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Audience empathy and dislike in Mad Men

  • Jul. 29th, 2010 at 2:16 PM
crypto: (sarah looks ahead)
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

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egret: egret in Harlem Meer (Default)
[personal profile] egret wrote:
Jul. 29th, 2010 06:58 pm (UTC)
how odd it was to belatedly find myself empathizing with Don Draper

That's interesting, because when I dashed through season 3 earlier this summer, I really started to dislike Draper. He was just too perfect and too dramatic and too precious to the director. I felt like if one more random woman dropped everything to throw herself at Don Draper I would scream. I felt like "He's not all that!"

And I feel like we get all his angst when there are other characters of whom I would rather see more.

Though I agree with your basic point that it's not a show about empathy. I think it's a show about history.
crypto: Amy Pond (Default)
[personal profile] crypto wrote:
Jul. 29th, 2010 08:28 pm (UTC)
I think that's one of the big balancing acts of Mad Men - that oscillation between affection and contempt. Just when I'm feeling a sneaking fondness for Don or Roger or whomever, he'll say or do something appalling. It generally works for me -- keeping me from getting both too smug in my disdain, and too charmed or sympathetic.

I know what you mean about Don in season 3, though.
(Anonymous) wrote:
Jul. 5th, 2014 12:56 pm (UTC)
vblyxnsn@gmail.com
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executrix: (art crawl)
[personal profile] executrix wrote:
Jul. 29th, 2010 07:09 pm (UTC)
A Dolt's House
I think you and I are the two-person The Shield fandom (thanks for rec, btw!), and I'm watching Sons of Anarchy now, so I would certainly say that I have no problem watching shows about awful people doing dreadful things.

I think it's Jane Austen who I am misquoting here..."Such bad men, and hardly any women at all...what a mercy one cares for none of them!"

Every time I see the opener, with the Cod-Herrmann Music O'Doom, I wonder how people would react if it started off with cheery tinkly I Love Lucy-esque theme music.
crypto: Amy Pond (Default)
[personal profile] crypto wrote:
Jul. 29th, 2010 08:31 pm (UTC)
Re: A Dolt's House
Yep, my love for The Shield is basically a huge subtext here. And I finally started watching Sons of Anarchy earlier this year, but somehow stalled out right before the end of the first season (not from lack of interest). I'm looking forward to getting back to it.
egret: egret in Harlem Meer (Default)
[personal profile] egret wrote:
Jul. 29th, 2010 10:30 pm (UTC)
Re: A Dolt's House
I am rewatching The Shield right now and being more annoyed by it than before.
Felt entirely repulsed by Sons of Anarchy promo and never watched it.
crypto: Amy Pond (Default)
[personal profile] crypto wrote:
Jul. 29th, 2010 10:41 pm (UTC)
Re: A Dolt's House
Really? That's disappointing to hear.

I wasn't sold on SoA until episode 6 or 7. Especially at first it seemed to revel in shock value.
executrix: (invisible lack)
[personal profile] executrix wrote:
Jul. 29th, 2010 11:22 pm (UTC)
Re: A Dolt's House
Katey Sagal is great. She and Bryan Cranston should do the Sitcom Survivor Macbeth.

I've been seeing Jay Karnes in some stuff, and it seems like now he's a full-time bad guy after being Almost As Close to Not a Bad Guy as The Shield actually had. It's like, once you play someone who murders a cat, you can never redeem yourself.
vehemently: (Default)
[personal profile] vehemently wrote:
Jul. 29th, 2010 07:24 pm (UTC)
You probably liked Seinfeld too, didn't you? Me, I cannot waste my time watching people I hate on TV, when I can do the same thing just by showing up at work most days.

TV is for people I like, or at least would not gladly feed to a grizzly bear. Many are the interesting people on this earth who would be even more interesting after an encounter with grizzly digestive juices.
crypto: Amy Pond (Default)
[personal profile] crypto wrote:
Jul. 29th, 2010 08:37 pm (UTC)
I actually didn't like Seinfeld, though I guess I respected it for doing what it did well. So I guess maybe my dislike for the Seinfeld characters could have hit too close to home for me, vs. being appalled-at-an-aestheticized-distance by a corrupt cop or a mobster or a '60s ad man.
salinea: (meh)
[personal profile] salinea wrote:
Jul. 29th, 2010 07:35 pm (UTC)
I also watch Mad Men for the interesting factor (it's deliciously sociological, and very subtle in its storytelling) but neither would I say I have no empathy for Don or several other characters in the shows.
crypto: Amy Pond (Default)
[personal profile] crypto wrote:
Jul. 29th, 2010 08:39 pm (UTC)
Yeah, and I think it's possible to find that middle ground of having empathy for characters that aren't always or completely likeable. And the subtlety is a huge selling point for me too.
salinea: (Default)
[personal profile] salinea wrote:
Jul. 29th, 2010 08:41 pm (UTC)
and there's a big difference between likeable as a character and likeable as a person!!
naraht: (Default)
[personal profile] naraht wrote:
Jul. 29th, 2010 09:24 pm (UTC)
I've never quite understood the need that some people have to identify with and/or like the characters in the shows they watch. I adore Mad Men and the only characters I identify with are Paul Kinsey and, occasionally, Peggy. Being interesting is definitely all I ask of those whom I watch. Having said that I find Don unutterably dull.
crypto: Amy Pond (Default)
[personal profile] crypto wrote:
Jul. 29th, 2010 09:33 pm (UTC)
I'm with you -- though I wonder if identification, or at least the desirability of taking on a particular character's POV, is more central for a lot of people's ability to write fic?

I thought Don was interesting as a cipher in season 1, interesting in a different way in season 2, and less interesting (or maybe just more familiar) in season 3. It seems like he'll be getting interesting again in a different way this season, but I hope the rest of the cast gets more attention than last season.
naraht: (Default)
[personal profile] naraht wrote:
Jul. 29th, 2010 09:41 pm (UTC)
Identifying with a character definitely makes it easier for me to write them. Scully would be the prototypical example for me. I didn't have to make the slightest effort to think myself into her head or her prose rhythms; the first time I started to write from her point of view, I was already there. So I suppose it might be easier to only write characters where I could do that. With other people it's been a much longer struggle to try to get that moment of clarity where I can really grasp their mindset. But for me that's part of the point of writing, you know? Expanding my understanding of the way that other people see the world. Otherwise I might as well just stay inside my own head.