That Soothing Balm of Latent Discontent: MAD MEN Unstresses the 21st Century
by Frank Kelleter — Göttingen University (Germany)
December 12, 2011 – 00:00
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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.