August 18, 2009



Interesting. I always slot it in the catalog of "what we've lost." Possibly just a deep seated loathing of hippies, but nonetheless this whole neglected era of american culture had something going for it-even if only a skinny tie.


haha that is one of the most poorly written things abt mad men i've ever read. it seems pretty clear that mark greif didnt watch many more than 6 episodes either. the show starts off v lol 60s but improves markedly as it goes on, esp once you get into the 2nd season. but even the end of the 1st season is amazing.

Paul Lamb

Try to imagine the shows they will make of our era. I wonder what they will know better.


You made it further than I did. After 2 episodes I had enough. Bad acting, bad writing and too glossy a feel.

I'm not knocking it, but if that's the best thing on TV I'll stick leaving it off.


I'm just about through season 2 and I have to say I think it's probably not fair to reference such a dated review. The show has grown by leaps and bounds after the first handful. At first, yes, the writers seemed content to flaunt the "hey remember the 60s" aesthetic but now I'd say it's a pretty fascinating character study. And whether or not the "best show on TV" label is justified - that's an endless and futile debate - Mad Men is certainly better than the overwhelming majority of schlock currently dominating the airwaves.


I can see that some might be weary of the all 60's nostalgia/now we know better et al -- I was too, even when I was enjoying it as an aesthetic. You worry that aesthetic alone won't be able to carry it, and in fact it wouldn't.

But let me be the six billionth person to say: the show becomes so much more than that. For my money it is the "smartest" show on television (now that Deadwood is long gone). It is the closest thing on the idiot box to literature. It is that carefully crafted.


What a snide and superficial take. It's pretty funny that you are critical of Gate's review when this is the exact same review, but for television. This review reeks of "I am know this is the sort show a person like me is supposed to like but I won't like it to show how truly discerning I am." Review was pretty hollow and contrarian - like much of n+1. I concur with others here that the show improved dramatically in the second half of the 1st season and into the second. Then again if the n+1 guys don't like it, that's probably a good indication of its merits.


The best program on television is Dexter. And Californication is as good a sidekick as any. Adjust accordingly.


I read Greif's piece when it first came out, and it put into clear words what I hadn't been able to really pull together: Why I didn't like Mad Men. Though beautifully produced, it exists to feed the smugness of its viewers. Which may itself be therapeutic in the middle of total social/economic screwup in which we live now, but therapy isn't artistic achievement.

BTW: If you want to catch a better show, check out HBO's Hung. I know, sordid premise. But it's actually very clever and thought-provoking. And placing the action in Detroi, instead of Los Angeles, has a subtle humanizing effect on all involved.

Jake Williamson

I think if one watched the second season it would be tough to criticize it as solely a glossy show that waxes somewhat nostalgic while noting that we may now know better. From a writing standpoint, it is the closest thing to The Wire on TV in terms the quality of character and story. Most of the episodes are well-crafted "stories" driven by character complete with subtle epiphanies and creative plot (throw in very creative plot when talking about the second-half of the second season). Enough of my own "we should know better". What about the idea that one gets to spout off about a "show" while only watching six episodes. Does n+1 also employ book reviewers who only read the first 6 chapters of a book before denouncing it as unworthy of attention or praise?



Hey, EG, I don't really agree that one can compare the Gates and the Greif pieces. Yes, Greif - like Gates - employs some sarcasm, but that's a legitimate (if not always attractive) tool in a reviewer's arsenal. That's where the comparison ends, though.

For all his shortcoming, Greif is essentially a serious writer and reviewer. Sometimes too serious - one of my big criticisms about the n+1 gang is everything they write sounds like earnest undergrad term papers, eager to show how much they know. In a way, this essay is no exception, as it's eager to show what it knows about the Eisenhower era and advertising of the age, etc. But he works to establish a real context and in the end, it's still a serious look at what I take to be an essentially unserious work.

Gates, on the other hand, takes an unserious, trivializing look at a work that is trying to be serious - something about seriousness of purpose enrages Gates, but that's another story. Gates is shallow insults, Greif at least grounds his complaints in something deeper.

Anyway, I do think the two pieces, though superficially similar, and very different, indeed.

Also, responding in general to my other commentators, if a series still sucks after six episodes, I'm simply off and looking for something else, just as a book that sucks after 6 chapters is in the goodwill pile. I don't doubt it's possible Mad Men found its footing down the line. But that would be one of the most dramatic turnarounds ever from the most unpromising of beginnings.

EK - I don't have Showtime.


Paul -

Great question. Here are my candidates for answers:

1. 30 years from now we'll know that sunscreen causes skin cancer.

2. We'll laugh smugly at yuppie environmentalists fretting about carbon footprints as they drink bottled water flown in from Fiji as they drive along in their supercharged Range Rovers.

3. Britney Spears will be President.

4. Radical Wiccans from British Columbia will be the new global terrorist threat.

5. Raw food/vegan diets will turn out to cause Parkinson's Disease. We'll watch queasily as vegetarians breezily destroy their bodies.

6. Botox will turn out, over years of use, to turn people into zombies as the toxin accumulates in their brains. The Zombia Apocalypse will be fought in Brentwood, Beverly Hills and Encino.


Most of the problem is the ridiculous moral weight we’ve heaped on these shows (The Wire, Mad Men), assigning them social commentary duties that obscure the raw dramatic pleasure of watching them. Because frankly, what’s lost in highbrow discourse is Wallace having to pull a trigger, Ziggy in his car once his actions hit home, Stringer and Avon on the balcony trading feel-good lies, Bunk and McNulty drinking Heinekens off a car hood. And certain of Mad Men’s moments are every bit as arresting, and interestingly, often unspoken: Pete Campbell seething at the world’s appraisal of his talents, Draper being so gifted and guilt-ridden a manipulator, Roger Sterling watching women. I just think we owe more credit to these shows as dramatic art. The fact that they offer social concern shouldn’t create the expectation that they provide flawless social revision. They’re full of people and situations I’ll have with me for a very long time.

(The Other) Niall

There's a kind of rough justice in some of Greif's arguments, but I think that fundamentally he mistakes the show's method for its message.

His idea that Mad Men is seduced by its own stylistic decadence would stand up better were decadence not also the show's primary subject. The first thing that hits the viewer is of course the show's measured, brittle beauty: the sumptuous uselessness in every frame. Given that none of the characters seems to notice or appreciate any of it, you might initially be forgiven for thinking that it's all a matter of style: mere eye-candy for the viewer. (This is what I take to be Greif's position.) But the fact that none of the characters really notice what's around them is precisely the point: this is what decadence is, and this more than anything else is what Mad Men is about.

Similarly, Greif's idea that the show patronises its characters in order to flatter the liberal sensibilities of its viewers seems lazy and inaccurate to me. The show isn't above a cheap laugh or a cheap shudder at the expense of one contemporary impropriety or another, but the ironic distance of the show isn't quite as vast - or even as ironic - as Greif would suggest. After all, the show centers on the first generation of Americans to live in an era of gratuitous oversupply, of truly worldwide mass communications, of pseudoproduction and the wholesale manufacture of events, of manifest destiny as an almost palpable reality. The characters in Mad Men are meant to be our Founding Fathers (and Mothers).

How well Mad Men actually does this is of course a matter of opinion. I do find that the show often trips itself up in its insistence on the 1950s as the beginning of the modern age (I mean, did the 1950s come out of nowhere?), and some of the writing is teeth-grittingly obvious. But it has its own perfect pitch and sustains it for long stretches.

Jacob Silverman

Very interesting discussion here (particularly the last comment by (The Other) Niall). I have to admit that I'm only 6 episodes into the show, but the quoted passage by Mark Greif did resonate with me. (I haven't read the rest of his review.) Even so, I think the problem here may be one of basic assumptions: we're so ready to anoint something the "smartest thing on TV," which is really more a commentary on TV than anything else. Flawed or not, Mad Men is, to me, entertainment, and while I initially approached it hoping for a TV-style rendition of "Revolutionary Road," television, as a medium, is an inherently commercial enterprise and probably not the place we should be looking for art or deft social commentary. That does not mean though that a show, like The Wire, can't sometimes worm its way through the handicapping effects of the commercial establishment and surprise us.

Jake Williamson

Yeah...what Wes said. Great post.

As for putting down a book after six chapters, that's fine. In fact, I've put books down and never opened them again having read less than six chapters. My point was that it seems a bit unfair and incomplete to pen a critique after doing so.



Yes, but Greif doesn't say he watched only six episodes. That was me.

Jake Williamson

Apologies Mark....Well that critique seems like he only watched six episodes, dammit!!!

All kidding aside, it took me a few episodes (and the writers as well) to get past the sort of "wow, look at how times used to be" angle but the show does improve greatly once the characters are better established. I think anyone who appreciated and enjoyed The Wire would acknowledge that it took about three episodes or so before one was locked in and convinced as to the quality of the show.



I just think Grief completely gets the thrust of the show wrong. The show isn't self congratulatory smugness about a former era. It's more about the looking at the roots of our own present culture in this former era - how that era gave birth to ours. He just gets so may things wrong - the witch trials/slave holding comment show how little he understands the shows in this regard. He is the only person I have heard that says Hamm looks "perpetually wimpy and underslept' or that he 'lacks command.' The snide all caps treatment is definitely trivializing.

"I’ll admit that “To Heaven by Water” isn’t the worst novel ever written." is every bit as obnoxious as "Mad Men is an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better."

I am aware of problems with Mad Men - pacing, overly precious or subtle, stilted dialogue, overly stylized - but saying that the show's problem boil down to 'we know better now' is incredibly shallow, wrongheaded and well, ridiculous. At best the review shows why PHDs should stay away for pop culture criticism. As with a lot of PHDs, he adds a lot of showy facts, a lot of 'context' but gets its entirely wrong.


The (Other) Niall -

Has Mad Men made you reevaluate any aspect of the 1960s? Has it given you any insights into that period that you did not already have?



I think Greif has room to be right and wrong here. I agree with him that the "Now We Know Better" tone gets in the way sometimes. I also agree with others here that the show has other things to recommend it. Still, it's far from The Wire. It's pretty and has moments of brilliance, but lots of ham-fisted bad moments, too. Some terrible plot contrivances, entire episodes that are a bit flat, and the Draper flashbacks -- egad: Which genius decided to start season 3 with that awful example of one of the show's worst regular features?


Mark, you are so right! Much respect to the production design team of "MM"--they are fabulous! The writers--not so much.

I urge you to fill that aching void that the departure of "The Wire" left (I feel your pain!) with the three brilliant seasons of the Canadian show "Slings and Arrows." Don't let the set up put you off--it's funny, smart, moving, beautifully written. A real delight. You can get it easy from Netflix.


Hey EG, not to belabor what is surely a minor point in this whole thing, but I think the difference between Gates's line and Greif's is that whereas Greif's displays a modicum of wit and style (however unappealing you might find the sentiment itself), Gates's sounds like what one might overhear from a not very bright book group.

Martha, will check out your recommendation - thank you. Really, life has never been the same for me since Aaron Sorkin left The West Wing ...


Mad Men is quietly becoming one of the best shows ever written for television. It's not about "story" or "style" as some commentators here suggest, it's about something far more subtle. The "Now We Know Better" is precisely the point...watching the show one is constantly asking, "Has anything really changed?"

(The Other) Niall

"Has Mad Men made you reevaluate any aspect of the 1960s? Has it given you any insights into that period that you did not already have?"

To be honest, no - and if it's had any effect on my thinking about the period it's that I'm even more sceptical of the Boomer interpretation of the twentieth century (which the show appears to swallow whole). As I said in my last post, did the 50s come from nowhere? Was there just a big war and then this?

But then I don't see Mad Men so much as a work of dramatized sociology as an interesting creation myth about the modern world.


Also, I went back and read that entire Gates review. I have to say, the "it's not the worst novel ever" line might be cheap, but he quotes an awful lot of the book throughout the review, and it sounds . . . plenty awful.


One more thought about Mad Men--does anyone think it would play as truly resonant or well-written if it were performed in contemporary dress? I think Greif's point about the obviousness of the way it thinks about the 60's is well taken but beyond that, if you listen closely, you'll find a lot of faux-portentousness and a lot of just not really that good writing. I believe that a lot of the hype derives from what a beautiful-looking show it is. It's a period of style that's easy to be impressed by and it is beautifully recreated. But that doesn't make it a good show.



A very good question. In a word: no. It would not be as resonant, I don't think, were it performed in the contemporary world with contemporary dress, etc.

On the flipside: I don't think that's a knock against it. The show is about the 60s, very obviously, but also I think about more timeless questions -- identity, class, social roles, preconceived notions, love, lust, adultery, ambition, the use and misuse of wit and charm... I could go on. What makes it so spectacular is how well complimented it is by how beautifully designed and shot it is, how well-dressed the actors and seductive the cigarette smoke, etc etc. This is what makes it a great show -- not just a good one.

It seems that a lot of the backlash centers around a sense of false-profundity that attends the show's look, and one is well within one's rights to judge the show on that. But I think that's a red herring, in a way. It's an easy way to say, "Oh, it may look smart, or feel smart, but really it's the production design that's fooling you. If you could see underneath you'd realize it's all an illusion."

I myself felt that way until I succumbed, in way, to the charms of the production and realized that it enhanced what was a superbly crafted, well-written show. What is so bad about beautiful production? Isn't that television is for?

Of course, this is just one man's opinion.


JMW, one of my big complaints with the form of the Gates review is that there are lots of little snippets but there is not a single longer quote. It's one of Updike's reviewing rules I adhere to, but I think you simply HAVE to include at least one substantial quotation. Individual lines out of context can be made to look silly - and believe me, I know. It remains my biggest complaint about the NYT review of my own book - there's not one sustained example of the book's voice. I think grabbing random lines here and there is stacking the deck. I could probably troll Gatsby and find a half-dozen lines that, out of context, would look silly in a review.


The Other Niall -

But that's the problem with Mad Men. It's not taking the opportunity to make us rethink the 60s, to present an alternative interpretation of it. It's just regurgitating back to us what we already know and believe about that period.

And it's hard to see how it can function as a "creation myth" if, as you point out yourself, it avoids presenting the circumstances of its own creation. Though it is often called a "groundbreaking" series, there's nothing groundbreaking about it.

Is it really a good thing to simply reproduce the smugness of the 60s, so that we can feel smug in turn? What exactly is the point of that? Mad Men challenges our stereotypes about the 60s about as much as Sex and the City challenged our stereotypes about, well, anything.

(The Other) Niall

"Is it really a good thing to simply reproduce the smugness of the 60s, so that we can feel smug in turn?"

Well, as should already be clear, I disagree that the show's intent is to make the viewer feel smug. But it's not as if the show doesn't have an angle on the smugness of the era it depicts: it locates in that smugness a particular form of decadence that had never really existed before.

And it should be clear to anyone who's watched any appreciable amount of the show that in Mad Men's society the historical bloom has already left the rose. The characters can smell this, but they can't quite tell what smells different. Is that really so patronising to them or flattering to us?


I've not even seen the series, so I am taking a shot entirely in the dark here. What if precisely what is missing--i.e. an origin, a "cause" for the '60s the series presents--is the key to its [hotly debated] brilliance? I think that an interpretation of the series as an unfounded chaos we only wish were a myth could be interesting. And, of course, if the '60s saw the emergence of our current ways of life, we, too, are orphans lacking a coherent history, born, fully-formed and confused, from a turbulent foam into this disorder.
Surely this little theory may be unsustainable, but I'd like to watch a bit of the series to disprove myself anyhow.


"But it's not as if the show doesn't have an angle on the smugness of the era it depicts: it locates in that smugness a particular form of decadence that had never really existed before."

Umm, no. The 1920s was a similarly decadent era in the US, indeed, more so. It was also the Golden Age of American advertising.

"And it should be clear to anyone who's watched any appreciable amount of the show that in Mad Men's society the historical bloom has already left the rose. The characters can smell this, but they can't quite tell what smells different."

But this is itself an example of how Mad Men simply reproduces the spirit of the era. Feeling "the bloom was off the rose" was one of the cliches of the period, amply mined by the likes of John Cheever, Richard Yates, Grace Metalious, etc. Upper middle class suburban angst was itself one of the cliches of the period. I fail to see how faithfully reproducing a period cliche is anything less than a cliche itself.


'Mad Men' just doesn't draw me in. EK is right. 'Dexter' is easily the best show on TV today. Excellent writing and acting, and highly engaging. 'Californication' is candy, but it's $20/pound candy and you'll gladly pay.

(The Other) Niall

"The 1920s was a similarly decadent era in the US, indeed, more so"

I'm sorry, but the word "similarly" is having to do an awful lot of work here. So much work that I'm not even sure that we mean the same thing by decadent.

If by "more so", you mean more hedonistic, well, hedonism and decadence are not the same thing. Indeed, it's striking that when a character in Mad Men is inclined to punish or berate themselves about their own behavior, it's precisely over their hedonism. In Mad Men, hedonism is something that disguises the real decadence of the setup.

But, you know, I'm all for the spin off series, Mad Fathers, if you want to pitch it to HBO.

"Upper middle class suburban angst was itself one of the cliches of the period"

Does everything that reproduces a cliche partake of the cliche? That's a pretty broad swathe of contemporary 60s art - or indeed the art of any generation - you're dismissing. My reading list just got magically shorter in seconds.


Other Niall -

I see you are woefully ignorant of the US in the 20s. As I pointed out, the 20s was the Golden Age of American advertising, something which the culture of the 60s explicitly acknowledged, though you'd never know it from watching Mad Men.

But your are right. Hedonism and decadence are quite different things. The latter requiring at least the remnants of an aristocracy to implement. Somthing that was far more in place in the 20s than in the 60s.

But don't take my word for it. Read Cheever's "The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well", and then check back wtih me.

You only find Mad Men an "authentic" exposition of American culture, because you only know American culture through TV in the first place. That's like my thinking British culture is defined by Doctor Who.

(The Other) Niall

Now now, The Original Niall. There's no need to be mean.

If what you're basically accusing Mad Men of is on the one hand a kind of shallow self-consciousness about the social forms of the 60s (re: the smugness) but on the other a deeper complacency about how these forms came about - well, I can't disagree with you, and I haven't: except about the extent to which those apparent flaws are present in the show, and the extent to which they harm it.

For instance, I've never said that Mad Men is an "authentic" exposition of American culture: I described it as an interesting creation myth about the modern world. We can disagree about the "interesting", but you needn't make things up in order to cement the disagreement.

(And while you're at it, you needn't invent a nationality, an immigration history, and a TV habit for me. How does that convince me - or anyone - that you're right?)

Anyway, on the subject of interesting, though, you did say this, which is interesting:

"Hedonism and decadence are quite different things. The latter requiring at least the remnants of an aristocracy to implement."

This is either the source of your real quarrel with Mad Men, or where you should start when you want to have a real quarrel with it. Because the show admits of a broader definition of decadence than this, and employs much finer class distinctions to support its ideas (it's not as if everyone in it is suburban, opper-middle class or miserable - as the cliche would have it). You may never come round to what's good about the show, but you may see it as being less complacent than you currently do.


I must agree with the Other Niall - please keep it civil and polite, Niall. No need to use terms like "woefully ignorant." We can disagree without name calling.


As an ardent and devoted appreciator of even the first six episodes, I find a weighty load of individual sensibility, or taste mongering, here. Against which argue how? And I’ve the same love of The Wire that many critics here have. Am I experiencing a failure of taste? Are they? How, in either case? Not clear to me. In ways, The Wire had an easier path. The creators shared the cynicism of their characters, all of them, at every social level, and in present day. With great accomplishment, they made it easy for the viewers to share that cynicism too. Lots of self-congratulation – what Greif offers as the currency of Mad Men – to go along with the fine drama.

In contrast, there are so many distances at play in Mad Men that open up the space for this kind of variance in response. If Greif is “waiting to snigger” over another “gaffe” in psycho-cultural development, whose smugness is that, Matthew Weiner’s? Or maybe Greif’s? Sarcasm may be a legitimate tool in a reviewer’s arsenal, as Mark says (and I’ve used it myself) but it’s also argument as attitude – as in “How can you not see?” It seems to me that almost all of the objection to Mad Men IS to its “seriousness of purpose.” Get the milieu too right and to some you’re self-conscious and obvious, while to another, like me, that is much the point. Part of what I (re)learn, who was alive then, to my surprise, is how astonishingly different a world it was (beyond a Time Magazine enumeration of cultural changes) that developed into, for a relative instant, this one, instant by instant, as this one changes too. So there may be an age consideration, among other factors. To someone born after it – long after it – the antediluvian inferiority, certainly antiquity, of a deeply anterior period is so obvious, and already well raked over. After a forty-year period of intense cultural self-regard and examination to an extent never before approached, the fifties and early sixties, considered culturally, may seem, immediately, as clear objects of ridicule. However, I don’t see that as Weiner’s purpose; rather, he wishes to explore how a number of people living through a period of great social transformation gradually, personally get to wherever it is each is going, for that is how a society changes. Not change as a listing of the obvious, but as individual process. How much more do we ask of art, on the tube or off? The characters may be reducible to clichéd verbal formulation (like Snarky Culture Critic) but not characterlogical stereotype, not if one watches with sympathy over the breadth of the work.

But, no doubt, some my age or even older are among the dissenters. And some think the writing fine, while others poor, and the acting is bad, though SAG (what do they know?) voted an ensemble award. While there are always those, as even Ulysses ends, who cry No they said No they won’t No. And always with disdain. Anyone have a toMAHto?


The issue of decadence is not my real quarrel with Mad Men, because I've never seen it as an exercisd in decadence. The decadence issue is your thing, not mine. I'm just making the historical point that mass consumer culture is the opposite of decadence. I'm also making the historical point that if you want to talk about decadent hedonism in the US, we're talking about the 20s, not the 60s. I'm also responding to your point that the consumerism of the 60s had no precedent in American history, which is not true. Consumer culture, and the cult of advertising that drives it, sprang into existence in the US in the 20s, not the 60s.

So the extent to which your appreciation of Mad Men is based on certain historical observations, I just have to point out those observations are largely inaccurate.

Doesn't mean you can't like the show. And sorry if I was a bit sharp in my reply. Bad day at work, though that's no excuse.

(The Other) Niall

"I just have to point out those observations are largely inaccurate"

Poor old me and my inaccurate observations. A tip: they get still more inaccurate if you misunderstand them. And you wouldn't believe how inaccurate they can become if you actively misrepresent them. Try it sometime – it might be like working in advertising in the roaring twenties.

Anyway, here we go:

"if you want to talk about decadent hedonism in the US, we're talking about the 20s, not the 60s"

Decadent hedonism is a pleonasm (hedonistic decadence is not); I'd never have used the phrase, and I'm wondering what would cause you to lassoo together two concepts that I've been careful to keep discrete. In any case, I made no argument about decadent hedonism.

"your point that the consumerism of the 60s had no precedent in American history"

I made no argument about American consumerism. What I said was that Mad Men locates in the 50s and 60s the birth of a new and particular form of decadence. I made no comment as to whether I agree with the show about this or not.

I will repeat that if forced to give a global interpretation of the show, I read it as an interesting creation myth about modern culture. I’d rather not give a global interpretation of the show anymore: I’d rather just watch it and see what happens.

"Consumer culture, and the cult of advertising that drives it, sprang into existence in the US in the 20s, not the 60s"

Again, I have made no argument about any of this. But if you’d like to enlighten me as to why you think mass consumer culture is the opposite of decadence, then feel free.


What I am trying to say is that what you are describing as "decadence" in the 60s is really nothing more than the growth of consumer culture. This is what Mad Men is all about, after all. Since I don't recognize this as "decadence", I use a more accurate term to describe it: consumerism.

Whatever you want to call it, exactly the same phenomenon took place in the 1920s in the US. So when you say that Mad Men, "locates in that smugness a particular form of decadence that had never really existed before" I have to call your bluff. It did exist before, in the 1920s. As I pointed out, this was recognized by people in the 1960s themselves, who very consciously saw themselves reviving the prosperity, bohemianism and progressivism of that age. After all, the 60s is when people started reading Edna St. Vincent Millay again.

But perhaps it would help if you could explain what you think "decadence" means. Then perhaps we could see the issue more clearly.

(The Other) Niall

'I have to call your bluff'

No, you don't. You can treat it as a sincere statement, however misguided you think it is. Having accepted it as sincere, you can avoid making baseless ad hominem attacks on the person you are debating with. Having avoided that (phew!), you can avoid having to make a pro forma apology. And having dodged all of those obstacles (such skill!), you don't have to even pretend to sincerity any more - because (magically!) you'll actually be behaving sincerely yourself.

All of which means that you'll avoid having to make statements like the above, where any sincerity you might have laid claim to in your apology is directly contradicted. I'm bluffing, am I? Hell, for all you know I'm British.


'What I am trying to say is that what you are describing as "decadence" in the 60s is really nothing more than the growth of consumer culture'

But I'm not describing decadence in the 1960s; I'm describing decadence in Mad Men. And as I've already explained, I disagree with you that show aims to 'merely reproduce' the cliches, mores and prejudices of the 1960s.

If I might be allowed to talk about Mad Men as though it were more than a work of mimetic documentarism, however, let me say this: consumerism in Mad Men is essentially the repressed. Its evidence is everywhere, but you never see anybody buy anything - except as the conscious breaking of a taboo. And the taboo-breaking is always private: you can only be so ostentatious. There is no element of epater le bourgeoises to it, because it's precisely the bourgeoises who are doing it; and similarly it's the bourgeoises it must be hidden from. Is this not sufficiently different to the 1920s for you? Or must you absolutely have a discrete aristocracy for this to count as decadence?


To "call someone's bluff" is not an insult. It's a statement that assumes you can't back up your claims, and it turns out to be correct.

And I'm still waiting to read your definition of decadence, whether within Mad Men or elsewhere. Though I would add that if you're only talking about decadence within the television show itself, then your claim that this decadence "never existed before" becomes even more difficult to take seriously, and places an even larger burden of proof on you to show that no television show prior to or contemporary with Mad Men displays the same kind of decadence.

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  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."