Thursday, September 3, 2009

Mad Music (part I of VII)

It never ceases to amaze that Mad Men's detractors claim there is nothing behind the show's immaculately conceived veneer. Time and again, people hear and read the same contradictory views:

To half Mad Men's critics the show is pornographic nostalgia - presenting a past bereft of half-a-century's liberal guilt during which America was free to be its truest self: an era in which American superiority had no reason to be questioned and the 'American Way' was the world's. To these critics, Mad Men presents to us nothing but our innate longing to recapture a paradise lost, an era that can never again be and perhaps never was. These critics allege that the show looks upon the suppression of the rest of the world to a tiny coterie of white males with nostalgia, perhaps even approval.

To the other half of its critics, perhaps the more vocal half, the show is a nightmare vision of the past - presenting an era so backward in its view of the world that we from the present can bask in a cozy blanket of self-congratulation. To these critics, Mad Men presents to us nothing but our innate arrogance in assuming that we of the Obama era are far superior in our enlightenment to those who preceded us. These critics allege that the show looks upon the vices of the sixties with such holier-than-thou self-satisfaction that it turns a blind eye to to the virtues of that era, and even moreso to the vices of our own.

It is no blight upon the greatness of the show to concede that there is quite something to both interpretations. Who can look at the workplace camaraderie on display and deny that something important was lost in the intervening years? But just the same, who can look at the workers blatantly casual mistreatment of one another and deny that something at least as important was gained?

No, Mad Men is not a show that presents the sixties exactly as it was. No television show could. Those who claim that Mad Men is nothing more than surface rendered immaculate give the show far too much credit. Whole websites exist to document its errors of period style. The show is great not because it presents the sixties exactly as it was, it is great because it presents the sixties exactly as we remember it.

It was Emerson who said that "[A man] dismisses without notice his own thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a sort of alienated majesty." The genius of Mad Men is that it displays America's memories of the sixties with complete fidelity to our present view of it. It's all there: the infidelities, the smoking, the drinking, the racism, the sexism, the pride and the prejudice, displayed with neither guile nor guilt. It takes no side and seeks nothing more than to present this era to us without judgement or inhibition. The fact that people have such divergent reactions to it speaks to that it does so with all the clarity of a balance sheet.

And as it enters its third season, the show becomes ever truer to our memories. Those who already disliked it will soon come to hate it. With every episode, the show seems to be 'about' less and less. In the most recent episodes, it's becoming difficult to remember if there was any linear plot at all. Mad Men may soon reach the point in which it becomes nothing more a smoky hall of mirrors with which the viewers interact. The show is about nothing less the dawn of an era that is still with us. The major characters are not specific people, they are archetypes. They are supposed to resemble people we either know, hear about, or read about. Each of them resembling a one particular type of person in our mind's view of the decade that created contemporary America.

For the past month, critics were warning us that this past week's episode would be the best yet. After seeing it, it's difficult to imagine too many die-hard fans disagreeing with that statement. In the space of an hour, it balances the stories of seven different major characters, and does so simply by telling their stories through music. For one episode, Mad Men was not a television show, but an opera. The music sums up everything about each major character with all the clarity you find in the Marriage of Figaro.

Over the next week, we'll look at the way music tells the story of each character.

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