11 October, 2009

What Anton Chekhov Can Teach TV's Mad Men

Although I watch it faithfully, I think the AMC network's Mad Men might be the most overrated show on TV.
During Mad Men's first season, I was immune to the hype. I'd seen some trailers and I didn't think I'd like reliving a time when women, gays and blacks didn't enjoy full citizenship. I lived through it for real once and didn't want to watch it in a TV drama.
But one holiday weekend when I was desperate for something to watch, I tuned into one of those weekend marathons where they were showing the entire first season. Nothing but Mad Men from morning 'til night. I got hooked because I am a sucker for shows whose main characters lead double lives in some way. I like Breaking Bad, in part, because the main character, a mild-mannered high school science teacher, makes the highest-quality illegal drugs in the Southwest. I like Big Love because the main character is a polygamist and has three families right under his unsuspecting neighbors' noses. I loved The Riches whose main characters were "travelers" who stole another family's identity.
Mad Men's main character, Don Draper, is really Dick Whitman and, in the first season, Mad Men writers made character development promises they couldn't keep by showing us flashbacks of Dick Whitman's life and how he became Don Draper.
Then Mad Men jumped the shark. Draper has affairs with every woman he meets. Draper blew off a California business meeting to go have hippy sex with a free spirit half his age and to visit the real Draper's widow. Though he was AWOL for days, he didn't lose his job. In fact, he got a partnership.
And in last night's episode, Draper starts an affair that was all too predictable and then supports the unjust firing of one of the most potentially interesting characters in the show, Salvatore Romano, who is, himself, living the double life of a gay man who is married to his high school girlfriend. If Sal's firing sticks and he is written out of the show, it's as if the Mad Men writers have said "Why do some actual character development and plot twists about a truly interesting character when all we have to do to attract viewers is throw Don Draper into bed with a new woman every episode." or as if they said "Gee, this character development thing is too hard. Say, is there anybody in the writing room who knows how to write a gay character?"
And Mad Men doesn't give me even one character I can really like. Even the Draper children are unlikable. Is it because the Mad Men writers are misanthropes whose dim view of humanity can't allow them to give us even one character who strives to be a better person?
At the very least, Mad Men writers have forgotten “Chekhov’s Gun”, the principle that "a pistol on the wall in the first act must be fired by the last act." What Chekhov was telling us about plot also applies to character development. You can’t show us the pistol named Dick Whitman stepping out of his old life and reinventing himself as Don Draper without also pulling the trigger that shows us why. You can’t show us a gay character, masquerading as a straight, married man of the 60s without showing us how difficult it is for him and his poor unsuspecting wife. You can’t show us the beautiful, college-educated, Italian-fluent Mrs. Draper without showing how she got to be so immature, self-absorbed and ditzy.
I think the reason I didn’t give up on Mad Men several episodes ago is because of the recurring themes of sociopathy and mind blindness. For example, there’s the scene in which the one-dimensional, mind-blind Campbell doesn’t know how he’s supposed to feel when his dad dies. Draper, who makes his living knowing, if not experiencing, the feelings of others, tells Campbell to go home from work because “it’s what people do.”
And there was the scene where silly, selfish Peggy aborts a baby none of her co-workers knew she was carrying. Draper tells Peggy how to “move forward” and never tell anybody about the abortion.
Draperganger, as I sometimes call Don Draper, may not feel genuine empathy for others but he knows what empathy looks like and he uses the appearance of empathy to manipulate others and to create ad campaigns that make people buy stuff.
I think I’ll give Mad Men one more episode. If they don’t start firing some of those character pistols they’ve strewn around the script, I’m going to go to bed early on Sunday nights.

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