One of the basic rules of American series TV is that a successful show’s best episodes occur in its first one or two seasons, and then it’s all downhill from there, as both the exhausting production pace of a weekly series overwhelms a show’s writing and technical crew, and its renewal and reliance of what become audience-beloved clichés diminishes the need for brilliance. (Hence the phrase “phoning it in.”)
Mad Men has been no exception — the first couple of seasons were quite fascinating, as its slick production design and relatively untapped era — the Rat Pack, JFK, cool, swank, bourbon and Marlboro-scented early 1960s — made for some hypnotic viewing.
But the inertia of the show coupled with its entering the period of the 1960s that’s been canonized by the Boomers has seen a steady decline in watchability. Most episodes have one really solid dramatic scene (and the shock moment that AMC requires be inserted into each episode to generate viral “buzz” and YouTube clips), but getting there is, all too often, is a tough slog.
Which in a sense seems sort of paradoxical, given the transformation of the era — as the Boomers remember it — from the Eisenhower/JFK early ‘60s to the Technicolor LSD-soaked craziness of the Summer of Love and the non-stop horrors of the following year.
But this clanging moment in “showrunner” Matthew Weiner’s interview today with the Internet Movie Database previewing the show’s last season (which AMC will split into two years, ala the split final season of Breaking Bad) may illustrate why Mad Men seems rather moribund these days:
A lot of reasons that I started the show in 1960 was because it was so much the height of the ‘50s. I felt that there was a sort of constricted social environment based on manners that we’ve watched disintegrate and erode throughout the decade. The weirdest thing about getting to the late ‘60s is that it feels more like today. Other than saying “groovy” once in a while…there is not, in either watching the movies, or reading books, or reading interviews, or watching the news, it does not feel even slightly anachronistic. There is nothing to laugh at by the time you’re in the late ‘60s. It is very similar to right now, with the exception of technology.
Really? Nothing to laugh at? From the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to Radical Chic to The Me Decade, culminating in his Purple Decades Anthology, Tom Wolfe spent the late ‘60s and entire 1970s having lots of fun mocking the Weimar-esque excesses of the New Left and the damage they wreaked upon society. P.J. O’Rourke’s entire career has explored similar terrain with often even zanier results.
But helps enormously to maintain some distance between yourself and your subject – and a fair amount of skepticism as well. And to “Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you,” as Flannery O’Connor once said. Otherwise, as Umberto Eco wrote almost a decade ago:
G K Chesterton is often credited with observing: “When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing. He believes in anything.” Whoever said it* — he was right. We are supposed to live in a sceptical age. In fact, we live in an age of outrageous credulity.
It’s fascinating to watch a man who’s pose is that of being cool and skeptical about America drop the mask and admit his outrageous credulity, that he’s a true believer, baptized in the Electric Kool-Aid of the 1960s.
* As Dale Ahlquist of the American Chesterton Society wrote in 2005, decoding the convoluted history of this brilliant aphorism, “the source is still Chesterton. Except he didn’t say it.”
Update: No sooner did I publish this post than I came across this: “The culture war isn’t religious versus secular. It’s a clash of two faiths,” from Timothy P. Carney’s article in the Washington Examiner tonight titled, “Peace in the culture wars — if the Left wants it.” Although considering, to extrapolate from Weiner’s quote above, that the left’s worldview has been freeze-dried and hermetically-sealed since 1968 (QED), neither side is holding their breath waiting for the armistice.