“Smart” TV and the Gray Flannel Ego

Mad Men

Mad Men

Mad Men, like The Sopranos and The Wire before it, now enjoys a singular cultural status. Neither pop nor art, it is smart TV. And smart TV, we’re told, is not for analysis or even entertainment; it is to be dutifully let into our lives, much as we’re meant to bring in the newspaper every morning.

Smart TV is a unique kind of aesthetic nonentity, but even nonentities have to come from somewhere. Mad Men’s creator Matthew Weiner, like HBO’s three Davids (Chase, Simon and Milch, of The Sopranos, The Wire and Deadwood respectively), has a media profile that mixes elements of many leadership archetypes—he’s part film director, part producer, part CEO. Because they preside over a vast creative apparatus rather than yoking themselves to any particular aspect of production, Weiner and his fellow smart showrunners are presumed by journalists to be above the unfortunate susceptibilities that plague the individual artist.

As part of this post-auteur framework, the protagonists of smart TV shows are usually distorted extensions of their creators. Mad Men’s Don Draper is given to pronouncements that have no precedent in the early-1960s mainstream but could easily fit into contemporary liberal-bourgeois conversation (e.g., “You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts, but I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.”).

In Draper/Weiner’s case, Mad Men’s benighted ’60s perspective lends a transgressive thrill to this sort of sentiment. For certain viewers, there’s perfect perversity in a character embodying chauvinism and capitalism who carries on about the meaninglessness of existence like a dweeb from a recent Woody Allen film. Someone of a New York magazine mindset might ask with fascination, “How’d a guy like that come by such deep thoughts?”

Set in 1966, Mad Men’s fifth season starts with a civil rights protest on a Manhattan sidewalk. Right away, Weiner proffers a scene designed to answer media folks’ demands for a deeper engagement with race on the show. But Mad Men’s makers show their true colors by ending the teensy protest prologue on a note of pseudo-liberal self-congratulation. After being waterbombed by ad men (not our heroes) from the offices above, a black protester gets the last word, a tin-eared summation that deadens the civil rights dialectic: “And they call us savages.”

Season 5’s prologue is so oafish because its ideological purpose is made so plain. Weiner can’t help but flash his credentials as a contemporary right-thinker before ushering us into the presence of his familiar cast of characters. He won’t risk the potentially disorienting effect of imagining history afresh; his prologue is just long enough to transmit the ideological coordinates dictated by political correctness. From there, it’s on to more pressing business: Don Draper and friends coming up with an advertising campaign for Heinz baked beans.

If not on the wrong side of history, Mad Men is surely on the wrong side of the line that divides art from advertising. Pop artists often suppress their work’s subversive tendencies to accommodate the marketplace; advertisers labor to make commercials appear subversive, in effect tousling the hair of the status quo. Bereft of pop and art imperatives, Mad Men at its core really is advertising—for a certain dominant class’s point of view.

Class politics are central to both the phenomenon of smart TV and its aesthetic failures, which is why critic Daniel Mendelsohn’s 2011 consensus-breaking critique of Mad Men in The New York Review of Books doesn’t quite make the grade. Mendelsohn wrote, “[T]he show is melodramatic rather than dramatic. By this I mean that it proceeds, for the most part, like a soap opera.” Both melodrama and soap opera open doors of emotional expression that Mad Men pointedly slams shut. Neither term is classy or unsophisticated enough to suit the show’s accuracy-obsessed production design (too literal-minded to be called fetishistic) and the draggy pace of each episode.

Yet the show’s undeniable watercooler factor points to possibilities Mad Men itself could never realize. Its product tie-ins and pop culture impact indicate that despite Weiner’s best efforts to infuse 1960s glamor with dark sociopolitical undercurrents, viewers are spitting out his “serious” political point-making and savoring the surfaces. And it is only on the surface that Mad Men is (sometimes) tolerable. Curvy Christina Hendricks certainly seems capable of subverting current beauty standards…until she opens her mouth and that stilted, overcerebrated dialogue comes spewing out like tickertape.

The new season of Mad Men could justify the series’ existence if it were to honestly depict how Madison Avenue co-opted the signs and symbols of ’60s counterculture, thereby helping to define the decade for posterity (pace Thomas Frank’s famous book The Conquest of Cool). But here, as with the race issue, we’re off to a disappointing start. In that baked beans pitch scene, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce creatives have to be persuaded by the client to incorporate youth-chasing counterculture tropes into Heinz ads. When convenient, Mad Men’s characters seem to trade the unbounded cynicism of advertising pros for the cynicism-within-limits of journalists in classic newsroom comedies.

So it’s fitting that friend-of-Weiner Tina Brown bulldozed what was left of the barrier between journalism and marketing by devoting an entire issue of Newsweek to Mad Men promotion. The people at the controls of our culture want to believe there’s progressive, if not revolutionary, potential in their cynicism. In the Season 5 premiere, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce starts to advertise itself as an equal-opportunity employer not out of principle but as a joke meant to one-up a rival agency.

Here’s how the cultural authorities at The New Yorker described this: “In Weiner’s world, this is how progress is made: one sleek, phony-baloney stage act at a time.” And they call us savages.