Saturday, October 3, 2009

In Praise of Dicking Around

My schedule has gone cattywampus as a result of the madness at home, and I've been making dinner toward 7 rather than 6. I know: big deal. Only it is a big deal, because it means I've exchanged Marketplace's smug Kai Ryssdal for the smug-bordering-on-insufferable Terry Gross of Fresh Air. Sigh.

(Aside: I found the true spelling of Kai's last name shocking, as I did the string of photographs of a man in a boring suit that appeared when I googled him. Why is it so startling to match faces and orthography to the familiar, aural-only input of the radio? Do I want to know that Terry Gross resembles my fourth-grade teacher? Am I better or worse for being assured -long story- that the reporter Ann Garrels is the most physically attractive NPR personality of her generation?)

Anyhoo: Fresh Air. John Powers was on a few nights ago, talking about Mad Men, a show I enjoy in the kind of way you enjoy the ebbing of pain after you've banged your toe against the eight-pound weight you left lying on the floor. John Powers is frustrated by Mad Men: he watches it compulsively, even as he bemoans its heavy-handedness and schematic character development. My relationship to the show is similarly tormented, for a reason that Powers articulates only glancingly, in his description of a scene from a recent episode: Don Draper returns home, joyless as ever, to his wife, Betty, joyless as ever.

Joyless as ever: this is exactly the trouble with Mad Men, which takes itself -and its characters- much too seriously. It's a problem endemic to most "art" these days, and it's driving me nuts. People weep, sure. They yearn, they consummate, they rage.

But I suspect the average person spends more time messing about -cracking jokes, poking fun, spinning their wheels- than they spend doing any of that heavy stuff. And they do it even when their lives are in shambles: I know from experience that the divorced, the cancerous, the homeless, the dying, the bankrupt, and the foreclosed upon are all out there practicing one-liners.

This isn't to say that art must imitate life, that seriousness is verboten, or that shows like Mad Men are bound to portray people as they are rather than people as they are under the influence of the powerful drug of narrative. But a joyless show -and that's exactly what Mad Men is- wears on you. No matter how critically acclaimed, no matter how masterfully constructed. Mad men needs less mad and more (genuine, stupid, silly) men. And women.

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