This past Sunday, The New York Times Magazine published a fawning hagiography of “Mad Men,” the AMC-turned-HBO sleeper that is all the buzz right now. Now I realize that the conventional wisdom seems to put me on the wrong side of history when it comes to “Mad Men,” but just humor me for a minute. I have written before on this site about my low esteem for this show (which I would link to if I could figure out where it is, Canada!), but this love letter from the Times is so far off the mark that even if you love the show, you’ll have to grant me a few points.
While there is some argument among former early 1960s ad execs as to the authenticity of “Mad Men,” I am willing to stipulate to its verisimilitude. It seems every time I don’t like a period piece, people are quick to tell me how genuine it is, as though accuracy somehow makes up for plot and character or for failing a simple “is it enjoyable” test. So fine, let’s say producer Matthew Weiner’s “Mad Men” is as precise as a surgeon when it comes to the life of a Madison Avenue ad exec circa 1960 (though even Weiner is quick to point out that the show is “not a history lesson”); it still comes at you with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Yet Times writer Alex Witchel seems to revel in the swagger, womanizing, and boozing, because “[k]nowing that these unsuspecting sexists and bigots sit on the brink of their doom is all part of the fun.” As an example, Witchel cites a scene in which a corporate honcho suffers a heart attack and groans, “All these years I thought it would be the ulcer. Did everything they told me. Drank the cream. Ate the butter. And I get hit by a coronary.” Get it? I read this not as hilarious comeuppance so much as an annoying wink at the viewer: Look how silly we were in 1960! I mainlined lard because it’s 1960! And it never ends: Between references to “magic copying machines” that don’t exist because it’s 1960! to “I saw Jack Kerouac at a party” because it’s 1960!, “Mad Men” is so achingly self-aware as to be distracting.
Meanwhile, the incredibly of-the-moment sets and costumes are the one thing Weiner plays down: “The design is not the star of the show. I don’t want to be distracted by it.” But how can you not be distracted by cone bras and enough mid-century swag to make a hipster cry? It seems even Weiner can’t help himself: “Weiner is as proud of the authentic Xerox 914 copier as he is of the exposed wires from the phones. The ashtrays are filled with the butts of different brands of cigarettes, some stained with varying shades of lipstick.” Witchel even calls the design “fetishistically accurate” (there’s that “accurate” word again), and I agree. And, when something has received so much attention as to earn the title of “fetishized,” I’d say that something is probably, well, distracting! It’s easy to stop watching the show and start trying to read the title of every book on a shelf in the background or wonder if those Mary Janes in the perfect-shade-of-turquoise glass compote are still edible. And let’s not forget that every character in the show looks as though they were pre-assembled, slicked, sheened, and ironed before every scene; they look like ads themselves and not real people. Which might be cool if that were the point, but it isn’t—at all. To wit, Weiner effusively explains:
I’m against clean and glamorous. I like to respect the popular culture, mass production and also people’s eccentricities. The temptation is to become Mannerist. People have old things and new things, and as someone who loves the period, it’s very hard to resist the idea of getting the perfect 1960 everything, but I want it to feel like a slice of life. People’s hair is messed up, there are sweat stains, their collars are not perfectly flat. The actors tie their own ties a lot of the time, and it makes a big difference.
But this is the most Mannerist show on television! If “Mad Men” isn’t expressing a painstaking devotion to one style, then I don’t know what is. And no matter how many self-tied ties there are on “Mad Men,” every actor looks like they have been sculpted and perfected—even just a cursory glance at the show is enough to tell you it doesn’t look particularly “slice of life.”
The best parts of “Mad Men” are the moral ambiguities bubbling to the surface at every turn. So perhaps the only thing Weiner said that made sense to me in this piece was: “I don’t believe in bad guys.” I love that; everyone is shady, ambivalent, heroic, flawed, and beautiful. Perhaps if the screaming would die down—It’s 1960! It’s 1960!—I’d pay more attention.