The Clare Spark Blog

May 18, 2015

Matthew Weiner’s MAD MEN and the double audience

Don Draper meditating on California coast

Don Draper meditating on California coast

(Spoilers ahead). In all my years of watching television, I have never been so flummoxed as I was by the final season of Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men that purports to trace the ups and downs of its primary characters in a small NYC advertising agency, “Sterling Cooper” through its absorption into McCann Erickson. The series was set  during the late 1950s through the early 1970s, a period of great social upheaval.

I have written about the show before, arguing that it was odd for television writers to worry about the sponsors of the shows that they write, given that they purport to represent the real world uncontaminated by its corporate sponsors. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/10/24/mad-men-and-the-jewish-problem/.)

It never occurred to me until I looked up the definition and history of “irony” that the series had perhaps a double audience: one that would see it as a highly produced, realistic soap opera faithful to the period; while another would “get it” as standard {Jewish?] left-liberal self-hatred and anti-Americanism. (On the double audience for “irony” see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irony.)

For the last episode, eagerly anticipated by its fans, looked as if Don Draper, the dark, alcoholic, chain-smoking, womanizing genius adman (played by Jon Hamm) was going down, down, down, along with the American Dream, viciously portrayed in prior episodes such as the one with “milk and honey” in the title. Instead, Draper found at least a temporary reprieve at, of all places, an Esalen-type setting in the vicinity of Big Sur that persistently asked the question “How do you feel about your feelings?” Don, bottled up since his miserable childhood and perhaps on the brink of a heart attack, is suddenly redeemed by the confession of a depressed, unloved stranger in an encounter group, and goes on to embrace some kind of ersatz Indian religion installing him in a chanting hippie-garbed assembly, then to write a great Coca Cola commercial that not only unifies Draper with the mostly successful and “strong” female characters but affirms international groupiness. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/03/06/groupiness/, and https://clarespark.com/2013/07/02/groupiness-group-think-and-race/.)  On the commercial see http://www.coca-colacompany.com/coca-cola-unbottled/cokes-hilltop-featured-in-final-scene-of-mad-men.

Don Draper is literally and figuratively unbottled at last.

During my radio days of chronicling the fights in the art world, I used to know several New Yorker writers of fame. One or more complained to me about the ads for luxury goods that they felt compromised their ostensibly daring liberal stories and reportage. Similarly the artists and critics I met during the 1970s viewed themselves as hugely radical in both form and content. They loathed their bourgeois patrons (“Merde!”), pretty much as did the artistic vanguard that emerged before and during WW1.  I suppose that these artlings (not one of whom was a disciplined Red, by the way) comprise the peanut gallery that has praised Mad Men for the last seven seasons. They will “get it,” unlike the high-end consumers who fall for such arrant trickery.

As for myself, at the very end of the finale, I shouted out “Real or Fake?”

My outburst remains a radical query, and I don’t know the answer. I read once that irony was an unimaginative  excuse for an oppositional stance that failed to undermine or transform repressive cultures.

Then I thought about the venom hurled by Chomsky and his followers toward Walter Lippmann for encouraging the “spinmeisters” who “manufacture consent” (https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/): magicians and puppeteers like the fictional Don Draper, archetypally a Jewish liar.

irony

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April 26, 2013

The television season goes Dark

The-following-posterI understand that television is not considered to be other than escapist entertainment, and not a business with pretensions to artiness or literariness, but there are many critics who treat its more upscale offerings with the reverence once reserved to Balzac (for instance see the indefatigable Terri Gross in her new interview with Matthew Weiner, creator of MAD MEN: in the part I heard she was insisting that Don Draper has a “death wish”).

As the 2012-2013 season draws to a close, I must say that I can’t remember a time when popular entertainment was as ideological driven or death-obsessed. I admit to not understanding the adolescent craze for vampires or zombies, though I have my suspicions of deranged right-wing Romanticism and/or the adolescent desire to irritate parents. But I do get the populist flavor, laced with morbidity, of the “better” television series, especially those directed to a more upscale, presumably educated audience.

Lest I be misunderstood, I am not nostalgic for the television fare of the 1950s and 1960s, with its frequently inane glorification of the ordinary folksy American family, rural or urban. The material introduced in response to 1960s and 1970s uproars was critical, and though usually anti-American and anti-establishment, was at least well-written, brilliantly acted, and interesting to decode for its (typically populist) politics. Nor do I fail to detect the ideology in the theater popular when I was growing up: at least it was well meaning, brilliantly written, conceived, and performed—and relatively anti-racist.

But what to make of such paranoia-inducing recent offerings as the romantic necrophiliac THE FOLLOWING (internet gossip reports it renewed!), or the ongoing goriness in CRIMINAL MINDS, or the hatred of hedge fund managers profiting off evil drug companies as displayed in the last episode of PERSON OF INTEREST, or amoral rich people as were evident in DECEPTION, now in SCANDAL (the last episode particularly horrifying), MAD MEN, REVENGE, and even the apparently harmless and well-written THE GOOD WIFE, a love triangle that manages to mostly evade the possibly unparalleled corruption of  Democratic Chicago, while “Alicia” wavers between family and sex? (I have been watching reruns of the Dick Wolf generated LAW AND ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT, and find the same targets, often Jews, who are either the perps, or who as doctors and lawyers are equally loathsome and corrupt. In one episode, “the Jewish mob” is identified as the most “vicious” of all: oh really?). Add to that the swipes at Mossad in the ever-popular NCIS, and you have the picture. Nouveaux riches and the government enforcers (cops, government regulators, other bureaucrats, CIA, etc.) whom the moneybags obviously control in their own depraved interest, are the chief subjects of the most watched television shows. The poster for THE FOLLOWING (illustrated) shows the dual character of those who serve “law and order.” “Order” for whom? is clearly implied as Bacon and Purefoy are halves of one whole, following Poe’s “William Wilson” in its doppelgänger conception, perhaps a major conceit in the imagination of television writers. And don’t be fooled by the poster for THE FOLLOWING. “Joe Collins” (James Purefoy) is clearly the protagonist, and he stepped out of character in the most recent episode to plug Green living. Why not Kevin Bacon, who barely appears in the series, and whose character is an alcoholic to boot?

Are there any shows with family values? So far, BLUE BLOODS takes the prize. Irreproachably Irish Catholic and upright, the patriarchal Reagan family holds together in contrast to the decadent cities it valiantly disciplines. Even THE MENTALIST is terror gothic in spirit, and clearly plays on fears of the French Revolution, while teasing its faithful viewers that “Patrick Jane” is actually serial killer Red John, rather than someone likely to be very high up in the government. It too is paranoia inducing. Shame on you Bruno Heller, who should know better.

And SMASH, the backstage story of a Broadway musical, will not likely be renewed, while its writing and music to these ears are downright embarrassing. What a hollow victory for hip movement culture, with its glorification of the ever-misunderstood and pathetic Marilyn Monroe.  On to off-Broadway, inter-racial understanding, and the offbeat rock musical and heterosexual and homosexual pairing off. On television, racism/miscegenation has disappeared if you sing and dance well enough. Perhaps the same thing can be said for new Broadway shows, either PC or living off the bones of its ancestors.

Meanwhile, few in show business pay attention to education reform, the illicit power of the teachers unions, and their relentless, media-supported attempts to undermine the educations of real black and brown children in urban ghettoes and elsewhere. Try to find a decent public school in NYC or Los Angeles, homes of those who write and produce the mindless (though technically advanced) shows I have listed above.

Now tell me the condition of our urban schools is not racist in the extreme. The better historians lament the world wide indifference as the Holocaust and other horrors proceeded in the 1930s and 1940s, while today the hippest among us wallow in gonzo ressentiment, apocalypse, the undead, blood and gore. Who is indifferent now? Should we blame the audience, who allegedly want this polluted fare?

Is the great American experiment going down? If popular culture is any indication, the answer is “you betcha.” Who needs a Fifth Column or other demonic forces when you have the entertainment industry?

[I have blogged about most of the tv shows mentioned here and others: see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/16/index-to-blogs-on-popular-tv-shows/.]

good wife cast pic chris noth 2 season 2

October 24, 2010

Mad Men and the Jewish Problem

[Update: see the blog written after the series finale: https://clarespark.com/2015/05/18/matthew-weiners-mad-men-and-the-double-audience/%5D

I have been reworking this blog, and will probably do more to make it less fragmented and more focused on a single theme. What I originally wanted to say was that television writers are not so different from the Mad Men satirized in the series; that they too are selling a point of view, a product that competes with other products in the marketplace. Hence their uneasiness about the morality of their characters, which is really about themselves as progressive friends of the people/viewers. The choice of the early 60s as the location of the series is not as important as their roles today as moral beings.

First you should know that I have seen every episode of the first four seasons, some of them twice. Why, if I find it so disappointing? For one thing, Jews, it is said, are the upstart spinmeisters who control advertising. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/.)  But more: Perhaps because I was (almost)  fully conscious during those years, had started my twelve-year marriage in 1959, and am by birth at least, a New Yorker educated in the East. I know this class of people, and I also know something about the critical response to this picture-perfect realization of the times, as well as the adulation heaped upon its art direction and attention to details, the greatest of which is the revelation of horrendous gender relations. What makes this soap opera for grown ups interesting and relevant to the concerns of YDS is the very fact of the art direction. Because the paintings, clothes, lamps, ash trays, and furniture are supposed to be so late 1950s-early 1960s, the young viewer may suppose that the characters and situations fall into the 19th century literary tradition of naturalism/realism, and hence everything about the series is trustworthy: i.e., Matthew Weiner, though born in 1965, has a preternatural relationship to the period when his parents were probably married.

I tried to find out about his parents  and came across this Rolling Stone interview (http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/17389/198434), which tells you something about Weiner’s unapologetic projection of himself into the characters. For the question that keeps popping up in the endless fascination of the left-liberal hipster press with the series is “Who Is Don Draper?” But the question ought to be, who are the real writers for television and film today, and are they faithful in any sense to the world that they present? Or are some uneasily working out their own identities as chroniclers of our times? Some might argue that their work is close enough to modern life, given the escapist and ideological tendencies of the media, especially the need for heroes–a need that complicates the characterization of Don Draper, about whom the writers seem ambivalent. After all, are they too not living by their wits, trying to capture an audience–a task similar to that of the Mad Men, and  for which they are well rewarded when successful? Or to look at the problem from a more Freudian perspective, perhaps writers like Weiner are primarily faithful to the adolescent defiance that mottles every attempt at historical reconstruction: teen agers make the frightful discovery that their parents are not the ideal creatures they took them to be, but are flawed human beings and in many ways, unreliable, even menacing. Could these oscillating characterizations explain the broad appeal of the series?

Remember these lines from act one of The Pirates of Penzance? Young Frederic, a captive of pirates since infancy,  has never seen a woman other than the female servant who raised him, and took her assertion that she was young and beautiful at face value.

Frederic. Oh, false one, you have deceived me! Ruth. I have deceived you? Frederic. Yes, deceived me! (Denouncing her.)

DUET.

Ruth (Bertha Lewis) pleads with
Frederic (Charles Goulding)
1926

Frederic. You told me you were fair as gold!

Ruth. (wildly) And, master, am I not so?

Frederic. And now I see you’re plain and old.

Ruth. I’m sure I’m not a jot so.

Frederic. Upon my innocence you play.

Ruth. I’m not the one to plot so.

Frederic. Your face is lined, your hair is grey.

Ruth. It’s gradually got so.

Although I have quoted from a 19th C. comedy, and this next claim will seem like a  stretch, I have found (as shown elsewhere on this website) that behind the masked Jew, scheming to control the world, is the hapless, scheming Jewish mother who won’t let go of her sons, even after she is found out. Or, leaping ahead to Mad Men, and just as problematically, Mother may have overpraised her boy, leaving him in doubt as to whether he can ever measure up to her expectations. Given the focus on the murky identity of “Don Draper,” that may be the relevant family history in the case of Matthew Weiner, who does have a Jewish mother.

Although Mad Men has been praised for its defense of women, the female characters are as treacherous as Ruth, though more subtly.  Betty Draper, Don’s ex-wife, the Bryn Mawr graduate (no way!), is a cold mother who never got past her bond with daddy. She also can’t tolerate the news that her prying eyes discovered: Don, whose real mother was a prostitute, and who was raised by dirt-poor Midwestern farmers,  took the identity of his officer when they were in Korea, which sets him up as a social climber [realism? no one noticed?].The other women are also dubious parents or mates: Peggy, the up and coming Catholic copywriter from Brooklyn, doesn’t seem all that flustered when she gives away her baby, conceived through a quick roll on the sofa with Pete Campbell, one of her bosses. [A note on realism: this happened during season one, and Elizabeth Moss looked a bit heavy, but not pregnant.] The very “Jewish” Bobby Barrett, one of Don’s favorite sex partners in an earlier season, betrayed her husband, as does voluptuous Joanie, everyone’s favorite female character. Will she tell her husband, serving in Vietnam, that she is carrying Roger’s child? And though she has insisted that the secretaries behave themselves as subordinate to the guys who run the agency, she has been having a wild affair with Roger Sterling, who much prefers her to his first two wives. All the women are bizarre: Faye, the Ph.D. expert in motivational psychology, can’t relate to children at all, and is discarded at the end of season four, while Meghan, Don’s new secretary, seems to have telepathic ease with Don’s three children, and they are now engaged, Don’s having known her for about three episodes. Perhaps the most likable female character is Don’s daughter Sally, a precocious child of uncertain age, who runs away from her hated new home (an environment as badly furnished as the one decorated by the tasteless Bryn Mawr grad), but is easily bought off and pacified, perhaps like many television writers themselves.

Finally, we get to the most fatal flaw of all in Weiner’s conception of the series. If Don Draper is supposed to be a genius, then the writer has to put dialogue in his mouth that suggests both the psychological and artistic qualities of his trade, practiced at peak effectiveness. There was only one moment that I remember when Don shows any particular brilliance. It was in the dazzling finale to season one, during the famous “Carousel” sequence, but even here, the pathos comes from the contrast between the family pictures that Don demonstrates in his pitch to the Kodak executives and his real rapidly deteriorating family relationships, as he comes home to an empty house on Thanksgiving.What does this have to do with pre-election week in 2010? Mad Men is supposedly interrogating and exposing the bogus “mad” culture created by persons not at all like Weiner, but rather the kind of person who would later vote for Nixon (a character Weiner has worked on)  and would be unmoved by the civil rights and feminist movements. Example, in the last episode of season four, Betty fires her black nanny and maid, Carla, for a trivial incident of insubordination. Don weakly protests: will he do anything about it?  True, several minor characters sleep with black women. Is this a comment on 60s bohemianism? Does it have anything to do with the MLK Jr. branch of the movement?

Weiner does not know this period from either life experience or from historical research. Rather, Weiner has hinted that Mad Men is a “parable” like The Sopranos. In which case one may infer the moral lesson in both these lauded television dramas: in Weiner’s view, this country is now run by thugs and boozing, sex-crazed degenerates, clumsy displacers of those with gentler birth (like his ideal self?), hence greater social vision and finesse. How does he know? Read the Rolling Stone interview: Weiner says that he gets his Weltanschauung from Paul Newman’s characterization of a corporation lawyer in The Young Philadelphians, from Catcher in the Rye, and from the bleakest of short story writers, John Cheever (author of “The Swimmer”).  Holden Caulfield should not be the mentor for an artist laying claim (implicitly) to the socio-literary tradition of Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, and Zola.

[Added, 10-27-10; updated 9-26-11: A scholar sent me this piece by feminist journalist Stephanie Coontz, which asserts that Mad Men is a true depiction of the period. See http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10290/1095486-109.stm. The piece was originally written for the Washington Post. Coontz was born in 1944, and has made a remarkable career out of writing on marriage and the family, in this review, hinting that she is a historian, with the authority that profession usually conveys to readers. She did not, however, complete her doctorate.  See also http://imprint.printmag.com/design-thinking/why-george-lois-is-wrong-about-mad-men-a-conversation-with-mel-abert/].

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