I remembered why I have a blog! (It’s to complain about things)

2011 February 3
by kvanaren

It’s blatantly obvious that I haven’t been able to really figure out what to do with this whole blogging thing for a while. The problem is that I’m trying to figure out how to make the switch from Early-Mid Grad Student mode to Late Grad Student mode – ie, from taking and teaching classes, working on the occasional paper, and generally consuming (TV, novels, theory, cookies) to generally producing (a dissertation, hopefully, but probably also cookies). I’ve never really been good at writing more than one thing at a time, which is why the blog was much easier to do every day when the rest of that day’s goals weren’t necessarily to Write Something Totally Made Up Out of My Own Head. The goals tended to be things like reading The Ambassadors or finding something to do in section that relates to Mrs Dalloway or writing a paper for Readings in Close Reading (oh yes), which made blogging a totally different thing, a thing springing completely from My Head. As it turns out, though, dissertations are apparently largely the productions of Your Own Head, or Someone’s Head, anyway – (I read this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the growing economy of ghostwritten academic work, so maybe some peoples’ dissertations come from Other Heads than Theirs) – and it’s made my blogging fall to the wayside as a lesser Heady pursuit.

But then I read this piece from the New York Review of Books on Mad Men, and I thought, “I am never going to be able to adequately express my disdain for that review in my dissertation. So this is what the blog is for.”

The piece is called “The Mad Men Account,” and its premise is that Mad Men is actually much, much worse than everyone seems to realize, but the reason we all like it anyhow is that it allows people who were children during the 1960s to relive their childhoods. We are supposed to be identifying with Sally and Glen rather than Don and Betty, argues Mendelsohn, and it is this complicity with a child’s eye view of the world that creates such appeal for a show that is otherwise poorly written, poorly acted, shallow, and over-designed. To restate the argument in a way that might be more generous, the static, staged and superficial quality of the show’s cinematography can actually be read as a child-like cinematic narrator, who observes the grown-ups with curiosity and admiration, but cannot understand their motivations or inner lives.

The argument that Mad Men might have more sympathy toward, complicity with, or even identification with its child characters is worth considering, although the connection Mendelsohn makes that Glen = Matt Weiner’s son, and thus Glen = Matt Weiner is clearly a reduction of Glen’s complexity (or at least, one has to hope so for Matt Weiner’s sake). I’m open to the suggestion that occasionally Mad Men can suffer from a lack of subtlety – some moments are about as subtle as cheetah-print stilettos or a hammer to the thumb – and I don’t have a problem with Mendelsohn’s nearly categorical disapproval of both the writing and acting on the show. Surely that opinion also lacks subtlety, but it’s an opinion, and he’s entitled to his own.

My real problem with “The Mad Men Account” comes in this territory:

“Worst of all – in a drama with aspirations to treating social and historical “issues” – the show is melodramatic rather than dramatic. By this I mean that it proceeds, for the most part, like a soap opera, serially (and often unbelievably) generating, and then resolving, successive personal crises (adulteries, abortions, premarital pregnancies, interracial affairs, alcoholism and drug addiction, etc.), rather than exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena it regards with such fascination: sexism, misogyny, social hypocrisy, racism, the counterculture, and so forth.”

Boo, soap operas! Apparently Mad Men isn’t “dramatic” like The Sopranos, The Wire or Friday Night Lights, shows approved by Mendelsohn. Instead, Mad Men…

“…is, essentially, the stuff of soap operas: abortions, secret pregnancies, extramarital affairs, office romances, and of course dire family secrets.”

Because there are no abortions on Friday Night Lights, no adulteries, alcoholism or drug addiction on The Wire, and certainly no “dire family secrets” on The Sopranos! Either the author has never seen any of these shows he professes to enjoy, or the argument against Mad Men is actually something else that goes unspoken. It feels to me as though the real meat of this problem is in the term “soap opera,” what it means for Mendelsohn, and what its alternative might be. At least twice, Mendelsohn defines the soap opera with a list of troublesome, soapy plotlines, despite their ubiquity on television (and novels, and comic books, and radio drama, and epic poetry for Pete’s sake), but his real definition actually comes earlier. Soap operas, he says, “proceed[ ]…serially…generating, and then resolving, successive personal crises,” and this melodramatic form of fiction is opposed to his preferred dramatic structure: “exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena.”

Never mind that of course, The Sopranos, The Wire and Friday Night Lights also proceed serially, generating and resolving personal crises, and never mind that if Peggy Olson isn’t a means of “exploring, by means of…conflict between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena” then I don’t know who is. No, the craziest thing here is that all Mendelsohn’s really saying is that he doesn’t like serial fiction. Sure, he complains about the acting and the writing, but his biggest problem is that the show lacks a single direction or obvious trajectory. The one episode he does enjoy, “Hands and Knees,” he describes as both “Aristotelian” and “Sophoclean,” knowingly or unknowingly suggesting that good fiction is complete unto itself, containing balanced internal structure, a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s no surprise that Mendelsohn also points to his pleasure in Law and Order, even though the thing he points to is not its episodic structure, but the fact that people walk in and out of the frame. (Really? Law and Order? Not Sorkin?)

Listen, there’s nothing wrong with not liking serial TV. The issue here is that Mendelsohn is ragging on a television show for being a television show, or at least, an American-style TV show, where personal crises wax and wane with the crest and valley of each season. It’s anyone’s prerogative to dislike serial fiction, but don’t pick on Mad Men for qualities shared by nearly everything else on television, including The Sopranos, The Wire, and Friday Night Lights. Or at least, do it a little more thoughtfully.