Thursday, February 10, 2011

NYRB v Mad Men: Face Off!

Finally, the American literarti lets Mad Men have it. I feel all gloaty, since I gave up on that poorly-written (sometimes ludicrously-written) soap opera at least a year ago after checking out the first three seasons in about a three-week span.  Mendelsohn, however, doesn't add much to the complaints about season one by Mark Greif in The London Review of Books in 2008 (a review Mendelsohn does not cite - I don't think so anyway, I only skimmed Mendelsohn's three-page attack on the show in the New York Review of Books). All he really adds is the thesis that the main viewership for the show is people in their 40s and early 50s, or people who are of an age with not the adults portrayed in the show but their children, and that the viewpoint of the show is the child's-eye view.

Is Mendelsohn using actual statistics about demographics at any point here? On the first page of the review he states that most of Mad Men's viewers are between 19 and 49, but on page three the greatest part of the show's audience is made up of people in their 40s and early 50s... huh? I personally know only three Mad Men fans, two a couple (in their early-mid-40s), one in his early 30s. But I couldn't tell you if there were deep Oedipal reasons for their interest in the show or if they were swept up by the phenomenon and the production design. I also wonder how much ignorance of the soap opera form has to do with the widespread affection for the show among intellectuals, academics and hipsters. If you haven't watched many soap operas in your life, you might not recognize it in Mad Men amidst the production design, the portentousness, and the "cool" "historical accuracy." Like when a film critic friend of mine started raving about the unique dramatic structure and moral terms of John Woo's Face/Off (a movie that had not impressed me), and I realized, and pointed out, that he was just describing a comic book, which he probably had never read.

Similarly, the academics who read and write about Henry James tend to miss the fact that James seems to have invented the soap opera about half a century before the dramatic radio serials that became the daytime soap. Likewise, the Jamesian melodrama of badly behaving adults is often overtly observed from the viewpoint of a child. So maybe Mad Men can tell us a little bit about James, and James about Mad Men, and both about melodrama, once I get back to my promised "James series" - on the weekend,  I hope.


  1. My ex is the only person I know/knew who loves Henry James as much as you seem to. He studied 'What Maisie knew' and wrote a PhD on childhood alienation in 18th/19th century literature.

    I have never watched more than 5 minutes of Madmen I can't cope with the shininess of it. It seems to be all surface and no substance. Or is that just contemporary life?

    Apart from my ex, I can't think of anyone else who would be into all the themes you cover. But I will pimp your blog to my writerly friends.

  2. The thing about 'Mad Men' being all surface (as many have commented, and I can see what they mean) reminds me of things I've read about Mannerist painting. Only I like Mannerist painting and I don't like 'Mad Men.' Maybe I'd enjoy it if no one on the show ever talked.

    Yeah, I'm not sure what demographic I'm going for with this blog. An eclectic one. There must be other freaks like me out there! Or people who'll like occasional posts. Or sometimes if I like the writing on a blog I'll get a lot out of it even if I'm not interested in/familiar with the writer's topics, although that's rare.

  3. It's a good mix of 'high-brow-low-brow' so far and a challenge to that distinction.

    That's what struck me anyway initially!

    Talking of twitter-it is one good way of drumming up interest/readership for blogs.

  4. *sighs and puffs* Yeah I know, that's why I initially joined, but I found I couldn't be bothered to tweet-network or even to tweet. I'm no better at self-promotion as an internet writer than I was as a published author. Maybe worse, since I'm now too lazy to pose for sexy photos. (Of course I'm also no longer 18.)

    I'm not against Twitter, but I do think these lines from T. S. Eliot's "Burnt Norton" are interestingly prescient (especially since "The Waste Land" pictures modern life as the intermingling of multiple, high and low voices and discourses although Eliot presents this shift as nightmarish):

    Eructation of unhealthy souls
    Into the faded air, the torpid
    Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
    Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
    Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
    Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

    (By the way, I'm not referring to Twitter users as "unhealthy souls," just giving the "twittering world" phrase some context.)