Crunchy Con

"Mad Men" turns the corner

Tuesday November 3, 2009

As regular readers know, I'm a big fan of "Mad Men," but I've not enjoyed this season. I don't care for Betty Draper, and I think the more the serial drama spends time in Westchester, versus the Manhattan office, the draggier it gets. A few weeks back, I told my wife that if we hadn't bought a season pass for all the episodes on iTunes, which is how we have to watch it in our house (we don't get AMC on basic cable), I probably would have drifted away from it.

Happily, last week's episode, which featured the Big Reveal (I won't say what, to protect those who haven't seen it), was first-rate, and brought me back into the game. We haven't had a chance to watch this past Sunday's episode yet (will do so tonight). I do want to commend to your attention Benjamin Schwarz's critical but very admiring essay about the show from the current Atlantic. Here's an interesting, insightful passage:

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.

He's right about that, and he's also right to say that the quality of the writing and the characterizations on the show wholly overcome its limitations. But what Schwarz picks out is in part why "Mad Men" is a SWPL staple. Harry Stein voices a common conservative complaint about the show. Excerpt:

No mystery there, since in its depiction of the fifties and early sixties, Mad Men faithfully reflects the dominant liberal view of that era as a time of rampant materialism, spiritless conformity, and reflexive bigotry. The corollary is that we were redeemed--liberated--not just by the civil rights movement but by the antiwar, feminist, and sexual-liberation crusades that followed. So ubiquitous is this view that its adherents can scarcely mention Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, or Leave It to Beaver, even in print, without sneering. Almost any graduate of today's public schools will tell you, and plenty of their aging antiwar moms and dads will agree, that their grandparents were racist, sexist, and shockingly homophobic, and that's before you even get to the hypocrisy that characterized their interpersonal relations.

In this view, needless to say, we are so much better than all that today. As New York Times op-ed columnist Timothy Egan summed it up in his paean to Mad Men, the half-century from then to now has been a steady "march toward a more tolerant, equitable, less socially inauthentic society." And sure, there is plenty of basis for that judgment. My father-in-law, Moe Turner, used to beat himself up over how, growing up in Arkansas under the American version of apartheid, he'd been so blind to the evil playing out daily before his eyes. Nor can excuses be made for any number of other social attitudes that prevailed back then. But what Moe and his buddies also understood was how much about that despised time was good and worthy, and how much we have lost with its passing.

I think that's true too. The problem with either demonizing or canonizing any era in history is you see what you want to see. Of course by far the dominant narrative in our news and entertainment media has been that the Sixties were a glorious time of revolution and the overturning of the hated, oppressive '50s. On the right, we have tended to locate in the Sixties the locus of all our contemporary problems. The thing we conservatives struggle to come to terms with is this question: If everything was so great in the Fifties, how come it all went to hell so fast in the Sixties?

In its limited way, "Mad Men" gives a partial answer to that. Though I was born in 1967, and in the small-town Deep South (geographically and culturally a very, very long way from midtown Manhattan and Westchester County), I can recognize some of the same cultural values and behavior depicted on the show as true to life in my town in the 1970s (for much of America, the Sixties didn't arrive till the Seventies). But I don't think "Mad Men" tells the entire story of Life Before the Sixties. Does anybody believe that? If "Mad Men" stays around for a while, and traces the arc of its characters, I would expect it to show that the liberation many of its characters yearn for and struggle for won't turn out to be what they expected. It is a downbeat, melancholy program, and that's fine. Again, if it's true to its pessimism, it won't make the mistake of following these characters till, say, 1970, and finding them all fulfilled and high on life. Because that's not what happened in real life, is it?

As I've mentioned here before in connection to "Mad Men," the book to read is Alan Ehrenhalt's "The Lost City," which traces changes in Chicago and community life after the war. Ehrenhalt points out that the Fifties we all long for, of cohesive communities, clear standards, better behavior, was purchased at a price in personal autonomy that few of us today would be willing to pay. "Mad Men" explores in part that cost, e.g., women having to learn to put up with their husbands philandering. And yet, as Ehrenhalt cannily observes, the kind of people who escaped those sorts of places and went on to write films, plays and books about them were typically unhappy rebels. The kinds of people who remember those days as mostly good, happy times aren't often heard from. Anyway, I'm sure liberals and conservatives who are both fans of "Mad Men" watch it differently. Liberals may watch it with the smug self-congratulation about which Schwarz complains. My suspicion is that conservatives who like the show are drawn to it in part for its tragic aspect: that is, we know what's coming next for these people, historically speaking, is not the hoped-for liberation, but a new and different kind of misery. There is no exit from the human condition.

One more thing: You know what I would like to see? A period drama like "Mad Men" set in a black community around the same time period -- a middle-class black neighborhood in Washington, DC, say, in the final years of segregation, as the civil rights movement gained steam. Once when I lived in DC I took a cab ride with an older black gentleman driver. We passed by a desolate stretch of Northeast, and he talked about how when he was a young man, all this was thriving. He said to me that believe it or not, life was pretty good in some respects under segregation. That old man was not wishing for the return of segregation. But he was acknowledging the bitter truth that all the gains in freedom his community made in the Sixties also occasioned some fairly catastrophic losses. That would make for a great serial drama, don't you think?

thomas tucker
November 4, 2009 10:23 AM

Brian- I understand your cynicism, but it actully was that way. I know it's hard for people today to believe and accept as true, but there actually were times and places in the past for which certain things, such as premarital sex and adultery for example, were simply not the order of the day and were the exception rather than the rule.

Thomas R
November 4, 2009 3:30 PM

I never knew what you saw on this show and have said as such quite loudly a few times. However I am having a bit of a change of heart of late. The reveal was very powerful as was the JFK episode. I also liked the scene with the Rockefeller fundraiser and how these rich white people clucked their tongues at Southerners being so racist while treating the black maid like an invisible person.

I still have strong reservations as I think the characters are bit too unlikeable and the world depicted a bit too unreal. (My Dad was a young executive type in this era, and he did not live like these people at all. Granted he wasn't in NYC or in advertising but I was slightly disturbed by you at one time seeming to indicate this series was at all representative of any era in the real world) Also my initial problems with it being overly dour aren't entirely fixed. Still I guess I owe many here an apology as there is something to it.

Thomas R
November 4, 2009 3:56 PM

"but it all seems like a dull, self-indulgent contrivance."

TR: And yet...

I make a mea culpa on the show, but I have to agree this was my view once and it's not one I entirely reject now. There is something artificial, dull, and self-indulgent about it. This is what I found so off-putting. I think what drew me in to watch the last few episodes is the promise or hope some of the artifice is washing away. That they are going to have, or actually are having, moments that are real and genuine. Also their world seems finally set to collapse.

On another matter I don't see Betty as particularly hateful. From the episodes I've seen of the show all the characters are a little bit unlikeable with Peggy maybe the closest to sympathetic. However I think Betty gets more disdain than most because she seems to be about the coldest, most repressed, and most "WASPish" for lack of a better word. If gay guys like her I imagine that's because many of them can relate to being repressed and misunderstood. Straight men on the other hand are more likely to just see the kind of sorority-sister who dissed them in college or the vapid company wife who looked her nose down at their wife.

November 5, 2009 10:20 AM

"life was pretty good in some respects under segregation . . . . That would make for a great serial drama, don't you think?"

"Gone with the Wind" isn't a serial drama, but it certainly is ls long. Why don't you get a copy and stop bothering the grownups?

November 6, 2009 9:20 AM

"He said to me that believe it or not, life was pretty good in some respects under segregation. That old man was not wishing for the return of segregation."

No, but Rod was. What a dipshit.

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About Crunchy Con

Rod Dreher is an editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News, and author of "Crunchy Cons" (Crown Forum), a nonfiction book about conservatives, most of them religious, whose faith and political convictions sometimes put them at odds with mainstream conservatives. The views expressed in this blog are his own.

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