That Soothing Balm of Latent Discontent: MAD MEN Unstresses the 21st Century

Curator's Note

MAD MEN is part of a larger group of popular series that share a competitive interest in televisual "quality." For most of these series, producing "quality television" means telling stories vast and fast: entangled narratives which frequently reflect and enact scenarios of stress (multi-tasking, decision making under intense time pressure, reduced reaction spans, unclear cause-effect-relations, etc.). Their formal complexities--just as their ongoing "reductions of self-generated complexities" (Andreas Jahn-Sudmann)--correspond in interesting ways to the demands of the digitized neoliberal workplace. MAD MEN, slow-moving and restrained, has staked out an unusual but remarkably successful niche in this field. Four hypotheses about the show's activities in this regard:

  1. Complexity as composition: MAD MEN's visual aesthetic is, at heart, a cartoon aesthetic: the series foregrounds unbroken colors arranged in distinct planes, bodies with sharp contours, faces with clear-cut edges, figural constellations in discreet blocs and geometric angles. Pronounced flatness gives the impression that the show's characters, rather than intricately acting in their surroundings, are behaving as composed parts of their surroundings.
  2. Marked surface makes depth: just as cartoon characters invite identification more easily than figures drawn in great detail, MAD MEN's visually pleasing emphasis on two-dimensional figurations evokes a quality-effect of hidden depth. It's the overt flatness of Don Draper that creates his underlying mystery. Once the show reveals who Don Draper "is," nothing is revealed except that behind the figure's facade there continues to lurk an elusive--profound, romantic, traumatic, dangerous, etc.--character truth (which need not be substantiated to be persistently effective).
  3. Theatrical self-descriptions: the clip selected shows mask-like figures following a social script that has taken the place--and is perhaps the only site--of appropriate emotional reactions. Their bewilderment resembles the meta-nervousness of Pirandello characters. Overall, such theatricality re-enacts critical self-descriptions of the American 1950s/1960s, with their concerns about suburban sadness, the feminine mystique, invasions of body snatchers, Stepford wives and organization men: fables about the exchangeability of people, often in horror scenarios of misrecognition.
  4. Confirming critical habits: by approaching capitalist stress as a matter of subtle disturbances that hide dramatic misrecognitions, MAD MEN serializes a soothingly familiar critique of social pathologies for its own times. The series forcefully confirms 20th-century culture's entrenched habit of defining truth as something hidden. Recasting dense and self-dynamic entanglements in terms of inside/outside problems (conscious/unconscious, surface/depth, role/essence, superstructure/base, etc.), MAD MEN reports back to critical theory its own core assumptions as historical observations.


I find this  theatrical and cartoon aesthetics particularly pertinent in the rare scenes in which something happens in the series. When Lois severs Guy's foot with the lawnmower in season 3 ("Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency") the gory and grotesque strangely blend with the surface aesthetics. What could (and perhaps should) function as a disruption of the game or a disturbance in the choreography, turns out ot be an intricate part of it - there is no outside and the hidden (or interior) truth is sheer mystification, too.

"Guy" is an interesting case. I don't know what exactly they were trying to do (tell a joke? horse around? try something new? go burlesque? self-reflexive?) but whatever it was, it didn't work (for me) because it ended up indecisively as part of the "choreography", as you say. Overall, I think it's interesting to what extent MM casts itself as an intelligent show by re-defining what it means that "something happens" (early on, when Don visits his brother and we're conspicuously made to wonder whether he's packing a gun or simply money; or when Pete brings a shotgun to the office that is never used; I think the first shots being fired in the series, except for Betty's pidgeon-shooting and those hokey flashbacks to the war, occur when Ruby shoots Oswald on television!). And I think I agree there are moments when the series confronts -- or at least makes actively visible -- its own emptiness and mystifications (usually at the end of episodes, when the previous 40 minutes surprisingly come together in one final disconcertingly summarizing image). But it seems to me its dominant (more pronounced) movements are headed elsewhere and that its considerable success, among academics no less, has something to do with the way it evokes a sense of underlying depth while placing the viewer--not in the role of "narratologist" this time but--in the role of critical analyst who, from a historical vantage point can see through all these inside/outside problems, while being confirmed in the belief that these are, in fact, inside/outside problems. Unstressing.

Your interesting connection to cartoon visual style makes me think of the work of Frank Tashlin, who started as a Warner Bros. animator and then took his cartoon aesthetic into live-action in the 50s & 60s (most notably working with Jerry Lewis). His most celebrated film seems like a crucial connection to Mad Men: Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, another satirical take on the advertising agency. It could be interesting to compare the two texts, teasing out the differences between the serialized look backwards in the former to the self-contained present-ism of the latter.

This is an interesting reading, thanks for sharing it!

Yet, I've got to say that I relate to Mad Men's aesthetics in a different way. I have never thought of it in terms of sharpness and geometry, although of course the show is steeped in Modernist formalism. Rather, I get  a feeling of marked domesticity in most episodes, even when sequences are set at the workplace where the geometrical factor is most decisively displayed. A certain use of lights and chiaroscuros makes for a very smooth, even cozy atmosphere where contours are purposefully blurred or partially obscured, rather than hyper-defined as in cartoons (I am thinking about trains, or Don and Peggy's offices, or Joan's place). The overall impression is that you're seeing shadows move, rather than archetypes.

Also, although I agree about the flatness of some scenes, it seems to me that it can be applied mostly to the Draper character (as a means to flesh out the impression of him set out in the credits). I don't really see how that works with Bet and Salvatore, for example. Again, these, as other characters, are often placed in environments where great depth is foregrounded by means, say, of long takes that make them blend with their referring environments (home and workplace, mostly, though in Salvatore's case occasionally we see him in what look like secretive locations, such as the bar where he refuses a man's avances). They don't look much as human "additions" to a scenery, more as the 'engine' taht makes those environements move.

That said, the very fact that diverging interpretations coexists of the same work attests to Mad Men's fascinating delivery of an aesthetic of impressions and sensations which makes it all the more interesting as a case study of the forms that 'quality television' takes on in its best materializations.

Thank you, and yes: in the end, it's television & film, not a cartoon. I was mostly thinking of Stephan Packard's psycho-semiotic theory of the cartoon "sign", for the way MM dramatizes faces, bodies, interiors. Altogether, the show develops a larger visual repertoire than that, no doubt. But here, too, I would say, in the choice of colors (and their rare blends) MM establishes a marked contrast between outward serenity -- "postwar 'harvest' colors", as Joan Didion says in another context (not about MM), "avocado, gold, mustard, brown, burnt orange": "this postwar harvest fantasy" -- and inner turmoil. Betty and the way she's placed within her domestic surroundings is actually a good example, with her forceful poise, her restrained gestural vocabulary, as if she's from another country with obscure behavioral codes even at home (or from a Japanese mask-play, as a friend of mine said, but then we're made to understand it's merely "the past"), which then is occasionally & suddenly disrupted by outbursts, physical violence etc. Not always cartoonish in the generic sense of the term but visually expressive of manifest/latent-configurations and their occasional transgressions.

I agree about the inside/outside contrast: it definitely is there and is a big part of the narrative. Betty is a perfect example of the inner conflicts in which MM revels. Not to sound pedantic though, but don't you think that the "harvest coloring" is also very much a part of her character's aesthetic? Also, could you expand on this aspect and Didion's reading of it? I'm quite interested in the subject at the moment, as I have been investigating color coding in Boardwalk Empire.

Didion talks very generally about how popular culture in the postwar decade preferred calm harvest colors in order to "advertise this time as the reward for World War Two". (She doesn't address MM or other contemporary retro-narratives.) As far as interiors go, this kind of coloring seems pretty pervasive throughout MM, as far as I can see, while the characters often wear monochromes that make them stand out. And yes, I fully agree, these are not haphazard choices; they serve narrative functions, help to define & develop characters, etc. Beyond that intra-diegetic level I'm interested in this question: What is the show actually doing (with and through these narrative choices) within a larger field of competitive "quality tv" series (which, in turn, seem to be performing some kind of collective cultural work with regard to our current notions and practices of capitalist stress in an age of digitized neoliberalism)?       

I think one of MM's biggest contributions to the field of quality television is the kind of investment in the 'affective aesthetics' (pass me the terms for lack of better conceptualization) that you are discussing. It looks as if this register rests heavily on production and postproduction work to link quality television to a perceptually-enhanced experience (which is further augmented by the huge circulation of MM gadgets/artwork/clothing that the show has spawned).

As much as I love the show for its character-driven focus and in-depth vision of 1960s culture and mythology, its status as quality television seem to be linked more to its reworking of some aesthetic conventions of both cinema and television. These do not simply replicate or strive to lend a cinematic feel to the images (as Lost's spectacular cinematography did, or as many other shows the likes of Battlestar Galactica and Heroes have done with their extensive use of CGI), rather they somehow manage to reshape the experience of viewing by fostering a distinctly domestic and intimistic approach that does nothing to bolster its heavily manufactured status.

Therefore, my opinion is that MM is somehow a 'television of attraction' that however lacks the sensationalism of technology-driven spectacles.

just as a footnote to this: see Jason Mittell on "the narrative special effect" in "complex" television series. Jason also compares this to the cinema of attractions, but stresses that the effect of such narrative spectacles is different when the story unfolds in a serial fashion rather than within the closed boundaries of a feature film. For MM, I would say, the kind of audience engagement this provokes is not so much narratological (or "forensic", as Jason says) but occurs — indeed — at the level of visualization and (visually grounded) critical-historiographic habits. 


Is it over? But I’m not done yet! Also, I’m not sure I understand. The function of the ‘Guy’ scene is obvious, isn’t it – you pointed it out already, Frank. But the mid-3rd season we know that no gun is going to be fired, so the most harmless of domestic tools (a lawnmower, of all things) has to turn into a mutilating weapon. Yet not even this kind of disruption works in this world (I still loved it). I’m with Enrica that this is all about domesticity, but domesticity without a warming hearth (there’s just the tv). I don’t get the “sense of underlying depth,” Frank.  For me MM is the ultimate renunciation of depth – think of the numerous occasions when kitchen sink psychology is first evoked and then debunked (Betty’s psychotherapy, Sally’s mourning for her grandfather, Don’s repression of his childhood memories –  all of this leads nowhere, certainly not into trauma or healing). So where would be the promise or allure or suggestion of depth or character truth in this? I just don’t see it.

Ruth, but we do agree. "Once the show reveals who Don Draper 'is,' nothing is revealed". So I wasn't saying there is real depth, just an evocation of it, as something perpetually elusive, a non-existent character truth that need not be substantiated to be effective (and this as a surface effect). What I was saying, concerning latent/manifest, is not that something substantial (or even "healing") is hidden or could be uncovered here (a mystery, a trauma, etc.) but that the show keeps reinforcing this critical and narrative obsession with depth (and sometimes provides partial solutions that necessarily disappoint, like Don's wartime trauma, but no matter, it just goes on) but at the core of it is: nothing really. (Don Draper: the hero who is not there, not even as an anti-hero). Now, you seem to be saying that this is the very point of the show, that MM is crucially about this emptiness at the heart of our narratives of hidden depth. Like I said, I think I partly agree. Sometimes the show seems to know and emphasize that this is all "heading nowhere", and for me, those are its strongest and most disconcerting moments. (Especially at the end of some episodes.) But then, and quite crucially for the way the series moves ahead, there is the heavy-handed historical satire and the strong re-enactment of 50/60s critical self-descriptions as historical observations (almost always with a congratulatory nod toward the show's own historical situation and doings) that seem to suggest that most of the time, the series is falling for its own conceits (and strangely successfully so). -- So, it appears to me, we're seeing & saying something very similar here, but have different views about its weight and relevance and doings in the ongoing narrative.     


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