What I Love And Don’t Like About “Mad Men”

AMC’s Mad Men is yet one more product of television’s new golden age.  The same combination of mindless leftism, foreign funding and ill-treatment of writers that caused the possibly fatal decline of American movies has chased talent and excellence to the little screen and shows like Mad Men are the delightful result.

If it had nothing else going for it than the sets and costumes that recreate the world of a 1960′s ad agency, it would still be a joy to watch.  But writer Matthew Weiner has a powerful gift for inventing complex characters full of yearning, sorrow and humanity expressed through subtle and witty dialogue as well as meaningful trysts and confrontations.

These are brought to life by a wonderful cast, led by Jon Hamm.  Hamm would almost surely have lived out his acting life in too-handsome-for-stardom second leads had it not been for this deservedly career-making role.  He’s got terrific backup in actors and actresses – like Elizabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks and John Slattery – who are so well placed I can’t tell if the credit for their performances belongs to them or to the casting director (both, no doubt).  I also have to mention the hilarious genius of putting Robert Morse in a role that serves as a running commentary on his famous star turn in “How To Succeed In Business.”  Plus Bryan Batt for an admirably restrained and yet heart-breaking performance as a gay man in a world that can’t yet accept him.

So hurrah for great stuff.  And what follows is not a criticism, but a commentary, something I keep noticing when I watch the show that grates on my sensibility.

It seems to me clear that lead ad man Don Draper is, to some degree, meant to represent the spirit of his America:  Self-invented, desperate to leave behind the short-comings of the past,  pouring vast amounts of creativity and insight into building a society of consumers, and forever torn between the appeal of home and family and the wild reaches of western freedom symbolized by his endless string of bohemian mistresses.  While patriots might complain that this is a critical view of a great nation, humanity is flawed and will always deserve criticism under all systems and everywhere.  The appeal, energy, liberty and sensuality of American life are all fully represented onscreen.  You can’t watch the show without wanting to live in it.

That said, I do sometimes get a sense of smugness from the show that, given the social disasters of our current moment, seems wholly out of place.  When white characters dismiss blacks, when men mistreat women, or when Batt’s creative, dignified Salvatore Romano is reduced to misery and loneliness on account of his inborn desires, the show seems to bristle with self-satisfaction, as much as to say:  aren’t we so very much better now?  Aren’t we, as Draper himself might’ve said, new and improved?

Well, no, we’re not.  The institutional racism that once crippled black life has been replaced by an identity politics that mires many blacks in government dependency and illegitimacy rates that virtually insure generational poverty.  The overdue acceptance of women in the workplace has been followed by a depressing perversion of femininity and a politically correct assault on homemaking and the natures of boys.  Likewise, the enlightened welcoming of gays into the human community has been accompanied by a despicable radicalism that insults and even blacklists those who disagree.

The problem, I mean to say, is not Mad Men or its view of the 60′s.  The problem is that there are not enough works of art taking the same sort of cutting and critical view of the accepted pieties of the present day.

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  • Andrew

    The show is just so refreshing. Its not a doctor show or a cop show or a sci-fi show – its new and fun. Plus having been a child in the mid- late sixties it just kicks off memories of sights and sounds and smells. I can smell those cedar/pine cabinets in the Draper’s kitchen – or the odor of that living room – stale cigarette smoke and Pine Sol. Although I liked FX’s The Riches with Eddie Izzard, a story based on travelers was pretty clever but alas unsustainable.

  • Doom

    Hey Klavan, I saw your One Missed Call movie. There’s a reason you’re supposedly blacklisted, and it’s not for retarded articles like this. IT’S BECAUSE YOU SUCK

  • http://thehud.com/blog James Hudnall

    This season is a big improvement on the previous seasons. It seems more focused and the dialog is snappier.

    I agree that Draper seems to be a metaphor for America of his time. Which means as the show progresses he may become a very screwed up, broken down old man.

    I give them credit for keeping partisan politics to a minimum. They did a recent line comparing Medicare to socialism. If only they understood that line was more accurate than ironic.

  • hpynchon

    Tut tut–as I recall poor Sal was let go not “on account of his inborn desires”, but because he wouldn’t have sex with Mr. Lucky Strike’s loathsome son, who then demanded Sal’s termination. Don had to decide between an underling and a big client. Too bad for Sal there wasn’t yet an army of lawyers ready to help him, but of course, he’s in the closet.

  • carole ann

    This is my favorite show. I lived this. I worked for a TV station in this time and I honestly recognized so much of the story and the characters. And I DO think Jon Hamm is gorgeous!

  • HouseofUsher

    I like Mad Men, and I hate Mad Men. It is a wonderful show and I watch each season as the dvds are released. However, this is another show depicting an exhaustive array of immoral behaviors of all types. The same was true with Deadwood and, most disturbingly, Friday Night Lights. Do the creators of these shows simply assume that there simply ARE no good and decent people in the world? I know that the TV industry will never produce a show that depicts moral behavior, but I can at least yearn for ONE or maybe two characters that are decent and that I can follow. I can’t find one anywhere in Mad Men, and, except for the honorable coach in Friday Night Lights, every single character is shockingly depraved. These are very well-made and dramatic shows, but hard for me to watch.

  • higgins1990

    to HouseofUsher:

    Quit watching. That’s pretty much what I’ve done.

  • William

    I don’t agree with your general review of this show. I watched the first three episodes and then abandoned it. The smugness you mentioned is insufferable and they spent most of the time criticizing a generation for it’s flaws while ignoring what they built. These characters are not my grandparents.

    More importantly to me, I’ve noticed something that grates on my sensibility in many of your columns. You seem to take every opportunity to endorse homosexuality as just another step in civil rights. I greatly disagree. There is no concrete evidence that homosexuals are inborn with that persuasion. There is much more that point to an individual’s family dynamic that fosters the condition. Furthermore, even if it were an inborn trait that does not necessarily make it acceptable. Many people may inherently be more violent or have a predisposition to alcoholism but that does not mean they should not suppress or overcome those traits for their own well-being.

    Practicing homosexuals top the charts in all sexual transmitted diseases despite their relatively small numbers. Sodomy is not a healthy thing to partake in and by glossing over that you are not helping.

  • William

    By the way, I did enjoy ‘Empire of Lies’. I seem to remember the lead character suppressing his passions so that he may enjoy a healthier life. It was entertaining as well.

  • Rand E. Gerald

    If we are all intrinsically evil, then we need a big government to keep us in line. However, if we are intrinsically good, then we no longer require governmental restraints. Therefore, the depiction of people as immoral is used to justify ever increasing governmental encroachment in our lives.

  • Joe Doakes

    “The problem is that there are not enough works of art taking the same sort of cutting and critical view of the accepted pieties of the present day.” – This truth will prove the most fatal of all. What ever we accomplish covertly cannot overcome this overt failure. We must have people willing to make the media that provokes others into realizing and living the lives that makes America great.

  • Cloudrdr

    Rand is right about immorality of human beings seeming to begat a ‘moral’ government to shephard our ‘better angels’ to the forefront. The problem comes in that the government, any government, is peopled with flawed immoral human beings. How can their efforts result in anything more than flawed and immoral goverance?

    Perhaps we need Gort, from ‘Day the Earth Stood Still’ (the origional one!!!!) to protect and shephard us. At least he/it is not saddled with immoral humaness.

    “If it ain’t broke, fix it till it is” Democrat policy plank #1

  • http://theculturealliance.org Mike D’Virgilio

    Joe, you are absolutely right. When the makers of our popular entertainment are overwhelmingly leftist secularist liberals what kind of entertainment do you think you will get? Conservatives can complain all they want about the bias in the media or entertainment, or the woeful leftist drivel taught to our kids in public schools and universities, but until conservatives make a concerted effort to encourage right minded people to enter those professions nothing will change.

    And my two cents on watching flawed people in movies or TV, I don’t mind it. In fact it all tends to confirm a Judeo-Christian worldview. Fallen people trying to figure out life, even when they make a mess of it. We live in a moral universe, where concepts of good and evil, right and wrong, truth and lies, and consequences for the choices we make exist. A purely material universe directed by chance would not produce such things. And last I read there are a lot of odious characters and cringe inducing stories in the bible! Shakespeare’s plays entertain with portrayals of the dark side of human nature.

    I enjoy Mad Men, even through all the smugness. And I have a secret fondness for those pre-PC days. Seeing the doctor smoking when he was in the room talking to Joan about her “procedures” was awesome. As AK I’m not a big fan of the accepted pieties of the day.

  • Robert

    My father was actively involved with the Lucky Strike advertising account for many years. I told him about the Mad Men episode where Don Draper comes up with the It’s Toasted ad campaign for Luckies. My father said that it didn’t happen that way at all. From then on, I knew that Mad Men is simply a well crafted liberal fantasy of what the 60s ad game was like. And for God’s sake will they stop trotting out Jerry Della Femina every three minutes to comment on the show!! Jerry is milking this for all it’s worth.