Saturday, June 02, 2012

Laying Back in the Cut

I've been trying for a while now to figure out some kind of "in" to the idea of writing about Mad Men. I've mentioned the show here and there - occasionally in a disparaging context, true - but have never actually managed to write anything substantial about the program. It's not my favorite show, but it has grown on me.

I can't but admire the skill on display at all levels of the show's production. Although, check that, I'm not too fond of the acting. On a show like Mad Men, a period piece wherein younger actors are being asked to masquerade as members of their parents' generation, the seams are that much easier to spot. It would be one thing if the show were set 100 or even 75 years in the past, but as it is the show is set just far enough back that there are still a shit-ton of people still alive who remember very well what it was like to be alive then. Watching the program, I can never quite shake the feeling that I'm watching a group of kids playing dress-up in their parents' closets, trying on old fashions and playing lets' pretend. It doesn't help that so many of the actors seem so cloyingly insincere. Perhaps the high-kabuki stylization of the performances is part of the effect, but ultimately it only succeeds in pulling me out of the stories.

But again I would be lying if I said the show hadn't grown on me. I've been watching along with Violet for the past couple seasons - she quite likes it, I've been dragged along almost despite myself. Even if I've come around to acknowledging that it's not a terrible show, I've still never been able to understand exactly why it is as popular as it is - or, perhaps more precisely, I've never been able to understand exactly why it is as acclaimed as it is. It's as thoroughly middlebrow a piece of television entertainment as America has yet produced. It's quite clever, certainly, but it's clever in the way that only the best movies and contemporary novels are - running through the motions of late-nineteenth century realist narrative tropes with the sturdy confidence of people who have read all the Dreiser and all the Lewis and, yes, even all the Howells, and who were careful students and wrote down all the right tricks for instilling their petit bourgeoisie class avatars with the necessary modicum of feigned introspection through the precise deployment of thematically and stylistically appropriate affective technique. Never has the moral hypocrisy of the upper-middle-classes been so incisively and subtly vivisected!

And then I wake up from my frothy red rage and realize I've once again lapsed into the kind of deliriously hyperbolic and faultlessly elitist criticism for which I have become known - a special kind of rancid half-informed pseudo-Marxist hypocrisy all my own, I understand all too well. And yet, and yet, and yet. There's something about Mad Men that I just can't entirely get behind. I like the show, I think there are many good things about it, and yet for some reason it leaves me unmoved to the extent that it so obviously moves so many other people. I'm persistently annoyed by some aspect of the show - I don't know what that aspect is. Or at least, I haven't been able to articulate my dissatisfaction. Until now!

By sheer coincidence, last week saw the release of a long overdue career retrospective dedicated to the filmmaker Robert Downey, Sr. (Yes, father of the Jr.), released through the Criterion Collection's Eclipse series. The unquestioned centerpiece of that set, and of Downey's career, is the 1969 media satire Putney Swope. Set in a late 1960s Madison Avenue advertising firm - stop me if you've heard this one before! - Swope is a candid and excoriating critique of capitalism, race relations, black nationalism, politics, the counter-culture, the squares, women, men - basically, anything that moves. This isn't the first time I'd seen Swope, but it was long enough ago that I had forgotten most of the punchlines. It's one of those rare movies you come across that seems to have been broadcast in from another world entirely - not necessarily because it's weird, but because it's right about so many different things, in a way that doesn't seem so much prescient as precognitive.

And, not to put to fine a point on it, if we're comparing its efficacy as satire, it pretty much makes Mad Men look sick.

Putney Swope is about what happens when the token black (the titular Swope) on the board of a major advertising firm is accidentally elected chairman. He fires all the old white people and brings in his own crew of radicals and malcontents (and, of course, one token white left in the executive suite). The first order of business is that the firm needs to stop doing ad work for war toys, alcohol, and tobacco - does that sound familiar? Swope soon has the executives of the Fortune 500 eating out of his hand, and his "Truth and Soul" ads sweep the nation. He always insists on cash up front. 

As silly as it is in places, it's still so relentlessly spot-on that you can't help but marvel. One of the recurring jokes in the movie is how Swope's company succeeded by making advertisements that had nothing to do with the product itself - strange mini-movies that only tangentially relate to the products themselves. At the time this would have seemed incredibly weird, to have 30-90 second-long absurdist narratives with product placement as the ironic punchline, but that has since become more or less the default mode for high-ticket advertising. Making fun of the product itself through ironic juxtaposition - again, what was once biting satire is now old hat. (So I guess Putney Swope invented the 90s?)

My biggest problem with Mad Men has been the fact that, as satire, it's completely toothless. Such a big, fat target as Madison Avenue in the 1960s, smack in the middle of the greatest peacetime economic boom in our history, during the decades of capitalism's great, unstoppable ascent - and Mad Men consistently peters out at around the level of the traditional liberal critiques of consumer culture. Yeah, it's stultifying, you've got a generation of Men in Grey Flannel suits come home from the war with their heads screwed on too tight, you've got women and minorities who suddenly have the temerity to think they have rights, you've got the perils of suburbia and the generation gap and the Vietnam War and all that jazz. The problem with Mad Men is that it always stops short of sinking its teeth into these subjects, because it expects us to care about these characters - their struggles and their stories, their victories and their defeats. That's all well and good, but if we're completely honest, asking us to sympathize with advertising executives is simply absurd. Every time I watch the show I have to cycle through a mantra in the back of my head, "they're monsters, they're monsters, they're monsters . . ." Asking us to sympathize with Don Draper's great identity dysmorphia (and boy was there ever a plotline more tailor-made for wannabe internet academics) is a bit like that feeling we get in Psycho when Norman Bates can't sink the car in the lake - we become complicit in a monstrosity, we find ourselves rooting for the villain, almost despite ourselves. Because, dammit, by any conventional measure Don Draper is a fantastic villain.

Ethics as a category is mooted by the material conditions of industrial capitalism. Everyone is determined by this reality: one of the best things about Mad Men is the spectacle of seeing character after character forced to violate their most (supposedly) deeply held beliefs in order to get ahead - and, the corollary, that those who most willingly cross these lines find the greatest prosperity. It's hard, however, to root for (or against) these characters on a weekly basis, simply because the outcome is already given: either they succeed through corruption or they fail through impotence (an impotence often signified, as with the character of Pete Campbell, by their failure to be sufficiently corrupt). Their business is by definition immoral, unethical, one could even say evil and not feel that the words were unnecessarily heavy for the occasion. Persuasion, coercion, the pathology of object-lust bent to the will of the corporation - these ad-men and women had a hand in creating some of the most hellish aspects of the world in which we still live. I suppose they're just slightly less immoral than munitions dealers. And yet Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark has become one of the most popular and totemic characters of our modern moment not despite but because of his status as the archetypal alpha-male plutocrat asshole. We have become very comfortable identifying with the sociopath, be it Tony Stark or Don Draper.

We hate Pete Campbell not because he's a simpering asshole but because he's a less successful asshole. If that's not an indictment of where we are as a culture, I don't know what is. And, of course, I hate myself for having that same atavistic reaction to the spectacle of Don Draper, avatar of unreconciled alpha-masculinity, swinging his big impeccably tailored dick around those impeccably designed period sets. We want to see competent people succeeding at difficult tasks through skill and charisma, it's hardwired into our nature. It breaks our heart when success in this field requires a compromise in ethics - oh no, Joan, you don't have to sell your body to the night! But if there is one lesson we can take from Mad Men - albeit a lesson that almost no one who watches the program seems to actually take from the show - it's that ethical success in business is impossible. That the show never quite manages to stick this landing - that it never squares the circle that Swope circumnavigates - could be taken for a lack of nerve, but more likely it indicates that the men and women making the show are ignorant of exactly which questions they've been asking. I admit there is a chance that I could be mistaken, that the show could be leading towards the kind of anti-capitalist epiphany that its subject matter seemingly begs (let's see what they do next year when the show moves - necessarily - to 1968 and the downfall of western civilization). But so far there's simply too much emphasis on the soap-opera aspects of these characters' lives to make me believe that they could ever veer away from a position where the audience's implicit sympathy is assumed. Would the show end with the failure and disgrace of the main characters?

Putney Swope triumphs because it takes its critique one step further than Mad Men: instead of pussy-footing around the point, it acknowledges that advertising is inherently unethical regardless of the products it is put to the task of selling. Eventually the Powers-That-Be - including the President of the United States - put their collective weight on Swope and force him to accede to their demands, to finally get with the program and start selling alcohol, tobacco, and war toys. Swope assents - or at least, appears to assent - returning to his company and laying out new corporate policies. His crew, committed to the ideals of "Truth and Soul" advertising, reject the plan to start selling ads for morally reprehensible products. This is the climax of the movie, and it works because you can't really know what exactly Swope is thinking: was he being serious when he returned to New York with the resolution to upend the company and effectively "sell out"? When his board balks and refuses to compromise on their principles, Swope asserts that he had been testing them to see if they would budge. With that decision made, the firm is kaputt - with government and industry conspiring to corrupt "Truth and Soul," Swope swings a bag of cash over his shoulder and walks out the back door.

The message is clear: ultimately, there's little difference between writing ads for pimple cream and ads for children's flamethrowers. It's all about climbing inside people's brains and asking them to spend their money - and once you accept the principle that commercial coercion is acceptable, the content becomes secondary, it's all blood money, every single dollar of it. By the end of the movie Swope can't even pretend that it's anything other than pure hypocrisy to insist that one kind of selling is somehow more or less moral than another type of selling. It's all part and parcel of the same culture of suggestion.

He does the only thing any rational person would do in that situation, when put in the position of either violating his or her principles or accepting failure. He takes the money and runs.

This is the quandary of our modern moment, of course: we are all of us forced into complicity with an unethical situation, and furthermore, are not even guaranteed (far from guaranteed!) that our consent - our forced cooperation - will translate into success. In order to live and function on a day-to-day basis we have to consent to a situation that we know will eventually swallow us whole. We don't get a choice in the matter. I guess what frustrates me the most about Mad Men is that by telling the story it's telling, it begs these questions while never actually acknowledging that these are the logical conclusions to which these thought processes naturally trend.

For me, the unquestionable low point of the season to date was the episode, "At the Codfish Ball," which featured an appearance by Megan Draper's heretofore unseen father, the academic Emile Calvet. Now, again, I may be mistaken - they could have been setting up future threads that will be picked up in later seasons - but based simply on the evidence of this episode, Calvet's character appears to represent an enormous missed opportunity. Calvet is obviously supposed to be a satire of your stereotypical mid-century Marxist-leaning academic - your Sartre, your Adorno, insert any generic leftist philosopher, I'm sure few people watching the show would have the patience to be bothered with actually differentiating between existentialism and the Frankfurt School. Calvet is offered as a figure of ridicule, a graying old man whose criticism of Don's lifestyle and career is as toothless as it is irrelevant. My question is, has anyone on the writing staff of Mad Men actually read The Culture Industry? I can't answer that question, but I would guess from the evidence of "At the Codfish Ball" that the answer is a distinct no. Because otherwise they wouldn't be twisting themselves into such knots in an attempt to critique capitalism without actually appearing to critique capitalism, if you know what I mean.

They always fall just short of the kind of full-throated critique of ideology that you might desperately want to see the show deliver, and that you might think our current precarious moment in history might otherwise demand. But instead we're stuck once again essentially refighting the same tired culture war skirmishes that don't mean anything much anymore, if they ever did. That's Mad Men, for me, in a nutshell. I watch, but I'm hardly proud of myself for being sucked in.

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