On the Mad Men backlash

Fair enough: Mad Men has been on for a long time, and there was bound to be a backlash at some point. What’s interesting to me, though, is the form the backlash has taken. Over and over, people are saying: okay, we get it. The symbolism is heavy-handed. Parallel plots are too elaborately coordinated. Everything is becoming too simplistic. A recent manifestation of the backlash in the New Yorker has claimed that Don Draper is less a character than a “thesis statement.”

In other words, the show is being castigated for remaining true to its original vision and for continuing to explore the same themes it’s always focused on. And again, fair enough: people are allowed to get tired of things. Yet it seems to me that there’s always an underlying demand, an unspoken grievance motivating these complaints. “Yes, yes, we get it, we realize that Don Draper is a terrible fraud, a pure surface whose success is an indictment of the system he operates in — so can you please get back to plotlines that allow us to view him as a charismatic character with real depth?” “Yes, yes, we understand, the system is rigged so that do-nothing old white dudes continue to triumph over more talented young people and particularly women — so now that we’ve acknowledged that, can you give us a fantasy portrayal where Peggy is totally put in charage and succeeds brilliantly?” “Okay, God, we hear you, we know that the advertising milieu is so toxic that even an apparently innocent character is ultimately pulled into the self-centered scheming — but why did you have make Megan seem to be more or less a naturally good person at first and deprive us of the fantasy that everyone is always-already a backstabbing social climber?”

As Gerry Canavan said on Twitter yesterday, Mad Men, like other “high quality” shows, succeeds because its audience doesn’t understand it. They tune in for the suave Don Draper, and they resent being deprived of that fantasy — even though the entire work of the show has always, from day one, been to deprive us of that fantasy. They tune in looking for a soap opera filled with sexy people and elaborate sets (and “fan service” such as more screen time for Peggy or the triumphant return of Sal), and they resent that the show has a moral critique of the milieu it’s documenting. If you really “got it,” you’d either stop watching — or start watching the show differently. As it stands, the backlash seems to be driven by the fact that the show’s viewers simply don’t want to “get it.” And the fact of that paradoxical combination of addiction and resistence makes me wonder if Mad Men will turn out to be the most interesting and artistically successful example of the early 2000s “high quality cable drama” genre.

14 thoughts on “On the Mad Men backlash

  1. Since I did the bad thing and responded on Twitter: this is an obviously smart post standing on the shoulders of giants. And the long-standing demand for “the triumphant return of Sal” really is the quintessential example of this phenomenon, and how Mad Men denies this kind of satisfaction for us; one of the great moments (for me) in the “getting the band back together” episode where they form SCDP is the brief tease of Sal. It’s a great moment of anti-fan-service: “We’ll give you this much fantasy resolution, but no more.” That the episode is organized around the final disintegration of his marriage replicates that same structure on a macro scale.

  2. I think this is exactly right. (And by the way, Sal will never return. He was written out of the show for “real-world” reasons.)

  3. And the fact of that paradoxical combination of addiction and resistence makes me wonder if Mad Men will turn out to be the most interesting and artistically successful example of the early 2000s “high quality cable drama” genre. Oh dear . . . that’s very bad news for every word in quotes.

  4. Down here in New Zealand Mad Men ran its first 4 seasons on the equivalent to network tv- ie non cable. However as it increasingly resisted to ‘behave’ in the expected manner as outlined by Adam the viewership dropped off and it now finds itself on our sky-tv HBO subscriber channel. So it became what I term Hip-gnosis: the preserve of a smaller self-selecting in-crowd who watch beacuse they (claim to) ‘get it’ and ‘understand it’ because it is not ‘obvious’.Perhaps the way to consider it is as novel. If Mad Men was the novel of Don Draper would we still be reading these later chapters? I would, but that is because I want to read literature and literature is of a different quality to book-of the month club fiction…

  5. Hmmm, I dunno. It’s always good fun to presume that some anonymous plebes that we’ve imagined into existence are dumb, of course, but I think that Emily Nussbaum is basically right, and she’s A Real Writer in a Real Magazine (not to mention that my credentials are obviously far beyond dispute). There’s something to the idea that the show isn’t allowing us enjoy the characters any more, but I feel like as the show has moved from “Who is Don Draper Really?” through “What Will Don Draper Do Now That He’s Come To Terms With Who He Is?” and landed, finally, on “Don Draper Is Just Going To Suck, Forever,” the show’s narrative mode has changed, a lot. It used to be a show driven by character development, and those characters really were in flux, in motion, developing. Shit happened, they reacted, and were changed by that glorious dialectical miracle that is human existence. But now that Don’s background is fully drawn in–along with everyone else, pretty much–the characters don’t feel like they’re in motion any more; they all just act the way they are programmed to act. They’re no longer living in History, struggling to come to terms with changing times (which might actually be a commentary on 1968, actually).But the point is that instead of seeing character development, we just see them spinning their wheels in the same place, week or week. You can like that or dislike it–I kinda dislike it and also think it’s really smart and interesting–but it’s just not true that the show is “remaining true to its original vision” and “continuing to explore the same themes it’s always focused on.” There *is* no more exploring–everything is discovered. In fact, I actually think the show’s most powerful theme has always been creative self-delusion, something the show definitely won’t let us enjoy any more (and which Don is becoming pretty incapable of). There’s something harsh and pitiless about the way the show uses its characters now, like flies to the wanton god that is Matthew Weiner. Which is, again, either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on whether you like it. But it marks a real shift in the show’s storytelling style.

    Wait, maybe I agree with you, then? Maybe I should have just lashed out at you on twitter.

  6. I don’t think the shift you’re talking about ever happened. You’re posing a false dichotomy between the early, character-driven seasons and the current, theme-driven seasons — I think it’s been a more consistent balance between the two throughout. When I did a marathon rewatch of season 5, I found it to be just as character-driven and exciting as the early seasons. By the same token, I don’t think it’s ever been as indulgent as it was in season 2.

  7. Your analysis of the actual show seems persuasive to me. That kind of reflexive social diagnosis, the flattening of the objects and subjects of critique, is why I watch it – although even within that aesthetic framework, I do think the symbolism gets a little too heavy-handed at times, particularly recently. In any case, I hadn’t realised there had been a backlash – over here in Europe the critical conversation seemingly hasn’t even caught up to the point that a backlash is functionally possible, whilst my obsessive reading of TVdW’s reviews on AV Club (+the hundreds of sympathetic comments on each piece), and your occasional postings here, had lulled me into thinking that the ‘quality’ consensus was still in place.

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