Thursday, June 21, 2012

Mad for Mad Men

This post was supposed to follow the Mad for Mad Libs one, but I got busy and never finished it.

I first saw Mad Men about a month before my great aunt died. It fell to us to clean out her house, and it just struck me that the style of her place was firmly rooted in that era. The events were close enough together that whenever I watch the show, I think of her.

Jen and I are working through it on Netflix, and I like it and part of the appeal is figuring out why I like it. It's a show about an advertising agency in the 60s staffed by a bunch of alcoholic assholes. And I've mentioned that part of my dislike of Firefly is that I think that the characters are a bunch of assholes. So why do I like these assholes, but not those assholes?

I don't want to turn this into my usual rag on Joss Whedon, but as the show prominently features two Whedon alums, in the form of Christina Hendricks (Saffron from Firefly) and Vincent Kartheiser (Connor from Angel) I think comparisons are inevitable. And I'm not going to say whether Mad Men is a better show than Firefly*, but rather, try to examine why I like one and not the other.

The name of my blog comes from a line from one of Roger Zelazny's stories, and he wrote his Master's thesis on The Revenger's Tragedy, and made a career writing characters with "a hate so big it would burn the innocent to reach the guilty." So I'm not averse to works with borderline villainous protagonists.

I like another author named Glen Cook. He's probably most well known for his "Black Company" series, which chronicles the stories of a mercenary company of the same name. I discovered him at about the same time I did Zelazny, and I like him for a lot of the same reasons. He had a line in one of his later books that went something like "Most bad people aren't bad all the time, and when they are, it's mostly in small ways."

I think that's one of the best observations on human nature I've ever read. Most bad people are bad in mostly small ways, though those bad acts have a disproportionate impact on those over whom they have power.

The people in Mad Men are bad people. At times, Don Draper is straight up evil.

The people in Firefly are bad people too. But as I observed in my Avengers review,  the most thuggish criminal, if he's funny, nice to his friends, and allowed to present events from his point of view, will look like a nice guy.

I think the difference, at least for me, is that sympathetic point of view. We only see the crew of the Serenity at their best and that serves to color the audience's perspective. When someone in Mad Men does something bad, we see the people that it hurts. To put it another way, the characters in Mad Men don't get away with being bad, and they never seem happy except in small or temporary ways.

However,  that difference is by design. I'm actually even going to defend Firefly a little bit. My friend Eric says that Firefly is very archetypal in that the characters tend to be the sum of their profession, and that's a very western thing. Jayne is "The Mercenary".  Simon is "The Doctor". They have some distinguishing characteristics, but not a lot of nuance and at the end of the day, they're pretty much the same person they were when they began it. And I think that's a feature, not a bug.

I think it's the subtle truths of characterization and setting that sold me on the show. I particularly like January Jones, which is kind of funny, because I thought she was pretty awful when I first saw her in X-Men: First Class.  There's a certain je ne sais quoi to her performance. She talks with a kind of a flat affect, and given the way I speak, God knows I have no room to criticize anyone for that, but I like it in her. And I think her character is what I like about the show the most. I like taking things apart and seeing what makes them tick. She really makes me believe that there's so much more going on in Betty's head than what she says out loud.

Don is great for that too, when he cocks his head and squints, it reminds me of a line from (who else?) Roger Zelazny: "He photographed me with his magpie eyes in the following second, and I knew that the machine that lay behind them was already spinning its wheels like a demon on an exercise-bike."

Vincent Kartheiser is enjoyably deplorable as Pete Campbell, but I think the character I like the most is Joan Holloway played by Christina Hendricks. When I first started watching the show, I asked a friend if she had ever seen it. She said she didn't have any interest, because she had heard all about the casual bigotry of the era and she didn't think she could enjoy the show because there's still so much of that fifty years later.

I always think of that observation when Joan is on the screen. She's the office manager and head of the secretarial pool, and she's pretty, of course, but extremely professional, and whip smart. In an episode in the second season, she takes on additional duties proofreading scripts because the broadcast department is overloaded. She enjoys it, but she's so good at it, that her work  convinces the senior partners of the necessity of a full time position, and she's replaced with a guy who doesn't know what he's doing. The thing that gets me is that you only see the most fleeting disappointment cross her face, though she must be devastated.

But she's still a professional, so she congratulates the new guy, who knows nothing about the job he'll be doing, and agrees to assist him when he asks, and goes back to her old position.

Jen thinks that her supervisor felt threatened, but I think that it was done without malice, that it just never occurred to him that a woman could do the job for real. And I think that this is what my friend was getting at, that even smart, beautiful, professional women were relegated to menial roles back then.

I did enjoy her casual smackdown of one of the copywriters when he went to far with her. The previous night, Joan had met his African-American girlfriend at a party, and in the early sixties, interracial dating was very rare.
Kinsey: What did you say to Sheila?
Joan: Who?
Kinsey: Sheila. (Pause) My girlfriend. 

Joan: Describe her to me.
Kinsey: Very funny.
Joan: I know what's first on the list.

Kinsey: You're just jealous.
Joan: Because you're the one who got away? You, out there, in your poor little rich boy apartment in Newark or wherever. Walking around with your pipe and your beard. Falling in love with that girl just to show just how interesting you are. (Pause) Go ahead. (Pause) What part is wrong?

Bonus! Click through here for the Mad Men Alignment Chart!

*It totally is, though.


  1. Mad men is one of the best science-fiction TV shows ever -- right up there with The Prisoner (the '60s original, of course, not the halfwitted remake) and the X-Files (if you leave out all the crap episodes and the entire last couple of seasons).

  2. Yay Mad Men! Now we must get you watchign Sherlock. Benedict Cumberbatch rocks.