Monday, February 07, 2011

I Need a Scratch From the Hand of the Ass That Sold Me the Itch

We are currently living in a new golden age of television, a medium that has been liberated by cable broadcasting to explore both fantasy and reality with greater frankness and originality than ever before: as witness shows as different as the now-iconic crime dramas The Sopranos and The Wire, with their darkly glinting, almost Aeschylean moral textures; the philosophically provocative, unexpectedly moving sci-fi hit Battlestar Galactica, a kind of futuristic retelling of the Aeneid; and the perennially underappreciated small-town drama Friday Night Lights, which offers, among other things, the finest representation of middle-class marriage in popular culture of which I’m aware.

With these standouts (and there are many more), Mad Men shares virtually no significant qualities except its design. 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. By this I mean that it proceeds, for the most part, 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.

That a soap opera decked out in high-end clothes (and concepts) should have received so much acclaim and is taken so seriously reminds you that fads depend as much on the willingness of the public to believe as on the cleverness of the people who invent them; as with many fads that take the form of infatuations with certain moments in the past, the Mad Men craze tells us far more about today than it does about yesterday.

I don't have any critical talent or deep insight when it comes to art; I'm just a dude who knows what he likes. After seeing so many people in the blogosphere wanking themselves silly over Mad Men for so long, and after kicking myself for waiting so long to see what all the fuss over The Wire was about, I finally decided a couple months ago to get the first season through Netflix in case it really was worth all the hype.

No. It was not. This dude did not like it. I didn't even finish half of the season. You can either take my unsophisticated word for it, or you can read the rest of the article by Daniel Mendelsohn to get a more nuanced analysis.

4 comments:

noel said...

I think the context is important - compared to what else is on, Mad Men is Shakespeare. I'm a True Blood, Nurse Jackie, Dexter man, myself. And we found Six Feet Under very entertaining in its day. So rent those after you read all those books.

The Vile Scribbler said...

"After you read all those books"; you're a funny fellow. I don't recall the last time I ever ran out of stuff to read. I'll probably die with a book in my hand.

I watched the first season of Six Feet Under a couple years ago. It wasn't bad, but I didn't feel the strong urge to keep it going. Partially because I watched it right after I had finished The Wire, when anything would have suffered by the close proximity. But also, I just couldn't stand Brenda and Claire. Am I a misogynist, or did the writers of that show just have trouble scripting female characters who weren't incredibly annoying?

noel said...

They were annoying. But not unrealistic. We found the dramas touching - I couldn't watch it without crying at some point. Did The Wire make you cry? Well OK then.
I used to read all the time. I'm slightly embarrassed to say that I watch TV much more now - it's something Randy and I do together.

The Vile Scribbler said...

I don't cry, because I have a heart of pulverized stone and my tear ducts have withered away from disuse. But The Wire was so good it made my stony heart ache. And there were a few deaths in that show that hit me pretty hard.

I get my TV-watching done while working out. It helps me avoid any guilt over wasting time, and when I'm watching a really good futból game, I can spend 75-90 minutes on the treadmill without even being aware of it.