Look, we need to talk about Mad Men. We need to temper the overblown hyperbole for the show. We need to have a reality check for a moment in which we acknowledge that, yes, the show is decent, but is it 19 Emmy nominations-decent?
That was a rhetorical question.
This morning the Academy for Television Arts & Sciences announced that it really, really, really likes Modern Family and Mad Men. Which, contrary to the USA Today’s Pulitzer-worthy reporting, is not very surprising. Both shows are competently produced and make for perfectly safe television watching for white people. But my issue is not with Modern Family–it’s formulaic but pretty adorable–my problem is with this four year-cycle of hype that’s inexplicably made Mad Men a DVR favorite.
Before I elaborate on what is inherently wrong with the show, I will admit that I have watched all four seasons week-after-week at it’s regularly scheduled 10 PM time slot. I know the show inside and out, I’m more than familiar with the characters, and, in fact, my day job in advertising helps me relate to the client dynamics, creative briefs, and campaign presentations. Moreover, as an appreciator of the mid-century aesthetic, I enjoy the stage design team’s attention to detail and the exquisite furniture selections (see what I mean about TV for white people?), but whenever the show ended at 11 PM, I felt cheated and bored. Almost as if I had just spent 60 minutes watching paint dry, albeit, beautiful paint.
Let’s hit on the story arc first. What story arc, you ask? Great point. On Mad Men, nothing much happens. I mean, things happen, but they’re very small things. And the very big things…? A divorce, a drinking problem, an ambiguously abusive relationship. Personally, I don’t watch television to watch the things that happen all the time. That’s what reality shows are for. Mad Men wants so badly to be dramatic yet the story never quite lives up to that ambition. And the acting…? Actors under-emote staring blankly into the atmosphere and attempt profundity, but Jon Hamm, in particular, a fine actor and seemingly good dude, is so astonishingly blank that I sometimes wonder if at the end of the series we’ll find out that all the while he was a zombie. The rest of the cast is fine, but honestly, January Jones can’t act. This is a fact.
So why is this show so popular? I’ve thought about this for a long while. And I think Mad Men‘s fans break down into four categories.
1. Critics, And the People Who Read Them – Critics love the I Said It Was Amazing First. And so when Mad Men first aired, it was undeniably different, refreshingly so or otherwise, and so the critics responded enthusiastically. It was a timepiece unlike any other timepiece, done with such passionate detail that fans on blogs would argue the release dates of books sitting on the shelves in the background. And so when something becomes a critical favorite, there are those that will latch on to the acclaim despite really liking or understanding the source of this adulation. Hype begets hype, and so the cycle is in motion. We are all suckers.
[In my case, I’ve spent four years trying to figure out what the critics appreciate so much about the show. I still haven’t found it. And I’m still undecided whether I will watch season five or not when it airs fourteen years from now]
2. Frat Boys – On my flight back from San Francisco last week, I actually heard a dude say to the young lady sitting next to him that he loves Mad Men. “Oh man,” he said opening his iTunes to catch up on a few episodes. “I totally love Mad Men. Soooo good.” I can recognize that there are many worse shows for him to be immersing himself into on a six hour flight, like Ultimate Fighting, for example, or One Tree Hill. But I think the reason Frat Boy was excited about Mad Men was because it represented “high art” and “culture” to him. This was his way of enjoying chauvinism, alcoholism, and racism disguised in a historically accurate context. Imagine a world where a white guy can do whatever he wants with woman, where he can gay bash, where he can drink as much as he wants–during the day, no less!–and speak his mind freely about Jews, blacks, and Asians. Sounds like a Frat Boy dream world. Who cares if it’s “paced,” and sometimes, “profound,” the 1950’s and 1960’s looked awesome, bro. Bonus points: loose sorority girls probably think you’re sophisticated if you watch the show. Score!
3. Pretentious People – If there was one demographic this show was in fact made for, it would be for pretentious people. The ones who normally shun popular culture, but consider Mad Men an exception. This series, among others exclusively aired on HBO and AMC, is their “slumming it.”
These slummers are also the people who will suggest that you don’t get all the little “nuances,” nor are you seeing beyond the surface at the “layered” “implications” of the dialogue. These people are also exhausted all the time because they are working so hard at appreciating everything on a deeper level. This is why he or she is always drinking a latte.
And incidentally, in many instances, there is no deeper level. What you see is what you get. But the Pretentious Person is incapable of superficial analysis because this is what Malcolm Gladwell told them to do in the New Yorker.
4. Advertising Geeks – Fascinated by how things were in the good ole days, the advertising industry considers Mad Men essential watching. On Monday morning, they’ll recap the episode from the night before wishing that “we too could still drink like that in our offices,” that “we too had offices,” or lamenting that “clients were once okay with just a print ad, as opposed to demanding a microsite, Twitter feed, Facebook page, TV campaign, outdoor event, a one-day stunt, and a promotional limited edition item collaborated with Shepard Fairey.”
This is actually the one component of Mad Men I enjoy the least (which is saying a lot). I don’t want my occupation mixing with my entertainment–this is a personal preference. I know that there are many nurses, for example, watching Grey’s Anatomy, but that is a phenomena for a whole other essay titled “Grey’s Anatomy will Give You Cancer.”
Because of the aforementioned four groups, Mad Men is considered a success, and alas, it’s already been renewed for another season. But I can’t help wonder that if we took a critical step back, we’d realize ultimately how impossibly boring this show is, how it barely qualifies as entertaining, and how the incredible attention to detail doesn’t necessarily make it a show worth 19 Emmys. In the very least, it qualifies Matthew Weiner to get a high-five from a few frat boys. But this whole acclaim-thing is getting silly already and is also totally responsible for this horrible looking Playboy Club show.
Which, if it’s sexist and boring enough, will also get 19 Emmy nominations next year.