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Trib columnist Barbara Brotman can't get into - but can't give up on - Mad Men. As a sympathetic non-"Mad Meniac" who watches nonetheless, I'm here to help.
I'm bothering to encourage Brotman to watch a show I like but don't love because I think her reasons for not watching are compelling; I had the same issues she did the first couple times I tried to watch:
"I don't like "Mad Men" because I find the characters — a mean collection of liars and cheats who defy my attempts to care about them — repugnant."
That really caught me off-guard. I'm a sucker for shows about people who love their jobs - from masterpieces like The Wire to rote procedurals like House and Law & Order - mostly because I love mine, and because work is really important to me. It's also why I couldn't get into the BBC Office. For all its brilliance, especially that of Ricky Gervais, I couldn't identify with the grinding misery and interpersonal discontent. Even having worked jobs I hated, I've never worked in a place where virtually everyone hated the job or each other.
And thus: Mad Men. It's not just that every character's overwhelming unhappiness is oppressive, it's that it doesn't ring true. What little humor and joy there is in the show is shallow and guarded, which just isn't realistic. Better shows about liars, cheats, and otherwise damaged people, like The Wire or The Sopranos, or hell, even The X-Files, have moments of real joy in work, love, or friendship.
Another of Brotman's critiques seems to ring true, though being younger than her and her mother I can only speak from impressions:
"And fierce feminist though [Brotman's mother, a former ad copywriter] is, the show's depiction of the mistreatment of women does not ring true to her. She found advertising a beacon of opportunity for women. 'It was a place where a woman could get a toehold and, if she had confidence and talent and brass, she could succeed,' she said."
That's not an entirely fair criticism, as the show's heroine, Peggy, is a confident, talented, and (slightly) brassy copywriter, whose growing success is a major plot point. Brotman's contention that the show has no heroes is also inaccurate - Peggy and Joan are written as flawed heroes. But the show's portrayal of universal misogyny tracks with its portrayal of universal unhappiness; it's unrealistic, so far as I'm aware, and wearying.
Oh, right - I'm supposed to be defending the show. To let a part speak for the whole: the character of Pete Campbell. Vincent Kartheiser is the show's secret weapon, and Pete its most compelling character even as Don, Peggy, and Joan get more ink (spoilers to follow).
Pete is a young rich kid thrust into an account-exec job through connections and privilege. He's the son of a distant father and a sociopathic mother - paranoid, snide, passive aggressive, a Nice Guy and a classic douche. In other words, he's a shining example of the sort of aggressively awful character that populates the show.
But the genius of his character is that it's a compassionate, suspenseful portrait. He's a vicious little man-child struggling through a very late adolescence, who could be a monster or could be a profoundly damaged young man trying to be an adult despite not ever having been given the tools to do so. Emily Nussbaum succinctly describes it as "poignant crumminess."
Pete hates his mother - a generally reliable red flag for any adult male - but not without reason. Unable to conceive a child with his wife, she pushes to adopt, but he's told by his mother that adopted kids are "discards" and beneath his standing, which is about as evil as you can get. Instead of rebelling, he gets angry at his wife for continuing to broach the topic.
In the most recent episode, he assists a neighbor's nanny (while his wife is away), who ruins her employer's dress and is afraid she'll be sent back to Germany. Kartheiser plays it perfectly - it's unclear to what degree he's doing a good turn or trying to get in her pants, perhaps both. He gets shot down attempting the latter, and goes home to sulk and drink. He returns, drunk, and blackmails her into bed. The story comes out, and he's dressed down by his neighbor.
When his wife returns, he breaks down. It's not clear whether he feels guilty for taking advantage of the young nanny, guilty for sleeping with another woman, embarrassment at losing control, or humiliation for getting caught. And instead of admitting what happened, he simply tells his wife to never go away without him; the man-child kicks the can down the road again, going further into dependency.
His character is like a personality bomb - he perceives, dimly, that he is not an adult and that such a thing exists (as in the scene where he solicits Don Draper on how to deal with his father's sudden death) instead of a destructive man-child, but he can't figure out how to defuse himself; the concept of being a responsible adult man as both a professional and as a husband is simply foreign to him. And his inability to get there from here is rewardingly painful in the nature of great fiction.
I don't think Mad Men is a great drama, and I think it's had the advantage of being in a vacuum after some legitimately great television disappeared. The near-total lack of joy and fun in the characters' lives narrows its scope of dramatic possibility and resonance, and if that bothers viewers enough to turn it off, I'm entirely sympathetic. I almost did. But it has its qualities, some of which are as rich as anything on television, which is why I'm also sympathetic to the people who are obsessed with it.