Friday, July 23, 2010


The best of "This is you, America" TV dramas

By Alex Ricciuti
You know, I'm ambivalent about Mad Men. It's a consistently well-written show with realistic, resonating drama but sometimes it's excessive ambition misses and reduces the show to something far more facile and trite and easily mockable. It's also a little too fetishistic about its period details and style. Its actors use this often very annoying idiom where they blend what is a 2010 idea of how people behaved in that era with a throwback acting style that mimics how a Tony Curtis or a Jack Lemmon would have acted in a Mad Men movie made in 1960.

And another thing...Mad Men is one of those “This is you, America” television dramas with an antisocial protagonist who inevitably becomes an allegory for America itself. Yes, this is you, America: self-absorbed, amoral, narcissistic and in denial about your true nature. A theme that's a little too tired and sophomoric for me. “Yeah, man, America, man, is a criminal enterprise, man, and the whole shithouse is going up in flames, man!"

Fortunately, though, Don Draper isn't a murderous sociopath like Tony Soprano — a contrivance of a protagonist meant to make the audience squirm — something I really resented. He's more the opportunistic con man with a tinge of conscience. Like a Bill Clinton, say. An American archetype I thoroughly enjoy exploring. Don Draper is a chameleon, a shape-shifting con artist perpetually reinventing himself in the tradition of Richard Nixon. What I don't buy is the the reductiveness of seeing this as an exclusively American critique.

Still, I like Mad Men because a television show is the perfect medium with which to pose that big zeitgeist question — Who are we? And Mad Men does it by showing us who we were before and subtly leaving the "Who are we now?" to the audience.

But let's get back to Clinton because, let's face it, we are all a little Bill Clinton today. Don Draper carries a borrowed name just like that other slick, womanizing salesmen with a shifty sense of self. But former President William Jefferson Clinton was actually born William Jefferson Blythe. His biological father was a traveling salesman who died at the age of 28 in a car wreck before little Bill was even born. (He died in a ditch like Ira Hayes — how's that for a little Americana synchronicity?) Clinton grew up in the wheeler-dealer Arkansas middle-class. His uncle owned a large auto dealership from which the teenage Clinton had his choice of new cars to drive around in. In a flashback in Season 2, we see a young Don Draper working as a car salesman. The salesman is but one dimension of the confidence man archetype. And what better representation of that confluence between conning and selling than someone who sells advertising? That's what advertising does: It sells you an empty box wrapped up to look like the American dream.

But Don Draper is more than just an archetype, he's a fairly well-defined character even if his shifty personality is a part of that definition. The question of his identity is still the central conceit of the show but it is played as much as a character study as it is a mystery.

Take Draper's casual paternalism/misogyny toward his wife Betty — a product of the times, yes, but he also encourages Peggy in her careerism and is (pardon the Van Halen reference in advance) hot for his daughter Sally's teacher Suzanne because she's a free-thinking, independent woman. He's not dismissive or jealous of either of their abilities. He also shares with Peggy and Suzanne's epileptic brother an underlying kinship as outcasts looking for validation. Sometimes it looks like he's simply calculating his actions from a vantage point of pure self-interest, but in others, true empathy is at work. Yes, he indulges the fruits of being on the outside, as evidenced by his serial womanizing. But he's not of the mistress/kept woman cheater breed — seeing women as a trophy of success. From Midge to Rachel to Bobbie Barrett to Suzanne, these women provide Don with a form of companionship, spiritual and intellectual, that he seems to desperately need.

That is what makes the character compelling. Humans beings are a confluence of (often counterintuitive) internal dynamics. Don Draper's shame of his origins is the flip-side to both his arrogance as well as his empathy with those aforementioned characters. Remember the look on his face when Jimmy Barrett said to him, "You're garbage and you know it." It was a look of horror and recognition. It stung not just because it was true (for him, at least) but what was more devastating was the fact that Barrett was able to see through the elaborate facade he had put up around himself.

Another revealing moment for the character came in Season 1 when Don spends some time with Midge's (a character name borrowed from Vertigo) beatnik friends. He's contemptuous of Midge's boyfriend/1960-variant-of-screw-buddy Roy not only out of jealousy over Midge but because Roy benefited from a luxury that was never afforded to Don. As a Beatnik, Roy could easily reject the values of his comfortable middle-class upbringing because they had never refused him. This guy isn't social garbage like Don and he enjoys a freedom Don could never exercise. When Don snaps the picture of Roy and Midge together on the bed, and Don, with his keen ad man's eye, sees that they are in love, he more than understands his exclusion. He can't give that much of himself away. He never had the capital.

This is where we find Don's greatest fault, best evidenced by his cruel and expedient treatment of closeted gay art director Sal in Season 3. Simply put: he feels he can't afford to be emotionally generous or have too many scruples because any unnecessary commitment could hamper him and reveal his great shame. His greatest fear will always be what Jimmy Barrett did to him.

Like most human beings, Don Draper is afraid to look inward. When Don said to Bobbie moments before their car crash, "I feel nothing,” it was more than romanticized nihilism. I once had a very smart friend of mine remark to me that superficial people are the way they are not because they are empty on the inside but precisely because they are afraid that if they search within themselves they will find that there is nothing there. That they are just the superficial assholes they know other people think they are. There are many clues that tell us Don is tempted toward introspection, as with his flirtations with art-house cinema and literature, but somehow his fear gets the better of him.

As a viewer, you may be asking, "Who is Don Draper?" but maybe Don Draper has a few questions for you. Are you afraid to look beneath your habits of material consumption and flaccid human relationships because you're afraid there won't be anything real of yourself to discover? That your identity is just a graven idol you've crafted as a distraction? If you look inward, do you fear you will find nothing but illusions?

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I do have to disagree with you on your premise about Mad Men and The Sopranos. In the end, they are just TV shows and I think trying to take them as some sort of reflection of "the real America" is a bit much because then you'd have to do that with just about every show. Was Friends the real America? Twin Peaks? In the cases of Mad Men and The Sopranos, they are just great dramas and if all great dramas were about morally upstanding individuals, what a dull world it would be. That's why the best action films tend to be the ones with the best villains. Shades of gray are much more interesting than black and white. Deadwood would never have been as great as it was if Al and Seth had remained as the stereotypical black and white hats of old-time Westerns. I also think the period details is one of Mad Men's best qualities, making it the best looking show on TV right now. Having revisited Lemmon in The Apartment recently, those offices acted liked the Sterling Cooper ones but even if you go to the sitcoms of the time, Rob and Laura Petrie and Darrin and Samantha Stevens always were knocking back booze and smoking cigarettes. It was that era. While I do like Mad Men a lot though, I still think the best drama currently on is Breaking Bad and that's another program with a complex lead who does a lot of bad things but can't be called a conventional villain because he went down that path trying to help his family when he thought he had a short time to live.
Re: Mad Men and Sopranos -- The two shows are very different. Sopranos portrays a group of immoral people who make immoral choices, explores the process by which they rationalize those choices, and eventually condemns them for those choices -- the characters are brought down by their own greed and pettiness. Chase even condemns the audience for sympathizing with Tony.

But Mad Men asks us to sympathize with all of its characters and portrays them as trapped not by their own choices, but by the social mores of the time. Every major plotline and character arc is about a person who is basically good having problems with one or more of the following -- career, family, sex, or secrets. Characters often brood, silently staring into the distance to sad clarinet music, as they wistfully contemplate why society won't let them have what they want. Everyone is "trapped." Don is the way he is because of society, which is why we're supposed to sympathize with him. The restless inner lives of the characters are contrasted with the artificially pleasing world of advertising and "the American Dream."

Mad Men has many brilliant and entertaining characters and situations, but the big ideas and the long-term plotting have always been a little thin. It's a soap opera at heart, constantly coming up with new reasons for its characters to be trapped by stultifying society.
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