...Mad Men is currently said to be the best and ‘smartest’ show on American TV. We’re doomed.
...The format of the show is to suspend a backstory and subplot from each diminutive stereotype, episode by episode, and sketch some quick pathos around the character to see if it can humanise him or her.
...Whether one finds all of this claustrophobic and ludicrous or tightly wound and compelling depends very heavily on one’s opinion of Don Draper. Draper, as written, is a kind of social savant. He knows how to act in every emergency. He deploys strategic fits of temper to attain his ends. He’s catnip to women. As played by Jon Hamm, though, his manner hardly matches his activities. Hamm looks perpetually wimpy and underslept. His face is powdered and doughy. He lacks command. He is witless. The pose that he’s best at, interestingly, is leaning back in his chair; it ought to be from superiority, but it looks as though he is trying to dodge a blow. Draper is supposed to have a deep secret, but it would make sense only if that secret were his weakness – fearfulness or femininity – instead of the show’s anticlimactic revelation that his mother was a whore and he picked up another man’s identity on the battlefield in Korea: bizarre Gothicisms that belong to some other series. One never sees hunger or anger in Hamm’s eyes, only the misery of the hunted fox. Either he is playing the hero as a schlub in deference to a 21st-century idea of masculinity as fundamentally hollow and sham, or he’s completely underequipped to convey male menace.
The most necessary thing that he can’t do is to justify viscerally why strong women keep falling for him, or why the competitive males in his office accept him as an Alpha. In the classic Hollywood cinema, there was a name for the role Hamm should be playing: the Mug, who seems OK at first but in the end has to give up the girl to Cary Grant or Spencer Tracy (excerpted from the LRB; read the whole thing here).
Without a doubt Mark Greif is one of the best critics writing today in the realm of cultural politics. He does know how to get under the skin of a certain (in my opinion) deserving audience, from which well-intentioned, occasionally complacent and uncritical liberals are certainly not excluded. Unlike some of his more transparently self-serving detractors, his thinking never seems forcibly dressed up or hiding in pedantries, backhanded, or boring. (Those with a less sympathetic politics would of course say just the opposite; they are unconvincing.) He may risk spawning a new class of careerist Bill Buckleys in reaction. I suppose worse things could be happening for our national dialogue (well, and are).
I particularly respect the integrity, intellectual honesty and class of Greif's response to Caleb Crain, regarding Greif's article "On Repressive Sentimentalism" (see the latest issue of n+1, number 9).