I’ve taken plenty of shots at Mad Men over the past few days, and I’d like to clarify: when you watch Mad Men, you aren’t watching a bad show. It’s just… well, here.
Because it is somewhat stylishly done,occasionally well-designed, and produced with overall aplomb, it is easy to ignore that Mad Men is a period-piece soap opera. Its better production values represent higher budgets and the benefits of a [weekly], rather than daily, schedule. It is cursed by the same ridiculous plots, unlikely characters, and preposterous acting as any of Grandma’s “stories.”
Seriously: take, for example, Pete Campbell’s attempt to blackmail Don Draper by revealing his Secret Past. This, and the fact that the primary character has a Secret Past of this sort to begin with, are unadulterated The Young and the Restless material.
Aesthetically, the show is hell of appealing, and most of the plots that actually revolve around the advertising business itself are genuinely interesting; the crime is that they aren’t the focus of the show. The star isn’t a particular concept or idea, but a character. He’s completely humorless and distant, which is fine if you’re Jack Bauer and you respond by axing terrorists in the chest, running a terrorist over with a bulldozer, running up a wall Bo Jackson-style and snapping a terrorist’s neck, etc., etc. Instead, Don Draper responds by staring at walls (always staring at walls, this guy) and maybe driving drunk or hanging out in dubious company. And even this would be okay if we had reason to care, but again, he’s humorless and distant, and we don’t.
Much of the show is about privileged people stumbling through their privileged lives. This works in shows like Arrested Development and Curb Your Enthusiasm, because they acknowledge how unsympathetic and ridiculous their problems are. Most shows about rich people are comedies, and for a reason: nobody cares about the rich man’s problems, no matter how many times Don manufactures quandaries for himself. Breaking Bad‘s Walter White does the same thing, but the most important difference is that we understand how and why he gets into these messes. With Don, it’s just, “unsatisfied man who has emotional issues, apparently. Remember, everybody, Secret Past.”
A common line of discussion is the show’s focus on gender issues in the 1960s. Some of it is valuable — the string of crap Peggy has to deal with is reflective of the crap that women have to deal with today, and the necessary compromising of her ideals is uncomfortably familiar. Any authority the show holds on the subject of gender issues, though, is damaged by its lead female protagonist, who the writers chose to write, from the beginning, as a mentally unstable person. I get that the show is trying to illustrate a common double standard (men are rebels, women are crazy). But they could have accomplished this while still writing Betty Draper as an emotionally mature adult, like, despite his selfish actions, Don is, and most male characters on the show are. Instead, she’s more of a bizarre curiosity than anything, and there’s little to nothing to take away from her presence on the show.
My television viewing choices certainly can’t be described as high-minded. I have watched every episode of 24 that has ever aired. I thought Jericho was awesome. I watch Real Time with Bill Maher. These are all dumb shows, and Mad Men is better than these. It’s a show with an intriguing premise that occasionally has some absolutely killer moments. But it’s miles removed from what television has shown us it’s capable of producing, and given how much the show gets right, it’s a disappointment.
Postscript: I would engage Matt in a fistfight for the privilege of taking Christina Hendricks out on a date. He would win.