Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Emptying Mad Men's Ashstray

Whatever impression my impressive vocabulary and wonderful way with words may give to the contrary, I’m a middlebrow. I believe that the optimal duration of a piece of music is three minutes, 20 seconds, and thus don’t appreciate anything much more classical than Rhapsody in Blue. I never read poetry for pleasure. I suppose there’s a chance that some day I might enjoy a Shakespearean production, but I can’t read more than a couple of pages without nodding off. As I have said here repeatedly, I regard most modern art as a joke played on the eagerly pretentious by the undertalented.

Maybe this will help to explain why it took me such a very long time to learn to enjoy Mad Men. Bumpkin that I am, I took as given that I should root for the principal character, flawed though he may have been. It’s only recently that I’ve realized that no such thing is the case. By virtually every measure, Don Draper’s a woeful human being — a liar, a philanderer, an alcoholic chainsmoker, a rotten dad. (Because I’ve always regarded my own work as a parent as some of the best work I’ve ever done, I could forgive him almost anything if he were attentive and loving with his kids, but no such luck.) Also, the show asks us to believe that his handsomeness is such that a succession of beautiful (and other) women are quite happy to fuck him in spite even though nobody in real life could smoke and drink as he does without his mouth smelling (and tasting) very revolting; nobody’s that handsome.

Tony Soprano wasn’t exactly Mr. Lovable, either, but I’m not so sure he was much more distasteful than Draper. Yes, he killed people, or had them killed, but didn’t Draper’s callousness contribute substantially to his half-brother’s suicide? “T” had a much better sense of who he was, and was able to mock himself, as Draper never does. He was crazy about his daughter, and, in his own deeply flawed way, adored Carmela. It doesn’t appear to me as though Draper is capable of adoration. He makes Tony Soprano look in comparison like the embodiment of emotional integrity and mental health.

Maybe I should have been smart enough to guess that Men’s to-root-for character wasn’t played by the top-billed actor, but by the second-billed. How can one not root for Elizabeth Moss’s plucky Peggy, who’s managing to get ahead in a world in which even one as enlightened as her writer boyfriend scoffs at the notion of women having it as bad in many ways as…Negroes? When I reflect on how much less naked misogyny, racism, and homophobia there is in America now than when I was a child and teenager, it’s actually enough to make me forget about Gingrich, Palin, the Tea Party, and other modern horrors for a minute or two. (The key word, of course, being naked. I have women friends who assure me that they’re expected even in the fall of 2010 to defer in all situations to male counterparts.)

Even with having to learn to enjoy Mad Men, I don’t begin to understand why writers for the likes of Slate and Salon, for instance, think it good enough to ponder every line of the script; yesterday Salon's TV critic found great significance, for instance, in Draper asking his secretary to close his office door at one point, in a way the line in no way warranted. At such moments, one is distressed to find himself thinking, “Get a life!” Good as it may be, Mad Men fit to empty the ashtrays of The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, or Friday Night Lights, and you can quote me, though you won’t.

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