James Wolcott on Mad Men

Everybody and their mother has fallen head over heels for this show. Here’s a rare dissenting view

It’s a critic’s darling groomed for greatness despite long inert spells in each episode that leave everything opaque, as if recognizable human behavior would be vulgar coming from such immaculate mannequins. It has a seductive look, a compelling mood, a cast that could have been carved from a giant bar of Ivory soap, but zero grasp of the elastic optimism and vigor of the Kennedy years, the let-go spring of release after the constriction of the Eisenhower 50s. Even the exuberant pop music on the soundtrack is used as a counterpoint to the characters’ enclosed meanness and malaise. The more explaining and self-examination that series creator (and former executive producer of The Sopranos) Matthew Weiner does in interviews and post-episode commentaries, the muddier everything gets. Is he aware that Sterling Cooper is the most incompetent, uninspired ad agency ever to blight Madison Avenue? Meeting after meeting adjourned until the next meeting because Draper’s dimwit team can’t rub two sticks together to spark a decent idea. I don’t mind Mad Men as a mild narcotic, but the raves it’s received smack of self-congratulation, as if its fans in the press and online were fondling their own taste buds. It’s fetishistic praise, better left to the movie critics and their blurb libidos.

3 responses to “James Wolcott on Mad Men

  1. “Knowingness” has something to do with my dissatisfaction with this show (“Look at them smoking”; “Look at them littering”: ha ha). What most bugs me though is that everything looks like Radio Days, all somber and brown.

  2. Good Radio Days reference.

  3. “Zero grasp of the elastic optimism and vigor of the Kennedy years, the let-go spring of release after the constriction of the Eisenhower 50s. Even the exuberant pop music on the soundtrack is used as a counterpoint to the characters’ enclosed meanness and malaise”

    Zero grasp is exactly what it DOESN”T have. Mad Men’s somberness and dark sides of its main and supporting characters provide a striking counter narrative to the cultural imaginary of the Kennedy years. It fails to capture the magic because it implicitly argues (through the metaphor of an advertising agency that deals in selling fantasies) that the “magic” of the Kennedy years was also a fantasy – and that fantasy has become a sort of enabling fiction – one that is always imitated but can never duplicated. Mad Men serves as a reminder of that.

    Of course, its nothing that Stephanie Coontz, author of The Way We Never Were hasn’t already argued.

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