Monday, February 9, 2009

Mad Men Live on Mars (Oppressed Women Live on Venus)

You're not dealing with an ordinary schmuck or average Joe, you know. I am a man of some sophistication. A bon vivant. I buy my shoes in Italy. I go to art galleries. And I have an impressive collection of issues of the London Review of Books, all in their original plastic.

Behind this last piece of personal trivia is a pretty neat marketing device: if you subscribe to the LRB, you can give two six-monthly subscription to friends, absolutely free, anywhere they might live, so long as they have never subscribed themselves. I was the recipient of this largesse thanks to one of my lecturers, and come renewal time I found myself surprisingly eager to open the wallet, in no small part because I could then reciprocate to two others, and, I'll admit it, feel generous doing it. Take note, marketers and advertisers: it pays to make people feel good about themselves.

The only glitch in this otherwise most satisfactory plan: once a paying subscriber, I found I didn't have time to read the damn thing. I blame child number three for the scrambling of timetables and habits at the end of which I discovered that my 'LRB time' had simply vanished. So the issues pile up and some time back in September I stopped ripping the plastic off. It became too painful. But, as the saying goes, generosity is its own reward, except for its other rewards, and it so happens that in the bargain I got a personal reader: for the recipient of one of 'my' free subscriptions bothers to write from Japan, where he is currently stationed, pointing out articles that I might find of interest and showing considerably more discernment than I would in the process.

Which is a very roundabout way of introducing you to the work of Mark Greif, author of 'You'll Love How It Makes You Feel', a thorough hatchet job on season one of the television series Mad Men. The main contention of Greif's article is that Mad Men is 'an unpleasant little entry in the genre Now We Know Better', in that it portrays social ills of the past in a way that leaves them unconnected to the present, allowing the audience to bask in the illusion of living in far more enlightened times. It is, in Greif's view, a case not of the portrayal of the past being used to criticise the present, but rather of the criticism of the past being used to 'congratulate the present', fostering
an unearned pride in our supposed superiority when it comes to health and restraint, the condition of women, and the toleration of (some) difference in ethnicity and sexuality.

I find myself in vigorous agreement with this thesis, except I think the author applied it to the wrong show altogether. Surely Mr Greif was thinking of Life on Mars? I say this because Justine and I have enjoyed the first series of Mad Men, in the protracted, painfully slow way we have of following television shows, and have had an ongoing discussion regarding its merits and demerits in this very regard. Whereas with Life on Mars, it was a case of Justine heaping scorn and taking various degrees of offence right from episode one, whilst I gave the show and its glowing reviews a second and then a third and then a fourth chance, at which point the scorn in the household became stereophonic and we gave up on it altogether. Until last week, that is, when the pilot of the American version of the show reached New Zealand and was duly subjected to critical inspection. With, I'm sad to report, similarly discomfiting results, compounded by the ham fisted use of the Twin Towers to signal to the protagonist that he's no longer in Kansas, as it were, and the woe of seeing Clarke Peters - The Wire's incomparable Lester Freamon - stooping to utter the following line:
Lawrence Raimes is Colin's twin brother. They're not on speaking terms, but Lawrence is a degenerate gambler with a real taste for the dice.

So far, so awful. Having no intention to venture beyond the pilot (unless somebody's willing to send me money), I'm never going to find out if the pedestrian replica of the British show - same lapels, same hairstyles, same décor, same titular soundtrack - is going to move into interesting new directions. But of course the nigh-obsessive fidelity to the original is significant in itself as a symptom of a morbid attachment to the past, this time on the part of film and super expensive high-end television productions that view innovation largely as a last resort, and would always rather stick with the tried and true and replicating success.

The tried and true, in this case, revolved around a cop travelling back in time some thirty years in the aftermath of a car accident and was truly a masterpiece of the Now We Know Better genre, screaming at every turn 'Look, they had sexism! Police brutality! Big lapels!' and boasting one of the highest aspersions-per-minute ratios outside of religious programming. Except said aspersions were cast on our behalf by such a sanctimonious twerp - played with a lot of squinting by John Simms - that you quickly found yourself rooting for the sexism and the brutality, upheld respectively by The Whole of Society and Simm's new (old) colleagues. And here the authors could have chosen to inject some irony into the proceedings, exposing the twerp's supremely unearned pride through the conflicts with his new (old) boss, brilliantly played by Philip Glenister, but chose instead to spoil the set up by inflicting on the viewer plotlines that were either desperately trite or terminally stupid (an example of the latter: the episode where Simms nicks the guy who came up with the idea of football violence). I cannot help but feel that some sort of opportunity was lost there.

And perhaps you could say the same of Mad Men, which is hardly perfect but tries, in my view, a whole lot harder. The year is 1960 and the place fictitious Madison Avenue advertising agency Sterling Cooper. But Mad Men isn't about advertising and its history any more than The Sopranos was about organised crime: it's an old fashioned character drama, steeped in a social context whose ills are brought for us into sharper relief by the outdated language, conventions and protocols.

Thus, unsanitised by political correctness and unfettered by workplace discrimination and harassment laws, sexism is worn with pride by the alpha males employed by the agency, and becomes the chief leit motif of the series, occasionally in the company of its good pals homophobia and racism. Whether you choose to find this comforting, as opposed to an occasion for measuring the progress - ranging from too little to none at all - that our societies have made in these particular arenas, will depend largely on whether and to what extent you identify with the characters. And here I agree with Greif that Don Draper, the falling man of the gorgeous opening credits, played by the actor whose name comes up first - so then the protagonist, surely? - is singularly weak: a man of great poise but little substance, alluring and inscrutable except there might in fact be nothing much to see behind the pose and the hair and the impeccable grooming. A perfect ambassador for his profession, in other words. And, speaking of professions, maybe 'Draper', a salesman of cloth that could be used for drapes, in order to conceal, is in fact a piece of clever misdirection, the requisite male lead that you suppose you ought to follow and identify with and care about but then actually this time you don't, because the scenes and the storylines all get stolen by the women. Who, save for one, the exceptional Joan Halloway, are all initially defined by their relationship to Draper - secretary, wife, lover, client-cum-lover - but by the end of series one have either pulled away or are about to pull away from his orbit.

I would argue in fact, bringing as evidence the two episodes that bookend the series, that in this show of handsome men, classy women and elegant furnishings the conspicuously unrefined, unsexy and at times slightly petulant working girl Peggy is the show's moral anchor, the one worth rooting for. But it is by no means solely through her lens that countless episodes of intolerable cruelty and ordinary discrimination are served to us week in, week out in Mad Men. Perhaps Mr. Greif is right in regarding them as irritating little vignettes disconnected from history that entertain instead of challenging - the lines between these assessments can be so thin - but I don't think so. This household sure didn't find them comfortable to watch, and it's not a bad test to apply in such situations, or in the matter of the truth value of memory overall.