The Mad Men Dilemma: Admitting Nothing's PerfectS

The other day, I was talking Mad Men, which we both watch religiously, with my 60-year-old dad. "There's something off about it," he said. "For all the attention to detail, they miss the point." Heresy!

What my dad was getting at, I think, is something that even those of us who like the show have suspected on occasion. It's what I think of as The Titanic issue: we read and read about the exact replication of every stateroom fitting, each dish, each deck railing. But then we had Rose, supposedly a 1912 lady of 18. giving someone the finger. Of course, Mad Men would never succumb to that level of anachronism - how often have we read the reverent accounts of danishes exactly the right size, or light bulbs the correct brightness? - but when it does happen, it serves to make everything feel affected, precious, self-conscious. In one of the best reviews I've ever seen of the show, the Atlantic's Benjamin Schwarz writes,

But even if the portrayal were as "dead-on" as The Times assures us it is, that portrayal is hardly neutral. In describing a scene in which sexist badinage is exchanged at an account meeting, McLean correctly points out that "the series is critical of this limited view and is not afraid to spell [its criticism] out." That stance-which amounts to a defiant indictment of sexism and racism, sins about which a rough moral consensus would now seem to have formed-militates against viewers' inhabiting the alien world the show has so carefully constructed, because it's constantly pressing them to condemn that world...And that stance is responsible for the rare (and therefore especially grating) heavy-handed and patronizing touches in an otherwise nuanced drama. Must the only regular black characters be a noble and cool elevator operator, a noble and understanding housekeeper, and a perceptive and politicized supermarket clerk? Must said elevator operator, who goes unnoticed by the less sensitive characters, sagely say when discussing Marilyn Monroe's death, "Some people just hide in plain sight"? Get it-he's talking about himself. He's invisible. Even worse, that stance evokes and encourages the condescension of posterity; just as insecure college students feel they must join the knowing hisses of the callow campus audience when a character in an old movie makes an un-PC comment, so Mad Men directs its audience to indulge in a most unlovely-because wholly unearned-smugness. As artistically mistaken as this stance is, it nonetheless helps account for the show's success. We all like to congratulate ourselves, and as a group, Mad Men's audience is probably particularly prone to the temptation.

Therein, for me, lies the problem: we're never with the characters, exactly - we're coming from the place of enlightenment. We're all winking and nudging each other all the time, feeling like we're understanding a past which is really just our modern conception of it. Unlike other things (hello, Glee!) I don't enjoy criticizing Mad Men, because I so want to love it. I want it to be perfect and smart and never fall into heavy-handed portraits of Lives of Quiet Desperation. Sometimes I think in our desire to love it, we fall into the reductive trap of assuring ourselves that They Know What They're Doing, and if Mad Men does it, with their intelligence and commitment to accuracy, it must be right! And when something is wrong, not accurate, well, we'd rather assume they're right than acknowledge other, larger things could be equally anachronistic. For instance, Schwarz points to another niggling problem, something a friend and I were talking about just the other day.

Betty, the show establishes, was in a sorority. So far, okay. Pretty, with a little-girl voice and a childlike, almost lobotomized affect; humorless; bland but at times creepily calculating (as when she seeks solace by manipulating her vulnerable friend into an affair); obsessed with appearances and therefore lacking in inner resources; a consistently cold and frequently vindictive mother; a daddy's girl-Betty is written, and clumsily performed by model-turned-actress January Jones, as a clichéd shallow sorority sister. (Just as Don's self-invented identity is Gatsby-like, so Betty, his wife, is a jejune ornament like Daisy, though without the voice full of money.) But she's also a character deeply wronged by her serial-philanderer husband, and she's hazily presented as a stultified victim of soulless postwar suburban ennui (now there's a cliché). So, perhaps to bestow gravitas on her, or at least some upper-classiness, the show establishes that she went to Bryn Mawr. But of course Bryn Mawr has never had sororities. By far the brainiest of the Seven Sisters-cussed, straight-backed, high-minded, and feminist (its students, so the wags said, preferred the Ph.D. to the Mrs.)-Bryn Mawr was probably the least likely college that Betty Draper, given to such non-U genteelisms as "passed away," would have attended. So much for satiric exactitude.

The thing is, I think we can enjoy the show and still acknowledge its problems. It doesn't need to be an Oracle, or a History Lesson. It's neither; and much as I loathe Don's backstory, I do think it serves the valuable function of grounding the show firmly in the realm of the fictional. It's a very good show that shows a heightened reality. We'd never expect total accuracy from any modern drama - it's irrational to expect the same from a period piece. Focusing on the superficials is almost besides the point - cool as they are.

Mad About Mad Men [Atlantic Monthly]