Here’s something I wrote about 3 years ago about Mad Men. Don’t fully agree with it now, but thought I’d at least get it out there so I stop contemplating moving to Mongolia every time I get on the Internet.
If nothing else, the New Yorker fiction section has taught writers one valuable lesson: if you want your work to appeal to the literate, upper-middle class white audience, take a beautiful family and make them sad. No one publication has done more to reify the suburban drama in its knighted role as the country’s go-to story. And although recent editors have guided an easing towards more diverse and inventive fiction, the magazine’s legacy still evokes a chorus of Johns, Richards and Alices, all of whom are interested in the dynamics of miserable families.
While the story of the sad, beautiful family certainly has its echoes throughout the history of all books, Bible included, there’s no place like America where simply the premise of a suburban drama demands such a serious, literary response. And while it must be noted that not all unhappy family stories are alike, the belief exists, unrelenting, that if you want to make your story really mean something, you should assault it with as much unbearable, domestic angst as possible. If it sags, it’s good and the realer the angst the better. The weight of these rewards and the seeming lack of an alternative have coerced generations of aspiring young writers to pump out stories about sad kitchens, sad Thanksgivings, sad Christmases, sad first bike rides, sad little league games, sad weddings, and, my favorite, sad European vacations. And since the publishing industry is made up of people who were weaned at the same sad teat, the stories they select for publication are those that might, at least in their minds, resemble the fiction of the legendary New Yorker. Anything with a pulse or a plot outside of a family’s quiet ruin is tagged as genre. Anything that centers around “something missing,” in an otherwise happy family is tagged as art, and not just art, but soulful art.
I recall reading a feature piece on Chang-Rae Lee.In the course of detailing Lee’s somewhat atypical rise to literary stardom, the interviewer, Charles McGrath, mentioned that Lee had spent several years laboring on a massive, futuristic, Pynchon-esque novel titled Agnes Belittlehead before “finding his story.” His story, of course, became Native Speaker, a novel that drew heavily upon Lee’s own experience growing up as a Korean kid in suburban America.
I don’t doubt Lee’s sincerity or his motives in writing Native Speaker, but I do find it tragic that in America, a writer’s “true story” can never be his 500 page lyrical, futuristic novel. Instead, the story that bears the mark of authenticity, the story “he was born to write,” must always be that which best describes the particulars of his unhappy upbringing. Maybe Agnes Belittlehead, written during the time when Lee’s mother was dying of stomach cancer, was the story he was born to write. Or maybe, as Lee himself says, it was an unreadable mess. What’s certain is that the narrative of Lee’s career was always set–explore and experiment, young man, and when you’re ready, head straight for the living room.
As a slave to my demographic, I have not only watched every episode of Mad Men, but have also found myself lost in the fog of enamored coverage the show receives on NPR, gawker, Slate and the New York Times. At times, notably at the very start of the first season, the show has convinced me that it is something more than an alluring, meticulously constructed diorama, and its characters more than beautiful, impeccably dressed cardboard cutouts. But these moments are always too fleeting–a concerned Betty watching the news after the JFK assassination, Pete Campbell sharing a rare laugh with his co-workers–and invariably give way to the show’s deliberate and heavy-hand. Like the novel Revolutionary Road, with which the show shares more than a couple similarities, Mad Men torches all moments of levity and humor with a constant paradigm of misery, misery and more misery. Don Draper does not smile. Neither does Betty. Donald Sterling sometimes smiles, a fact which might account for his wild popularity among the show’s fans. But even, Sterling, the show’s one light-heart gets its comeuppance this season, his usual head-waggling, bro-ish act replaced by long shots of him sitting in bed, drunk, wondering what exactly has gone wrong.
Most writers reach a moment in their work when they must confront the towering meaningless of what they have written. These moments are usually resolved by a supportive girlfriend or a good night of drinking, but sometimes, especially in pretty works, these moments linger and infect. Some, like Truman Capote, can, at least when they’re young, say fuck it and pump out prose whose beauty serves only its own purpose. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a testament to the possibility of such an aesthetic choice. The Manhattan of Holly Golightly is color-coordinated and flimsy, but it saves itself by treating flimsiness as a virtue, and seriousness, especially literary seriousness, as a real bore.
In its first season, Mad Men followed Capote’s example and it followed it well. The suburban angst, the drinking, the historical backdrop were all assumed and never blocked the view. And for those first weeks, the show really worked. Nobody cared about Don’s backstory or his marriage in LA or Betty’s father or the slow rot of all the marriages. Our cares, instead, were lighter and stayed mostly in the office. Who was sleeping with Joan? Would Don come up with the Lucky Strike slogan in time? Would Don make it out of that Greenwich Village club without a fight? Would Peggy Olsen make it a week without getting fired?
Could the show have continued on that same aesthetic trajectory? It’s hard to tell, especially given the splintering plot-lines, but what’s clear is that somewhere along the production line, the writers felt the need to fatten up the show’s significance. At the start of the second season, overly ornate, awkwardly placed symbolism started showing up in every episode. Don’s face turned into stone and Betty started shooting the neighbor’s birds. Everyone began to moderate theirsmoking and drinking and the show, arm-by-arm, donned the heavy coat of meaning.
What’s been created is a Frankenstein’s Monster of expected American story lines: Civil Rights, infidelity, Westchester County, American cars, rural/humble beginnings, new money, unstable relatives, spoiled children, thwarted ambition, casual drinking and the beauty of objects. Don Draper is a war veteran who comes back from Korea, to a new identity in a rapidly changing country. Betty Draper is an ex-model who grows bored in her marriage. And just like Frank Wheeler on Revolutionary Road, whenever Don needs to be jolted out of his malaise, a wild-eyed character shows up. whether it be his brother, foreign poolside women, a pair of hippie hitch-hikers or a n’er do well epileptic. This procession of miscreants and Bohemians show both the world outside of Don and Betty’s suburban prison, but also, at the same time, show the futility and absurdity of fighting American conformity.
Is there anything left? What else could the show staple onto itself to convince us of its relevance, its American importance? And with all this clutter of meaning, can we we still make out the show’s charm? Or is it just a memory, irretrievably gone, now embedded in all the pretty things at Sterling Cooper?
Forget the booze and lawn mowers, Bert Cooper’s office is the best part of the Mad Men set. It’s an easy Park Avenue joke, yes, but the geishas, the blue-green screens and samurai swords provide a weird depth to Cooper’s character and provide a much-needed break from the assault of mid-century modern furniture. Most of the paintings in Cooper’s office come from the ukiyo-e period of Japanese art, a term which translates literally into “the floating world.” I’ll save everyone the art history lesson, but much of the received cultural ideas we have about Japanese art comes from this period: serene, meticulous images divorced from politics and mundane life. The artists of the floating world celebrated an unfettered, non-contextual beauty, and, in turn, a daily existence unbound by responsibility or boredom. To spread their gospel, they relied on techniques that could be mass-produced and disseminated around all of Japan.
In a show overladen with meaningful objects, Cooper’s office is the one home run. What could better mirror Sterling Cooper than a beautiful, pefectly-constructed, floating world of mass-produced images?
Sometime late in the show’s first season, Cooper suggests that Don read Ayn Rand because he suspects that Don, like him, is fundamentally, and unabashedly, self-interested. Through Cooper’s tastes in art and literature, we feel the moral pulse of the show and, perhaps, its implication: was this modern phantasmagoria of mass-produced, sterilized images created solely by the willpower and artistry of selfish men? And if that’s true, shouldn’t we also read the floating, sterile beauty of the show’s actors and sets as feedback, the floating world of the floating world of the floating world?
Those of us who have college degrees in English, or, God forbid, graduate degrees in the humanities jump at any opportunity to prove that their particular skill-set is not worthless. Criticism, which used to require work and experience, has given way to a mudslide of grad-school-ish analysis. Which is fine. This blog certainly falls somewhere in that space. The problem, though, with having a bunch of broke grad students write about TV is that their standards for what is good and what is bad are predicated only on a work’s ability to stand up to a thorough deconstruction. This is not a conscious, or even particularly ego-driven problem, but rather the edge that’s whittled down after too many years of reading and writing.
From what I’ve read about Mad Men, much of the adulation seems to be centered on the analytical possibilities offered up by the show and not the show’s meat–the actors, the pacing, the plot and the direction. Yes, January Jones’ dullard act can be justified through any number of ways, floating world included, but that doesn’t change the fact that I have to fight the urge to fast forward every time her frowning face comes on the screen. The same can be said about Don–his stoniness can be explained by anyone in any coffeehouse in the Mission or Park Slope, but I still grow bored of the sameness of Jon Hamm’s act. And yes, a stickler of a history professor could go through each frame and ejaculate in confirmatory glee, but accuracy alone cannot achieve that enviable Wes Anderson effect, where the sets are as much characters as the people who occupy them.
The artists of ukiyo-e, while preoccupied with aesthetic perfection in an entirely detached world, still celebrated the vibrancy of human beings and the dynamism of nature. The most famous image from the period, the one thumb-tacked onto the walls of 100,000 dorm rooms right now, is of a mammoth breaking wave. The best of the thousands of geisha paintings from the period successfully show the beauty of a hemmed-in and controlled ecstasy. While watching Mad Men,I always feel the effort of the show’s directors to make things beautiful, perfect, but I’ve never once, outside of those fleeting moments in the first season, felt the gyre of something that was truly alive beneath the lacquer, the pomade and the replica Eames.
We are constantly betrayed by our conditional fantasies. The Suits at the end of the bar are assholes, but we still admire the fit of their slacks. The tribesmen have an enviable connection with nature, but we could never live in polygamous union. This game of push-and-pull, where allure always comes with a caveat, almost always plays with inverted rules, where the condition we reject is actually what we most secretly desire. The paycheck-to-paycheck English major who compromised his twenties for a non-profit agency does not care about the slacks, but rather, wishes he could act the part of the effortless asshole. The anthropology major from Marblehead feels the limits of her marriage and wishes, secretly, for something radically different.
Mad Men, like The Sopranos before it, is a conditional fantasy. The men of Sterling Cooper are Classical American men–they drink brown liquor, harass their secretaries, engage in any available affair, wear fitted suits and order obnoxiously in restaurants. They are casually, but wholeheartedly racist and homophobic. The men in Tony Soprano’s crew could be described similarly, but there was always a complexity to their bigotry that expressed itself in unexpected, and oftentimes brilliant ways–Paulie’s parade of black girlfriends, Tony’s begrudging respect of the Hasidic Jews who share ownership of his hotel, Carmella’s tight-lipped looks of disapproval. While we might want parts of Tony’s life–the power, the violence and the respect–only the worst masochist would ever want to live through the inner battle between the Tony who loves his ducks and the Tony who feels the need to validate his entrenched scaffolding of prejudice and chauvanism.
Like all other things Mad Men, the men of Sterling Cooper engage in a breezy, shimmery chauvanism whose only real function in the show seems to be to point out its existence at the time. There’s a flatness to it all, and while one could argue that the flatness is, in fact, accurate, the casual bigotry on the show also feels inert, useless and, since this is Mad Men, overly stylized. And while I certainly will not argue that a TV show has some responsibility to treat such matters with gravity, I always find myself searching for a weightier moral ballast which the show, with its hundreds of story lines and its subtlety!never provides. The Sopranos, and, in some ways, The Wire proved that there is a way to present a pretty, witty sort of racism. As long as its followed up by long talks with Dr. Melfi.
Again, the problem would be solved if Man Men offered more than its usual palate of moldering, stony misery. The show offers us a precise historical context–for example, Sally’s teacher wants her students to memorize the I Have a Dream speech–but never elects to present anything outside of its usual spate of labored dialogue and wide-angled, beautiful shots of people silently (but meaningfully!) watching TV. What are we supposed to take away from Sally’s teacher’s enthusiasm or Kinsey’s social activism? Both are discarded, set aside and forgotten. With such a cosmetic and self-evident treatment, what else can we take away from the show other than the lesson we all learned in the fourth grade: “Hey, there were white people in the sixties who participated in the Civil Rights movement.” And for those who are rolling their eyes and screaming, “that’s how it really was back then!” could I ask you, then, what exactly is the value of the show outside of its accuracy?
(05-16) 12:20 PDT San Francisco — The Federal Trade Commission is giving Skechers USA Inc.’s bank account the workout the consumer protection agency claims its fitness shoes haven’t been giving its consumers.
Skechers has agreed to pay a $40 million settlement after the Federal Trade Commission and 45 attorneys general nationwide - including California’s - accused the shoe company of falsely advertising the weight loss and health benefits of its “toning” shoe lines, the FTC announced Wednesday.
The consumer protection agency said the company’s false claims of “shape up while you walk” and “get in shape without setting foot in a gym” misled consumers into believing that purchasing shoes from the Shape-Up, Tone-Up and Resistance Runner lines would help them lose weight and tone their bodies.
KELLY: Well, a party that I gave at my house influenced me. I gave a Christmas party last year—well, two Christmases ago—where I did a Sam Cooke show. I didn’t perform as R. Kelly. I performed the Sam Cooke show from 1964, when he performed at the Copacabana.
OLDHAM: You performed the whole set?
KELLY: I did the whole set. I invited, like, 1,000 people out to my house, and everybody had to be dressed like it was the ’60s. People had the long-stem cigarettes and the zoot suits and all that stuff, man. It was just a good time.
OLDHAM: And that was before doing the Sam Cooke miniset that you did on the tour?
KELLY: Oh, yeah—way before that. It was about a two-and-a-half-hour show that I put together in my living room. Built a stage and catwalk. I had the bulb lights and everything. I had tap dancers. I had a girl with me who sounded just like Billie Holiday. I had a guy who sounded just like Frank Sinatra. And then I did Sam Cooke. We had the marquee on the outside of the door, and I went and got old-school pictures of myself and we put them up like I was born back then and performing back then. We had a sign that said, “One night and one night only.”
OLDHAM: There was only one show?
KELLY: Just the one show. I did that show, and I was afraid of doing it, but I knew I wanted to do it because I’ve always wanted to go back in time—I’ve always said that I wished that I was working back in the Sam Cooke days so I could feel the spirit of that music, because I love that music. So the only way for me to capture that was for me to become Sam Cooke for one night and do all his music and really try to nail it. So I had a full band. I had an orchestra, horn sections, upright bass, all of that stuff, man. Brought in background singers. And I came out with a suit on and everything. It was very classy. People loved it. I mean, they got with every song. I was shocked. We had a ball. But I think I was bitten that night, like Peter Parker being bit by the spider. I had this feeling that we really tapped in spiritually to that time. We did go back in time that night. And when I came back to the present, if you will, I’d brought back some goodies, because when I went in the studio—I was working on the Zodiac album, which was all, like, the bump ’n’ grinds—I couldn’t work on it because I was so overwhelmed and overpowered and pretty much musically abducted by this other period. So I switched and started working on Love Letter, and the next thing you know, “When a Woman Loves” came out and I was like, “What?” I was like, “Wow!” You know, my music comes to me like that. It talks to me. It just teases me sometimes. For two days that’s all I heard in my head [sings]: “When a woman loves … ” You know, we recorded the show. We had three cameras recording it because I didn’t want to lose what we’d done. And when people would come over to my house—be it celebrity company or just my friends from around the way—I would play it for them and we would drink and have a ball just looking at it. The more I would play it for people, the more I saw they was enjoying it, and the more I saw they accepted me in this area. So I was like, “If I did a whole album of this, boy …” You just never know— it might be a great thing, you know? So that’s when I started really deciding I’m going to go and do an album.
Do you do a lot of rewriting?
When I’m working on a book, I constantly retype my own sentences. Every day I go back to page one and just retype what I have. It gets me into a rhythm. Once I get over maybe a hundred pages, I won’t go back to page one, but I might go back to page fifty-five, or twenty, even. But then every once in a while I feel the need to go to page one again and start rewriting. At the end of the day, I mark up the pages I’ve done—pages or page—all the way back to page one. I mark them up so that I can retype them in the morning. It gets me past that blank terror.