I bring to your attention today a case of high-brow criticism in the New York Review of Books. Critic Daniel Mendelsohn doesn’t like Mad Men. Considering that I’ve been filled with admiration and enthralled by Mad Men since the first episode, my impulse is to claw through Mendelsohn’s chest and eat his heart. But that would be smallish of me.
It’s fun to argue with friends about a creative work, but rarely worth arguing with a critic. He seems to say, like Chico Marx in Duck Soup, “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” So I’m just going to yield the remainder of my time—well, most of it—to an excerpt from Mendelsohn’s review. He says:
I am dwelling on the deeper, almost irrational reasons for the series’s appeal—to which I shall return later, and to which I am not at all immune, having been a child in the 1960s—because after watching all fifty-two episodes of Mad Men, I find little else to justify it. We are currently living in a new golden age of television, a medium that has been liberated by cable broadcasting to explore both fantasy and reality with greater frankness and originality than ever before: as witness shows as different as the now-iconic crime dramas The Sopranos and The Wire, with their darkly glinting, almost Aeschylean moral textures; the philosophically provocative, unexpectedly moving sci-fi hit Battlestar Galactica, a kind of futuristic retelling of the Aeneid; and the perennially underappreciated small-town drama Friday Night Lights, which offers, among other things, the finest representation of middle-class marriage in popular culture of which I’m aware.
With these standouts (and there are many more), Mad Men shares virtually no significant qualities except its design. The writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the acting is, almost without exception, bland and sometimes amateurish.
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 addition, 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.
Well. I’d copy more of Mendelsohn’s review of Mad Men, but I have to get back to the latest Battlestar Galactica.
I’ve got two things to say.
First, to be fair, read the review, especially if you’re a Mad Men fan. If nothing else, it’ll probably promote better blood circulation. But you’ll also get to hear Mendelsohn reveal those “deeper, almost irrational reasons” that, for him, explain Mad Men’s otherwise inexplicable appeal: We were kids when the show takes place, so we’re getting to look into our parents’ lives. “Who, after all,” he asks, “can resist the fantasy of seeing what your parents were like before you were born, or when you were still little—too little to understand what the deal was with them, something we can only do now, in hindsight?” There you go.
Second, read the commentaries that Alan Sepinwall writes after every episode of Mad Men. Reading Sepinwall is like having a friend in the room who gets it.
I can’t resist one more quote from Mendelsohn:
The acting itself is remarkably vacant, for the most part, none more so than the performance of Jon Hamm as Don.
Wow. And there I was, believing my own eyes!