….fads depend as much on the public’s willingness to believe as on the cleverness of the people who invent them….
…the unpunished crassness…..
In the kind of cultural winking in which the show’s creators like to indulge….
….the pervasive theme of falseness and hypocrisy….
In a typical bit of overkill….
….the secret that lurks behind Don’s private life becomes a burden that’s increasingly hard to bear.
….the endless succession of leering junior execs and crude jokes and abusive behavior all meant to signal “sexism” doesn’t work---it’s wearying rather than illuminating.
He says that as he watched the first season the characters and their milieu were so unrelentingly repellent that he kept wondering whether the writers had been trying, unsuccessfully, for a kind of camp—
Mendelsohn says he has seen all 52 episodes of the first four seasons and there were only two instances in which the writers dramatized rather than simply advertised their chosen themes.  So why did he keep watching?  He says he was impressed with a scene at the end of Season 1 in which one of the pitchmen invents the term “carousel” for a slide projector and then makes this even more attractive by using slides of his own family, which looks great but is actually falling apart.  He goes on to say that “The child’s-eye perspective is…one of the most original elements of the series.”  He strings this out to say the appeal of the show to its target audience is that they get to see their parents’ generation acting badly.  He has a point, I guess.  Maybe it didn’t appeal to me, because I was part of that earlier generation.  Still, I wonder how Mendelsohn was able to sit through 52 hours of this tawdry spectacle.  You can Google his review.  As always, it’s a nice piece of writing.

1 comment:

  1. I saw my son watching the show last year and also tried it. Certainly I too did not make it past ten minutes. One reaction I had was that the characters just seemed like caricatures of "adults" I remembered growing up in the sixties. Over the years I have tended to lump them all carelessly together as hopeless people who obstructed the progress of our "enlightened" younger generation, in addition to being rascists (which I thought I wasn't) and supporters of the senseless Vietnam war (my opinion on that hasn't changed). But of course those friends of my parents and other adults I met were actually in many cases very kind and caring people, helpful and understanding even when my own attitude about our society was reprehensible. I saw Mendelsohn's review and now will read it. Perhaps he is also making the point that a drama about the past doesn't have to be completely accurate to get across the issues that were important at the time, and that still are when they deal with universal themes. But the writing and acting have to be good. I just saw "The King's Speech" and watched the "Downton Abbey" series on DVD, and was left with the impression that they are probably both most likely riddled with any number of inaccuracies, some serious, but that on the whole, they gave the viewer a fair and reasonable insight into the period, in part because the screenplays were intelligent, and in part because the cast was so outstanding. Also, both often employed humor as well as drama to great effect while dealing with genuine human issues, which have the power to move us wherever they surface - throne room or dining room or laundry room - as long as they are professionally presented. Rgds PK