Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

MAD MEN, in the bad way

And about MAD MEN this season (only on AMC) - how come it's so squirmy and preoccupied with being vile and no one likes each other anymore? Now that the fifth season brain frieze has begun we've had to wonder if we'll ever get our awesome show back -- the one where we thrilled to see high powered drunks in action: getting high and telling off hippies; pissing their pants before big client pitches; inventing the term 'carousel' for Kodak in a non-dry eye house pitch; struggling to remember the password at a mob-run gambling house, and of course, Don's chain-smoking womanizing hard drinking stallionsmanship and his super cool alpha dogs unchained relationship with Roger Sterling?

This semester old Don's married to some young yeh yeh girl with a sexy crooked smile and he's determined to stay faithful, to the point of taking the dull moral high ground even unto Pete Campbell, silently judging old Pete just for getting some and wanting to feel in charge when it's plain to see he's totally whupped by his alpha dog sweet bitch wife. So far we've even seen Don lecture Rolling Stones groupies, strangle an old flame in dream effigy, quietly cut down on his smoking and drinking, even giving his new wife a hard time for throwing him a surprise party. In his middle age he's become a tedious moral guardian. And the show itself seems more concerned with getting all the period mod furnishings just so than actually recreating an air of exciting pre-PC possibility and balls.

We don't go to Don for a lesson in morals. We go to Don to see our libidinal wrongs unchecked and amok; we like his hypocrisy and brave drug-taking that sometimes leaves him roofied and bloodied in hotel rooms he rented with sexy young couples on the lam, but even then he doesn't feel guilty. We miss Betts shooting at the neighbor's carrier pigeons after he threatens to poison their dog; we miss the drunken bridge parties and outdoor garage full of beer; we miss the ease with which Don compartmentalized a dozen different shitty behaviors, all of which made his moral facade hilarious and apt. Now the hilarity is gone but the stern morals remain and as a result everyone in the cramped new offices are at each others' throats.

Meanwhile, the younger generation in the office is picking up the slack in all the wrong ways -- they're all sleazy frat boy gestures and no action, while Don was always very verbally respectful of his women, even advising Pete Campbell on the first day of the first episode "people won't like you" for being such a shit to women. The shits remain, but Don doesn't lead by example (of how to be a satyr without being a snickering frat boy) he lectures like the guy who sowed all his oats and now wants everyone else to learn from his empty-oat sack example.

All I want to say is, Dick Whitman, yo: Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill are still decades away so why not live it up while you can, sexual harassment in the workplace-wise? So far this season has deliberately withheld conspiratorial vicarious partying from us, even via Roger Sterling, who used to be my favorite and is now struggling with the irrelevance of his type of hardcore boozer prostitute procurer under the new Mad Men rubric which declares only misery, desperation, and humorless sanctimony can reign.  The Lucky Strike campaign is long gone, and no one is allowed to feel rich and secure inside that horrible claptrap modernist office space. And Don's hip new apartment is kind of, I don't know, too showroom bourgeois-in-a-bohemian-mood showroom sterile?

Adding to the insecurity is the tired trope of centering each new episode around some icky historical newspaper outburst: the Richard Speck nurse murders prompt terror and sleeping under couches one week; the Whitman Texas tower sniping prompts anxiety about sending daughters off to college the next. It was a time when the nation seemed to be coming apart at the seamszzzz. All we need is a cliche'd overused pop song from the late 60s to make it complete (rather than Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" or Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" we get the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows," but all that does is make us nervous Mad Men's wasting too much money for the licensing).

And then we have domestic non-bliss with abusive pretty boy MASH surgeons and bossy mother-in-laws; we have Betts gone obese from stress and maybe a tumor; we have icky little near-affairs with the Brit with the bad skin; we have icky little near-affairs with reptilian mongrel Pete Campbell at driving class. Oh brother do we have icky little near-affairs... where's Don with the non-icky? He's too busy scowling to even crack a joke.

That's all I wanted to say but I had to say it, especially since last night I saw for the first time Fassbinder's LOLA, which is so full of cool, amoral intelligence and luxurious libidinal disillusion it was like a summertime smack in the face compared to Don's lion in glum morally self-righteous winter. Don, get your act un-together. We need that old libidinal train wreck, or at least a man with the balls to let lesser men pursue the same vices he once did without self-righteously judging them. How does Don think HE would have reacted back in season one if some codger like Burt Cooper laid into him about being true to his wife and not indulging in the client party girl pool? Don would have solemnly nodded, then done whatever the hell he wanted. People, this is TELEVISION! Don't you have some  Jon Hamm voiceover luxury-driven car commercials you want us to see? Then show us why luxury still matters! Only... from Hondota!


  1. Man, I love this site, I just recently found it, but as much as I acknowledge what you are observing here as being correct, I couldn't disagree more. I think Pete Campbell wanted Don to browbeat him some, like how Don used to like being slapped around by women. I think Don is happy because Megan doesn't really need him, and as much of a trophy wife as she is he appreciates her. I always liked Betty, btw. I always thought she was a complicated character who just looked shallow. Pete is a disappointment to himself. He stood his ground in a gentleman's boxing fight with Lane, and yes, he lost, but he lost right, and he still was depressed about it. I like to watch this show as being from Sally Draper's point of view, looking back as an adult and remembering how weird everything was and how there was some kind of business with her father having a different name and she is just starting to piece her own life story together. The lighting and perfect diorama sets just add to that for me, as well as making it an acid movie of a show.

  2. thanks Johnny - I'm glad you stuck up for the show. I agree about the Sally Draper perspective. That's why I first loved Mad Men - it was like 'now I FINALLY can see what my dad was doing at work' and it was as awesome as I thought. The kitchen in their old house even looked JUST LIKE my kitchen as a child in the 1970s in Lansdale, same oven, etc. it was trippy. But now it's all squabbles and bad tempers. But that's a good insight about Pete wanting to get guilt tripped by Don. It's just a bummer to see, like the job where you get all panicky and stressed out just going in to work every morning.. that's how I feel about Mad Men now, like I want to call in sick.

  3. Hey Erich - I really do love this site. I have so much to get caught up on. I tried to send a little fan note last week, but it didn't send through the contact link. I was born in 63, in south Texas, and we were not as far up the social ladder as anyone on the show, but I had relatives with those perfect houses with enamel appliances. I am glad to see the characters grow older. I loved backstage at the Stones concert when the girl said Don was Derwood and Harry was Mister Kravitz! Ha! I have been saying since the beginning that Roger is Larry Tate. They have a weird lighting on the show that really makes it dream like to me, and the music over the credits is always ghosty. I can see where you are coming from, but the show is always coming out of nowhere with a whole new thing. I didn't get the upset about the Cinderella shoe ad last week. I did the vibe the new guy's father is a holocaust survivor. Living in Austin, the UT tower is forever weirdly ruined. Little known fact, the day before Whitman went on his sniper spree, the Adam West Batman movie had its world premier, with a full parade going down the street where most of the victims were killed. All the stars were in the parade, and all these kids and families. Acid. Bad Acid.

  4. Thanks again, Johnny. It means a lot. Good Batman anecdote... that would be a great movie, 48 hours in the life of an Austin street. Quentin Tarantino could do it justice.

    As for the Cinderella thing, Pete Campbell pulled a similar stunt in season one, pitching his own idea for a campaign the night before Don's presentation. It's just not done! No one gets to steal Don's thunder. I forget why but it's not done, Pete was too dumb to know that, but the holocaust survivor son should know better having been in the creative end awhile.

  5. And then Roger ate acid.

  6. Right? But what a lame acid party. And Roger Sterling's big realizations felt fake. Those goofy mirror hallucinations were tacky. I got the impression no one involved ever actually tried LSD... And man, why didn't Don take Roger up to the Hojo? The best parts of Mad Men used to be the great drinking benders Don and Roger would go on, now Roger's fading away and his freakout over hallucinating the Dodgers in the bathroom was probably the worst acting ever on this usually flawlessly acted show. And Don is becoming a total dick. There is no longer a shred of joy or rebellion anywhere in this show. Jeezus, hand-jobs in the theater, during working hours?