Posted by: Chris | June 19, 2010

Two Insights from Ross Douthat

First, this might be one of the best exegeses of Christopher Hitchens I have come across.  Money quote:

And sure enough, Hitchens’ anti-religious arguments feel the least heartfelt — the least, well, Hitchens-esque — when they’re couched in the language of scientism.  (I’m thinking, in particular, of his grating and forced rhetorical habit of referring to human beings as “mammals” or “primates” in the course of these polemics …)

Whereas they feel entirely authentic when they’re couched as aux armes, citoyens rallying cries in the struggle against tyranny. Hitchens is never more himself (for better or worse) than when he’s railing against the supposed cruelties of Benedict XVI, or comparing God to Kim Jong-Il. In this sense, he’s really less of an atheist than an anti-theist: Whereas Dawkins and co. are appalled by the belief in God, Hitchens is far more appalled by the idea that anyone would want to obey Him. Every true romantic needs a great foe, a worthy adversary, a villain to whose destruction he can consecrate himself. Never one for half measures, Hitchens just decided to go all the way to the top.

Second, an interesting take on how Mad Men compares to its fellow high-brow serialized television shows.  Not having watched Breaking Bad, I cannot comment on the veracity of his specific comparisons, but I really liked this summation of the inherent challenges the show faces:

There’s no question that “Mad Men” is the most ambitious artistic effort on television at the moment. The show aims to be sociological and psychological all at once, simultaneously immersing the audience in a fully-realized historical setting and populating that setting with characters whose interior lives rival Tony Soprano in complexity and depth. In this sense, it’s trying to marry the strengths of both “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” — its recreation of Madison Avenue in the 1960s is a more extensive exercise in world-building than David Chase’s portrait of the turn-of-the-millenium Jersey mob, and it pays more attention to its characters’ inner lives than David Simon’s urban drama ever did. What’s more, in a sense “Mad Men” has to work twice as hard as either of those shows to hold the audience’s interest, because it doesn’t have any obvious genre conventions to play with — it’s neither a mob drama nor a cops-and-robbers story, and with the exception of the occasional lawnmower accident, it can’t rely on the constant threat of violence to keep the viewer hooked. It has to rely instead on the drama of ordinary life (or at least ordinary life, circa 1963), which means that it’s always in danger of teetering into soap-opera territory, or else leaving the audience wanting more excitement than an ad agency’s social dynamics can supply.

This bifurcated approach is not just a burden because of the work it entails, but also because the two halves are so interdependent that they cannot stand on their own.  The Wire delivered a whole season without McNulty, but Mad Men starts to crumble whenever Don Draper slides out of focus or it gets too involved in its characters it loses sight of the larger milieu.  I think, despite the hurdles it faces, Mad Men still delivers more frequently than not and CF and others would do well to take Douthat’s advice and push through their knee-jerk distaste.  Even the sociological half (which I think is the weaker of the two) is much more subtle than the scolding-through-hindsight it initially appears to be.

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Responses

  1. I’m a fan of both shows – for me this is the money quote:

    “That’s true of Walter White — but after three seasons of “Mad Men,” I have absolutely no idea what Don Draper’s intentions are.

    This is part of that show’s appeal, obviously: We keep coming back to “Mad Men” in part because we don’t quite understand what makes its protagonists tick. But mystery can be an artistic crutch as well as a virtue, and what’s struck me watching “Breaking Bad” is how much more invested I am in its characters as human beings than I am in any of the leading players on “Mad Men.” ”

    I mean, how many times can you be intrigued by “oooh Draper so mysterious…” before it gets trite. I start to wonder if the tension between his many lives makes up a coherent character. And besides when he throws down a Carousel monologue is Draper even that extraordinary? He likes to womanize, drink, make money, and have a nice family…like every guy in his era and now. If the show(Weiner) didn’t heap mystique on Draper thus demanding the audience recognize him as remarkable would we, by his actions alone, even find him interesting? So addressing your post, I think the sociological aspect of the show is the stronger of the two (though I’m not going to fully defend that claim now) but even that can be glib at times.

    Addressing Douthat’s article, Breaking Bad in my mind far and away the best show on television. Draper is an extraordinary (at least according to Weiner) man doing mostly ordinary things; Walter white is an ordinary man doing extraordinary, albeit horrible, things. Season 3 Walter is unrecognizable from Season 1 Walter. I haven’t seen that kind of character growth from Mad Men. Also Breaking Bad’s second lead, Jesse, is a strong character and plays a role in the show that Mad Men has no counterpart. Breaking Bad is always raw, surprising, and character driven – it’s as good now as it was when it premiered but relies on entirely different tensions.

  2. Breaking Bad, from what both you and Ross say, sounds like an amazing show. I think we should add it to our line up, perhaps even before the Sopranos (as, with only three seasons, it will be much more managable to complete).

    Nick and I are still slowly making our way through Season 3 of Mad Men, so I can’t comment on what happens then, but I do agree that Don has meager character development in the first two seasons, but that is largely because the writers are able to stay busy unravelling the onion that is Don Draper and extrapolating from the facets of his personality we have long known (like his discontentment with his surroundings and that he is not is not in fact Don Draper). Of course, this cannot last forever and the show is always ominously portending dramatic misfortune for its characters (and for the world it is building). Let’s if and how they follow through.

    PS: That Kodak Carousel speech was fantastic. One of the things that sold me on the show (I entered midway through Season 1) and an interesting counterpoint to the Lure’s current ragging on nostalgia.

  3. Only someone who is able to imbue nothingness with meaning – e.g. “speech was…an interesting counterpoint to the Lure’s current ragging on nostalgia” – could find Mad Men insightful.

    And why do you call a complaint that is based in a series of specific, well-chosen examples “knee-jerk.” I think the word you’re looking for is “considered.” (Maybe, also, “premature,” but, given how sophomoric Mad Men is, I have no incentive to find out whether that is so.)

  4. […] the original sanctions they sought to overturn.  I am reminded of a line from Ross Douthat (Lure agitator?) about the difference between liberals and conservatives: “But this is what conservatism […]


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