Author: A. O. Scott
—A little over a week after the conclusion of the first half of the last “Mad Men” season, the journalist and critic Ruth Graham published a polemical essay in Slate lamenting the popularity of young-adult fiction among fully adult readers.
—Not only have shows like “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men” heralded the end of male authority; we’ve also witnessed the erosion of traditional adulthood in any form, at least as it used to be portrayed in the formerly tried-and-true genres of the urban cop show, the living-room or workplace sitcom and the prime-time soap opera.
—From the start, American culture was notably resistant to the claims of parental authority and the imperatives of adulthood.
—At sea or in the wilderness, these friends managed to escape both from the institutions of patriarchy and from the intimate authority of women, the mothers and wives who represent a check on male freedom.
—As before, the rebellious animus of the disaffected man-child was directed not just against male authority but also against women.
—When you look beyond the gloomy-man, angry-man, antihero dramas that too many critics reflexively identify as quality television “House of Cards,” “Game of Thrones,” “True Detective,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “The Newsroom” you find genre-twisting shows about women and girls in all kinds of places and circumstances, from Brooklyn to prison to the White House.
—Many people forget that the era of the difficult TV men, of Tony and Don and Heisenberg, was also the age of the difficult TV mom, of shows like “Weeds,” “United States of Tara,” “The Big C” and “Nurse Jackie,” which did not inspire the same level of critical rapture partly because they could be tricky to classify.
—Just as the men passed through the stage of sincere rebellion to arrive at a stage of infantile refusal, so, too, have the women progressed by means of regression.
—In Fiedler’s stunted American mythos, where fathers were tyrants or drunkards, the civilizing, disciplining work of being a grown-up fell to the women: good girls like Becky Thatcher, who kept Huck’s pal Tom Sawyer from going too far astray; smothering maternal figures like the kind but repressive Widow Douglas; paragons of sensible judgment like Mark Twain’s wife, Livy, of whom he said he would “quit wearing socks if she thought them immoral.”
—I do feel the loss of something here, but bemoaning the general immaturity of contemporary culture would be as obtuse as declaring it the coolest thing ever. A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too. The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what’s going on, where identities are in perpetual flux. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens. We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with, and each one of them presses on our attention with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight.