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Monday, November 09, 2009

In the future you will find a love that lasts

The word on the street is that AMC has been purchased by Viacom—and with it, Mad Men.  In response, Jon Hamm, John Slattery, Vincent Kartheiser, Jared Harris, Elizabeth Moss, Robert Morse, Rich Sommer, and Christina Hendricks have decided to start their own show.  I can’t wait for next year!  But I hear that the actor who plays little Bobby is afraid he’ll be replaced.  These things are always hardest on the children.

In related news, David Lynch is reportedly furious that Mad Men featured Roy Orbison’s “Shahdaroba” during the closing credits of last night’s episode.  “The candy-colored clown,” Lynch growled.  “I don’t know what Weiner was thinking, but dammit, I’m the go-to guy for obscure Roy Orbison songs.”

As for last night: Don can be very ugly sometimes, no?  Calling your wife a whore makes the baby Gene cry, obviously, and it’s a nasty thing for a serial adulterer to say.  I suppose that involves a double standard of some kind.  But I was also struck by the scene in which Don tries to make amends to Peggy for basically ordering her to follow him into the nebulous Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce future.  Contrast that scene with the pitch he makes to Pete: when Roger says blandly that they’ll need Pete’s skills, Pete demands to hear—from Don—exactly what those skills are.  Pete has wanted that pellet for a long time, and he gets it: Don credits him with having the foresight to go after aerospace accounts, teenagers, and the “Negro market.” All true, and Pete gets his daily affirmation.  Whereupon Pete signs up for the nebulous future, which, as Roy Orbison reminds us, will be much better than the past.

Not so with Peggy: there is no point, during that strange and terribly vague conversation in her apartment, at which Don says, “you were right about Patio and Aqua-Net, you completely got it about Mohawk Airlines, and the way you thought on your feet during the meeting on Western Union was incredible.” All true, but it goes unsaid.  Peggy has wanted that pellet ever since Don told her she hadn’t done anything at Sterling Cooper that he couldn’t live without, but Don clearly doesn’t think that specific praise for Peggy’s talents needs to be part of the sales pitch.  Yes, he gets credit for recognizing those talents, and a little bit of extra credit for having enough self-knowledge to admit to her that he’s seen her as an extension of himself.  But that’s as far as it goes.  And, of course, nobody’s talking about putting Peggy’s name anywhere near Pete’s.

One last thing.  Two weeks ago Bill Benzon sent me a link to Benjamin Schwarz’s more-definitive-than-thou essay on Mad Men, and a few days later I read Amanda’s quite wonderful response.  Schwarz:

Mad Men’s most egregious stumble—though seemingly a small one—involves Betty Draper’s college career, and it is generally emblematic of this extraordinarily accomplished show’s greatest weaknesses, and specifically emblematic of its confused approach to this poorly defined character. Betty, the show establishes, was in a sorority. So far, okay. Pretty, with a little-girl voice and a childlike, almost lobotomized affect; humorless; bland but at times creepily calculating (as when she seeks solace by manipulating her vulnerable friend into an affair); obsessed with appearances and therefore lacking in inner resources; a consistently cold and frequently vindictive mother; a daddy’s girl—Betty is written, and clumsily performed by model-turned-actress January Jones, as a clichéd shallow sorority sister. (Just as Don’s self-invented identity is Gatsby-like, so Betty, his wife, is a jejune ornament like Daisy, though without the voice full of money.) But she’s also a character deeply wronged by her serial-philanderer husband, and she’s hazily presented as a stultified victim of soulless postwar suburban ennui (now there’s a cliché). So, perhaps to bestow gravitas on her, or at least some upper-classiness, the show establishes that she went to Bryn Mawr. But of course Bryn Mawr has never had sororities. By far the brainiest of the Seven Sisters—cussed, straight-backed, high-minded, and feminist (its students, so the wags said, preferred the Ph.D. to the Mrs.)—Bryn Mawr was probably the least likely college that Betty Draper, given to such non-U genteelisms as “passed away,” would have attended. So much for satiric exactitude.

There really should be a name for this kind of criticism.  Begging Amanda’s pardon, this is not merely about “feeling superior to the writers of ‘Mad Men,’” though it certainly is that.  It’s also about feeling superior to the rest of the show’s audience, who are clearly insufferably middlebrow, like that Charlie Rose fellow, “who can always be counted on to embrace the conventional wisdom”:  “not just Rose but also Mad Men’s affluent, with-it target audience are particularly susceptible to liking what The New York Times’ Arts and Style sections tell them to like (30-plus articles in two years!).” Unlike the Arts and Style sheeple, however, Benjamin Schwarz likes this extraordinarily accomplished show—but for the right reasons.

The important thing about this kind of criticism is that (despite its pretensions) it doesn’t really matter, finally, what those reasons are.  What matters is that Benjamin Schwarz has more cultural capital than you do.  The key sentence is this:

But of course Bryn Mawr has never had sororities.

Let me be more specific.  The key phrase in the key sentence is this:

of course

Look. I’ve been in the higher ed business for quite some time.  Why, I even went to an Ivy League school when I was a young thing, and I can name the Seven Sisters.  But this is news to me, because I’ve never kept track of whether Bryn Mawr had sororities.  Did you?  If not, you lose!  Go to the back of the class, because Benjamin Schwarz has more cultural capital than you do.

See, if you’re writing to catch Mad Men in an uncharacteristic mistake (one that Weiner admitted some time ago), it’s fine to say, “As it happens, however, Bryn Mawr has never had sororities.” Saying “of course Bryn Mawr has never had sororities” is quite another speech act, something akin to using the phrase “non-U genteelisms” a bit later in the paragraph.  U and non-U!  Ah, now, that one takes me back ... to a time before Schwarz and I were born.  It was just before teatime, I believe, the fall of 1954, Henry Pordes bookshop in Charing Cross Road, and Schwarz and I were chatting about Nancy Mitford’s essay.  “Die” was definitely U, we agreed, and “pass away” very non-U.  “An egregious stumble on the part of Mad Men, that Bryn Mawr business,” I said.  “Indeed,” Schwarz concurred, “though seemingly a small one.” “Of what,” I asked, “is it generally and specifically emblematic, do you think?  And have the cognoscenti largely ignored any of the show’s quiet virtues while extolling what are really the show’s considerable flaws?” “Ah,” replied Schwarz.  “I’m glad you asked.”

“More-definitive-than-thou” isn’t quite right, though, is it.  It’s more like “more-discerning-than-thou.” Because as it turns out, the cognoscenti have largely ignored the quiet virtue of Mad Men while extolling what are really the show’s considerable flaws. One has to be careful about the proper display of one’s discernment when one is writing about mere TV shows, particularly when one is writing about TV shows that have been written about in the New York Times Arts and Style sections 30-some times.  One does not want to be mistaken for the wrong kind of affluent, with-it people. 

But I am an awfully dim bulb in some ways, and I have to admit I had a hard time with Schwarz’s closing line:

The cognoscenti, though, have largely ignored this quiet virtue while extolling what are really the show’s considerable flaws. Ah, the media juggernaut.  If Mad Men were half as good as the hype would have it, the show would be one of the best ever produced for American television. It’s both.

I suppose that “it’s both” means that Mad Men is (a) half as good as the hype would have it and (b) one of the best shows ever produced for American television.  Uh, OK, but doesn’t an “if ... then” construction presume that if (a) is the case then (b) is also the case?  And what’s with the awkward slide from subjunctive to indicative?  Doesn’t this gambit demand something like “would that it were so”?  Otherwise, you wind up sounding like you’re saying, “if this were so, then this would be so, and so it is.” Ah, the media juggernaut.  If this essay were half as discerning as it affects to be, its final sentence would be better written.  It’s neither.

Posted by Michael on 11/09 at 10:21 AM
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