Wednesday, October 7, 2009

On What Makes 'Mad Men' Worth Watching

I have never seen Mad Men, but I thoroughly enjoyed this review which appears in this week’s Catholic Key. Whether or not you’re familiar with the show, I highly recommend reading through to the end of this piece by our very own Santiago Ramos. I think he’s really hit on a wound in the American psyche shared by, pretty much, all of us.

Mad Men

Review by Santiago Ramos

MediaPicOct9 Too much of the hubbub and fanfare concerning the AMC television series Mad Men has been, literally, superficial. One of the main attractions of the series — which follows the lives of men and women working at a Madison Avenue advertising firm in the early 1960s — are its sets and costumes, which meticulously reproduce the colors and contours of that ever-fascinating decade: the pastels in the suits and ties, the typewriters, the horn-rimmed glasses, the chinoiserie, the turtlenecks. Many reviews —including one appearing last year in the Star — have focused almost exclusively on this impressive but screen-deep dimension of the show.

I say almost exclusively, because there is another main attraction which is mentioned more often than are the sets and costumes, and that is the banal observation that Mad Men shows us “the changes of the 1960s.” Season one takes place in 1960 and ends with the election of John F. Kennedy; Season two takes place in 1962 and ends with the Cuban Missile Crisis; Season three, which is currently in session, takes place during 1963. All throughout the series, smaller signs of those times appear: a polio survivor on crutches; mute, marginalized African-Americans working the elevators; a woman — Peggy —becomes the first female adwoman; a Jesuit priest starts playing guitar in his room; a middle aged Brooklynite Irish Catholic lady mourns the death of John XXIII.

But in order to hone in on what makes this show worth watching, we have to move beyond the sensuous appreciation of its surfaces and the frisson that everyone seems to get when we recall the exciting events of the 1960s. What makes this show worth watching is the dilemma that it creates for its characters, all of who have to choose between being good and having fun. This, of course, is a false dilemma, and it causes problems for anyone who wants to live a truly happy life. One wonders how many people really see things in this way. This show is a case study in a way of seeing the world that makes happiness impossible.

The main character of the show, Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) is a high-powered adman who heads the creative department in the Sterling-Cooper Ad Agency. He married Betty (January Jones), once a model in Manhattan now a housewife in a nice home in suburban Ossining, New York. He has two kids, a car, and a lawn. Of course, that’s not the whole story. We are shown his private, secret side from the first episode onward: his affairs with the independent, Beatnik artist; his other affair with a Manhattanite Jewish woman who thus far is the only serious, well-adjusted character in the show; his heavy drinking; and his greatest secret of all, that his name is really not Don Draper, but that D.D. is a name he stole from a corpse when he was fighting in Korea.

For Don to stay at home with his family is “good.” Seeking out illicit adventures in the Manhattan high-life is “fun.” Duty or anarchy; neither is fulfilling. And the greatest sadness is that Don doesn’t even seem to be striving for something close to happiness — he just shuttles back and forth from duty to “fun,” and no one is able to articulate for him the idea of fulfillment. The structure of the story is set against the characters. But it’s not a universe we have to believe in. Indeed, it’s a universe we have to confront.

One character who actually is striving for fulfillment is Peggy Olson (played by Elisabeth Moss, who previously played the president’s daughter on The West Wing). She starts off as Don’s secretary, but her intelligent comments during a focus group study for a brand of lipstick got her a job on the creative staff. By the third season, she has her own office and secretary. At first, we root for Peggy Olson, because she is hard-working, guileless, and honest. That she abandoned her child to her mother and sister is problematic to her character. But more problematic, I think, is that as she fights a noble fight for equal treatment and pay, she also takes on some of the bad habits of the Mad Men — as if proving that to succeed, you have to be like them.

Roger Sterling, one of the partners of Sterling Cooper, when forced to choose between duty and fun, tries to have both. He divorces his wife and marries a secretary barely 20 years old. The third season is partially about this misadventure, and the fact that he has lost his old friend Don’s respect is something that, so far, doesn’t faze him. But we can be sure that it eventually will. All plans fall flat in this show, all the characters fall on their face.

With such a bleak set of stories, no wonder most reviewers focus on the sets and costumes. The show depicts life in a certain way, and if you really think that life is like this, then you don’t want to spend too much time thinking about life.

But the life we really want is one where we don’t forsake the things we know are good — family, fidelity, honesty — but where we find meaning in them, a meaning that leads to happiness. Finding the meaning of the events of life, learning how to judge the events of life in order to find a meaning, is something that no character in Mad Men does. Who can teach them how to do it? Who can propose a different way of looking at life that doesn’t pit duty against fun, a life that is an integrated whole? Unfortunately, the priest in the show, while well-intentioned, doesn’t have many interesting things to say.

Producer Matthew Weiner and his team of writers have accomplished a remarkable achievement in bringing to life an era of prosperity and artistic and social ferment. But more than a period piece, this is a tragedy; the age that it depicts is one in which we Americans started thinking of life as game that must be played alone and won in secret.

Santiago Ramos is a graduate of Rockhurst University in Kansas City and has written for First Things (online), Commonweal, The Pitch, Traces, Image Journal and various blogs. He is currently studying toward a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Boston College.