Friday, 13 April 2012

Mad Men and the triumph of television over books

John Doyle: Television, Globe and Mail

It is appropriate, though, to speculate why Mad Men matters. On the cusp of its return I was reminded of an incident from what seems, now, like the long-ago. About 15 years ago, when I was writing for The Globe’s TV magazine, I also wrote an occasional book review for the paper. After I wrote a negative review of a mediocre Canadian novel, a friend of the book’s author, this person a terribly distinguished Canadian writer, complained to the then-editor of the books section. The complaint was, as reported to me, a pithy and haughty question: “How can you have someone who writes about television review a book?”
For some months after this, any book review I wrote also contained the vital information that I have a BA and an MA from University College, Dublin. Readers were informed that the MA was in Anglo-Irish Studies. Just to reassure them that I was familiar with book-reading and such.
The distinguished writer’s complaint was rooted in a snobbery that still exists. Television is stupid. Books are serious. This is now the most ridiculous of notions. The very idea that some hack writer, churning out the clichés of Canadiana, is a serious artist, while the creator of Mad Men and his team are airheads, is not only dated, it is wrong. (By the way, in the matter of distinguished Canadian writers, Canadian Semi Chellas, who wrote the movie The Life Before This and co-created the excellent series The Eleventh Hour, is a main writer on this season of Mad Men.) Mad Men stands as an example of how cable-TV series have replaced the novel as the most significant storytelling form of our time.
The novel’s rise as the principal literary form, from the mid-18th century to the mid-20th century, depended on twin virtues transcending mere storytelling or entertainment – its sociological importance and psychological depth. Typically, important novels offered a portrait of social distinctions, social groupings and social values. And, typically, the focus on one central character or a small group of people allowed for insight into how people feel, react, change and grow. Mad Men achieves both virtues with aplomb.
The series is a portrait of an age of change, one that seems shockingly distant because it is so close to us, and so much of its surface details (the typewriters, the telephones, the smoking and heavy drinking) appear antique. At the same time, it is about the psychological growth of its core characters. Don Draper is an archetypal character of American fiction, someone who literally reinvented himself by taking another’s man identity. But we spend more time with him in the multiple seasons of Mad Men than we would ever spend with a character in a novel. His growth, mistakes and the meanderings of his mind represent both the sociological and psychological depth of the series, more nuanced and authentic than any contemporary novel could deliver.
As any undergraduate studying the English novel knows, the novel rose to prominence because several factors unfolded almost simultaneously. There was a new middle class hungry for its own art forms. Technology made the production and distribution of books cheaper and easier. In the case of cable TV, technology has made such channels as HBO, Showtime and AMC viable for a new, small but paying audience hungry for tough-minded TV. The invention of the DVD disc has meant that an entire TV series or multiple seasons could be delivered easily and cheaply to consumers who could then savour a series much as they used to savour a novel. The parallels between the mid-18th century and now are striking.
Of course there are people who will cling to the view of television encapsulated in the 1976 movie Network. That is, everything on TV is about ratings, the audience is easily manipulated and sensible people should simply ignore the medium. Or there are those who cleave to the view of television expressed in Neil Postman’s widely read 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. The book essentially says that TV demeans and diminishes all discourse in the culture.
Both views come from the pre-cable era. They came before The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Deadwood, Rome, Homeland and so many other culturally significant series. They came before such series replaced the novel as the most important vehicle for sociological and psychological truth. Frankly, the views expressed in Network, Amusing Ourselves to Death and, indeed, the snobbery of that distinguished Canadian writer, now seem as outdated and antique as the office equipment on Mad Men.

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