James K. A. Smith has weighed in on Mad Men and is unimpressed. As one for whom watching Mad Men was something akin to a religious experience, I feel I must respond in some way — leaving open the possibility that Smith himself will change his tune somewhat after (if) he finishes the first season, because as Brad pointed out in an IM conversation just now, it is really hard to get a feel for the show if you don’t have the whole in front of you.
Aside from claiming that the characters other than Don Draper are unbelievable charicatures (an assessment I think is simply wrong), Smith makes two main points. First, the show seems to be designed to shock our politically correct mindset with the stark contrast between now and the early 1960s — yet at the same time, it undermines itself by making the era seem so glamorous and attractive through what is (literally) a loving attention to detail. Second, he seems to regard the show’s reliance on adultery for so many plots as a kind of cheap move to flout convention.
On both points, I would say that he is over-hastily assimilating the show to a kind of culture-wars framework when I don’t think that’s what the show is aiming for at all. On point one, it seems strange to assume that the main goal of the show is to allow us to congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come when so much of the show’s atmosphere makes the era depicted seem so attractive — perhaps it’s simply the case that the show wants to attempt to portray that era as it really was, with all its faults and all its attractions, and has no particular desire to intervene overtly in contemporary debates. On the second point, I would say that Smith is ignoring the strangeness of Don’s adulterous drives. Where Roger Sterling is continually chasing the young sexy things, Don is seeking out substantial self-made women who create their own space in the world — in other words, he’s seeking an equal in his mistresses, a partner that his wife can never really be (he already has the sexy young girl at home!). It’s a pretty sophisticated commentary on the internal contradictions of marriage as an institution, in an era when those contradictions were only starting to make themselves felt in a serious way.
Of course, this last point may reveal an axiomatic difference between me and Smith — I detect in the last paragraph of his post a sense that the truly subversive and great piece of art would be one that shows how profoundly good marriage is. Adultery is what’s really petty and banal, whereas the successful marriage is the truly sublime and beautiful subject worthy of art. For me, human relationships are far too complex and varied for one particular institution to be set on such a pedestal. I would regard what Don had with Midge (the bohemian girlfriend) as something valuable and real, even if it couldn’t last forever — and the fact that it couldn’t last forever and couldn’t be turned into an institutionally-recognized relationship (for reasons beyond the simple fact that Don is already married) was one of its most significant conditions of possibility. To me, regarding such relationships as failed attempts at something else seems obviously wrong — they are what they are and should be assessed as what they are, without reference to marriage as a “master signifier” among relationships.