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.