Of Mad Men and Melodrama

Posted on | February 6, 2011 | 1 Comment

By now, Daniel Mendelsohn’s takedown of Mad Men in the New York Review of Books has become a regular internet scandale. The show had it coming—if only because the critical consensus has been too monolithic for such an attack not to feel overdue.  It’s fun, I suspect, to be the bubble-burster; and while Mendelsohn’s criticisms are too thoughtful, and often too correct, to be dismissed as mere churlishness, I do think the thrill of the hunt has colored his judgment of the show. play roullette

Among the many claims in Mendelsohn’s piece that I disagree with—that Mad Men is hypocritical, that it’s melodramatic, that it’s poorly acted—the one that seems most incongruous with the show I’ve watched across four seasons is his assault on Mad Men’s use of historical context.  “Most of the show’s flaws can, in fact, be attributed to the way it waves certain flags in your face and leaves them at that, without serious thought about dramatic appropriateness or textured characterization,” he writes.  “The writers like to trigger ‘issue’-related subplots by parachuting in some new character or event into the action, often an element that has no relation to anything that’s come before.” By “issues,” Mendelsohn means historical events or attitudes: “Mad Men’s action is, essentially, the stuff of soap opera: abortions, secret pregnancies, extramarital affairs, office romances, and of course, dire family secrets; what is supposed to give it its higher cultural resonance is the historical element.”

Well, right.  The historical element does, in fact, elevate this material.  (I have watched, sadly, enough Grey’s Anatomy to know melodrama when I see it.)  One of the things Mad Men does well is break down the conventional narrative of the 50s: that the decade’s conformist atmosphere was instantly overthrown and undone by the counter-culture of the 60s.  Mad Men exists at the moment where one historical period begins to bleed into the next, and reveals the transition as anything but abrupt.  Where Mendelsohn argues that historical events are exploited for plot points, I think we’re seeing the opposite: that history and life do not always dovetail for a perfect cocktail of narrative exposition.  Although the major upheavals of the 60s percolate in the background, their import for the show’s characters remains inchoate.  Don finds that hippie music makes for a good ad jingle.  Paul Kinsey treats the Civil Rights movement as an occasion for self-indulgent white-boy soul-seeking.  Joan doesn’t have the language to explain her own rape.  Mendelsohn faults Mad Men for “its tendency to invoke rather than unravel this or that issue,” but history doesn’t play as history for the lives embedded within it.  Sometimes, JFK’s assassination ruins your wedding.


One Response to “Of Mad Men and Melodrama” top casino games

  1. Beaver Boy
    February 20th, 2013 @ 9:32 am

    Having recently binge watched the first 2 seasons of Mad Men, I completely agree with Mendelsohn. I always knew the show was extremely boring, and Mendelsohn explains why perfectly. Every subplot and story arc is pointless and never has any weight. It’s just a poorly written melodrama with amazing production values.

    The show is an utter embodiment of style over substance. One only needs to watch the first few episodes to know what the rest of the season (and the next season). play online blackjack ipad

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