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Audience empathy and dislike in Mad Men [Jul. 29th, 2010|02:16 pm]

Jason Mittell, "On Disliking Mad Men":

The missing ingredient from Draper and nearly all of Mad Men‘s characters is empathy, as virtually nobody’s behavior or situation invites me to place myself in their shoes. Instead, I watch the characters from an emotional remove that makes them appear as pieces in a mannered dance rather than fully realized people to care about. This might be the ultimate answer to the core appeal of serial drama, as without empathy toward the characters, viewers lack the emotional connection to sustain the commitment of weeks, months, and years that a successful series demands. Even though their actions are reprehensible, I feel empathy toward [Tony] Soprano, [Walter] White, [Dexter] Morgan, [Vic] Mackey, and [Al] Swearingen, understanding their acts in the context of their lives and situations. Draper’s blank slate doesn’t leave me with more than just the sense of him being a “cold bastard” as his core. And I translate this lack of empathy to how the show’s creators seem to regard their characters – while Al Swearingen might be a bastard, I always feel that creator David Milch loves the guy. While I know it’s my own projection rather than any authentic access to authorial intent, I can’t help but feel that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner ultimately feels contempt toward Draper and the rest, fueling the emotional gap that keeps me from warming to the show.

In the end, watching Mad Men leaves me feeling unclean and unpleasant, having spent time in an unenjoyable place with people I don’t care about, and coming out smelling of stale cigarettes. The gloss and sheen is meant to charm me, but instead it masks something hollow, dark and cancerous. For people who like the show, this resonance is affecting and provocative, but for me, it feels like one of Don Draper’s callow ad pitches. None of the emotional arcs of the characters feel real or earned – instead I’m being sold the illusion of drama rather than honest drama itself, much like the packaging of nostalgia and memory in a Kodak slide projector. Enough people whom I respect feel quite differently, so I know it’s not because the show is a failure per se, but clearly there is a short circuit for me and presumably others, disengaging me from the show on its own terms and failing to create sufficient empathy to go along for the narrative ride that I want to enjoy....

It's funny; I was thinking this week, as I've been frantically marathoning season 3 of Mad Men to catch up and watch the current season as it airs, how odd it was to belatedly find myself empathizing with Don Draper. And yet I did, just as I've sporadically empathized with various other characters on the show at different times. But that empathic response isn't really the primary thing I seek out in television; especially with a self-consciously "quality" TV show like Mad Men, I'm looking for interestingness. I'm quite happy to get engaging characters with dilemmas and predicaments that I haven't experienced and can't relate to, leading lives that don't resemble mine (nor would I want them to). Those fleeting moments of recognition, identification, empathy -- if the characters are drawn and acted well enough, they'll inevitably come, but they're not necessarily the main event or precondition for my enjoyment.

Though I think I've been watching Mad Men as a modern tragedy crossed with more than a dash of A Doll's House, which might not ultimately turn out to be the best reading.

ETA: Ian Bogost, Against Aca-Fandom: On Jason Mittell on Mad Men

This entry is cross-posted to http://crypto.dreamwidth.org/104937.html (comment count unavailable comments there)

[User Picture]From: sienamystic
2010-07-29 07:50 pm (UTC)
I watch Mad Men for a lot of reasons, and it's interesting how my empathy will shift, which is probably reasonable as we're getting a look at the good and the bad each character has to offer. I hate Betty for being shallow and for what feels like a deliberate refusal on her part to stop and think about herself and her situation, but at the same time sometimes she fights back against the cage she's been put into and it's so marvelous. The same thing happens with Don - sometimes I loathe him and sometimes I pity him and, on the balance, he remains a fascinating critter to watch.
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[User Picture]From: cryptoxin
2010-07-29 08:42 pm (UTC)
That's a lot like my experience! I think it's that balance that's what makes the show work for me. Or maybe it's about keeping the viewer off balance, because you can never quite settle into a stable "I like character X, I hate character Y."
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[User Picture]From: anoel
2010-07-30 05:24 am (UTC)
It really is funny how people can have completely different views on a TV show. Reading that just astounded me as I see it so differently. And this: "I’m unsure how the show’s legion of fans negotiate the political dissonance that comes from immersing yourself with people whom you find distasteful" just makes me know he hasn't met media fandom. Although for me the distasteful thing is easily overshadowed by them being products of the time and relating to them in just a human fashion.

And then the follow up link has me boggling over how being an aca-fan or fan for that matter makes you not able to be skeptical. Sure sometimes you want to do that (I've certainly been there) but from everything I've seen in fandom, people do NOT stop being critical when they love something, in fact it can make them care more.
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[User Picture]From: rpowell
2011-10-02 12:06 pm (UTC)
I agree that Don is a fascinating character to watch. But I think I have lost my empathy toward him as far back as Season 2.
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