Project for the TV criticism of the future

I know there’s probably not much audience for it, in part because it wouldn’t provide a lot of take-fodder, but I would love to see more TV and film criticism that didn’t hold the critiqued object up to an ultimately arbitrary standard and find it lacking. I feel like in every TV or film article I read, there’s a moment when the author “turns the corner” and expresses their disappointment that the work didn’t do something they wish it had done, either aesthetically or (especially annoying) politically. There seems to be a lack of clarity about what we actually expect a show or film to do. Do we want it to mirror our political views? But why do we need that? Do we expect it to educate other people in our political views? But why would the producers want to do that?

This really came to a head for me when Mad Men was on the air, and after a certain point, no one was talking about what the show was actually doing, only what they wished it would do. Why should anyone care what a random critic would do if they were in charge of the show? The one exception to this trend was a blog that did this amazing close reading of the wardrobe choices in Mad Men — what they would have signalled in that historical moment, what symbolism (e.g., color patterns) are emerging, etc. I felt like I actually learned something. Is Mad Men a perfect show with perfect politics? No. Did they always make the best possible decisions in terms of plot or emphasis? Obviously not. But it is extremely artfully planned and produced, and criticism that brought that to the fore was much more satisfying to me.

This style of criticism is somehow most exhausting to me when it comes from very smart people I respect. Take, for instance, Aaron Bady’s characteristically lengthy critique of HBO’s Watchmen, which presents the series as a series of missed opportunities. Angela and Lady Trieu should have teamed up to overthrow American white supremacist imperialism! The show somehow should have incorporated climate change even though it takes place in a world where that problem has been solved! And what’s most tragic is that the show was so close to fulfilling Aaron’s demands! (He is self-aware enough to be self-deprecating in the article itself about his tendency to read everything through the lens of climate change, so hopefully he won’t mind if I poke fun a little here.)

Continue reading “Project for the TV criticism of the future”

The commodity is the better Jesus: On the Mad Men finale

Shadow Don
The Mad Men finale is doing two things at once. The first and most obvious is that it’s giving us some form of resolution for all our favorite characters. Most of these endings are happy — and even if Betty’s impending death isn’t saccharine sweet like the other plots, the way she’s handling it with dignity and autonomy makes it at least bittersweet. It seems reasonable to infer, too, that Don goes back to McCann and winds up writing the famous Coke ad that serves as the culmination of the series.

The second thing it’s doing is a Sopranos-style ambiguous symbolic ending. It doesn’t shout it from the mountaintops like Sopranos did, but that’s because Mad Men was always more densely “literary” than any previous television show. Hence the writers have practice weaving in subtle symbolism. There’s so much there that rewards analysis — and puts a sinister spin on everything. The very fact that the ending is so uncharacteristically sickly sweet seems to be a “meta” gesture toward the Coke ad, as is Joan’s experimentation with cocaine and even Don’s uncharacteristic beer binge (already, beer had been linked to soda through the “diet beer,” which would presumably become Miller Lite). We can’t expect a show that’s so witholding to suddenly give us what we want — the real thing, a real plot, a real resolution — without also casting a shadow over it. Was this really “it”? Was this what we wanted? Is this “love”?

The scene where the average slub breaks down in tears over going unnoticed is moving, as is Don’s uncharacteristic decision to “hug it out” with him. Yet the man is also picturing himself as a consumer good — presumably even a beverage in the fridge — and his questions about what “it” is anticipate future Coke slogans that we’re all familiar with. Don has completely divested himself of his symbolic image to the final holdout, Peggy, who he believes still idealizes him, but he still has one point of reference: “Don’t you want to work on Coke?” We know from the first half of the season that work is necessary to save him, but he can’t be a cog in the machine. Now after fleeing from the generic consumer, he’s had an encounter with that beer-drinking mediocrity from Wisconsin and realizes: “These people need me!” His hug could be saying, “It’s okay — I promise I’ll go back and start giving your life meaning again. I’m so sorry I strayed from the One True Faith.”

Don’s exchange with Stephanie about how much damage Jesus does to people, what it does to people to believe things, was poignant to me as a Jesus-damage survivor. (And by the way, did they give Stephanie unprecedented freckles to make her match the girl from the Coke ad?) But in such a richly self-referential show, it also reminded me of his enigmatic line: “I’m not here to tell you about Jesus.” Think of the contrast between the cosmopolitan Coke ad and the close-mindedness of the few Christians we see. Don is a believer — the commodity is the better Jesus, the Jesus who truly gives us everything, who demands nothing, who accepts us just as we are.

“Just as I am, Lord, just as I am” — in Don’s case, as the image above shows, “just as I am” is a void. Perhaps this is a reference to the Sopranos fade to black, except that Weiner takes us beyond the emptiness. The question is whether that “beyond” is redemption (the surface reading) or an even greater abyss of nihilism (my preferred reading). Think of the horror: a man who truly believes in the promise of advertising, who directly lives it every day of his life. Think of a world that can leave that man feeling happy and content.

In any case, I regard the genre of television as completed now. The most critically acclaimed, culturally prestigious, artistically ambitious television show of all time — and judging by current trends, I include the future here too — has culminated in a tacky commercial. By doing so, it made us experience its moving utopian qualities and its sinister cult-like qualities. There’s nowhere else to go at this point. That’s “the real thing.” That’s “it.”

As good as it gets: Mad Men and neoliberalism

It’s difficult to imagine the scale of the postwar abundance compared to previous eras. The US was not only able to completely tear out its old infrastructure and build new while also providing an unprecedented degree of material wealth and security to an ever-widening number of its citizens — it was also able to essentially build the next two largest economies (Germany and Japan) on the side. Whole new groups were included in the mainstream economy (blacks, women) as the welfare state expanded, to the point where even Nixon could propose the implementation of universal health care and a universal basic income. And then, within a few short years, all those possibilities were suddenly foreclosed as the transition from Fordism to neoliberalism began. What went wrong?

I wrote yesterday that Mad Men shows us how the elites of the 1960s managed to weather the most radical critiques of that era, but it is also beginning to tell us the story of how that generation failed to reproduce itself. Continue reading “As good as it gets: Mad Men and neoliberalism”

All This: Mad Men and the Persistence of the Old Regime

Wouldn’t it be nice to go back to childhood? Like pain from an old wound, we remember the joy of Christmas — the joy of getting stuff, without having to realize we were being bought off. We wish that it could be that way again. We wish our stuff could have meaning, that objects could mediate our social relationships once more. We want it so much that we’re all willing to pay a surcharge so that the company can hire very smart and conflicted people to lie to us about the consumer goods we’re purchasing, giving us a spoonful of ideological sugar to make the consumption go down.

That’s what’s hardest to deal with — that we want the ideology. We want to believe. We want “all this” to be what they say it is, what we tell ourselves it is. We should be happy, but failing that, we can at least manage to be grateful.

Who is “we,” though? Continue reading “All This: Mad Men and the Persistence of the Old Regime”

Heidegger and Mad Men

In the fifth chapter of Division Two of Being and Time, Heidegger addresses the question of Dasein’s historicity and how it relates to the academic discipline of history. He argues that authentic historical study must not content itself with a cataloguing of past factual events or even with an “aesthetic” appreciation of weird historical life-worlds long since past, but that it must somehow connect with the whole existential situation facing the once-but-no-longer Dasein of that era. In other words, it must somehow get at the possibilities that Dasein faced in past historical moments and the stakes of those possibilities for the people who, after all, had their one life to live in that historical world.

In class, I contrasted this with a “historical tourism,” which marvels at the weirdness of past eras’ customs without ever really getting “inside” them and understanding them as something with the people of the past could take seriously and stake their lives on. One might also think of the kind of “contextualizing” history that excuses past racism and sexism as simple facts of that historical era — “Of course Kant was a racist, everyone was back then!” As a counter-example, I put forward Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, where we get a palpable sense of Nietzsche’s investment in the history he’s recounting, his genuine outrage that it didn’t turn out another way — and his hope that we might be able to “repeat” what was most promising in that historical moment today. More recently, one might think of Zizek’s reckoning with the October Revolution and Stalinism.

On a less philosophical level, however, I think Mad Men may be the best popular example of the kind of authentic history Heidegger is calling for. Continue reading “Heidegger and Mad Men

Repetition and Remembering – Thoughts on the Season Finale of Mad Men

1) The Bar Scene – During this scene, I really worried Don was going to have a conversion experience to Xianity. Instead, he punched the minister for offering him salvation and for damning JFK and MLK (although apparently Don was OK with Nixon). While Weiner draws our attention to another memory of Don’s life with the condemning minister, another idea came to mind. As Don is once again coping with his emptiness through alcohol, this minister attempts to offer him the ultimate escape: the fantasy of a redeemed past. Don rejects this illusion and beats the hell out of him. The past cannot be changed. Dangling the carrot of redemption in front of a broken man is torturous.

2) California – As usual, Don attempts to deal with conflicts and problems by wanting to run away. He hopes to escape the ennui of his existence and his frustration with his marriage and children. Given that he and Megan had good experiences in CA, Don believes he can magically save his marriage and himself through a change of scenery. Perhaps this represents Don’s attempt to reconnect with Dick Whitman who was only ever himself with Anna in CA. Of course, there is no holiday from one’s self. This becomes apparent in Don’s next major scene.

3) Hershey’s – After presenting his typical sentimental pitch to Hershey’s of an imagined childhood that he never experienced, Don begins to have a tremor in his hand. While everyone appeared satisfied with his presentation, Don cannot contain the repressed truth that is demanding to be spoken. He confesses his truth. He was an orphan raised in a whorehouse, neglected by his mother. He only obtained Hershey’s chocolate bars by stealing change from men who rented prostitutes. He then engaged in some ritual wherein he imagined (probably dissociated) having a life where he was wanted and loved. He fantasized about a life where things were sweet rather than bitter.

4) The Final Scene – Now that Don is being given an unspecified holiday, he decides to continue down the path of his own redemption. My friend reminded me earlier tonight that Sally had previously said that to Don, “I know nothing about you.” Don has decided to finally open up to his children about his past. He came from poverty and the “bad side of town”.

Analysis: In these movements of the episode, we see that Don is continuing to confront themes of redemption. In the first scene, Don violently rejects the myth of the redeemed past. He knows this is cheap. As is typical, Don imagines that he can only be saved by fleeing to CA and hiding. This reminded me of Freud’s (1914) beautiful paper “Recollection, Repetition, and Working Through” in which he argues that repetition is a defense against remembering (past traumas). Don’s entire life has been a series of repetitions of the same scenarios: impress, seduce, self-destruct and hide. CA would be another way to repeat the cycle. However, it would simply represent another attempt to avoid remembering, recollecting, and integrating the past traumas. Don’s salvation will only come through remembering and being honest about the horrors and suffering of his childhood. Moreover, Don will only receive grace by coming to terms with his own sins and confessing them to the people he loves, especially his children. No God can save him, however. Only through recollecting and mourning the difficulties of his past can he hope to live a life full of integrity, wholeness and honesty. This final scene represents the first steps of Don trying to be honest. Perhaps he will not survive this exploration of the past (many trauma survivors suicide during this painful phase). The number of repressed memories that resurfaced this season indicates that his unconscious demands to have a voice. The return of the repressed must be dealt with and alcohol cannot silence the truth of his history. Can Don survive the final season?

The abyss of freedom: On the recently-concluded season of Mad Men

This season of Mad Men was not much fun. Not that they ever really are — but this season was sad in a different way, a more anxiety-provoking way. We’re all sick of Don Draper by this point, sick to death of his compulsions, his past, his alternation between a fake detachment and a deep-seated panic that every once in a while issues in a bizarre hail Mary maneuver.

I’ve rewatched most of the series in the last month or so, and I can verify that Don has always basically been like this. When his identity was threatened in season 1, for example, he panicked and proposed running away to California, even before we knew what that meant. He’s always been cold and cruel, and he’s always “bought his own pitch” about childhood nostalgia. In short, he’s always been a man on the verge of falling apart. What made him fall apart so definitively this season, then?

The secret to his past success, such as it was, had been compartmentalization. Continue reading “The abyss of freedom: On the recently-concluded season of Mad Men

“I’m not here to tell you about Jesus”: Don Draper and the Death of God

In the first-season episode “The Hobo Code,” which in many ways is the most important of the series, Don Draper is selling Peggy’s copy to a reluctant client. He goes on the offensive, asking them to leave if they aren’t serious about changing their strategy, and along the way he makes an enigmatic statement: “Listen, I’m not here to tell you about Jesus. You already know about Jesus, either he lives in your heart or he doesn’t.” The pitch proves effective, and when Ken Cosgrove mentions how great “the Jesus thing” was (perhaps implicitly asking what it means), Don explains that “sometimes force is actually being requested.” I am probably not alone in finding this explanation, such as it is, less than helpful.

So what does the quote mean? Or better: What role does it play in the episode and the season? Continue reading ““I’m not here to tell you about Jesus”: Don Draper and the Death of God”

Don Draper the Jew

One of the dominant themes of the first season of Mad Men is Jewishness. In the very first episode, Sterling Cooper is courting the Jewish department store Menken’s, which is trying to convert to a more mainstream luxury format under the leadership of the owner’s daughter, Rachel Menken. When they seek out a Jewish employee to attend the initial meeting, Don joins in with the casual anti-Semitism of the era, declaring that they haven’t hired any Jews “under his watch.” But as the season goes on, the Jewish motifs continue — they try (and ultimately fail) to get the Israeli tourism account, Don takes up with Rachel (at one point using the Israeli tourism connection as a pretext to meet with her), and there are also little touches (such as the delicatessen served to the Lucky Strike representatives who are nervous after Roger’s heart attack, an interesting counterpoint to the shrimp cocktail served at the original Menken’s pitch).

On one level, this is a misdirection. The audience knows Don has a secret, and the writers are luring us into the trap of assuming that Don is a secret Jew — when in reality he is just a poor Southern boy, the orphaned son of a prostitute. But one of the key techniques of Mad Men is to “sublate” apparent misdirections into deeper truths. Continue reading “Don Draper the Jew”

On the Mad Men backlash

Fair enough: Mad Men has been on for a long time, and there was bound to be a backlash at some point. What’s interesting to me, though, is the form the backlash has taken. Over and over, people are saying: okay, we get it. The symbolism is heavy-handed. Parallel plots are too elaborately coordinated. Everything is becoming too simplistic. A recent manifestation of the backlash in the New Yorker has claimed that Don Draper is less a character than a “thesis statement.”

In other words, the show is being castigated for remaining true to its original vision and for continuing to explore the same themes it’s always focused on. And again, fair enough: people are allowed to get tired of things. Yet it seems to me that there’s always an underlying demand, an unspoken grievance motivating these complaints. “Yes, yes, we get it, we realize that Don Draper is a terrible fraud, a pure surface whose success is an indictment of the system he operates in — so can you please get back to plotlines that allow us to view him as a charismatic character with real depth?” “Yes, yes, we understand, the system is rigged so that do-nothing old white dudes continue to triumph over more talented young people and particularly women — so now that we’ve acknowledged that, can you give us a fantasy portrayal where Peggy is totally put in charage and succeeds brilliantly?” “Okay, God, we hear you, we know that the advertising milieu is so toxic that even an apparently innocent character is ultimately pulled into the self-centered scheming — but why did you have make Megan seem to be more or less a naturally good person at first and deprive us of the fantasy that everyone is always-already a backstabbing social climber?”

As Gerry Canavan said on Twitter yesterday, Mad Men, like other “high quality” shows, succeeds because its audience doesn’t understand it. They tune in for the suave Don Draper, and they resent being deprived of that fantasy — even though the entire work of the show has always, from day one, been to deprive us of that fantasy. They tune in looking for a soap opera filled with sexy people and elaborate sets (and “fan service” such as more screen time for Peggy or the triumphant return of Sal), and they resent that the show has a moral critique of the milieu it’s documenting. If you really “got it,” you’d either stop watching — or start watching the show differently. As it stands, the backlash seems to be driven by the fact that the show’s viewers simply don’t want to “get it.” And the fact of that paradoxical combination of addiction and resistence makes me wonder if Mad Men will turn out to be the most interesting and artistically successful example of the early 2000s “high quality cable drama” genre.