TV postsSaturday October 17, 2009
Why We Watch “Mad Men”
Adam Cohen has a peculiarly limp piece on “Mad Men” in The New York Times today. Or yesterday. Who the hell knows anymore?
Cohen argues that the AMC show is popular in our troubled times because it offers a view of earlier troubled times—times we don't even think of as troubled. It's Sept. 1963 and things are bad all around: Don Drapper is getting pissier, Betty Draper is getting colder, Salvatore Romano has been fired because a client made a pass at him, and little girls are getting blown up in Birmingham churches. Cohen writes:
To a generation beaten down by skyrocketing unemployment, plunging retirement savings and mounting home foreclosures, “Mad Men” offers the schadenfreude-filled message that their predecessors were equally unhappy — and that the bleakness meter in American life has always been set on high.
First, I'm not sure which generation is receiving “Mad Men”'s message, since it's not a particularly watched program. Has any episode garnered a rating above 3 million? Does it do better than “Monk” or “Army Wives” or “The O'Reilly Factor”? Doesn't look like it.
Second, Cohen ignores the genius of “Mad Men.” It markets itself as nostalgia—remember those finger-snappin', Kennedyesque times when drinks were drinks, dames were dames, and fun was fun?—but presents a reality that can horrify. The women are generally so mistreated, and in such an obtuse, smug way, you can't wait for the Betty Friedans and Gloria Steinems of the world to come along and right things.
Third, do we watch this thing from schadenfreude? To be honest, the show probably hooked me with good reviews, good looks, and the promise of easy sex, and now hooks me for the following reason: I know what's going to happen (in the world) and they don't. And I don't know what's going to happen (to them) and want to find out.
It's Sept. 1963. I know in two months John F. Kennedy will be assassinated. I know in five months the Beatles will arrive. I know the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 will all pass, and I know “We Shall Overcome” will become “Hey ho, Whitey's gotta go!,” and I know SNCC will give way to SDS which will gave way to the Weather Underground, and I know short hair will gave way to Beatles hair which will gave way to long hair, and I know pot will give way to LSD, and free love will gave way to assassination. I know we'll land on the moon in 1969.
The ad business is a young man's game and I know it will become a younger man's game, and eventually a younger person's game, and I wonder how Don Draper, so cool and comfortable in 1960, will handle that. How old will he be in 1970? What will he look like? Balding? With muttonchop sideburns and big flowery collars? Trying desperately to fit in? Say it ain't so!
He's already missing the boat. His daughter's teacher wants to hear a replay of MLK's “I have a dream” speech, which surprises him. The big moments are happening and he doesn't see them. Those pot-smoking kids who drugged him, beat him, and took his money are like a visit from later in the decade. The times they are a changin'.
Where will Salvatore be in 1969? How will Joan and her curves handle the Twiggy era? Will Peggy become Don's boss? How will he handle that? How will she?
That's the continued appeal of “Mad Men” to me, and I wouldn't exactly call it schadenfreude. We live in uncertain times (particularly economically) and I don't know what's coming. They're about to live through uncertain times (particularly socially) and I know what's coming. There's a sense of superiority in that knowledge but also a sense of solicitude. You want to warn them because you can't warn yourself.
This season, following the disaster of Medellin, in which, in fat suit and moustaches, Vinnie Chase played (or overplayed) Colombian druglord Pablo Escobar, our movie star's career is in free-fall. He's out of money. He can't get a lead. He's resorted to sweet 16s and modeling gigs to make ends meet. He considered, for a time, starring in a “Benji” movie, then had to fight his ass off to get a supporting role in Smoke Jumpers, a movie about firefighters, when everyone knows movies about firefighters never do well at the box office.
My quick-and-easy prediction? No matter how well Smoke Jumpers does at the box office, Vinnie is nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor — as creator/producer Mark Wahlberg was for The Departed. Then we get all that hoopla. That's my hope anyway. As soon as Walhberg was nom'ed, I hoped they would translate it into the “Entourage” world.
Question: Did Mark Wahlberg ever have a Medellin? Doesn't seem so. Some of his movies may have underperformed, and he's taken hits (OK, pings) from critics (myself included) who thought he didn't bring much to good-guy lead roles, but he's never had a gigantic bomb that prevented him from getting leads. Or so it seems from the outside.
We've come a long way, baby
A thought on the first season of “Mad Men,” the AMC show about a boutique advertising firm in New York in the early 1960s.
The show draws you in with whispers of handsome men and curvy women having martinis and cigarettes and uncomplicated sex in a time before feminism, and then delivers such reprehensible men and such sad, unsexy sex (Don't do it...don't do it...NO!) that you wind up longing for feminism to come along and finally right the effin’ ship. It’s the opposite of what it advertises. In this way it’s closer to art than product.
“The Wire”: An Appreciation
Does anyone else find it ironic that the day after HBO's The Wire came down, Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York became entangled in a prostitution ring scandal because of a wiretap on his cellphone? Apparently Mr. Spitzer didn't watch the show; apparently he's not as smart as Stringer Bell.
I met the Governor a few years ago. When he shook my hand, he didn't reach in so that it was palm to palm; instead his fingers and thumb grabbed my fingers and he shook those. In essence I couldn't shake his hand back, he could just shake mine. I felt oddly impotent. I don't know if all alpha males do this but it's effective. You should try it sometime.
The loss of The Wire is worse than the loss of Spitzer. I wrote an appreciation of the show yesterday for HuffPost. I urge everyone to watch it. It's more than a cop drama; it explains why the world is fucked up: why, in Bunk's language, shit is fucked. You thought it was just your office, your job, your boss? Watch the show. Keep watching for the characters but keep in mind who rises and falls and why; who's in trouble and who isn't and why. It really does explain the world.