“The Mad Men Account,” Daniel Mendelsohn’s assessment of the first four seasons of Mad Men for the current issue of The New York Review of Books certainly has a clever title; but, in spite of its clearly deliberate play on the word “account,” it could have been more accurate. It would have been more appropriate to call this piece a “journey,” rather than an “account,” since it navigates its way through a variety of points of view, dwelling on several grounds for negative opinion, before arriving at the conclusion that, for all of his dislikes, Mendelsohn found himself hooked. Thus, this may be a case in which readers might prefer to “cut to the chase” and address the conclusion of the review independent of the context of all of the bashing that precedes it.
The crux of that conclusion basically turns the premise of the entire series on its head. Contrary to what we were told in the introduction to the very first episode, Mad Men is not about the men (and almost all of them were) in the advertising business in the late Fifties and early Sixties. Rather, it is about the children of these men, among whom Sally Draper may be most representative. Mendelsohn argues his case with the warrant that the demographic group most prominent among the show’s fans consists of those who would have been Sally’s contemporaries during the time in which the show is set.
I appreciate this argument. I might even go so far as to agree that the whole conception is about childhood; but I would take the position further, because Sally’s contemporaries are not the only children in the series. The reason Mad Men registers with me is that the program is essentially a narrative riff on the fundamental premise of Paul Goodman’s Growing up Absurd. Goodman’s argument was that, traditionally, the status of being “grown up” had to do with the ability to provide food, clothing, and shelter. Because earning money to do these things is not directly related to the actions of provision, those who survive only on the basis of their earning power lack grown-up status. (This makes for chilling thinking in the setting of earning power in the current economic crisis.) We may thus apply syllogistic reasoning to Goodman’s premise and conclude that just about all of the adults in the Mad Men cast amount to infantile minds in aged bodies; and, when we consider the many scenes of “men at play,” this deduction is not as preposterous as it may first seem.
This then leads to the premise that we, the viewers of Mad Men, are as infantile as our fathers depicted in the series were. From at least one point of view, the two generations fall back on a common explanation. They are both generations addicted to consumerism, because, after all, those purveyors of advertising were as hooked on consumerism as those they strove to hook through their ads. The only thing that separates then from now is what marketers call the “media mix.” Then it was a question of how much television went into the mix. Now it is a question of how much Google is applied.
This provides a different take on Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” It is not about Google, nor is it about any other medium in the mix. It is about our commitment as a culture to the marketing of consumerism itself as prerequisite to the marketing of any product or service. This has made infants of us all. Even Sally Draper knows this, since her own capacity for judgment tends to rise above that of either of her parents.