Friday, July 23, 2010

How long do you think it will take us to be a in a place like this again?

The virtues of mad men
Predictions for Season 4
My title for this post is the question that Roger asks Don as they stand in the office of Sterling Cooper for the very last time. My answer; not until the early 1980s. I don't mean for them but the whole culture and what I mean by that is in the following paragraphs. It is also my explanation of why I am almost certain that Season 4 is going to be a major disappointment.

The infamous line about Mad Men is that it will explain why the sixties had to happen. Implicit in that very statement is an admission of failure. No one says they need to explain why good thing had to happen. Good eras are their own justification and we thank God they happened at all. No, the second someone says they are going to explain why something had to happen they are already apologizing for it. It's like a  divorce or an abortion, no one thinks these things are good; the most they can do is try to justify why they "had to happen".

I doubt very much that Mad Men will pull this trick off; it's hard to see how any TV show could but if they were even going to try that wonderful set had to go. More than one critic has bemoaned its loss but that style—American High Modernism—was a style of optimism and hope and the period we are about to enter from the mid sixties until the crashing failure of the Carter Administration is an era when style and optimism almost died in America. It's still on life support even now.

And it almost died at all levels. The establishment culture of the 1960s was awful and so was the anti-establishment culture. To have showed the cultural events of the 1960s  against that background would have been a cruel indictment. And that bodes ill for this show for at least half the enjoyment was being able to see that wonderful style brought back to life. God preserve us from the thought of Nehru jackets, sideburns, bell bottoms, long hair on men, waterbeds and lava lamps ruining this wonderful show.

Other reasons to expect the worst.

  1. Historically we aren't ready for it. There is a great quip (I can't remember by whom) that it is only after the fiftieth anniversary of an event that objective analysis can finally dismantle the mythology constructed by the people who see themselves as the heroes of that event have constructed. We aren't quite ready to be honest about the 1960s yet. No one is quite ready to admit just what a widespread cultural failure the 1960s were.
  2. Matt Weiner has run out of gas. The quality of most shows was way down in Season 3 and there is no reason to expect anything but worse in Season 4.
  3. Story arc is not Matt Weiner's forte. As we saw in The Sopranos, his stories don't go anywhere. Although it is often said that these new series are novelistic, his really work more like the writings of Ovid (a comparison that is far more flattering than this stuff deserves). What I mean is that Weiner's forte is not showing change but rather showing the same things happening over and over again.
  4. They don't have the new characters to pull it off. Pete Campbell is too much of a villain to keep things facing forward and I don't think anyone can pull off the reversal in his character needed to make that credible. Peggy Olson is a fine character but the actor playing her is weak and that limits what they can do. The complete failure of Kurt And Smitty suggests that bringing new blood in isn't going to help either.

No, they should have ended it with that magnificent last show of season 3. I will probably not be blogging Season 4 and may not even watch although I may make some comments.

PS: There is a bit more in an upcoming rare political comment.


  1. I just posted this on your last Mad Men column, I'll post it again here as well:

  2. "More than one critic has bemoaned its loss but that style—American High Modernism—was a style of optimism and hope and the period we are about to enter from the mid sixties until the crashing failure of the Carter Administration is an era when style and optimism almost died in America. It's still on life support even now."

    I agree, it is still on life-support even now. The '60s had to happen because of the rapid social change that was going on. I'm not talking about civil rights or peace marches, but more subtle yet still powerful changes: the introduction of "The Pill," Vatican II, technological advances, television assuming its place as the major source of information for most Americans, the unprecedented educational opportunities that were offered to vets post-WWII under the G.I. Bill, public education for children reaching its zenith. There were other things too, and they all came together at this moment in history. I would add that this could only have happened during a time of unprecedented prosperity which America was enjoying at that time. I think Weiner's goal is to show this, whether he succeeds or not, as you say, time will tell.

    You probably won't like this or agree, but I believe that the catalyst for the social upheaval and what galvanized people was JFK's assassination, and I don't think most people were even aware of this at the time. I believe that to a large degree people channeled the anger and confusion they felt over that event into the civil rights and anti war movements, which was constructive, and in the case of civil rights resulted important legislation. I also think others were destructive, this was also the beginning of the drug culture and promiscuous sex on demand. I think the depair and pessimism finally set in following the assassinations of MLK and RFK at the end of the decade, and Watergate in the early '70s. I saw it all around me at the time, and I felt it myself. And you're right, we have not fully recovered, Americans are more distrustful of government than ever, less optimistic, and as of last year fully 76% of the American people did not believe the Warren Commission Report that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin. We can never return to the '50s because that was a time of innocence, and we lost that starting on 11/22/63. This is not about JFK or myth-making, or whether or not he was a great President, that's all irrelevant. This is about the American people's faith in their government, which took a fatal blow on that date.

  3. You changed the website, have to wear my sunglasses!!

  4. Thanks for the WSJ article I found it interesting although a little too much Olgilvy.

    I don't completely disagree about the effect of the Kennedy assassination. My sense is that big events like that tend to speed up things that are already happening. The increasing polarization between liberal and political views we have seen since 2000 probably would have happened anyway but 9/11 sped them up.

    I guess I'd put it this way, a crisis forces us to decide what really matters to us and that tends to highlight the differences in society leading to ferment.

  5. Here's a quote from Weiner from an article in this week's TV Guide that I saw on another site:

    "There's a feeling on the writing team, about Betty, that's she's a woman who will learn as little about herself as possible." If she actually ends up married to Henry Francis, she obviously has learned nothing because she knows nothing about this guy either. It's all about appearances to her. That's all she has and it's all she can accept."

    What you've been saying all along.

  6. I don't know if you've had the opportunity to watch the first two episodes of Season 4. I thought Episode 1 was very good, Episode 2 not as good, maybe because it used a great deal of subtlety to make some interesting points and advance the storyline. From past seasons whenever they do that they're usually laying the groundwork for future episodes.

    The problem with ending the series at the conclusion of Season 3--aside from some loose ends--is that all of these characters are still in the process of becoming. None of them is where they want to be or even where they think they want to be, especially Betty who hasn't figured that out yet.