I spent my most recent Sunday night catching up with “Mad Men,” which has now aired four episodes in its second season. I initially tuned in to the show because it combined two of my favorite things: period pieces (especially those from the 40’s to the mid-60’s) and what Tantek likes to call “meta-media.” Meta-media is, quite simply, the idea of a show within a show, or some kind of creative product within a show. Good examples are “30 Rock,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” and “Sports Night,” all of which I really enjoy, as well as certain aspects of “Arrested Development.” Tantek coined this phrase specifically because he hates this kind of show, but as a creator (or aspiring creator) myself, I find the subject completely fascinating. I also think meta-media doesn’t have to be all about navelgazing– writers can, and often do, make potshots at what’s bad about their medium. (Network is a good example; so was “Sports Night”‘s ongoing deconstruction of the new corporate mega-media and the consequences it had for its pawns.) Not to ignore the fact that there have been missteps in the genre. Joel McHale does a great job summing up the train wreck that was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip:
“Mad Men” is unique, though, because it seems to be the first meta-media show that’s all about creative people ignoring the zeitgeist. If you know much about the history of advertising (and having been given a copy of Ogilvy on Advertising at age 7, I know a fair amount), it’s not hard to see that “Mad Men” is basically a series of dispatches from the decks of the Titanic. Sterling Cooper, the show’s fictional agency, is the kind of enterprise that fell long and hard in the mid-60’s, as geistier talents like
George Lois Julian Koenig* dragged advertising into the age of irony.
Last week’s episode was particularly pointed, as the established ad men mocked the younger, decidedly more ethnic talents interviewing at the agency. If you don’t know much about the history of American ads, their pointed envy, hidden behind a veil of racism, is still easy to recognize. Even if it’s only simmering below their consciousness, some part of them knows that they’re dinosaurs. If “Mad Men” offends you because of its overt misogyny and overindulgence, don’t despair: a big comeuppance is coming.
The problem with “Mad Men,” I think, is that it doesn’t let anyone enjoy this delicious irony quite enough. Yes, the ad men have their smoking-drinking-overeating-womanizing fetishes to attend to, but “Mad Men” never lets you forget for one minute that none of them are really having much fun. “Mad Men” seems to believe strongly in Thoreau’s adage that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And so, despite the glitter and indulgence of the period, all we see are pained, soul-searching characters, from protagonists Don and Betty Draper (Jon Hamm and January Jones) down to even the most minor waitress or secretary. Show creator Matthew Weiner used to write for “The Sopranos,” another very dark drama, but even that show usually had a dose of levity to counteract all the anguish. “Mad Men,” despite having almost none of its violence, makes “The Sopranos” look comparatively light.
I like “Mad Men” a lot. I think the writing is sharp, the acting uniformly excellent, the directing creative and well-thought-out. The level of period detail, from the costumes to the sets, is jaw-dropping. But I find it hard to really love the show, because it never gives me the impression that any of its characters will ever feel much joy. If they were a little happier, a little more attuned to their own needs, it might be possible to root for them; if they were a little more cruel or coarse, perhaps their ultimate demise might feel a little more welcome. Instead, we see them for what they are: sad, frustrated people, unhappy in objectively “good” lives, and about to see those lives get a lot worse. It could be the period: Weiner makes no bones about the thorough discrimination against women, immigrants, and blacks that thrived not too long ago. But that doesn’t explain the palpable pain of the show’s largest character constituency, well-off WASPs.
The only other explanation I can think of: maybe that’s what life is really like for everyone. If that’s true, I’ll be the first to congratulate Weiner on his willingness to paint a vision that’s thoroughly bleak. But even as a confused and easily disheartened depression-sufferer, I find Weiner’s world awfully morose. My life, at least, is shot through with some happiness, some occasional daily pleasures that leaven its tone. In “Mad Men,” sources of pleasure exist everywhere, but actual pleasure is almost nonexistent. This makes me want to classify “Mad Men” as a meta-drama: the first show in which every protagonist is not just beset by outside difficulties, but actively depressed as well. It’s the kind of show where you could expect any character to take to their bed for a week and think nothing of it.
Since the actually depressed and mentally ill (as opposed to the depressed-by-circumstances) are so rarely represented on TV, I guess I should be happy that my constituency is getting its own Emmy-nominated spotlight. As a sufferer, though, it’s almost overwhelming to watch Weiner’s little sadness corps parade by week after week. And so, I find myself asking the same question that Tantek does every time he scorns a meta-media show: “Whatever happened to escapism?”
* It’s come to my attention that Julian Koenig, not George Lois, was responsible for the copy in this and many other iconic ads. His daughter Sarah’s piece on This American Life discusses the situation.