On Disliking Mad Men
As a scholar and fan of contemporary narratively complex television serials, one of my blindspots has been Mad Men, a show about which I’ve mentioned on this blog has little appeal to me. Thus it was a bit surprising months ago when I was invited to contribute to a forthcoming book of collected essays on the show – the editors knew that I didn’t like the show, and wanted me to write about why. I accepted the invitation as a kind of challenge, and the results are posted below. [See this update on this essay's odd publication status.]
It has been quite a challenge, as writing thoughtfully about something I don’t like without simply diving into snark or dismissal is tough. While I don’t think the resulting essay is my best work, it does capture my problems with Mad Men, and hopefully serves to start a conversation about the show’s appeals and limitations, as well as larger issues about evaluation and aesthetics. I want to thank Duke University Press for supporting my desire to post it here without any hassle, and the editors (especially Lauren Goodlad) for productive comments that hopefully improved the essay. As it was written to appear in such an anthology, the context of being read alongside other pieces of Mad Men scholarship is important.
As always, I invite feedback, comments & discussion, especially for suggestions to revise the essay. A quick request in advance: as I’ve seen in some Twitter discussions about the show and dissenting opinions of it, talking about taste can rile up emotions and feel more personal than it is intended. I tied myself in knots trying to avoid letting my dislike for the show come across as a disdain or judgement of its fans – I hope that anyone commenting here aims for the same respect toward those whose taste differs from yours. Any comments that devolve into attacking each other for opinions and tastes will be deleted or edited.
Thanks in advance, and I hope you like the essay more than I like the show…
Update: After reading, check out Ian Bogost’s critique of my critique.
Smoke Gets in My Eyes: On Disliking Mad Men
I feel like a party crasher for saying this, but it’s best to get it out of the way up front: I dislike Mad Men.
Obviously, an academic volume focused on a television series is not (necessarily) a party celebrating its greatness, but the underlying premise of such a collection is a shared sense of cultural worth and value. All of my authorial neighbors found the show sufficiently interesting and engaging to focus their critical energies on the series, and I assume most watch with a significant amount of pleasure, even if tinted with critical problematics. And yet here I am, standing in the corner of the room and awkwardly trying to see where I fit in, both with the show and its critical community.
It’s quite difficult to write about a negative aesthetic reaction without condemning other people’s tastes, or slipping into a persuasive mode of convincing viewers that the pleasure they take in the show is somehow false or unwarranted. But I don’t intend to convince anyone that my reaction is better or more accurate than anyone else’s – I’m here to share, not to argue. Following the lead of the best account of critical dislike I’ve read, Carl Wilson’s “Journey to the End of Taste” with Céline Dion, we can imagine a different mode of aesthetic discussion beyond argumentation:
What would criticism be like if it were not foremost trying to persuade people to find the same things great? If it weren’t about making cases for or against things? It wouldn’t need to adopt the kind of “objective” (or self-consciously hip) tone that conceals the identity and social location of the author, the better to win you over. It might be more frank about the two-sidedness of aesthetic encounter, and offer something more like a tour of an aesthetic experience, a travelogue, a memoir (156).
Thus consider this essay as my own aesthetic travelogue of two failed attempts to enjoy and appreciate Mad Men, and some reflections on why the show leaves me so cold.
Although Wilson’s exemplary book offers an intriguing model for critical dissent, I should note that my own relationship to Mad Men is quite different from his attitude toward Dion’s album. Wilson comes to Dion as an outsider, a hip indie music critic resistant to the mainstream tastes and cultural location typifying Céline’s fans. But Mad Men is lodged squarely within my habitus: along with other cable series from channels like HBO, Showtime and FX, it’s part of the wave of “quality television” serial dramas that has raised the medium’s cultural value in the 2000s (as Lynne Joyrich discusses in this volume), and served as the object of much of my own scholarly research and personal fandom over the decade (see Mittell 2006). The show is steeped in cultural references that resonate with my own background as a media scholar, flattering my otherwise esoteric knowledge of U.S. advertising and media history. Nearly every television scholar and critic with whom I interact loves the show, making it required viewing for people in my professional and personal taste circles – in fact while I was writing this essay, Facebook encouraged me to become a fan of the show, noting that 61 of my friends had publicly declared their allegiance. In short, it’s a show seemingly designed for me to love, and I have tried to fulfill that prediction by giving myself over to it.
Why did this predicted affection fail to take hold? In exploring this question, I highlight my own aesthetic response to shed some light on the mechanics of taste and televisual pleasure. In looking closely at Mad Men, I’m trying to avoid becoming an anti-fan, as I respect too many people who like the show to actively lobby against or condemn their pleasures. As Jonathan Gray has explored, anti-fans are affectively invested in their own dislike of a cultural object and enjoy sparring with its fans, rather than passively ignoring the existence of the object of their distaste (Gray 2003). Yet simply by expressing and explaining a negative attitude toward something beloved by some, fans often rise to defend their tastes and attempt to argue against critics. In discussing my own reactions with my many Mad Men-loving friends, we quickly engaged in arguments as to whose experience and judgement was more valid and true to the show, and typically ended in an awkward and unsatisfying détente of agreeing to disagree.
Unless we’re willing to regard taste solely as an inexplicable individual experience – which I’m not – it’s important that we look closely at aesthetic responses and analyze how viewers react to texts that are both enjoyed and disliked. Elsewhere, in a similar collection critically analyzing Lost, I’ve discussed my evaluative criteria for appreciating a show that I love (Mittell, 2009). Here, I hope that diving into an aesthetic response of dislike will yield some insights into how both texts and our viewing processes work to shape the cultural field of television. For the many readers who love the show, I hope my negative account serves not to spoil any pleasures, but inspires reflections on what about Mad Men might resonate differently to the unconvinced. And regardless of anyone’s attitude to the show, reading dissenting positions forces us all to acknowledge that all of our reactions to a cultural text are varied and non-universal.
In preparing this essay, I read a number of popular and academic criticisms exploring the pleasures of Mad Men, as I wanted to understand what other critics, many of whom are friends or share similar tastes in other texts, found so compelling about the show (for example, see Goodlad, 2009). However, the majority of these accounts seem to be written about another show entirely, one where characters are appealing and the tone is playful in its kitschy nostalgia, not the cold and distant series that I watched. I hope that walking through my own negative reactions can help illuminate how a single show can provoke such divergent reactions, and that I can offer my negative take on the series without implicating its fans in my critique – although that may be a difficult needle to thread.
It’s worth considering the role of fandom within media scholarship, not as a separate object of analysis – as cultural studies has turned many critical eyes toward media fandom in an array of contexts – but as a structuring facet of academic research. Humanities scholars don’t typically brand ourselves as fans of our objects of research, even though our practices of mastery, collecting, critical analysis, sharing, and enjoyment are often quite fannish, whether toward Alfred Hitchcock or Jane Austen, or even cultural theorists, as playfully explored by Alan McKee (2007). But many scholars of contemporary popular culture have followed Henry Jenkins’s lead by self-proclaiming our allegiances as “aca-fans,” a hybrid of academic and fan critics that acknowledges and interweaves both intellectual and emotional cultural engagements. While media scholars do not solely write about what we like, the prevalence of books focused on “quality television” shows that appeal to academics like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Sopranos, and now Mad Men – especially when compared to the lack of similar volumes or essays about more lowbrow or mainstream programs – suggests that taste is often more of a motivating factor for our scholarship than we admit. We should own up to our own fannish (or anti-fannish) tendencies regarding our objects of study, not regarding fan practices as something wholly separate from our academic endeavors by acknowledging how taste structures what we choose to write about.
An Unpleasant Aesthetic Experience
My dislike for Mad Men dates back to its debut. I watched the first two episodes upon their first airing in 2007. My primary reactions were disinterest and boredom, and I quickly gave up on the show and deleted it from my TiVo Season Pass. As the show’s critical acclaim grew and I found myself encountering more people offering gushing praise, I tried to rationalize my negative reaction in light of its initial viewing context. I had watched the two episodes fairly late at night in a tired state, ill-equipped for the slow pace and dramatic subtleties that the show is lauded for – I’ll even admit to having dozed off a bit during the second episode. And I was watching on my old analog television, not allowing me to see the luminous production design in its full HD glory. Yet even though the critical consensus demanded I give it another shot, I could never muster up the energy to return to the DVDs on my HDTV, assuming that the slow pace and cool tone would not engage me enough to overcome my initial disinterest.
This experience speaks to one of the particular challenges of heavily serialized television as an aesthetic form: a program must start strong enough to inspire viewers to commit to many hours of viewing over weekly installments. More self-contained and shorter narrative forms like films can afford to start more slowly, as viewers will typically commit to finishing more finite texts even if the opening bits are less than compelling, especially when the buzz assures payoffs in the end. While readers might abandon a novel that starts slowly, at least they have a more bounded sense of how much of an investment is in store for them. For serialized television, pilot episodes must serve to hook in viewers to come back for more, as well as convince network programmers to commission a full open-ended series. This facet of serialization makes it difficult to craft a slowly-building narrative without a clear initial hook. Prior to Mad Men, the most notable exception to this tendency was The Wire, which had limited viewership on its initial HBO run compared to the DVD circulation – it’s a common refrain amongst Wire proselytizers (like myself) that you need to give the show at least four episodes to get a real feel for its subtle charms and measured pace. Among Mad Men fans, the show’s slow build is part of its appeal, as the storyworld and characters deepen as it develops. But for viewers like me left unmoved by Mad Men‘s first episodes, the typical reaction is to write off the series, rarely returning beyond an initial sampling.
The motivation to return to Mad Men came years later with the invitation to write this essay. The editors were curious about my publicly-declared disinterest in the show, and wanted to learn more about why I, as a media critic who had written about the likeness between serial television and the serial fiction of the nineteenth century, felt so unmoved by what is arguably one of television’s most accomplished and novelistic realist narratives. Thus I went back to watch the first season DVDs; I returned to the series with an open mind and hoped to recognize the brilliance found by the critical consensus, writing about why it took a second viewing to appreciate the show. But alas, every episode left me as cold and unmoved as with my initial attempt; only the obligation to write this essay kept me watching.
When I share my reactions with fans of the show, they are baffled by my ambivalence and disinterest – if you love a cultural work, it can be quite hard to understand why someone else doesn’t share that love, especially if they otherwise share common tastes. But I am equally baffled as to why so many critics, scholars, and friends seem to adore Mad Men, as I find its appeal elusive. I fully acknowledge that it is a “good” series: well-crafted, smartly written, expertly produced, and effectively acted. It is objectively better made – to whatever degree measures of quality can be objective – than the vast majority of programs airing on American television. But despite its clear markers of quality, I would rather watch many programs that are less well-made, less intelligent, and less ambitious, as I find them more satisfying and pleasurable.
Pleasure is a slippery but essential facet of cultural consumption. While various theoretical models of pleasure have argued that the experience is grounded in subconscious repressed impulses or political affiliations, I find that the pleasure that variably finds or eludes me in serial television is primarily one of aesthetic response. Aesthetics are certainly not separate from psychology or politics, but neither are they reducible to them – if they were, at least according to Pierre Bourdieu, I would love Mad Men, as it resides squarely within my quadrant of high cultural capital and middling economic capital (Bourdieu 1987). My absence of pleasure from watching the show is best understood dialogically, in comparison why what the show’s admirers find so enjoyable. In discussing Mad Men with friends and reading celebratory criticism, I believe the three core types of pleasure that they take from the show (and that evade me) are in the visual splendor of its period style, the subtextual commentary on American history and identity, and the emotional resonance to be found with the characters and their dramas. Each of these facets – visual, interpretive, and emotional – seems to offer aesthetic engagement for the shows many fans, and each leaves me cold and distant. Exploring each in some depth might highlight how the show’s aesthetics work (or fail to) to engage viewers in its narrative world.
In discussing Mad Men with fans, the show’s look and texture is frequently among the first facets mentioned – as one acquaintance summarized what she likes most about the show, “fashion and furniture.” Fans seem to love the way it looks, how the series creates a lush visual splendor that recreates a high-style 1960s urban decor: a beautiful production design filled with beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes. I do not deny that the show’s look is expertly done up, and that the period accuracy captures a sense of timely style that is admirably pretty. Television has long been a medium that neglects elaborate visual style, traditionally focusing on more straightforward (and less expensive) formal elements like plotting and performances, and thus as a defender of the aesthetic possibilities of television, I appreciate Mad Men‘s attention to design and visual look.
But much like the series as a whole, the style leaves me cold. I see its design as an artifice, echoing the thematic exploration of advertising as the dominant site of constructed imagery defining post-war America’s visual culture – according to the subtext running throughout the series, commercial culture creates idealized surface images that obscure deeper truths or cultural anxieties. Mad Men is critical of consumers buying into the constructed imagery of advertising, but does the show’s highly artificial stylistic sheen serve a similar function? Are viewers who are moved by the beautiful sets, suits, and bodies that inhabit them falling prey to the style-over-substance sleight-of-hand that Sterling Cooper is peddling? As the show’s style becomes commodified and embraced via online paratexts of Mad Men avatars, cocktail guides, and “which Mad Man are you?” quizzes, which many fans actively consume and promote, I am prone to think that the style exposes an inherent hypocrisy in the show, just as anti-consumerist environmental messages in a film like WALL-E are undercut by its inevitable merchandizing and production of disposable waste.
I don’t think that fans are being duped by the show’s style, as I certainly believe that these are legitimate and heartfelt aesthetic pleasures, not the illusions of false consciousness. However, there is an incongruity inherent in embracing and emulating the stylistic sense of a series that regularly highlights the manipulations of marketing and the creation of consumerist consciousness. How are we to reconcile the show’s critical representations of idealized advertising-constructed visions of American culture with the show’s seemingly authentic (and simultaneously idealized) glossy presentation of 1960s New York? Embracing the design as a primary pleasure seems intellectually incompatible with the show’s own critical edge, suggesting either internal inconsistencies within the text, or a widespread misreading of the show’s use of style. As someone who doesn’t find the visuals compelling on their own, it’s hard to understand exactly how fans navigate this terrain and reconcile this seeming contradiction.
Personally, I’m not particularly prone to embrace period drama as an object of aesthetic pleasure, whether it’s the cool glossy elegance of 1960s Manhattan or ornate opulence of Rome‘s ancient world. For many fans, the show’s period accuracy functions both to create a distinctive look that sets it apart from most contemporaneously set media, and to successfully create a textual time machine, casting viewers back in time via the fictional means of visual representation. But the function of this time machine – typified by fans voicing “I want to live in Mad Men‘s world!,” a sentiment I’ve seen frequently in online forums – seems incompatible the show’s explicit criticism of the illusion of nostalgia, especially as voiced in the episode “The Carousel.” The show seems to want to create a world that both is appealing to fans as an idealized nostalgic place and an object of cultural critique, an opposition that I find impossible to either intellectually reconcile or aesthetically experience.
Mad Men‘s genre of period drama is lodged not only within its style, but also shapes its cultural commentary, spanning both its visual and interpretive pleasures. There’s no doubt that the show is employing a sophisticated form of social engagement that is unique to its serial form – we watch the characters move forward in their lives in small installments, but with foreknowledge of much of what is to come in their world. Thus, when we witness the casual sexism and racism – as well as nearly every other form of discrimination that boils down to the main characters’ default suspicion of anyone unlike themselves – we regard the characters as dinosaurs unaware of the coming ice age. In the first season, we watch Sterling Cooper make assumptions about Nixon’s victory knowing how deluded they are about both the politician and America’s future. There is an interesting dynamic inherent in watching characters who experience themselves as modern, but, inevitably, feel dated to us – from our privileged perch in the 21st century, the characters of Sterling Cooper will be forced to adapt or become extinct.
This retrospective scenario allows for a good deal of commentary on what has both changed and remained constant through the intervening decades, and for many viewers, these cultural politics are part of the show’s aesthetic response, coloring the viewing experience. Through the show’s vision of the 1960s, we can witness the rise of the image industries and the resulting hyperconsumerism that they wrought, while anticipating the coming shifts of consciousness concerning civil rights, sexual politics, and public health that will make the storyworld a more humane place from our contemporary perspective. Yet despite these interesting cultural engagements that should make me appreciate the show’s intelligence and political savvy, I find the effects of Mad Men‘s retrospective gaze more frustrating than engaging. At first, my frustration stemmed from the show’s initial winking, heavy-handed use of period details – especially in the pilot, the show seemed content to pat us on the back for knowing more than the characters in terms of the health impact of cigarettes, gender norms, and the future career path of Dick Nixon. In these moments, the commentary seems to be little more than condescension toward the 1960s characters, as we are meant to feel superior to them at a fairly obvious level – as critic Mark Grief dismissively characterizes the show’s message, “Now We Know Better” (Grief, 15).
Thankfully, this heavy-handed mode of retrospective commentary gave way to a more subtle variant throughout the first season. Attitudes and actions that appear backward-thinking to us today highlight the shifts in social mores, while some of these offensive attitudes still remain relevant today. However, I feel discomfort with how such comments operate within the series, highlighting the complexities of satirical representations in a serial drama. While we are obviously supposed to disagree with the sexist attitudes of the ad men, the fact that we spend so much time with these characters and grow to like them (at least to a degree), makes it awkward when they casually belittle and mistreat people. For example, when in a seemingly heartfelt moment in the episode “Indian Summer,” Roger Sterling compliments Joan Holloway by calling her “the finest piece of ass I’ve ever had,” we certainly are dismayed by his cruel insensitivity – but Roger’s character makes such offensive behavior charming and charismatic, and thus we can simultaneously dismiss and embrace his attitudes, especially as Joan seems content to take it as a compliment. Coupled with the fact that Christina Hendricks has emerged as a sex symbol through her hyper-sexualized portrayal of Joan, regarding her as a “fine piece of ass” is meant to be taken at least somewhat seriously.
This discomfort is more problematic in the numerous scenes of the ad men engaging in group one-upmanship in belittling their secretaries and wives. We simultaneously recoil at their attitudes and appreciate being invited into their gang. In many ways, Mad Men‘s social critique functions similarly to the ambivalent politics common in many contemporary advertisements, especially for beer. In this beer commercial logic, male protagonists are presented as unrealistically stupid, offensive, and clueless, and we are invited to mock them – but simultaneously, we are encouraged to want to be like them, hanging out and enjoying their beer. In Mad Men‘s upscale version of this mode of address, the more time we spend with the ad men, the more charming they become, making their outmoded sensibilities less offensive and more appealing. The dynamic of being invited into an exclusive realm of a shared culture stretched out over time promotes identification and engagement, despite more rational disdain and critique, and results in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome of sympathy for values and expressions that we may find otherwise abhorrent. Spending hours of time with characters whom we dislike either makes that time unpleasant or invites us to see their behavior as more sympathetic and acceptable – I’m not sure which option is worse.
Another focal point for Mad Men‘s commentary on gender politics is the character of Betty Draper, whose stunted life in the suburbs serves as a pre-feminist reference point that seems designed to highlight how better off women will be by the next decade. However, Betty is the character whom I find most off-putting in the first season – her infantilized persona poses her as a victim of her times, but virtually nothing in the season suggests that there is more there to be developed if only she weren’t under Don’s thumb. Betty’s therapy sessions, along with Don’s private consultations with the psychiatrist, function to belittle her character rather than show some untapped depth, and the way these scenes are shot place us in similar role of eavesdropper, making us complicit in her degradation and generating contempt toward her frail character. Although I’ve only sampled a few episodes past the first season, knowing that Betty eventually divorces Don, but ends up in a similarly dependent marriage, suggests that for viewers invested in her character, there may be partial redemption of her early humiliation. Yet as I watched the first season, it felt like the show treated her with contempt for how she enabled her own victimization rather than creating a sympathetic character to root for.
At its core, Mad Men‘s social critique seems to promote a sense of superiority to the characters and 1960s milieu, while simultaneously inviting us to return to this unpleasant place each week. I find both of these attitudes off-putting, enjoying neither feeling superior to the characters nor being in their company. Having not found an emotional place to view the storyworld that can be pleasurable and avoid discomfort, I’m unsure how the show’s legion of fans negotiate the political dissonance that comes from immersing yourself with people whom you find distasteful. None of the critical appraisals of the show I’ve read suggest that the critics watch from a perch of contemptuous superiority, so I’m not sure how to reconcile my perception of the show’s mode of address with fan reactions that embrace the fictional world. Perhaps this reading position is only possible with a tactic of emotional detachment that foregrounds the temporal gap, regarding it at a world clearly unlike our own and thus accepting the era’s politics as simply part of the decor. However, simply accepting the cultural politics as emotionally distant background forces you to swallow a lot of unpleasant behavior in how characters treat each other, as the era’s cultural norms are frequently foregrounded in the emotional moments between characters.
The question of emotional distance raises the third apparent pleasure of Mad Men that eludes me: an investment in the characters, their relationships, and lives. Serial television is ultimately a character-centered form, as we need to care about the people we’re spending time with in order to justify the hours of viewing and weeks of anticipation endemic to the form. Since Mad Men‘s slow-moving plot lacks the suspenseful cliff-hangers that often drive serial narratives – and some narrative events like Nixon’s defeat are even spoiled in advance with some historical knowledge – our investment in the storyworld is lodged in the characters’ struggles and motivations. Over the course of the first season, we are asked to care about Peggy’s career and personal aspirations, Pete’s attempt to escape his family’s shadow, Betty’s psychological and domestic struggles, Don’s attempt to reconcile his past identity and juggle lovers, Joan’s feelings toward Roger, as well as similar dramas facing each character. The generally effective acting and well-crafted writing makes each character distinctive and intriguing.
Yet I find all of these storylines uninteresting, as I ultimately don’t care about these people. The romance plots are the stuff of fairly conventional television melodrama, upgraded into the more culturally validated realm of contemporary quality television. The series that Mad Men‘s relationship dramas most reminds me of is Peyton Place, the landmark 1960s primetime soap opera focusing on the romantic entanglements across class lines in a small New England town. At the time, Peyton Place was scandalous for its explicit portrayals (by 1960s standards) of adultery and sexuality, breaking ground for television representations of taboo content. The show was simultaneously regarded as trashy, but a must-see for urbane viewers – much like how the receptionist pool discussed Lady Chatterly’s Lover on Mad Men (and I certainly expect that Mad Men will reference Peyton Place as the series becomes popular in the storyworld during season 4).
While sensational in the 1960s, Peyton Place comes across as methodical and dry to today’s viewers, and to me it feels quite similar to Mad Men. The latter replaces the former’s high melodrama staging and score with a more subdued style and tone, but the actual situations and stakes feel similar – and in neither case does the romantic geometry make for particularly compelling drama. In the first season, we are supposed to care about Don’s various relationships with Betty, Midge, and Rachel, hoping for at least one to work out. Fans of the show clearly feel investment in such melodrama, as media scholar (and Mad Men fan) Michael Newman highlights how the show’s appeal is wrapped up in its evocation of soap opera narrative conventions, as “legitimated by Quality [TV] and its trappings” (Newman, 2010). However, I found the actual relationship drama to be disengaging and distancing, far less compelling than less overtly “quality” primetime soaps and melodramas. While we could write this off as an inexplicable “matter of taste,” I think it stems from my lack of emotional engagement with the show’s characters.
Mad Men ‘s characters suffer from the contradictory ambivalences that mark the show’s visual style and politics as well – we are seemingly supposed to find them both appealing and repellent at the same time. Yet characters who behave as boorishly as they do on Mad Men do not inspire me to care about their stories, so I find myself merely tolerating the time I spend with them, rather than investing my emotional energies into their struggles and accomplishments. Peggy is the closest we have to a sympathetic character to latch onto in season 1, yet her arc shows her becoming more like the loutish ad men in order to assimilate into Sterling Cooper, shedding the aspects of her character that initially appeared most engaging. Finally the revelation of her unknown pregnancy both feels like a plot contrivance and exposure of her growing callousness, neither of which creates empathy for the character. I’ve been assured that Peggy’s arc deepens and transforms in subsequent seasons, but 13 hours should be enough to find at least one character to identify with.
This is not to suggest that serial dramas need to feature solely sympathetic characters, as a wealth of narratively complex primetime serials have focused on anti-heroes. Compared to the titular mafia don of The Sopranos, the serial killer Dexter, Deadwood‘s ruthless mogul Al Swearingen, corrupt cop Vic Mackey on The Shield, or the murdering meth-cooker Walter White on Breaking Bad, Don Draper seems almost moral in contrast. Yet I find Draper the least compelling from this cast of characters, as his emotionally distant and callow mistreatment of everyone in his life feels less justified than the more egregious acts of violence and betrayal found on other dramas. In part, this contrast arises is because Draper seems to have the most agency of any of these characters, lacking the massive childhood trauma of Dexter Morgan, the midlife cancer of Walter White, or the destiny of Tony Soprano’s family business. Draper literally invented himself and created his own destiny, yet squandered his wealth of opportunities. I believe we are to think that Don is ultimately unable to shed his unloving childhood, but I find his character and Jon Hamm’s performance to be more of a blank slate of callowness, rather than a complex rendering of a psychologically damaged man. The show plays with the enigma of Don Draper’s identity, but as a viewer I find little beneath the surface to care about.
Another important contrast between Draper and television’s other anti-heroes concerns their physical appearance. Certainly one of the show’s chief appeals is how stylishly beautiful the characters are, especially anti-hero Draper. Almost none of television’s other recent anti-heroes are so conventionally attractive, as the charisma of Soprano or Mackey shines through despite, rather than because of, their appearance. As mocked during Jon Hamm’s guest stint on 30 Rock, the actor (and by extension, character) has perfect good looks that place him above the everyday world, allowing him to live a charmed life of limitless professional and romantic opportunity. While Walter White acts out of desperation and Soprano was born into the mafia, Draper is given little motivation for his inhumanity aside from a tough childhood, even as he is given every chance to build a happy life. We may be meant to ask why Don would fail to take advantage of his copious opportunities, but I’ve yet to find an answer that resonates beyond a level of convenience to motivate the drama.
As I watched his story unfold, I found only disgust and disdain for his choices, lacking the empathetic appeal of other dramas, and compounded by the knowledge that the show makes Draper into an object of desire for fans despite his hollow core. Hamm’s performance nails the slick exterior, but I have little sense of any humanity or motives underneath his callous charms beyond a backdrop of blank brooding. My distaste for Draper was solidified in “The Marriage of Figaro,” as his emotionally detached narcissism boils over to ruin his daughter’s birthday – as a father, I found this unmotivated behavior a step too far. The show constructs Don as a charming bad boy whose sex appeal regularly allows people to forgive his misdeeds, but I find his shallow charisma to lack depth, and thus am only invested in seeing his failure. Obviously, my take is not typical of viewers who made it beyond the first few episodes. As online critic Todd VanDerWerff notes in a review of “Nixon vs. Kennedy,” “the show doesn’t work if you can’t buy that Don is a cold bastard but capable, somehow, of being both better than his contemporaries and himself” (VanDerWerff, 2009). I simply can’t buy how Don is, or could be, better than everyone else, except in his abilities to pitch products and charm women – and thus the show doesn’t work for me.
While watching the first season, friends assured me that the final episode contains a masterful scene that transforms the season and Don’s character in a highly rewarding way. I certainly appreciated the craft of the carousel pitch scene, completely selling me both on the ad campaign and that Don would believe his own rhetoric. But I found the thematic discussion of nostalgia and imagery to deepen my suspicion of the show, rather than transform it. The speech somewhat functions as the show’s mission statement, highlighting how the series works as a time machine to take us back to another moment in our cultural memory, and how such nostalgia is twinged with pain. Yet it’s a journey to a place I don’t want to be, transporting us into a past world that I’m happy to be rid of, not a place of comfort. I find the fact that the show can both critique its cultural moment and sell it to viewers as a comforting and stylish option to return to is quite disturbing, and makes me unable to enjoy the story or its world.
The missing ingredient from Draper and nearly all of Mad Men‘s characters is empathy, as virtually nobody’s behavior or situation invites me to place myself in their shoes. Instead, I watch the characters from an emotional remove that makes them appear as pieces in a mannered dance rather than fully realized people to care about. This might be the ultimate answer to the core appeal of serial drama, as without empathy toward the characters, viewers lack the emotional connection to sustain the commitment of weeks, months, and years that a successful series demands. Even though their actions are reprehensible, I feel empathy toward Soprano, White, Morgan, Mackey, and Swearingen, understanding their acts in the context of their lives and situations. Draper’s blank slate doesn’t leave me with more than just the sense of him being a “cold bastard” as his core. And I translate this lack of empathy to how the show’s creators seem to regard their characters – while Al Swearingen might be a bastard, I always feel that creator David Milch loves the guy. While I know it’s my own projection rather than any authentic access to authorial intent, I can’t help but feel that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner ultimately feels contempt toward Draper and the rest, fueling the emotional gap that keeps me from warming to the show.
In the end, watching Mad Men leaves me feeling unclean and unpleasant, having spent time in an unenjoyable place with people I don’t care about, and coming out smelling of stale cigarettes. The gloss and sheen is meant to charm me, but instead it masks something hollow, dark and cancerous. For people who like the show, this resonance is affecting and provocative, but for me, it feels like one of Don Draper’s callow ad pitches. None of the emotional arcs of the characters feel real or earned – instead I’m being sold the illusion of drama rather than honest drama itself, much like the packaging of nostalgia and memory in a Kodak slide projector. Enough people whom I respect feel quite differently, so I know it’s not because the show is a failure per se, but clearly there is a short circuit for me and presumably others, disengaging me from the show on its own terms and failing to create sufficient empathy to go along for the narrative ride that I want to enjoy.
At the start of this essay, I suggested that I did not want to offer an argument against Mad Men as much as an account of my journey of trying to reach its aesthetic destination, a route I clearly never found. But when it comes to matters of taste, discussing love or hate – or even its more moderate forms of like and dislike – feels like a provocation to argue, a trigger toward picking a fight. I know when I read a negative account of a show that I love, I often feel personally attacked and want to defend the object of my affection and, by extension, myself. Tastes may be culturally determined and reflective of underlying social structures, but they feel personal and authentically part of our identities. What we like shapes who we are, and criticizing something we love feels like an insult.
I do think it is important for media scholars to engage in such questions of taste and aesthetic response, applying our critical eyes to textual objects and exploring how we engage with them. This doesn’t create conventional scholarship, with argumentative theses supported by theories and citations, but I don’t think it needs to yield conventional criticism either. We can critically examine the aesthetics of media texts, but in a way that moves beyond asserting opinions or individualized tastes. Instead we can frame our critical accounts within academic models of how texts function as sites of interaction between creators, viewers, cultural contexts and taste cultures. Cultural studies has offered great analyses of these practices concerning issues of politics and identity, and we can extend that approach to understanding aesthetic experiences as well, including our own. What this critical approach would look like is still a work in progress, but as a start, we can take aesthetic journeys like this one to own up to what we both enjoy and dislike about cultural texts.
Reading a positive piece of criticism for a text you love feels like a validation of your experiences, and helps you appreciate new nuances and depths. But as I’ve been writing this, I have had a hard time understanding the precise function of a piece of negative critical analysis. I’m not writing to provoke anger toward me or my opinions, even though I’m sure I will, nor am I trying to condemn or dismiss the show’s many supporters, even as I critique that which they love. Reading work that takes a (hopefully) thoughtful position different from our own, especially on matters that feel more organic and personal like taste rather than intellectual questions of theory and analysis, can help us think outside our own positions, considering why other people have the aesthetic responses that they do. And perhaps seeing how a dissenter feels about a series can deepen your own appreciation for the pleasures you take from the show that I clearly miss. Hopefully we can learn from successful serial dramas and engage in such discussions with more empathy than smugness, trying to understand how someone might see the same cultural object so differently from ourselves, rather than looking down on those who disagree. In this journey, I’ve tried to empathize with the show’s fans, but fallen short in my goal of appreciating the series through their eyes. Instead, I feel like Mad Men is just blowing smoke.
Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Harvard University Press, 1987).
Lauren M.E. Goodlad, “Why We Love Mad Men,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 31, 2009, http://chronicle.com/article/Why-We-Love-Mad-Men/48234/.
Jonathan Gray, “New Audiences, New Textualities: Anti-Fans and Non-Fans,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 6, no. 1 (2003): 64-81.
Mark Grief, “You’ll Love the Way It Makes You Feel,” London Review of Books, October 23, 2008. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v30/n20/mark-greif/youll-love-the-way-it-makes-you-feel
Alan McKee, “The Fans of Cultural Theory,” in Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, ed. Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 88-97.
Jason Mittell, “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” The Velvet Light Trap, no. 58 (Fall 2006): 29-40.
Jason Mittell, “Lost in a Great Story: Evaluation in Narrative Television (and Television Studies),” in Reading LOST: Perspectives on a Hit Television Show, ed. Roberta Pearson (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009), 119-38.
Michael Newman, “’Turning creative success into business is your work!’,” zigzigger, July 26, 2010, http://zigzigger.blogspot.com/2010/07/turning-creative-success-into-business_26.html.
Todd VanDerWerff, “”Look! They’re doing math!”: Mad Men,” South Dakota Dark, October 12, 2007, http://southdakotadark.blogspot.com/2007/10/look-theyre-doing-math-mad-men.html.
Carl Wilson, Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (Continuum Pub Group, 2007).
This post © Jason Mittell, 2010
Filed under: Fandom, Media Studies, Narrative, Taste, Television, TV Shows, Viewers | 106 Comments
Tags: Mad Men