Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What's Wrong with Mad Men?

Do you still care about Don Draper?

You know… the super-gifted ad man with the identity crisis.

So far on this season’s Mad Men, Draper’s identity crisis has faded into the background and he seems to have lost his ad man’s touch.

He is running a very successful firm, but his last pitch for Heinz ketchup fell flat. Come to think of it, when was the last time that Draper produced a great ad concept?

Is Don Draper still Don Draper? If not, why should we care?

Famed television writer and producer Ken Levine says that something is gone wrong with this season’s Mad Men.

In the world of television writing and producing Levine has some serious credits. He has won Emmy awards. He worked on:  MASH, CHEERS, FRASIER, THE SIMPSONS, WINGS, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, BECKER, and DHARMA & GREG. He co-created Almost Perfect.

Levine has long been a fan of Mad Men. So have I. But this season the show is leaving him cold. Ditto for me.

If I had to explain how the show went wrong, I would say that Matthew Wiener has tried to make it a portrait of America in the late ‘60s. He is trying to render a culture in flux.

Unfortunately, television shows are not social commentary. They tell stories. If they do it well, great. If they fail to interest you in their story, you are going to tune out.  

A good story engages you. But, Levine points out, you cannot be engaged unless you care about the characters. If they are too one-sided, too close to caricature, you cease to be interested in what they are doing and what will happen to them. If characters are one-dimensional, it doesn’t matter if they get away with it or if they  get caught in the act.

In Levine’s words:

When I’m creating a show my first rule is that I’ve got to love my characters. They may be flawed – they should be flawed – but ultimately I love them and care about them. And hopefully, I can convey that to the audience and they’ll love them too.

Again, the characters don’t have to be particularly loveable. Sweet and earnest and always-doing-the-right-thing is also boring. The best characters are complex. They may have internal battles between good and evil. They may be scoundrels but deliciously so. Or they can’t get out of their own way. Or life’s dealt them a bad hand. 

To Levine the characters on Lena Dunham’s Girls suffer from the same problem. They have ceased being interesting. No one cares any more. People have stopped watching.

In his words:

Season one those girls were quirky and self-centered but sort of fun. And they liked each other. By season two I wanted to slap all of them. And they wanted to slap each other. The end result is ratings for year two have plummeted. 

Full disclosure: I did not care about the characters during the first season either. In fact, I posted about it at the time. It’s one thing to portray people leading boring lives; it’s quite another to make them boring to the point where you don’t care what happens to them.

In the second season of Girls, the lead characters continued to be boring. They interacted less and less with each other. The plot line became incoherent.

When it comes to Mad Men, Levine asks why anyone should still care about the main characters.

We used to care about Don Draper, Levine wrote:

He was a man of mystery, trying to overcome a dark past, flailing, always feeling out of sync, endlessly searching for who he is and what will make him happy. And it helps that a great actor (Jon Hamm) plays him.  He could be infuriating but he was always fascinating.

So for years we felt for Don, even looked the other way when he did dishonorable things like cheat on his wife with every woman other than Bella Abzug. The hope was always that he’d figure it out, finally be comfortable in his own skin, and that all of his good qualities would rise to the surface and he’d become a better father, husband, employer, and stop wearing hats already in 1968. And if he slipped up a little, well – he’s only human and we’ve come to expect that. Betty is trying to throw Hansel & Gretel in an oven, she’s a lost cause. But there was still hope for Don.

This season, things have changed:

Now he has a loving wife, a wildly successful career, and he has become television’s biggest prick. It’s not enough he’s cheating on Megan, but he’s doing it with another woman in his building and he’s all buddy-buddy with her husband. They socialize together. He invites the guy to the office. What a fucking asshole! Meanwhile, he tries to destroy his wife’s dreams simply because they inconvenience him. He never talks to his children, even on Christmas. And he’s a cold distant boss to all his employees while still demanding total loyalty from them.

Why should I care anymore about this miserable soul?  Because he gets to his front door, slumps down to the ground, and feels sad?  At one time there were glimmers of humanity, moments when he would exhibit surprising kindness.

With apologies for Levine’s salty language, consider Draper’s affair with his neighbor’s wife.

First, nothing about Megan suggests that her husband would naturally be seeking to have an affair. Of course, it happens in real life, but in a story, the affair has to make dramatic sense. It’s not enough for the story to say that Draper is a sexaholic womanizer.

Draper becomes even less sympathetic for having an affair with the wife of a sympathetic character, a man who is supposedly his friend, heart surgeon Arnold Rosen. It's one thing to cover your neighbor's wife. It's a special form of depravity to maintain a friendship with her husband.

Some critics have noticed that Draper is in awe of Dr. Rosen. If so, why does he invite the man to drop by his office to give him a freebie? It’s not a sign of respect; it’s insulting.

Would it have been too much trouble for Draper to bring one of the cameras home with him and offer it more graciously?

Am I the only one to notice that there is very little erotic tension between Draper and Silvia. If they are not that into each other, why should anyone else care?

Extramarital affairs can do many things for a story. They can raise the issue of whether or not the adulterous lovers will fall in love and divorce their spouses. They can raise the suspense over whether or not they get caught. They can lead to a place where the contrite adulterers try to salvage their damaged marriages.

When it comes to Don Draper and Silvia, do you really care about how the story resolves itself?

That is Levine’s point: when you don’t like the characters, even a little, you will remain indifferent to what happens to them.


JPL17 said...

I couldn't agree more with your analysis of where the "Mad Men" story line and character development has gone wrong this season. I went through every minute of the latest episode thinking the series should simply be re-titled "Bad Men." At least that would represent truth in advertising.

One thing I found so fascinating about the first 2 seasons of the show was that, consciously or not, it was explaining how the early or "good" sixties gave rise to the late or "ugly" sixties; in particular, how the seeds for all that went wrong in the late sixties were actually there all along -- having been planted in the 50s and early 60s. E.g., the excesses of the baby boom generation -- free love, drug + hippie culture, serial divorce, hideous fashions, anti-Americanism, hedonism, the evaporation of manners and moral standards, etc. -- never would have developed to the extent they did in the late sixties if Don Draper's generation hadn't at some level envied those things and let them happen. The show also betrayed a delicious tension between its disapproval of early-sixties' vices, and nostalgia for them -- in that they weren't nearly as destructive as the late-sixties' vices that came after.

Unfortunately, now that the show is actually taking place in the late, "ugly" sixties, the only tension we feel is between the aging, flawed generation of Don Draper, and the generation of ruthless, uncouth nihilists that followed it. Who are we supposed to root for? Can we hope BOTH sides lose? No wonder the new season's so uninspiring!

CatherineM said...

I wanted to tell my dad after the last episode, 87 years old, boy your generation was a bunch of jerks - again. I said you were all creepy, adultrous, drunk, racists bastards. Who knew that's what the greatest generation was REALLY like?

I realize it's dramatized, but every man on that show has cheated or nearly has. Sunday's last episode had the Heinz guy saying he needed to meet someone who expects him to be waiting for her, and he slips off his wedding ring in front of the Draper and Pete. Kind of sick of that.

I grew up as the children of that generation and there wasn't the divorce they portray either. No one I knew growing up had divorced parents, but one kid who we all found to be fascinating ("what do you mean your dad doesn't live with you anymore.") Perhaps the show is more of a priveleged class, but it was the next generation who were all divorced.

Sam L. said...

I have never watched it.

CM, it's TV. Most folks didn't do what the scripts say. Like the NYT, it just ain't so.

Anonymous said...

Sam L -

Like CM, I think quite a few ppl
View MadMen as a DocuDrama,
not a melodrama.

I think quite a few ppl, especially the younger viewers, think *everybody* behaved that way.

Ain't TV grand??


Sam L. said...

Anon.shoe, Isn't that a really scary thought?

Anonymous said...

I'm puzzled. Writers, hipsters, and literati these days seem incoherent and inchoate. Or lazy.

How does the term "fucking asshole" aid understanding? I've been a writer all my life, and never had the need to use it. I'd be embarrassed to display such poverty of vocabulary and imagination.

I don't say "sort of" and "kind of" either. "Rather" I use sparingly. OK. I'm a prig. Sorry for being so chatty. -- Rich Lara

Dennis said...


That goes with a society that gradually degrades everything in its culture. The "stairs' of life go either up or down depending on the inclination of the person, societies as well, leads them. Right now we seems to be trying to find out how low we can go.