The finale of Mad Men’s smashing inaugural season airs tomorrow, which makes this a good time to revisit some early views of the show. (Warning: spoilerish implications) As good and praiseworthy as the show was in the initial period of “timely” reviews, it has gotten much better. (Indeed, these early reviews have a sort of critical drag effect. TV critics rarely get around to revising old views. That’s what I’m here for. If anything, the show is underrated, is my point. My blinkered early view is, mercifully, unavailable due to the site overhaul.)
Early on, the show’s rich set design inspired a kind of fetishizing, in this age of style fetishizing, and this inspired a predictable backlash. Sacha Zimmerman, for example, at TNR online: “[The set] is a terrific backdrop. The problem is that it’s not treated as such. The objects on set are not just props, but mini-characters that become the center of attention by screaming, Look how authentic I am!”
But if you’re actually paying attention, if you’re actually interested, it’s clear that authenticity for its own sake is not the point. The point is the dramatic sense of period specificity, the mix of familiarity and strangeness of the setting, the time, so close to and yet so far from our own. The integrity and beauty of the sets serve this primary goal, but for the life of me I can’t see why someone would find them objectionable on their own terms. Some people are really hard to please, I guess.
Zimmerman, like Matt Yglesias, also found the languorous pace of the early episodes, the meticulous scene-setting, to be hard to bear. I can’t say I shared their impatience. I love scene-setting when it’s done with that kind of rigor and seriousness (and, yes, taste). Matt wrote that the show has the “fatal flaw of not having any interesting stories.” But he had the misfortune of registering this complaint just as the show was preparing to launch into some of the weirdest and most intricate character examination ever seen on television: A main character (an ad exec, appropriately) who has literally invented himself; his unctuous adversary, who becomes more sympathetic as his profound self-loathing comes into view; a stable of young ad men simultaneous brimming with ambition and miserably stunted; a shockingly gorgeous head secretary who is both a master and a victim of her world’s sexual politics; a talented young secretary desperate to find a place for herself that does not exist; a gay man not only closeted but living in a heartbreaking kind of ethical self-denial. (On this last point, Zimmerman writes: “Finally, no one recognizes that the gay guy is gay. But I knew he was gay, because he takes every moment to say things like….” I think you pretty much disqualify yourself from writing on such topics when you exhibit this kind of historical obtuseness. Yes, we see he’s gay. But in 1960, there would have been a huge collective investment in overlooking the sort of clues Zimmerman is so proud to have smelled out. Hell, Liberace was married. It seems weird to have to point this out.)
The really noteworthy and dramatically interesting thing about Mad Men, as a historical drama, is not the “repression” of an era much more formal than our own (which, pace Zimmerman, is an issue in the show for precisely one of its dozen or so key characters). It’s the artifice. Mad Men shows people fashioning public selves not necessarily at the expense of their true inner lives, but often as a way of living those lives with greater freedom. And, instead of clueless and repressed, these characters are often painfully self-aware. This is the difference from the usual treatment of this era by sophisticated film and television writers. Mad Men is not satire. Its characters are not irony-pawns for writers who know so much better. This is what throws people, I think. Expecting to be shown benighted characters they can have the warm feeling of being smarter than, and then finding out they might not be smarter after all.