Mad Men Bores Me

If you’ve never watched the show, then never mind this review. To the rest of you I submit that Mad Men is one fraud of a series—pretentious and empty.

The first season fascinated me. Behind everything I saw and heard there seemed to be coming together the pieces of some very clever machinery of narration—tension pooling toward certain potentialities of the plot; the drama advancing and retracting unevenly, two steps forward, one step backward; some characters taking their first swipes at one another, others merely taking aim, all the while foreshadowing what makes them tick, Don Draper in particular, with his mysterious past. The preparations were exquisite. They’re carefully setting up every detail for something spectacular, I thought. And yet for three and a half seasons now the plot has done nothing but spin its wheels. In retrospect, I realize that I had mistaken superficial charm for substance all along. Mad Men is shot beautifully. Accented with quaint touches of imagery from the 60s, the set vividly recreates the feel of that decade—at least to dupes like me, born in 1986. But in terms of drama, I am afraid there is no there there.

Nearly everything interesting has long been flattened down to insignificance or hackneyed by overuse. If there is any point of composition in which Mad Men may now be said to resemble True Blood, that would be the mandatory inclusion into every episode of at least one scene of vigorous intercourse featuring the main character, as if it were Don Draper’s manifest destiny to overspread and to possess every woman crossing his path. Oh, please! I don’t care just how free love was back then. In all likelihood at least one woman would have refused this man’s advances. Even if not, the creators of Mad Men should have invented her.

Anyone remembers the first mistress of the series, the daughter of the Jewish client? How fresh she seemed, how nuanced her conversations with Draper, and how compelling their affair—her hesitation, the endearing attempts at self-restraint, the archness of her pride…. Had I known then what is so obvious now, that is, that Don Draper invariably gets to lift every piece of skirt he cares to, I wouldn’t have followed with bated breath that brief romance or felt disappointed at its banal conclusion. But Mad Men should rather disappoint its viewers than lose their interest. Ever since this Rachel Menken left the series, Draper’s flings have consisted of only flat characters with no inner life of their own and nothing of interest about their existence outside of Draper’s hotel rooms or wherever they chance to copulate. Not only are they all flat, in E. M. Forster’s sense of the word, but almost all alike—from coast to coast—as if cheaply mass-produced by the same factory. None of this would even bother me so much if I hadn’t been getting the distinct impression, lately, that these dull manikins are trying very hard to evoke something—perhaps a sense of nostalgia, the spirit of their times, some cultural turning point…. Which is why every once in a while they will attempt a gesture or phrase so far outside the narrow range of mental life they’re endowed with that we can’t help cringing. A recent example is “Nobody knows what’s wrong with themselves, but everybody else can see it right away,” a perspicacious insight into theory of mind from one harebrained college girl, Stephanie, to whom Don Draper would most certainly have given a go-around like she’d never had before—as Duck Phillips puts it—had the revelation that her aunt Anna Draper was dying of cancer not got in the way.

This inferior quality of craftsmanship to the bimbos, once detected, somewhat impaired my ability to take Mad Men seriously. Nevertheless, I probably would have overlooked it if the main characters, at least, could keep me glued to the screen. But they can’t. Betty Draper is the only believable creature among them: internally consistent, driven by circumstances and passions we can understand, her words and actions in perfect concordance with her personality; the only thing inexplicable about her being the creepy relationship with Glen Bishop, the young son of her neighbor. But the pace at which her emotions distill over and come to a head—comparable to the drip-drop of a barely leaking faucet—perfectly matches the show’s overall pace of progression. It’s worth noting, however, that we wouldn’t know her so well had she not delivered convincing monologues from the psychiatrist’s couch. Matthew Weiner must have learned that trick from the Sopranos: Though spilling his guts to Dr. Jennifer Melfi never seemed to do Tony much good, she earned her keep throughout the series by rendering him intelligible to us through his own words—and when she bailed out, I knew the end had to be near.

The other characters in Mad Men cannot afford this luxury of catharsis reserved for the likes of Betty and Tony. So in order to come off compelling they must be well stitched together in the first place and supplied with reasonable opportunities for behaving according to their nature. To that end, the creators should entertain clear intentions toward each character’s role in the story and see to it that that role be fulfilled. When they don’t, they end up with freaks such as Dr. Greg Harris, the husband of the lovely Joan Holloway, introduced as a frightening rapist but now mellowed into a pathetic sweetheart. Or Roger Sterling, distinguished for his pedestrian wit, who subjects himself to the indignity of dressing up as Santa for his office Christmas party in order to humor a client—a sadistic one—but goes out of his way to mortally offend and lose the business of another—a Japanese one—because…he fought them Japs in World War II. Or Peggy Olson, who never acts against her interests and seems to hold herself in high esteem—except that in the first season, Pete Campbell‘s humiliating insults to both her person and intelligence proved irresistible so she had to throw herself at him. About that whole affair, even Peggy’s ignorance of being pregnant right up to the moment of delivery seemed more believable than the way these two people who secretly have a child together consequently treat each other.

In sum, too many characters too often behave out of character. Far from adding depth, these arbitrary slips undermine any perceived coherence to them. And even as the series progresses, we never get to know them any better than at the beginning. Take Don Draper. The glimpses into his brutal childhood, rendered as flashbacks, were intended as revelatory clues. But diminishing returns set in very quickly. In the end, Draper’s past explains nothing of his present in concrete terms other than his unwillingness to physically chastise his son. More generally, it justifies his bleak outlook of life—but to that end, a far less dark and complicated past could have sufficed. This is a case of the end not justifying the means. And notwithstanding the elaborate anticlimax that went into his making, Don Draper still remains opaque. What drives him to promiscuity? Abused and unloved as a child, from where does he derive his enviable self-confidence as an adult? And what’s with the wistful imagery in his creative campaigns—the Don Draper signature? What’s the source of all this sentimentality? Can he, so unhappy in his early days and unsatisfied with married life, have such ready, first-hand access, as it were, to the tenderest recesses of America’s collective unconscious? And there’s much more to Draper that doesn’t quite add up.

The same goes for the other main characters. Absent sounder development, perhaps an all-binding plot could have anchored them firmly in place. But Weiner doesn’t seem all that intent on a plot, so the characters are left to float freely in their fictional universe, or rather blunder their way about it. The two-fold failure in composition—concerning both character development and plot structure—seems to bother no one, probably because it has no bearing on the ultimate purpose of Mad Men, which is to present a larger than life documentary about how the 60s were experienced by the specimens of an extinct class of New Yorkers. If this is what Weiner has set out to do, and he shows every indication of being interested in just that, then narrative, drama, characters—all fundamental elements of fiction—recede into the background. He does not hold their integrity sacred. On the contrary, if by their sacrifice the show could somehow increase its faithfulness to the time in which it is set, Weiner makes that sacrifice. Yet this very reconstruction of the past, whether done for its own sake or for extracting whatever lessons it is thought to contain, does not qualify as a legitimate artistic premise on which to base a work of fiction.

If the story the artist is interested in telling could have happened only in the past, then he has a valid reason for not setting it in the present. That’s because plot takes precedence. The historical setting belongs in the background and must subserve the story—not the other way around. Herein lies the fundamental flaw of Mad Men: in this reversal of artistic priorities. It is why the show feels so anemic throughout. Even the most complex characters can be reduced to embodiments of the Zeitgeist—marionettes whose strings show, animated rather whimsically at every turn by whatever emotions the writers deem most representative of the 60s.

And what were those mythical 60s even supposed to feel like? A collage of second-hand impressions; most of them admittedly derived from the short stories of John Cheever—that literary master of everything insignificant in life. He is the quarry from which Weiner dug up most of the raw material that went into the making of Mad Men’s background: the alcohol fumes and cigarette smoke that saturate the atmosphere, adultery as a common fact of life, dissatisfaction with a middle-class existence, detachment from one’s spouse and family, and, on the whole, the pervasive suggestion that worms writhe under every rock happily baking in the sun. Style in this case being inseparable from substance, heavy borrowing from the short stories of Cheever also manifests itself in the episodic, self-contained, almost cameo-like nature of Mad Men—the plot’s penchant for degenerating into dead ends presented as delectable vignettes.

Fiction that does not even aspire at Aristotelian unity can only redeem itself, if at all, by coming off wonderfully naturalistic. Rendering the facts of life faithfully entails some measure of vulgar realism, which might spoil the concentration of the narrative but which we might forgive nonetheless, as the price to be paid for crude sincerity. Mad Men, however, cannot claim this effect as an excuse for its disjointedness and want of focus. It is too studied, too sophisticated, too artful, and resorts to Cheeveresque flourishes too often to feel authentic. Even the 60s it affects to relive are a fictitious construct—bits of literature that wasn’t even true at heart, misunderstood stereotypes from the world of our parents, echoes of a past too recent to be properly cast into fiction, fake nostalgia and fake cultural criticism.

I expect better from novels than even the most polished series of TV drama—and not because of any prejudice against the merits of film, as a medium, compared to literature, but because of the common practices in each industry. Publishers consider the entirety of a manuscript for appraisal whereas network executives approve a pilot without knowing how the rest of the show will come together. Sometimes not even the creators know—they just make it up on the fly. And when that is the case, we get treated to episodes or even entire seasons which, had the work been a novel instead of a television show, would have never made it past the stage of preparatory notes or rough draft…. In a word, we get Mad Men.

Greece and Serbia FRIENDLY

This must be seen to be believed:


Some “friendly,” eh?

For his part in the brawl—you know, the chair-tossing and head-punching—Krstic was detained by police overnight, and has since been released. According to the Associated Press, Greece’s “sports violence squad” is examining the footage and deciding whether or not to press charges. I’m no expert in international sporting events, but I’d surmise that having to have a “sports violence squad” means things are a bit nutty.

Naturally, the Serbian coach is playing the old “half-naked Greek” card in Krstic’s defense. [Insert hilarious quote by Serbian coach here—ed.]

Classic legal defense, really. Blaming half-naked Greeks has been going on for centuries, dating back to, at least, the Battle of Thermopylae. I like Nenad’s chances, despite clear video evidence of him picking up a chair and throwing it at a crowd of people.

Well, one can only hope that this unfortunate diplomatic mishap between the great nations of Greece and Serbia does not upset their lofty plans of ruling the world together:

… One day …

A Lower Manhattanite’s Take on the Cordoba House

As a three-year resident of Lower Manhattan whose apartment is situated no farther from Ground Zero than the future Cordoba House—that is, a couple of blocks away—I might be expected to entertain no very tepid feelings toward this Islamic complex and the controversy it has provoked. As it happens, my take on the whole enterprise has undergone quite a bit of reassessment since I first heard of plans by Muslim developers of suspect financing to build a mega-mosque on Ground Zero. The phrasing of the last sentence alone should give some inkling as to the first corrections in order.

If built at all, the Cordoba House, or Park51, as it’s now being called, will be an Islamic cultural center hosting a library, auditorium, gym, swimming pool, day-care center, and culinary school—out of which some space for an indoor mosque shall be carved, true. But what a far cry from a mega-mosque of towering minarets, blaring out the calls of muezzins five times a day, summoning the faithful to prayer! And it wouldn’t stand on Ground Zero or even overlook it. As to the sources of the funds, the developers have so far raised only enough money to buy the old building on Park Place, which they intend to demolish. The rest, an estimated $100 million needed to actually build, furnish, and staff the 13-story Islamic complex, remains to be vouched for. No terror-tainted sources have been tied to the developers’ financing, nor any irregularities found with their assets. At this point, none are likely to surface either, at least not before more funds can be raised and their sources scrutinized.

And yet, even after the smoke cloud of misleading rhetoric is dispersed, a sour taste still lingers about this Cordoba initiative, which no profusion of goodwill can clear away. For one thing, there is the questionable symbolism of Cordoba, where Muslims, Catholics, and Jews admittedly lived in relative peace for a few centuries, but only as far as the former subjugated the latter two, at least nominally. However enlightened this Caliphate of the Middle Ages was, and whatever the merits of the arrangements that prevailed between its religious communities, none of them could be held up as a model for emulation in the 21st century.

Then there’s Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf, the public face of the project. Though professing himself a moderate dedicated to improving relations between the West and the Muslim World—and taken as such at his word by the State Department, in whose employ he is currently journeying to the Middle East on a mission of “interfaith outreach”—he can supposedly reconcile said religious tolerance and liberality with the implications of the following statements (emphases mine):

I wouldn’t say that the United States deserved what happened [September 11, 2001]. But the United States’ policies were an accessory to the crime that happened. … Because we have been accessory to a lot of innocent lives dying in the world. In fact, in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the U.S.A.

Asked whether Hamas meets the definition of terrorist group:

I’m not a politician. I try to avoid the issues. The issue of terrorism is a very complex question. … I am a peace builder. I will not allow anybody to put me in a position where I am seen by any party in the world as an adversary or as an enemy.

Is Feisal Abdul-Rauf a woolly cleric, well meaning but naïve, and perhaps somewhat scornful of consistency—moral and intellectual—that alleged hobgoblin of small minds? Or is he rather a subversive, astute fanatic, well versed in those formulaic platitudes that make a leftist’s heart melt but wholly unmoved by the charms of such things as Coexist bumper stickers? Of course, he might even be a mere career fundraiser, secretly indifferent to questions of theology or conscience, jealous of his professional reputation as bridge-builder extraordinaire, and too mindful of wealthy donors and patrons in the Middle East to risk stepping on their toes by damning their pet terrorist groups. In any case, Mr. Abdul-Rauf does not seem the kind of man anyone in his right mind would want to welcome into his neighborhood, especially as the head of his local Islamic community center.

Last and most important, although the most incensed critics of Park51 have shamelessly overstated the actual proximity of the complex to Ground Zero, I cannot but judge it in very poor taste to insist that this Islamic cultural center should be built nearly two blocks away from where the World Trade Center once stood. Even if the most honorable intentions could be imputed to the developers, demolishing a building damaged on September 11, 2001, by fragments of the hijacked planes, in order to erect in its place an Islamic center, is so obviously crass that they shouldn’t wonder why the majority of Americans—68 percent, by the latest count—oppose the undertaking.

That’s as far as I can sympathize with the opponents of the Cordoba House. And the American Center for Law and Justice could have obtained both my signature and my support had it organized a private petition for New Yorkers to civilly register their disapproval of Park51 instead of trying to block its construction through the courts. But, I should hope, the distinction between finding something distasteful and justifying coercive action against it cannot be so subtle as to elude most Americans. It is a hallmark of civilization—conspicuously wanting, by the way, in those Islamic societies whose young men seethed with rage and destroyed everything they could get their hands on because the portrayal of their prophet in certain Danish cartoons had mortally offended them.

It might have been possible to shame the developers of Park51 into reconsidering where to build their Islamic center, had their right to build it wherever they pleased not been called into question. But because most opponents started to conflate that matter with whether the mosque and Islamic center in Lower Manhattan were generally desirable or publicly acceptable, so, in turn, did some champions of the other side of the debate. In the process, the shady imam and his fellow developers have acquired the aura of noble “martyrs” to the cause of the First Amendment, bold visionaries molested by a growing mob of bigots—which is unfortunate and counterproductive. Of course, they must build near Ground Zero now, to prove that they can, their plight carrying such a high symbolic weight and what have you.

So we must contend with a thorny First Amendment case—and no, zoning laws cannot treat a mosque near Ground Zero as they might treat liquor stores near schools or strip malls in places where they offend local sensibilities, because neither liquor stores nor strip malls are expressly protected by the Constitution, whereas the free exercise of religion is. Therefore, no government interference with the developers’ property rights could be warranted. And this marks the first topic of public interest on which I fully agree with President Obama, who said:

Now, we must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan. The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country. The pain and suffering experienced by those who lost loved ones is unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.

But let me be clear: as a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.

Neither did I find his subsequent clarification the least bit disingenuous; quite the contrary:

I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.

So there is no arguing on whose side the law is. As for decency, well, I wish I could say that decency, at least, were squarely on the side of Cordoba’s opponents, but their cause has been hijacked by the likes of Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, bottom-feeding activists who, collectively, allege that Barack Obama is the love child of Malcolm X and extol Serbian war criminals indicted by the Hague Tribunal as valiant paladins of our civilization (for having slaughtered thousands of Muslims in the Balkans). Another leader of the opposition to Cordoba, John Joseph Jay, considers every single Muslim a legitimate target for murder. These three have founded the American Freedom Defense Initiative, which sponsors the anti-Cordoba ads now plastered over New York buses, and work closely with the aforementioned American Center for Law and Justice. Suffice it to say, such people do not represent me and should not represent anyone who understands what they are up to.

But leaving these anti-Muslim fanatics aside, the sane opponents of Cordoba—most of them staunch conservatives and champions of individual liberties—must still account for the unprincipled ease with which they propose to infringe the property rights of private developers. Hypocrisy, however, is a plague on both houses, conservative and liberal. For it is the latter, the usual proponents of Eminent Domain, most of whom have never heard of a Walmart or casino in their remotest vicinity whose construction they didn’t want to stop, but whose lips are now curling up in self-righteous indignation at the gross encroachment upon these Muslim developers’ property rights. Of the many counterfactual scenarios and thought experiments so popular with those pundits fond of reasoning by analogy, my favorite is by , from her excellent piece in RealClearPolitics:

Let us consider a hypothetical, leaving aside for a moment the usual examples involving Germans and Auschwitz or the Japanese and Pearl Harbor. Suppose a group of Christian anti-abortion fanatics bombed the offices of Planned Parenthood in New York, killing hundreds. Suppose that, 10 years later, a conservative Christian group, strongly pro-life though repudiating violence, wanted to build a 13-story community center and church next to the site of this tragedy.

Most likely, the roles in this debate would be reversed. Quite a few liberals would denounce the planned construction of the center as a slap in the face to the victims and their families; the likes of Sean Hannity and Sarah Palin would decry anti-Christian bias and voice outrage that the actions of a handful of extremists would be used to denigrate all Christians or all abortion opponents.

Indeed. Apparently, no ground is as hallowed as to deter some from exploiting the sentiments it commonly excites. But of the 68 percent of Americans opposed to the Cordoba House, I wonder what percentage concede that the developers have every right to build their mosque and Islamic complex near Ground Zero. And whatever our numbers be, I also wonder, who represents us in this debate?

Why We Went into Iraq, According to William F. Buckley, Jr.

Having failed in all my attempts to trim down this video into the interval of interest, that is, between its 9th and 14th minute, I’ll embed the whole thing and trust that you can make it through the boring claptrap until the conversation starts to get interesting. This is one of the last interviews William F. Buckley, Jr. ever gave—hence of some interest in that regard alone. In it, Charlie Rose comes across annoying and obtuse, interrupting the elderly Buckley with specious remarks and irrelevant questions. But, then again, that’s something he does to all his guests. Buckley sounds gloomy and exasperated, yet candid. This late in his life, there must have been little point to keeping on a mask. So the truth slips out. The war in Iraq, the politics around it, the nation building that goes on there—all of it is a Crusade to him. And he laments the failure of the Americans to match their jihadist antagonists in fervor and conviction toward this holy war. The transcript, as far as I can make out, goes something like this:

William F. Buckley, Jr.: “There are distinguished people of that faith [Muslim] who are … very reluctantly engaged in the Iraq-type offensive. However, in order to counteract that offensive, satisfactorily, it is required that we be enthusiastic about what it is that we are defending.”

Charlie Rose: “… that we are defending, and what values we represent.

William F. Buckley, Jr.: “And I don’t think we’re doing that.”

Charlie Rose: “I don’t either.”

William F. Buckley, Jr.: “The whole notion that Christian civilization is challenged, and therefore, ‘we regret it,’ …”

Charlie Rose: “But do you just say Christian or do you say Judeo-Christian civilization?”

William F. Buckley, Jr.: “Well,.. uh, I am sensitive to the point that you’re are making. I think it’s exaggerated, since there are only 5 or 6 million Jews in the area that we’re talking about. The civilization that we want to defend is, of course, Judeo-Christian, but in terms of enthusiasm for the enterprise, it’s the Christian alternative that we need to get enthusiastic about.”

Charlie Rose: “Since the campaign is run by George [W.] Bush and others, there’s been much criticism of religion in politics, and too much religion in too many political campaigns. Do you think that’s true? … [irrelevant gibberish cropped for brevity’s sake—ed.] What is absent is tolerance?”

William F. Buckley, Jr.: “I think it’s true that there are tendencies, as there always are, to cooptation. A lot of people who are against the movie Deep Throat will convert that into a crusade involving Christianity. But in answer to the specific question, I don’t think there is too much of it at all. I think there’s much too little of it.”

Charlie Rose: [interjects some more nonsense—ed.]

William F. Buckley, Jr.: “The animating thought of our love of country and our love of freedom is religious. By which I mean that it is scriptures which are religious in origin that impel us to believe, for instance, that all man are equal. That impel us to feel a responsibility for our brothers. And a weakening of our understanding of that mandate is translated into unconvincing activity. I don’t think that a lot of these people who are committing suicide in Iraq have any deep sense of the notion that America … that,.. the American offensive, is based on deeply religious principles, on deep conviction. That…”

Charlie Rose: “As you know, the most extreme opponents of the war would say that it wasn’t based on deeply religious principles. It was based on two things: one, whatever ideals of Wilsonian democracy. And if you can nation-build in the center of the Middle East, we’ll have some geo-political effect. And in addition to that, it was based on the principle of,.. er,.. on economic concern, about oil.”

William F. Buckley, Jr.: “Well, they certainly figure. …”

Charlie Rose: “It had nothing to do with religion.”

William F. Buckley, Jr., smiling: “Well, it does in a sense. By which I mean: we want oil because oil is a very useful natural substance. But we also want it because it permits us to live the kind of life we choose to lead. … I think our attachment to our freedom to live as we choose to live has very very deep roots in Christianity. And that to the extent that these roots are ignored, we tend to be less convincing as contenders than we have a right to be.”

I know not where to begin. But commentary would be superfluous here anyway. What can I say? William F. Buckley, Jr., good riddance. If among those of your political persuasion you were worthy of the highest esteem, one can only shudder at what notions your less enlightened fellow travelers might hold.