Daniel Mendelsohn’s recent NYRB piece on Mad Men, which largely belongs to the MM hating camp, criticises the show for what he calls its blankness.

If so much of Mad Men is curiously opaque, all inexplicable exteriors and posturing, it occurs to you that this is, after all, how the adult world often looks to children; whatever its blankness, that world, as recreated in the show, feels somehow real to those of us who were kids back then.

But its opacity, its blankness, is one of the most striking and, for me, innovative things about Mad Men. I don’t think the historical dressing up – kids dressing up as their parents, pretending to be “real” (smoking/drinking/adulterising) grown-ups – is the most interesting thing about the show (although yes, the dresses and the furniture are fun). Instead, the historical setting just amplifies the show’s interest in the deep strangeness of people, the inexplicable ways we behave, our blindness to our own motivations. The fact that they exist in a time with different social mores adds another glossy layer of strangeness. But the strangeness is ultimately human, rather than historical. This is a TV show that creates characters who are mysteries to themselves, and attempts to put that mysteriousness, that interiority, onto our TV screens. TV has traditionally been much better on what people do and say – externalised action – rather than the often-contradictory things that are going on in their heads.

Of course, Mad Men isn’t the first show to attempt this – its predecessors, such as The Sopranos blazed that trail (of course Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner also worked on The Sopranos) . But to fixate  on the historical setting – which, admittedly, is one of the dazzlingly original things about Mad Men, in its creation of an authentic and believable fantasy world which is nominally set in our real past – is to miss the more interesting thing about Mad Men, which is its interest in the ultimate mysteriousness of the human heart.

And one of the ironies of this interest, just by the way, is that this drama is set in the world of advertising. (M)Ad men – like TV writers – claim they have a unique insight into what makes people tick. Make of that what you will.

(Full disclosure: I have worked as both a TV scriptwriter and advertising copywriter)

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