“Mad Men” is back, the cultural phenomenon with a loyal audience after a 10-month hiatus. It returned with 3.4 million viewers, its second-highest rating and is again getting so much intellectual attention you might think it was “War and Peace.”
Such literary pretentiousness veers close to satire, but it’s in dead earnest, and that’s the rub. It’s a testament to the triumph and pomposity of pop culture that we grant soap opera such serious status. Serious political journalists reach for a soap opera analogy to illuminate, if not explain, candidates and issues. Professors weigh in on “what it means.” Walter Dellinger, a lawyer who hosts an online show with scholars and historians talking about the series, thinks he can make a case for the proposition that “multi-episode, multi-season serial television is the great art form of our time.” (Are we that far gone?)
He’s not alone. Historian Alan Brinkley says the show echoes the culture of the 1960s and “some of the greatest artists of the era,” including Saul Bellow, John Updike and Edward Albee. Serial television may be called the “novelistic medium” for the 21st century, and critics can deconstruct the meaning of this show with the lavishness they analyze great literature. But that doesn’t put it up there with Dostoevsky just yet. With such pontification in flower, we can expect Don Draper, the leading character, soon to discover, like Moliere’s “Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” that he’s “speaking prose.”
Reading lists on the Internet actually footnote the show’s book references, and Matthew Weiner, the creator of “Mad Men,” cleverly teases (or flatters) the viewer in this season’s opener by having Draper read Dante’s “Inferno” on the beach in Hawaii. Are we being asked to contemplate what punishment will be meted out to him in hell? (Since the book was recommended by his latest mistress in bed, the adulterous couple could join Francesca and Paolo in Dante’s second circle.)
Even the Brits are agog over the series, perhaps patronizing their American cousins for finally having found a medium that suits American taste. James Walton, writing in the London Telegraph, discovers that the suburban town of Ossining, N.Y., where Draper in early episodes tucked away his family, was the home of John Cheever, and riffs how Cheever was “The Chekhov of the suburbs.” By such insinuation, this makes the creator of “Mad Men” our Chekov or at least our Cheever. He also finds themes similar to those in Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
But that’s the trouble with all this oh-so-cool criticism. It shows off the critic, rather than what’s being criticized. It becomes a Rorschach test for literary pretentiousness, telling us more about ourselves and the fads we follow than the people it depicts. While “Mad Men” is a costume drama of the 1960s, a time a lot closer to us than “Downton Abbey,” it offers a nostalgic trip down memory lane for many viewers. But “The Great Gatsby” it’s not. It may be fun, but “fun” is different from “fine.” What’s sad is that it’s an accurate measure of what has happened to the culture entertainment and celebrity is all.
Most of the audience for “Mad Men” is made up of the children of parents of the ‘60s, eager to check out their perspectives against blurred childhood recollections. They can enjoy a condescending hipness when Draper fails to appreciate the Beatles, or experience the superiority of hindsight knowing that smoking, though portrayed as glamorous, isn’t healthy. The sexual hypocrisies are palpable, and issues of race and feminism seem positively fossilized. Viewers can have fun playing “gotcha,” looking for anachronisms such as Don watching a nighttime NFL game in 1964, though prime-time weeknight pro football didn’t come on the tube until 1970.
“Mad Men” lacks the emotional depth or moral insights of a good novel (or even a mediocre one). It wallows deep in the shallows, jumping around haphazardly, offering just enough information to fill in the numbers. The dialogue is unintentionally ironic when it sounds like advertising copy, and the characters are as flat as a television screen. Reviewing an episode is a little like reviewing an unfinished book.
It also uses the cheap tricks of soap opera, what Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Review of Books says is “simultaneously contemptuous and pandering,” allowing the audience to feel superior at a less-enlightened time, at the same time it eroticizes and titillates through the dramatic action. The leading man is both the face of the clean-cut man in the old Arrow Shirt ad and the actor whose trousers are so tight that he was cautioned to be sure to wear underwear to make it “family friendly.” The show is not soft porn, but it’s not profound either.
Children who grew up in the 1960s think the historical details of “Mad Men” enable them to imagine what their parents were like. (Uh, oh. Surely, we weren’t really like that.)
Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and syndicated columnist.