For We Mere Mortals, Another Year of Mad Men

 

TV’s best show is back, tonight, in just over a half an hour. (I write from the West Coast.) Why do we watch, again? And again? A lot of ink has been spilled about Mad Men — and, yes, as you spill some more below, you should consider this the most exacting test of Ricochet’s reputation for grown-up behavior yet: no spoilers. So I’m going to try for a different angle on why we tune in.

We watch because we’re mortal and we know it.

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Tocqueville once wrote:

The short space of sixty years will never confine the whole imagination of man; the incomplete joys of this world will never suffice for his heart. Alone among all the beings, man shows a natural disgust for existence and an immense desire to exist: he scorns life and fears nothingness. These different instincts constantly drive his soul toward contemplation of another world, and it is religion that guides it there.

It’s also art. Mad Men recaptures a world which was also a time — a time that began to run out, a time that was unsustainable, just as Mad Men‘s run is unsustainable. It is a show about people on borrowed time that is itself on borrowed time, moreso than the usual television series (or even the unusual series like Deadwood, which died as prematurely as its characters were apt to do).

And during this borrowed time, the men and women of Mad Men know, themselves, that the clock is ticking. Sometimes they labor quickly to destroy themselves. Sometimes they retreat and sit or stand still and catch a glimpse of the vista of that destruction, a scorn for health and safety that titillates us now but only because it still stirs within us.

Mad Men is a show relentlessly, beautifully, brilliantly about time, and like anyone or anything brilliant about time it knows and shows that time is us, our mortality, our once-ness, for once is all we get, and we know it. The interim is ours.

That interim, as Shakespeare knew, is the raw material of drama. It can be the cold pause in which we find the vantage to see our lives as if we had stepped outside them, as Hamlet tried to do.

Or it can be the hot minute described in Julius Caesar:

Between the acting of a dreadful thing / And the first motion, all the interim is

Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream: / The Genius and the mortal instruments

Are then in council; and the state of man, / Like to a little kingdom, suffers then

The nature of an insurrection.

Last season was notoriously on the slow side. This season? Hold on to your fedoras.

Pic via Flickr user Fimoculous.

There are 21 comments.

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @HarringtonElligidgy

    The late Quentin Crisp addressed his audience to his one-man show with pity. His generation knew what to do, they had a few options based on their sex race class group, and lived their lives. But his audience was growing up in a world “without signposts, without roads. Dick Whitman today, not wanting to be a poor farm boy, could get a student loan and not be one – yesterday, he had to rip dogtags off a dead man and buy that man’s widow a house.

    Or maybe I’m seeing the world through the lens of my own life.

    I posted “Why I watch Mad Men” here: http://manlaughing.wordpress.com/2010/07/24/why-ill-be-watching-mad-men/

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Contributor
    @JamesPoulos
    John M. Webb: Dick Whitman today, not wanting to be a poor farm boy, could get a student loan and not be one – yesterday, he had to rip dogtags off a dead man and buy that man’s widow a house.

    That’s a profound insight, there, John. Pressing it further: look at what Dick Whitman had to do not only to leave his old life behind but his old self, too. (Of course, as the hallucinatory flashbacks to the depression years show, you can’t ever leave all of an old self behind.) Nowadays, college is just one of a whole cornucopia of ways people can reinvent themselves — in shallow ways or deep ones. It’s practically a reinvention industry we’re living in.

    • #2
  3. Profile Photo Contributor
    @JamesPoulos
    Courtney Poulos: I would ask, “Why do we find Mad Men sexy?”

    One possibility is that we, Americans (even those among us who consider ourselves everyday people) secretly long for a time when society was supposed to make sense. Men and women wore their uniforms, businessmen and wives wore their uniforms. There were rules to break. Real life was on the line. The stakes were higher in important social ways. There was a concept of “public” life that cleared the way for a rich and sometimes naughty “private” life. When a generation lost innocence, there was actually something to lose. We were naive then. We are no longer so.

    I get suspicious when people suggest that they just really like the outfits, the pose, the style. It’s like saying you read Playboy for the articles. Yes, fashion is supposed to help us feel sexy, convey sexy, and appreciate sexy without actually having sex. But the vogue for vampires seems to have rubbed off on Mad Men enthusiasts whose aesthetic appreciation drains the blood out of what is, let’s face it, a show propelled by the animal and more-than-animal urges of human beings.

    • #3
  4. Profile Photo Contributor
    @JamesPoulos

    N.B.: last week, Ursula touched off the Mad Men talk right here:

    Don Draper handles himself quite nobly. I think I get the character. But the actor Jon Hamm is a curiosity. Is he attractive? I’m not sure. Is he a good actor? I’m not sure. He does have moments of brilliance. In particular, for someone so classically handsome, his face is remarkably expressive. When he keeps his mouth shut, I find him compelling. Otherwise? Not so much. I realize he’s supposed to be difficult to pin down because of his character’s mysterious situation, but my ambivalence about him goes beyond that.

    • #4
  5. Profile Photo Inactive
    @HarringtonElligidgy
    James Poulos, Ed.

    That’s a profound insight, there, John. Pressing it further: look at what Dick Whitman had to do not only to leave his old life behind but his old self, too. ….

    Thank you sir! I am interested in how much stealing a dead soul was necessary for Dick Whitman and how the rigidity of class made it attractive. Perhaps Dick, living at home, joining the army, going through basic training, thought to himself, “I wish I were someone else.” If he put it like that, instead of thinking something like, “How can I get away from the past?”, it would make sense that he’d become Don Draper.

    But if he’s going to successfully head an agency, eventually someone will do more than interview him and try to do some journalism. Is he going to be exposed as having stolen a dead man? is a question that needs a When in front of it.

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Contributor
    @MelanieGraham

    I have tried to like this show, but somehow it doesn’t grab me. I will try to give it another go. I’m much more a “Breaking Bad” kind of girl. Perhaps I prefer meth to cigarettes.

    • #6
  7. Profile Photo Contributor
    @JamesPoulos
    Melanie Graham: I have tried to like this show, but somehow it doesn’t grab me. I will try to give it another go. I’m much more a “Breaking Bad” kind of girl. Perhaps I prefer meth to cigarettes. · Jul 26 at 9:06am

    Now this is interesting, Melanie, because I haven’t seen a second of Breaking Bad, and I hear from my TV-loving friends that it’s really Bad and not Mad that’s the best show on television. Tell me why! Sell me on it! Because otherwise I’m certain to miss out entirely.

    • #7
  8. Profile Photo Inactive
    @MelFoil

    The Late ’50s, Early ’60s, was a period when successful young men could get away with murder (so to speak,) still living off the reputation of their more honorable fathers, because the previous generation didn’t try to get away with murder. The previous generation were busy saving the World. The ’70s was when the bill came.

    • #8
  9. Profile Photo Inactive
    @MelFoil
    James Poulos, Ed.

    ….I hear from my TV-loving friends that it’s really Bad and not Mad that’s the best show on television. Tell me why! Sell me on it! Because otherwise I’m certain to miss out entirely. · Jul 26 at 9:36am

    I’ve never seen a better explanation of how an average guy, a smart guy, can gradually become a bigtime criminal. Some of the worst things the main character does, he doesn’t ponder. He doesn’t have time to ponder. He acts out of raw paralyzing fear and confusion. His nature is to be cautious, but that’s just blown apart by the nature of the illegal drug business and the people involved. He intended to just dip his toe in, but crime (and evil) grabbed his foot and pulled him under. Turns out, you can’t be a little bit wicked, just like you can’t be a little bit pregnant.

    • #9
  10. Profile Photo Editor
    @RobLong

    On the other hand, maybe it’s just a cool, smart serial drama with a hook. I mean, that’s what grabbed everybody in the first season, kept them into the second, and then lost them in the third, when it got all slow and arty.

    And by “everybody” I mean, not many people at all. The show is what we call a “media hit.”

    I like it. (Well, I liked the first two seasons; the third was a snooze.) But I’m maybe a philistine when it comes to television. Probably because I work in it. Mad Men is a good show, sometimes a great show, but I don’t think it has deeper meanings. It tells us we’re mortal? So does “All My Children.” It reminds us that the clock is ticking? That an era is about to end? So did “Happy Days,” and “The Wonder Years.” For that matter, so did “Bonanza.”

    Sometimes a good TV show is just a good TV show.

    Sometimes, too, I think people think about TV too much. Probably to assuage their intellectual guilt for watching it.

    • #10
  11. Profile Photo Contributor
    @UrsulaHennessey
    Rob Long: Sometimes a good TV show is just a good TV show.

    Sometimes, too, I think people think about TV too much. Probably to assuage their intellectual guilt for watching it. · Jul 26 at 10:42am

    Oh *snap.* You nailed me, Rob. Harrumph. And see if I ever post about TV again. (Folding my arms + pouty face.)

    • #11
  12. Profile Photo Member
    @

    I would ask, “Why do we find Mad Men sexy?”

    One possibility is that we, Americans (even those among us who consider ourselves everyday people) secretly long for a time when society was supposed to make sense. Men and women wore their uniforms, businessmen and wives wore their uniforms. There were rules to break. Real life was on the line. The stakes were higher in important social ways. There was a concept of “public” life that cleared the way for a rich and sometimes naughty “private” life. When a generation lost innocence, there was actually something to lose. We were naive then. We are no longer so.

    Another uncomfortable possibility is women viewers actually imagine themselves being objectified by Don Draper, by power and confidence, by a machoism that rarely exists anymore, and it actually sparks something within us. Has “liberation” actually made us less feminine in some basic way? We are biologically programmed to want dominant men, and let’s face it, many people find it a turn on.

    Can there be depth of experience if there are no rules to break?

    • #12
  13. Profile Photo Inactive
    @HarringtonElligidgy
    Ursula Hennessey

    Rob Long: Sometimes a good TV show is just a good TV show.

    Sometimes, too, I think people think about TV too much. Probably to assuage their intellectual guilt for watching it. · Jul 26 at 10:42am

    Oh *snap.* You nailed me, Rob. Harrumph. And see if I ever post about TV again. (Folding my arms + pouty face.) · Jul 26 at 10:50am

    If Mr. Long’s sneer is enough to stop you from posting about Mad Men, would my encouragement be enough to get another post out of you?

    Sometimes a good TV show is a good TV show for reasons worth thinking about. That’s not a quality that’s limited to pre-20th-century media.

    • #13
  14. Profile Photo Contributor
    @UrsulaHennessey
    John M. Webb If Mr. Long’s sneer is enough to stop you from posting about Mad Men, would my encouragement be enough to get another post out of you? · Jul 26 at 11:34am

    I’m very easily swayed. Thanks for the “encouragement,” John. I read your link and I agree that one of the best things about good TV shows/series is the opportunity to parse it, ad nauseum, with loved ones. My husband and I have watched a number of series together — well after the rest of the world has seen them — and they (Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Wire) have been our sole source of entertainment since the 3 little kiddies came along. We have talked a lot about various parts of Mad Men. Not really about plot points. More about who is believable, which episodes got our attention and why. That said, I have a question for you all. My husband and I find Pete and Joan to be the two most gripping characters. Why is that, do you think? Better actors than the others? Better written scripts for them? More complex and, hence, more like a “real” person? Whaddya all think?

    • #14
  15. Profile Photo Inactive
    @HarringtonElligidgy

    @Ursula

    I do like some shallow shows to, like Are You Being Served? I haven’t tried the Wire, but I love Curb and just started looking at the Sopranos. (I don’t have cable, so I’m stuck with the library, and in the case of Mad Men, I watch it on Amazon the day after it airs.

    Who’s gripping. I remember when Betty used to be gripping! Peggy, Joan, Pete absolutely, Lane. Who bores me? The other two Draper children, Duck, Carla, Harry, Henry (who seems to have fed on a strict diet of Harlequin Romances), Lee Garner Jr. Who would I like to know more about? Bert, Don’s secretary, Trudy, Freddy Rumsen!

    I won’t say I like Greg, but I think I’m the only one who gets him and has some sympathy for him.

    I guess we’ve left Hollis and Francine behind too, huh?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Mad_Men_characters

    • #15
  16. Profile Photo Contributor
    @MelanieGraham

    James, I cannot improve on Etoile’s post. Episode 1, okay. Episode 2, mmmm better. Episode 3 you are hooked on it like meth. At least that was my experience. With the show, not meth. I promise you.

    • #16
  17. Profile Photo Member
    @

    I feel like Mad Men is just one of those shows who’s timing was impeccable. As much as we can laugh at the things they did, deep down most of us are sick of the extreme political correctness we are surrounded by and wish we could go back (at least a little bit) to that innocence (or ignorance). I mean, sure I grew up caring about what we are doing to our planet etc etc. But after you hear a thousand humorless hippies go on about green this and sustainable that, it’s funny as hell to see Don chuck his empty beer can at a tree as the Draper family leaves garbage adorning the grass after a family picnic!

    But then what do I know, I hadn’t even realized that season 3 was supposed to be notoriously slow and arty. So maybe that calls in to question any credibility I was presuming.

    • #17
  18. Profile Photo Editor
    @RobLong
    Ursula Hennessey

    Rob Long: Sometimes a good TV show is just a good TV show.

    Sometimes, too, I think people think about TV too much. Probably to assuage their intellectual guilt for watching it. · Jul 26 at 10:42am

    Oh *snap.* You nailed me, Rob. Harrumph. And see if I ever post about TV again. (Folding my arms + pouty face.) · Jul 26 at 10:50am

    No no no! Ursula, I want you to post about everything and anything. And I love talking about TV. It’s sort of my job. But I love talking about it like I talk about food — because I love it and think about it and enjoy it. Not because I think it means anything. It’s like pizza. Delicious. But, you know, pizza.

    So, with that out of the way: The Draper family bores me now. I could watch Betsy Draper (January Jones) do practically anything, but when the family stuff starts up, my brain goes “click.” On the other hand, when they’re all in the office trying to sell stuff, I’m on the edge of my seat.

    • #18
  19. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Definitely shows are worth thinking about–I took a whole course on the evolution of the sit com and how it reflected/challenged the status quo. There is a reason why some shows take off and some don’t. There IS a reason why people are obsessed with particular shows (and people, for that matter), and I think it is totally relevant. In fact, I don’t think we talk ENOUGH about the ways that music and television influences us, and how we relate and interact with that which we digest.

    • #19
  20. Profile Photo Contributor
    @JamesPoulos

    Now for some bad news: they’re not smoking real cigarettes.

    As Jon Hamm recently explained, the cigarettes on the show “are a blend of some kind of herbs and spices that burn and look like real cigarettes. But there’s no nicotine or tar.”

    • #20
  21. Profile Photo Editor
    @RobLong
    James Poulos, Ed.: Now for some bad news: they’re not smoking real cigarettes.

    As Jon Hamm recently explained, the cigarettes on the show “are a blend of some kind of herbs and spices that burn and look like real cigarettes. But there’s no nicotine or tar.”

    Jul 28 at 8:57am

    Seriously? What babies.

    • #21
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