Obligatory Jewish ‘Mad Men’ Post
Last night, a little bit of Hebrew, a lot of B.S.
Rachel did her excellent ‘Mad Men is secretly Jewish’ piece. I did a cursory, curtain-raising blog post. I hoped we could be done. Who really wants or needs to read more about Mad Men? However, with last night’s episode, which along with last week’s season premiere has been a real drop-off from the excellent Season 4, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner has forced our hand. When the new copywriter was named Ginsberg, I groaned; when at the ad agency they made a whole thing of him being Jewish, I groaned some more; when they had him be antic and Brooklyn-accented and he made a crack about Mein Kampf, I just sighed; then when, totally randomly, they had this new character entering his apartment, telling his Yiddish-accented father that he had gotten a job, only to have his father say the Shabbat blessing for the children—”Yevarechecha Adonai v’ishmerecha,” that one—I just gave in. It would have been enough? No: enough!
Daniel Mendelsohn’s much-derided Mad Men essay from last year got a lot wrong, but it got the most important thing right: It asked the correct question. The most interesting thing about Mad Men isn’t judging how good it is, but trying to figure out why people think it’s so much better than it plainly is; “the deeper, almost irrational reasons for the series’s appeal,” as Mendelsohn put it. And part of it is, of course, that the show has figured out how to display and have us enjoy shiny surfaces that attain deeper meaning without requiring the investment, on either the creators’ or viewers’ parts, of more time. This scene with the father is an obvious example: It could not possibly hold any deeper meaning to us, because we have met the character less than one hour before; instead, it mugs an age-old prayer’s gravitas and importance and tricks us into thinking that what we’ve just seen is the thing with the gravitas and the importance. It’s a spiritual shortcut, the great-grandson of what the Catholics called simony, and today we call sentimentality (except, that is, when there is literally a prayer involved, in which case I guess we can still call it simony).
Which brings us hastily back to Weiner and the Jews. Weiner is very obviously one of those people who long felt he was a stymied genius who now feels unstymied and needs everyone to know how brilliant he is. His show is ostentatious, and off-set he does more press than a world champion weightlifter. (Compare Weiner’s blabbering to the sly, silent smile of his old boss, David Chase, who was confident enough to know that his show spoke for itself.)
Most of the time, Mad Men pulls this whole sentimentality trick off. With Joan Holloway, in particular, the show has suggested a deep inner life and more complex story with small details, sensational incidents, and, in the scheme of things, not all that much screen-time. Weiner, befitting his personality, slips up the most when he is at his most self-indulgent: the weird episodes where Don Draper finds himself in southern California (Weiner grew up in L.A.); the bizarre, unexplained sub-plot last season featuring Don Draper’s daughter, Sally, and a boy she knows, who is actually played by Weiner’s real-life son; and, of course, all the Jewish stuff. Jews in Mad Men are either gratuitous stock characters (the comedian in Season 2; Don’s accountant, who rarely allows a conversation to pass without a Yiddish word), or are people for whom Jewishness is just an extra layer of “complexity” (chiefly last season’s Faye Miller, whose outer-boroughness was relevant but whose Jewishness wasn’t; also Peggy’s radical-journalist boyfriend, who, like a shadow, exists entirely as a further clarification of Peggy). The one exception was the department store heiress in Season 1, Rachel Menken Katz, a real character who faced a real conflict whose particulars only a Jewish woman would have faced in 1961: She was great. (Want to be generous? Throw in the former Jane Siegel, now Mrs. Roger Sterling: Maybe this says something about superlative Jewish social-climbing; maybe it’s obnoxiously unnecessary and unrealistic.) And now, we have Ginsberg, whose inclusion can’t be a symptom of Weiner’s adolescent obsession with chronicling social change (since, as a character admits, by the mid-1960s advertising firms were hiring Jews), but rather purely of his self-indulgence.
So, an egomaniacal, press-hungry, Jewish TV auteur who, um, looks like that? The comparison to David Simon, the man behind The Wire, is unavoidable. (Weiner did grow up in L.A., but would you believe me if I told you he was born in Baltimore? Which is more, actually, than can be said for Simon.) The Wire has two significant Jewish characters. They’re both lawyers, because the point of The Wire is that these roles are chosen for people, not vice versa. One, Rhonda Pearlman, is a basically good person whose Jewishness is irrelevant. The other, Maury Levy, is arguably the most despicable character on a show about drug dealers and murderers, and his Jewishness, at times, is disturbingly suggested to be very relevant.
As The Wire weakened near the very end of its run, there were horrifying moments of tokenism: Levy invites someone over for dinner; Yvette, he says, is making brisket. I cringed when I watched that, but I never suspected self-indulgence. A crucial part of the game is the lawyer who enables the street action, and, in Baltimore, that lawyer is in fact liable to be Jewish; that Levy is a dead-ringer for Simon himself makes sense in Simon’s theology, in which the heroes are a hard-drinking Irish detective, a Polish union leader, a subversive black district commander, and he was just the schmuck who wrote about it, getting only tiny bits of the truth, and only able to depict the full truth in the realm of fiction.
Simon would never have dreamed of polluting The Wire with little Easter eggs, little in-jokes, little gifts to himself. Weiner is a lot like Simon, except his show isn’t nearly as good.