This article from the New York Review of Books started a civil war among the Entasis editors (and friends).
RA: Watched Season One. Bored by the end.
JG: As soon as we find out that DD is a whoreson, it’s already jumped the shark, and that was early in Season 1. And the whole deserter and switching identities? Worthy of one of Verdi’s middle-period operas. You have to overlook the copious style to see that there’s not much there there.
GM: Meh. I read the article and I disagree with it — as much as one can disagree with a personal preference. This article’s main analytical technique consists of describing some characteristic of the show in a highly reductive way and then sta…ting a version of, “to my mind, it doesn’t work.” Clearly, though, before he gets to the assertion that something’s not working, we’re meant implicitly to understand his driving objection, as sheep being driven by a haute-intellectual shepherd. Baa. Early in the article he describes other shows, like “Battlestar” and “The Wire” that are, to his mind, standouts. Okay. So? Yes, Dan, you’ve uncovered a key truth: different people like different things. And he correctly points out that the show’s large following says more about ourselves than it does about, say, the sixties. So, welcome to the entire justification for cultural criticism. Really? Is this fresh writing? Mr. Mendelsohn might try grokking the fact that his review tells us a lot about him as a reviewer — but very little about the show. His conclusion would be laughably cynical — we’re all watching the characters in the way children watch adults, so we can forgive our parents or something — but this summation of the show’s appeal is as offensive and shallow as he claims the show is. I call imitative fallacy and self-incrimination: go work out your issues with Daddy, Danny, and get back to us when you’re ready to actually write a review. While I’ll confess that I like “Mad Men” quite a bit, I’m open to reading legitimate criticism. But this piece isn’t really criticism; it’s merely passionate opinion with the NYRB masthead. Not, by the way, that I don’t understand your reaction, man. If you’re bored, you’re bored — not only do I not doubt it, I think I can understand reasons why that would be. But Mendelsohn’s idea of analysis has auto-stimulated lovestink all over it, I don’t care who he’s writing for.
RA: I usually agree with Greg’s ‘preferences’ which makes this disagreement particularly interesting. In general I like Mendelsohn’s pieces, btw. He ain’t Zizek but it’s probably a good thing that there’s only one. Mad Men certainly isn’t as aw…ful as Lost but besides the fantastic clothes and really good-looking people, I, like Mendelsohn, found little to hang onto as Season 1 unspooled. Draper does seem like a handsome emptiness, and his affairs unconvincing (although that Jewish chick is SMOKIN’), as is the crisis of his marriage (compare it to similar themes in a work of genius like ‘Revolutionary Road’). The portrayal of say, the Beatniks, seems caricatured, as do the office mores (and the political discussions are simplistic). Peggy’s pregnancy was a typical soap opera move, including her unawareness of it. Draper’s back story felt flimsy, and his brother’s suicide another bit of soap silliness, as was his mom the ho’. The guy from Angel was intriguing at first but it turned into another bit of stereotypical Oedipal razzle dazzle. It was a For Dummies historical drama. This is preference, yes, but I think, given world enough and time, that I could support many of these arguments with ammunition. One of the few times I found myself genuinely moved was, also like Mendelsohn, by the slide show. I found myself thinking about my the photos of my parents from the 70s and the adults they were and the unhappiness they were already bequeathing to me as caught fragments of their lives through doorways or at the top of the staircase. The alien mystery and wonder of it.
JG: I pretty much agree with your assessment, RA. I also thought the slide show was truly brilliant. The writing is ham-handed, the characters undeveloped. But there are wonderful things here and there, like that scene; also the scene where Joan is taken off the task that Mendelsohn mentions. I loved the exchange in the parking lot between Betty and Glen late in the first season. But on the whole I think the show is overrated, and, as I said above, positively Verdian in its plot twists.
GM: Posh. All you’re doing is agreeing with Mendelsohn’s points and not paying much attention to how he’s making them. Okay, so you found Peggy’s pregnancy unconvincing? Fine. I found it entertaining. Once again, the label “soap opera,” applied… because of similarities to well-known examples of that genre, is supposed to *mean* something, but *that* move — the idea that we should recoil at the mere application of a middlebrow term — is a signature shuffle on the poseur’s dance floor. If you don’t like the show, you don’t like it. I won’t try to convince you that you should. But if you intend to lend credence to Mendelsohn’s psychoanalysis of the Mad Men audience by painting it with soft, personally selected colors — “I, too, have thought of my parents” — then you’re giving a pass to a boneheaded arrogance that’s already stamped with higher culture: the NYRB logo. Please. “Pseudo-intellectual disdain is so very now!” Besides, nothing’s immune to this treatment. Mendelsohn admires “Battlestar?” Sorry, man. Much of what he says about Mad Men, I could easily state about Battlestar, and more. Ham-handed? Bad acting? Oversimplified politics? God, cover your eyes and pick any episode, and whenever Tricia Helfer walks onscreen in her red dress, reducing an entire show’s purported philosophical sophistication to an appraisal of how well Helfer’s purr goes with her chest, I’ll scream “nerdporn!” What Mendelsohn completely misses out on — because, as I said, he’s not interested in actual analysis, but only an easy paycheck — is that Mad Men IS Battlestar, for a crowd that can’t take space battles and the swords-and-sorcery worship of the latter show. Both shows take a run at politics, sex, women in red, flawed leaders, counterculture, war, and *especially* hidden identities, and both do it in gloriously overbaked ways disguised as dramatic sophistication. It might be interesting to get at why, as a culture, these themes are important. Or, we could be Mendelsohn’s Heroes, and summarily dismiss entire audiences with a wave of our pseudopsychological wand. Bah.
RA: Sir, I appreciate the vigor of your response but, well acquainted with the clarity of your thought and the distinction of your taste, I find it impossible to believe that you were in any way ‘entertained’ by Peggy’s pregnancy; or if you wer…e entertained, entertained in the way we are entertained by a comic telling us a joke we have heard a hundred times before. That is, we are pleased because the repetition tells us that the world we leave in remains unchanged, and there is always comfort in familiarity. In the case of Peggy, as with so many of the plot turns in the show, we have an incident carrying meaning in the most ham-fisted of fashions – progressive woman is dragged down by the iron laws of an unprogressive world – if only she hadn’t fucked! And we are supposed to follow along with the absolutely unbelievable idea that a sexually active woman in 1962 would, not only have no idea that she could get pregnant, but be able to carry a child to term in absolute oblivion. It didn’t work for me and I have a hard time believing it worked for you, but, given the respect I have for you, sir, I must take you at your word. Certainly, I have no problems with soap operas, or serials, if you wish to use a less-charged term (‘soap’ by the way is no middlebrow term, it’s lowbrow. Middlebrow is Mad Men, the lowbrow that doesn’t delight in its preposterous nature). Serials are the way in which the complexity of human life – the fact that it goes on – escape the confines of the movie or mini-series. What I do have a problem with is the celebration of soap opera standards as exemplars of high art – it’s the confusion that gets me (the divorcee who supports Kennedy is another train you can see a comin’ from a long way off). You cast stones at Battlestar Galactica nerds but I say, let the man with no sin cast the first stone. What made BG fascinating for the first few seasons – and yes it succumbed to the banal into seasons three and four – was how it upended conventions of the serial form. For example, making Starbuck a woman, or in the playing with the idea of what makes a villain. I may be parroting Mendehlson, but I do know that long before I read a word of his essay. I’d tuned out Mad Men, in the way I haven’t tuned out Buffy or the Wire. I want to believe. I just don’t want to be spoon fed. Sir, the most interesting, to me, part of your discussion is the fascination of ‘hidden identities’. The threatened interior or the impossibility of there being an interior, a self. I just think Mad Men doesn’t as well as some of the others. Even Dollhouse, which I enjoy, yet realize that it’s half treacle.