Sunday, March 25, 2012

Tonight's Mad Men

[No spoilers here.]

Tonight’s Mad Men (the first episode of the show’s fifth season) was to my mind dreary and disappointing. I started watching Mad Men in its second season and grew disenchanted when Frank O’Hara’s poem “Mayakovsky,” which figured so importantly in that season’s first episode, turned out to be a MacGuffin, playing no significant role in the season’s story line, not even in its final episode, though that episode was named after O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency (1957), the book that includes “Mayakovsky.” Oh well. I came back in season four and found the show more engaging.

Tonight’s episode though was another matter. Watching Mad Men is not like watching a television show set in the 1960s; it’s like watching a television show that has been made to appear to be set in the 1960s. The markers of “the time” are so unartfully contrived: A protest scene equals “Negroes, priests, and cops.” A discussion of advertising for Heinz Beans includes a suggestion that an ad be pitched to college students “sitting in.” A journalist introduces himself by explaining that he writes for “underground papers, mostly.” Someone even speaks of smoking “tea.” Yes, something is happening here, and you do know what it is, don’t you, Mr. Jones, and you keep making sure that we know that you know too.

What most disappointed me in tonight’s episode though was the plodding, uninspired dialogue. My new experiment in watching Mad Men is to imagine that I’m reading its dialogue as subtitles, a trick that makes the show both more and less interesting. To modify a line from an old commercial: Try it. You might like it.

[With apologies to Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” and Alka-Seltzer.]

comments: 4

Matt Thomas said...

Totally disagree, as I am wont to do from time to time. I loved it. The feeling I had after watching it was "It's good to have you back, Mad Men." Also, I thought Pete ("My office is 30 yards away, so when I hit that buzzer, I'm trying to save myself a trip through the miracle of telephonics") and Roger ("Is it just me, or is the lobby full of Negros?") had a lot of good lines.

Your review, moreover, gives the impression that you haven’t seen seasons one or three. If that's true (and I hope it isn't), do you really think it's fair for you to weigh in like this? None of the episodes are stand-alones; rather, the show is a slow-build latticework where even the smallest of details – a barely perceptible flicker across someone's face, for instance – convey meanings only available to regular viewers.

But hey, to use a Mad Men-era expression, different strokes for different folks.

Michael Leddy said...

Having watched season four, I think it’s fair to register a response to last night’s episode. I got the implications (or at least some of them) in various scenes (as when Joan brings the baby to the office). But yes, different strokes. And the strange thing is that I will probably keep watching.

Emily Lauer said...

I agree with Matt above that there was a lot of pay-off in that episode for dedicated viewers of earlier seasons.

Apart from that, however, I wonder if you would enjoy Mad Men more in general if you think of it not as a tv show "set in the 60s" but as a tv show about the way we apparently need to keep resetting and re-enforcing a cultural view of "THE SIXTIES" so that it resonates in a particular way with what's going on now.

Michael Leddy said...

Not “set in the 1960s” but “made to appear to be set in the 1960s” — there’s a difference. :)

I agree that this show is an interesting cultural document (of what people are making of the recent past). I just don’t think it’s that great as art, as narrative.