Wednesday, February 17, 2016
February 17, 2016: AmericanStudying Non-favorites: Mad Men
[Each year for the last couple, I’ve followed up my Valentine’s series with a week AmericanStudying some things of which I’m not as big a fan. Please share your own non-favorites for a crowd-sourced airing of grievances this weekend!]
On the historical and American flaws in the acclaimed TV drama.
First, a disclosure: I haven’t yet watched the last two seasons (the 6th and the two-part 7th) of AMC’s drama Mad Men. It’s quite possible that some of the issues I’ll identify in this post were rectified in the course of those final seasons, and as always I’d welcome your thoughts on that question and on anything and everything else related to the show and this post in comments! I’ll also make clear that I watched the show’s first 5 seasons (not as they were aired, but on Netflix after the fact) because there’s a lot that I found both enjoyable and impressive about it: the performances (particularly Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, and the always great John Slattery); the nuanced themes of identity and community, work and family, love and loss; the recreations of a very specific milieu within the broader historical world of American society across the 1960s. This was indeed a unique and significant show, and thus one that both rewards viewing and yet at the same time demands the kinds of critical analysis that I hope this post will provide.
For one thing, I wrote “recreations of a very specific milieu within the broader historical world” for a reason—although Mad Men has often been described (as in the Time piece hyperlinked in that spot) as portraying the 60s in America overall, I would argue that it did so in an incredibly limited and narrow way. The show was set in New York City during the period of Civil Rights and Black Power, the Immigration Act of 1965, the Chicano Rights Movement, and so many more similar historical trends, and yet issues of race, ethnicity, and culture were nearly invisible from its fictional world (that article does indicate that African American characters became slightly more present in those final seasons, but still reads them largely critically). Even worse, Season 5 opened with a NYC racial protest and the firm’s subsequent advertising for an African American secretary, seemingly suggesting that the show was beginning to recognize and engage with these inescapable historical issues—only to fail to do anything else with that character or those histories and issues for the remainder of the season. I’m not suggesting that Mad Men would have had to make race or culture a central theme (shows can be about any number of subjects), but for a work set in NYC during the 60s to portray such a consistently white-washed setting and world represents at best an extremely limited historical perspective. (For the opposite argument about race and the show, see this article.)
So Mad Men wasn’t about those historical themes and issues, for better or worse—but even if we focus on one of the show’s most central subjects, the complex, layered identity of its protagonist Don Draper, I’d say there’s a substantive critique to be made. Don was in many ways inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby—like Fitzgerald’s character, Don grew up impoverished with a different name (Dick Whitman) and then, in one crucial moment, reinvented himself as a new man in order to chase the American Dreams of privilege, wealth, and beauty. (One key difference is that Don took the name and identity of an actual person, a Korean War officer who was killed because of him.) But there’s a world of difference between a short novel and a 7-season TV show, and it seems to me that Don Draper’s identity and arc quite simply did not have enough substance to merit all those hours of storytelling. It’s true that Jay Gatsby famously makes the case that we can repeat the past, but we didn’t have to read hundreds and hundreds of pages about him trying to do so again and again—while a good bit of the latter seasons of Mad Men featured Don making the same mistakes in pursuit of his elusive dreams. Perhaps that was part of the show’s thematic intent, but to this viewer it made the protagonist increasingly unlikable, and the show significantly less innovative and compelling.
Next non-favorite tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Pushback on this post, or other non-favorites you’d share?