Wednesday, August 11, 2010

British Illiteracy?

My interest in the ironies of life was satisfied early this morning. After having committed a sizeable chunk of time to yesterday's rambling attempt at exploring my approaches to reading challenging texts, this morning the London Telegraph slammed me with the worst example of "junk writing" I have encountered on their Web site. Furthermore, since the example appeared in a headline, it is very likely that neither I nor anyone else will know who perpetrated the slovenly abuse of the English language. Of course the article itself was not much to crow about, particularly since it could not, in any sense of the word, count as journalism. Basically, the Telegraph decided to give Natasha Vargas-Cooper the opportunity to promote her new book, Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America, by reproducing excerpts under the newspaper's banner. For the most part I do not approve of such practices, but at least I appreciate the need for them. The real provocation came from the subheadline that declared Mad Men to be "the most literate show on television."

Don't get me wrong. I definitely count myself among the Mad Men enthusiasts (even if I have to watch it on my own because my wife refuses to be in the same room with any of its characters); but literacy is hardly one of its virtues. To the contrary, if the language of Man Men succeeds, it does so through the ability of the writers to capture the verbal ineptitude of all of its characters. This is an entire social sector that speaks almost entirely in clichés. The scripts succeed through establishing a tight coupling between the dramatic tensions of the plot line and across-the-board failures of communicative action in a manner that we previously could only expect from David Mamet; and, in contrast to Mamet, that coupling is achieved with a bare minimum of foul language. Furthermore, that verbal ineptitude is entirely consistent with (if not essential to) the setting that needs to be established. Beyond all the surface features of the advertising profession that Sloan Wilson disclosed in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (whose recent paperback edition has a male silhouette figure that clearly resonates with the opening credits of Mad Men), there is the deeper structure of the culture analyzed by Richard Hofstadter in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Literacy is too "intellectual" for any of the Mad Men characters. (When Don Draper had his beatnik girlfriend, we saw him watching French Nouvelle Vague cinema; but, unless I am mistaken, we have never seen him or any other character actually reading a book.)

Now I am never sure which products of American television come to the attention of the British; but, if it is literacy they crave, I can come up with far better examples. If one is not put off when foul language is not kept to a minimum, then the most dazzling example may be the two seasons of Deadwood before it was canceled. These were scripts where it was not exaggeration to claim that every single word counted. Indeed, there were episodes that my wife and I watched multiple times, just to make sure that we were aware of how every single word fell into its proper place. More surprisingly, however, is that both my wife and I have been struck by the high level of literacy in, of all things, NCIS: Los Angeles. Whatever jokes you may want to tell about using the word "literacy" in the same sentence as "Los Angeles," these characters have a depth that they are not afraid to disclose, often with throw-away gestures that are probably lost on most viewers waiting for the next chase scene. After one episode, which subtly teased out a bit of that literacy, I remember telling my wife that these were characters who understood (and cared about) the difference between Rainer Maria Rilke and Theodore Roethke (a far cry from those "cultural literacy" polls of students who associate the term "Madonna" only with popular music)!

Needless to say, I know better than to believe that high literacy makes for high ratings. Still, I reserve the right to make at least some of my personal viewing choices on the basis of how much cerebral exercise they provide; and programs that acknowledge my intelligence, even if only with subtle gestures, tend to rate high on my list. I simply wish to argue that Mad Men does not appeal to me on these grounds; and, if it were to try to do so, then it would have to give up all the elements of establishing context that contribute so heavily to its success.

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