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Is Mad Men Just a Soap Opera?

Posted by Josh Rothman  February 7, 2011 09:19 AM

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Everybody loves Mad Men - except, apparently, for Daniel Mendelsohn, a translator and critic who writes for The New York Review of Books. In a smart, scathing, and thoughtful review of the show in the most recent NYRB, Mendolsohn says the unsayable - that Mad Men is essentially "a soap-opera decked out in high-end clothes" - and then asks: if the show is so silly, than why do people love it so much?

Viewers all across America do indeed love their Mad Men: the show has won numerous awards and critical plaudits, and has "percolated into every corner of the popular culture." The show's viewers, most of whom are between nineteen and forty nine, are powerfully drawn to its world; capitalizing on the attraction, Banana Republic and Brooks Brothers have launched Mad Men themed clothing lines. Even Sesame Street is getting in on the action, with a Mad Men themed segment of its show, in which muppets who work at the show's ad agency, Sterling Cooper, try to make ads that make people glad, not mad.

Mad Men, Mendelsohn admits, is indeed a great-looking show, stocked with great-looking people. But it doesn't deserve, he argues, the lavish attention it gets from viewers and critics. The plot is cheesy, with a soap-like dependence upon "successive personal crises... adulteries, abortions, premarital pregnancies, interracial affairs, alcoholism and drug addiction," and so on, and it meanders from episode to episode, rarely developing in a determined way. Its central drama revolves around a "rusty" man-with-a-hidden-past storyline; the acting is wooden, with actors "acting the atmosphere" and playing "Sixties people," rather than real human beings. And Mad Men's treatment of 'issues' is also shallow: an issue (gay rights, say, or racism) pops up here or there, like "an advertisement in a magazine," then disappears again, without ever being substantively explored.

But the show's biggest problem, as Mendelsohn sees it, is its "smug," yet also incoherent attitude towards the past it dramatizes. Mad Men invites viewers to condemn its characters' values - we're expected to be appalled at the womanizing, drinking, smoking, and casual racism of the late 50s and early 60s - while, at the same time, "it keeps eroticizing what it's showing us, too." This fetishizes, rather than reveals, the past the show is supposed to be about. It "cripples the show's ability to tell us anything of real substance about the world it depicts." And, Mendelsohn writes, "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."

There are episodes, Mendelsohn admits, in which the show blossoms dramatically: he cites, in particular, the episode in which Joan loses her copyediting job to a man, and another in which Don's past is almost unmasked by a background check, which he must undergo in order to secure business which is vital to his firm's survival. These episodes feel "both inevitable and wrenching," the way drama is supposed to feel. But the show, Mendelsohn decides, never reaches the heights of The Wire or The Sopranos, to which it is often compared. It is, in the end, simply not real in the same way they are. (Full disclosure: I, too, gave up on Mad Men, after concluding that it was ultimately a soap opera, and just make-believe.)

Ultimately, though, Mendelsohn suggests that it's just this quality of superficial unreality that makes Mad Men so compelling for its viewers (and for Mendelsohn, who found himself "persisting" despite not liking the show). The show's view of its characters is, essentially, childlike:

If so much of Mad Men is curiously opaque, all inexplicable exteriors and posturing, it occurs to you that this is, after all, how the adult world often looks to children; whatever its blankness, that world, as recreated in the show, feels somehow real to those of us who were kids back then.

The world of Mad Men doesn't see its characters clearly, from the inside, because it sees them from the outside - from the perspective of a young boy like Glen, who is played, incidentally, by the son of the show's creator, Matthew Winer. "The child's-eye perspective," Mendelsohn concludes, "is one of the strongest and most original elements of the series as a whole." It's the show's greatest strength, but also the cause of its weakness. It means that the show is memory, rather than reality - nostalgia, rather than history. It explains, but doesn't excuse, the show's smugness towards its characters.

Whether or not you like Mad Men, Mendelsohn's idea about the show's point-of-view is interesting. It speaks not just to Mad Men itself, but to the rigor required of any serious, arty, dramatic TV series. If a drama is going to unfold at a high level of intensity not for three hours, but for fifty, sixty, or even seventy hours over a period of years, then its characters need to be especially deeply known and imagined. (The Wire, which succeeded spectacularly on this scale, not only drew on real individuals for its characters - it actually cast real-life policemen, reporters, and drug dealers in its parts.) A year's-long engagement with a television show just isn't justifiable, ultimately, if it's just escapism. It's realism, ultimately, that long-form TV requires.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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