Posts Tagged ‘amc’

Mad Men and the problem with shallow readings

5 March 2011
by R.A. Porter

It’s been a while since I’ve written here. I’ll be trying to rectify that. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s not a TV show but a piece of piss-poor criticism that’s inspired me to write.

I finally got around to reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s piece on Mad Men in The New York Review of Books and…well…wow. What a piece of garbage.

My first thought was that Mendelsohn was just trying to be contrary to earn style and courage points. Then I read further. Turns out he’s just an idiot.


The writers like to trigger “issue”-related subplots by parachuting some new character or event into the action, often an element that has no relation to anything that’s come before. Although much has been made of the show’s treatment of race, the “treatment” is usually little more than a lazy allusion—race never really makes anything happen in the show. There’s a brief subplot at one point about one of the young associates, Paul Kinsey, a Princeton graduate who turns out—how or why, we never learn—to be living with a black supermarket checkout girl in Montclair, New Jersey. A few colleagues express surprise when they meet her at a party, we briefly see the couple heading to a protest march in Mississippi, and that’s pretty much it—we never hear from or about her again.

Actually, Paul’s dalliance “on the dark side” said a lot about race relations in the early ’60s. Here was an ivory tower liberal out to prove his bona fides at any cost, in this case using a young girl to prove to everyone (himself included) how progressive he was. That pretty clearly sums up the “how” and the “why”. As for why we never heard about her again after the trip to Mississippi, that’s because Paul, when confronted with the brutal reality on the ground, came home with his tail between his legs. Of course he didn’t brag about running from the fight: that didn’t fit his personal narrative.


…Lane Pryce, the buttoned-up British partner who’s been foisted on Sterling Cooper by its newly acquired parent company in London—you know he’s English because he wears waistcoats all the time and uses polysyllabic words a lot…

Actually, I know he’s British from his OxBridge accent and the fact that he’s Richard Harris’s kid. I’m sure Mendelsohn is most familiar with Harris pater as Dumbledore; perhaps when he grows up he can watch some of the movies from before he was able to speak.


But then, why not have captions when so many scenes feel like cartoon panels? The show’s directorial style is static, airless. Scenes tend to be boxed: actors will be arranged within a frame—sitting in a car, at a desk, on a bed—and then they recite their lines, and that’s that. Characters seldom enter (or leave) the frame while already engaged in some activity, already talking about something—a useful technique (much used in shows like the old Law & Order) which strongly gives the textured sense of the characters’ reality, that they exist outside of the script.

*sigh* Do I really need to explain how the static blocking echoes the rigidity of the culture? How people rarely move in or out of scenes because they are locked in place?

The way that the scene about Lane and his black girlfriend somehow morphs into a scene about an unnatural emotional current between him and his father is typical of another common vice in Mad Men: you often feel that the writers are so pleased with this or that notion that they’ve forgotten the point they’re trying to make. During its first few seasons the show featured a closeted gay character—Sal Romano, the firm’s art director (he also wears vests). At the beginning of the show I thought there was going to be some story line that shed some interesting light on the repressive sexual mores of the time, but apart from a few semicomic suggestions that Sal’s wife is frustrated and that he’s attracted to one of his younger colleagues—and a moment when Don catches him making out with a bellhop when they’re both on a business trip, a revelation that, weirdly, had no repercussions—the little story line that Sal is finally given isn’t really about the closet at all. In the end, he is fired after rebuffing the advances of the firm’s most important client, a tobacco heir who consequently insists to the partners that Sal be fired. (Naturally he gives them a phony reason.) The partners, caving in to their big client, do as he says. But that’s not a story about gayness in the 1960s, about the closet; it’s a story about caving in to power, a story about business ethics.

(Emphasis mine.) Jesus. Fucking. Christ. This ridiculously shallow criticism from someone who a) was paid to write for a real live magazine and b) claimed to have watched the first four seasons in a marathon session.

It was because Don saw Sal making out with the bellhop that he knew he was gay. And, as it was believed of homosexuals at the time that they were perverts with no control over any of their sexual impulses, he fully expected Sal to service Lee Garner, Jr., just like he’d have expected one of the secretaries to do so. Thinking Sal was an independent agent free to choose whom he would and would not engage with never crossed Don’s mind. That is absolutely a story about gayness in the ’60s.

There really should be an intelligence test given before someone can post their opinions.

Mad Men: “Out of Town”

17 August 2009
by R.A. Porter

madmens03e01If season two of Mad Men was about long-term bonds and understandings coming to an end, this season looks to be the chaotic aftermath of that. Under conditions of extreme pressure and energy, novel forms blink into and out of existence, quantum states superimpose, and out of the soup new structures crystallize. This is true of societies and communities in the macro world as much as it is true of particles in the subatomic world. Don is doting husband and father/seducer. Joan is counting down the days till she’s gone/manipulating the office with her usual aplomb. The Brits are in charge/are hopelessly out of their league.

First, let’s get the big mystery out of the way…based on the way Betty’s belly looks I’d say we’ve jumped forward about eight months from the end of season two. Enough time for Don and Betty to have come to yet another in their long string of accommodations, for things at Sterling-Cooper to still be in flux, for Harry1 to be much more important, and for Bert to have acquired a lovely piece of tentacle porn to keep his Rothko company. But just little enough time that we can watch as the new world order begins to emerge.

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Mad Men: “Meditations on an Emergency”

27 October 2008
by R.A. Porter

Like a nautilus shell, we’ve spiraled out over 13 episodes, but finally circled back on ourselves, bigger, stronger, and more beautiful than before.

No, let’s try this instead. Matthew Weiner is composing and conducting a symphony, each of the players his instruments. As it is a modern symphony, he is unrestrained in choosing his instrumentation. Representing tradition, Roger and Bert are his woodwind section: Roger a high, melodic, occasionally erratic oboe and Bert a reliable, confident bassoon. The junior admen – Paul, Harry, and Ken – are a chorus of brass. Sal, poor sweet Sal, picks out a simple line on the tenor sax, unaware of the world of opportunities open to him if only he were to play with soul.

Peggy and Betty are dueling cellos. Each can be bright and lively and each can tear apart the heart of the men in their lives.

Pete, as tone deaf and tuneless a man as ever there was, beats out a rhythm on the drums. While he lacks subtlety, his timing is solid and he pounds out a beat consistently.

Don, he is the pianoforte. The most versatile of traditional instruments, he is percussion and string, rhythm and melody.

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Mad Men: “The Mountain King”

19 October 2008
by R.A. Porter

Don has nearly come through the other side of the hero’s quest. Last week’s sojourn to the desert saw him tempted by worldly pleasures which he tasted but did not succumb to. In the end, his fever broke and he sought out the one person who could guide him back onto the right path.

Turns out everyone was right guessing who Don called. It was a former wife (sort of) and it was the Real Don Draper’s™ wife. It was the woman in the used car dealership and it was another pretty blond. It was his savior and his mother.

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Mad Men: “The Jet Set”

12 October 2008
by R.A. Porter

What started 10 episodes ago, with a copy of “Meditations in an Emergency”, appears to be coming to a head in one more week as Dick Whitman pays a call on his past. Director Phil Abraham framed the penultimate shot of Don on the couch in Palm Springs as a mirror-image of the reverse angle of Don that ends the opening credits. As surely as Mad Men is about Don Draper, next week will be about his alter ego.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There was a beautiful hour of television between those two shots.

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Mad Men recap: “The Inheritance”

5 October 2008
by R.A. Porter

The only thing anyone can be sure of inheriting from their parents is their genes. We can also be sure of keeping scars as reminders of the ways in which they failed us – ways in which their parents failed them – growing up. Those of us who are lucky have only a few, faded scars. Then there are the Petes and Betties of the world.

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Mad Men recap: “Six Month Leave”

29 September 2008
by R.A. Porter

If you ever wondered what happened to Happy Loman, he ended up pissing his pants before a big Samsonite meeting and getting kicked to the curb.

Joel Murray’s always worked in his older brothers’ shadows, but tonight he showed he has all of their skills at mixing comedy with pathos. Freddy Rumsen’s always been a joke around Sterling-Cooper, in both the show’s reality and ours. But Murray’s full range was in play tonight letting us see the most human person at SC.

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Mad Men review: “A Night to Remember”

14 September 2008
by R.A. Porter

Well early in the morning, about the break of day,
I ask the Lord, “Help me find the way!”
Help me find the way to the promised land
This lonely body needs a helping hand
I ask the Lord to help me please find the way.
– “Early in the Morning”

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Mad Men review: “Maidenform”

1 September 2008
by R.A. Porter

Reflections and appearances.

How we see ourselves is rarely how others see us. Sometimes the differences are small but sometimes they are cutting: a despicable woman seeing herself reflected in us; undeserved worship from a child; the judgment-free gaze of a dog. These cut deep, showing us the darkness beneath our public facades.

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Mad Men review: “The New Girl”

24 August 2008
by R.A. Porter

You’re never going to get that corner office until you start treating Don as an equal. And no one will tell you this, but you can’t be a man. Don’t even try. Be a woman. It’s powerful business when done correctly. – Bobbie Barrett.

The boys in the office might think the new piece of eye candy sitting outside Don Draper‘s office is the new girl, but we know it’s Peggy. Peggy is Don’s protege, his wingman, and his project, but tonight she asserts herself as her own woman. It takes a kick from a former dancer, but she finally knows she has to treat Don as an equal.

That’s easier to some extent now that she and Don have both covered for each other and both helped each other through trying times. We have a much clearer picture of what happened to Peggy after last year’s finale, finding her in the hospital unable to accept or comprehend why she was there. Don’s words of advice, as true to his nature as any he’s ever uttered, could have been stolen from the hobo’s code.

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