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
Jason Mittell

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.

Works Cited

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

118 Responses to “On Disliking Mad Men”

  1. I’ve been so excited for this post, and it did not let me down. I’ve been thinking, lately, about references to the mid-century in popular culture, especially as I’ve been reading Michael Davidson’s spectacular Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics. Obviously, especially on the front of gender relations and homosocial subcultures, the period haunts our cultural imagination, hence, I think, a lot of the feminist blogosphere interest in Mad Men, especially as it asks us to consider the extent to which things have changed. But I find myself left similarly cold by the show, especially as it seems so pleased with its own attentive accuracy, that it forgets the layer of critique that is ethically required by its existence, and especially its popularity.

  2. 2 Cole Moore Odell

    Wonderful essay. As a Mad Men fan, but not one who agrees with many of the statements from other fans that you cite, I appreciate the perspective, and you provide a lot to think about. Part of the disconnect is that I take as strengths some of the areas you point out as hypocritical paradoxes. I find the show’s (and its fans’) attempts to have it both ways a fascinating reinforcement of its central themes as you explain them, not an undermining. I’m also pretty comfortable not having characters to conventionally root for.

    One area that catches me up is your second point about the “Stockholm Syndrome” involved in simultaneously being asked to deplore and envy the portrayal of male privilege exemplified by early 60s boys’ locker room scenes–I did a little find-and-replace with Sopranos in my head as I read along, and I’m having trouble seeing how the two shows operate differently in this regard. “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.” How does that not describe Sopranos *at least* as well as Mad Men? Yet you offer Chase’s show as a counter example.

    Chase essentially extended a series-long, facetious invitation for us to empathize with the monstrous Tony, and ride along with his gang of miserable, rotten, contemptible thugs & family. As with Mad Men (in part because a show’s marketing is always going to be dumber than the show itself) lots of people went along for that ride without being in on the joke. By the end, my impression (from dimly remembered interviews, granted) is that Chase could barely keep his loathing for a big chunk of his own audience between the lines, as if he were saying, “if you empathize with this cretin I spent six years trying to seduce you into liking while all along showing you how horrible he is, I hate you.”

    If anything, Mad Men can be criticized for merely retracing Chase’s footsteps, but I don’t think Weiner and his show deserve special condemnation for playing this particular game with the audience. Actually, I prefer Mad Men for exploring similar territory without resorting to boy’s adventure genre gunfights and explosions, and for actually showing the emotional consequences for the protagonists’ cowardice, weakness and self-delusion.

    • Cole,

      You’re spot-on about the Sopranos comparison, and there’s no doubt that MM is a direct descendent of that show. This tension one reason why, after the near-perfect season 1, I find that Sopranos grows far less successful over time. Just as fans who embrace the MM aesthetic & nostalgia without reconciling with the politics make me uncomfortable, I’ve found Sopranos fans who embrace the show’s violence and thuggery to be really problematic.

      Also, I found Tony to be a much more complex character than Don – there is more depth there than his cronies, and those incongruities are interesting to explore. I always know why Tony thinks he’s doing something, and usually have a clue why he’s really doing it. Don’s motives and rationalizations are usually opaque to me.

      Finally, at its best, The Sopranos is really fun. I know that some find Mad Men to be fun & playful, but I find it way too arch & removed to feel fun.

      Thanks for the comments!

      • 4 Cole Moore Odell

        One reason why I appreciate your thoughts about Mad Men is that I had a similar reaction to Sopranos by the end of of season 4, at which point I mostly jumped ship. While I could appreciate the skill and thought that went into the show even then, it had overall gotten too toxic & repetitive (perhaps by design) for me to continue.

      • 5 Liznyc

        It’s hard for me to believe that you don’t find Don Draper’s character as complex as Tony Soprano’s. As a person who works as a counselor and is schooled in the world of addictions, Don Draper is a perfect example of a sex-addicted man. He was born to a prostitute and grew up in a brothel. He was sexually and emotionally abused as a child and he has lived in a world of secrets for most of his life, very typical of sex addicted people. In my opinion, the show is a brilliant interpretation of someone who is suffering from this secret life. It is never more clear than in the episode where his daughter catches him sleeping with the neighbor. It is the beginning of him breaking down and hitting his bottom and his response is to bring his children to see his childhood home, in a ramshackle neighborhood in Pennsylvania. The depth of all the Mad Men characters is what makes the show so interesting. Most people are not black and white, as these characters portray. There is both good and bad in all of them. They are living what they learned as children and that’s what makes people come back to watch it over and over again with more and more information being revealed every time you watch it. Don’s sex addiction, which is really the main focus of the show, gets in the way of most of his relationships like any addiction will. I found myself invested in seeing him heal a little each time he revealed his past to someone and let go of some of his shame.

  3. “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.”

    There’s something here that I think may work toward explaining the disconnect you have with the show. The late 50’s/early 60’s period is interesting, culturally speaking, in that it’s a time that is heavily romanticized by both liberals and conservatives. It’s no accident, I think, that Mad Men is set in a time that is evocative of both the social order and family values of the 1950’s and the freedom and optimism of the 1960’s. Both of those eras are heavily romanticized by a lot of people these days, in part because of the values they symbolize, but also insofar as they represent a simpler, easier time. In the postmodern, ironic present, both the conformity of the 50’s and the passion of the 60’s seem deeply naive, but that sort of naivete can be enticing for a person wrapped up in what feels like the comparative complexity of contemporary life.

    On the other hand, the illusory nature of any so-called “golden age” is something that most honest people will be forced to admit upon reflection. Life in the post-war era was no less full of problems and worry about the future than today. And here’s where I think Mad Men tries, and largely succeeds, in having it both ways. Because I think for a lot of people, the early 60’s are a contradictory period. The allure is there, but tempered with the awareness of false simplicity. I, like you, struggled initially with the show’s relationship to the time period, never quite able to resolve whether the show considers the society of the period contemptible or comforting, but if that same conflict is present in the audience’s attitudes, it could well explain the resonance so many people seem to feel with the show, at least in part.

    • Good stuff. On top of this, I think that the show succeeds in making viewers uncomfortable with the idea of cultural comfort… what are the equivalent morés of today, the viewer may ask, that will have seemed so backwards three or four decades hence? It’s a thought experiment I find the show effective at conducting.

      • 8 Annie Petersen

        I think this comment also speaks to why several middle aged television viewers — including my mother, who usually jumps at the chance for DVD-ready quality television — have shied from the show. My mother would have been Sally Draper’s age exactly, and some of the disturbing contradictions the afflicted the domestic sphere during this time simply hit too close to home. I wonder what show will attempt to grapple with the uncomfortable realities of this next generation of viewers?

    • I do think that the show does live in this purposefully ambivalent time period, and when I intellectualize its retrospective gaze, it can be interesting. But emotionally, the show lacks the connection that makes me want to watch drama – thus I find I enjoy thinking about the show’s ideas more than actually watching it.

  4. 10 Jerry Colvin

    I’m a big Mad Man fan who considers season two to be perfect and season three to be very good, but I can’t stand re-watching any of the season one episodes. It seems as though you and I had many of the same problems with that season. However, I’m glad I stuck with it because it eventually became my favorite show.

  5. Hiya Jason,

    I’m really glad you wrote this piece, and I especially like this sentence:

    “Hopefully we can… 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.”

    On Ian’s blog, I mentioned something about how ethnography how served me well when thinking through ambivalence in cultural reception of stuff ‘everyone loves’ or ‘everyone hates.’ Re-reading your essay, I remembered something you might find interesting to think about, vis a vis your own identification as a white male (and MM’s identification of white dudes as nostalgic anti-heroes…)

    A few months ago (I think it was a few months ago) I remember there was a contest in which people could compete for the prize of a walk-on role in MM. While I read lots of “I’m totally doing this” posts, some of the most interesting comments were from women of color who were wrestling with three positions: their current one as fans of the show; their historical one as the daughters and granddaughters of maids, wash room attendants house cleaners, and nannies for the folks who dominate the landscape of MM; and finally an imagined position as a someone with a walk-on role in MM.

    One woman, my friend Cathy, even wrote a little FB status update in which she said although she would love to be on the show, she couldn’t face her “grandmother in Heaven” who would know that Cathy willingly threw herself in the ring for the opportunity to recreate a past grandma struggled so hard to get her over. I was stuck by all the desires at play in this one status update: The desire to be on tv; the perhaps unconscious desire that by being a show like MM as a black woman, one somehow re-writes the historical imagination in some way; the desire to shield oneself from the knowledge that this re-writing is wishful thinking at best (particularly if you are cast as a walk on–what role could you possibly get *besides* being a washroom attendant? What role has any person of color had on MM besides ancillary figures placed there to ‘remind us’ of what it used to be like?); finally, the desire to do right by actual historical fact (embodied by this viewer’s grandmother.)

    Of course, it’s not only nostalgia television where these kinds of dilemmas occur: every year there are debates in the Black communities in New Orleans over the ‘status’ of being chosen to be a flambeau during Mardi Gras (a practice that dates back to when slaves used to hold torches for owners to light the streets.)

    However, the combination of nostalgia tv about the American Dream PLUS mass social networking participation (in the US at least) of those historically excluded from that dream–that seems new to me. And I think as cultural studies folks, we should probably be writing about it more often than we do.

    • 12 Susan

      Something else you might keep in mind if you develop these ideas further: Oprah did an episode on Mad Men, for which her set was transformed into a period living room and her hair and clothing were done in retro style. The dissonance of Oprah inserting herself into a Mad Men-like world was never addressed that I can recall, but the image of her sitting in that living room in her perfect outfit seemed very fraught to me, a fantasy of nostalgia without the price tag acted out by a woman old enough to remember exactly what it felt like to be African-American during that time. The guests also dressed like their characters, and at moments she seemed to be transplanting the show onto her own set and inserting herself into it.

    • Terri,

      I think that doing broad ethnography of MM’s fans could be quite interesting, as the way it speaks to (or drives away) viewers of various races, ages, upbringings, and genders will probably be more varied than the average TV show. I’d also mention that the collection my essay will be in also contains an excellent critique of the show’s racial representations, although it doesn’t extend to considering how African-American viewers might engage with or avoid the show.

    • Very well said. I’m a woman of color and had many of the same thoughts and reactions. Thank you for articulating this perspective.

  6. “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.”

    I might actually agree with that argument, but it does strike me as a rather strong one to make without any references or examples. Why couldn’t long-form tv narrative be, say, about the plot?

    • I base this on comments from many TV writers, who regularly say that being true to character is much more important than writing interesting plots; from various studies and time spent with fan culture, who typically foreground character moments and relationships as a key focus, and frame ongoing plotting based on character (“I want to know what will happen to these people”); and critics, who often will critique a show with an interesting high-concept but weak characters (for instance, Flash Forward last season).

      What would a plot-centered show that doesn’t have strong characters look like? The only one I can think of that’s been particularly long-running is 24, but I’m sure 24 defenders would highlight character as a key appeal (even if I don’t see it).

  7. 17 Rich Daniel

    Thank you not only for your insightful articulation of the weaknesses of Mad Men, but for your thoughtful examination of the nature of critical argument/dialogue itself. The immense respect you show for those who do not share your opinions is admirable, especially as it seems to be growing increasingly rare in these days of rampant comment-thread-bashing. Your thoughts about the spirit of intelligent dialogue should be required reading for anybody looking to engage in serious arguments of any kind.

    This might sound absurd, but it seems to me that the appeal of the contradiction inherent in spending time with characters you neither respect nor empathize with might be explained in part through a show that carries this contradiction to its extreme, namely, Jersey Shore (and probably most reality television). I should say that I only watched the first 15 minutes of the first episode, and only out of curiosity. I imagine that most people would agree that the the characters in that show are not remotely respectable or empathetic, and yet millions of people (4.8 million for the season 1 finale) tune in to watch every episode. You have to wonder why so many people would watch such drivel, but I think the viewer’s feeling of superiority you mention is critical to the success of the show. It is reasonable to imagine that viewers might feel better about their own lives after observing the personal narratives of such deeply flawed characters, and might walk away from the screen (or not, depending on the audience…) with a certain pride at being better than the characters they see in it. Now of course, Mad Men is far subtler in the false sense of superiority it aims to create. I share your feeling that this pride is empty at best and not sufficient to make a show enjoyable as a whole.

    For my part, when watching Mad Men I am not preoccupied with whether the show paints the 50’s and 60s as contemptible or comforting; rather, I watch Mad Men as a child might observe animals at the zoo. I’m oversimplifying of course, but I was born in 1985, and haven’t the slightest idea of what either of those decades were actually like. So I watch the show with a “Wow! Take A Look At That!” fascination, and the contradiction of contemptible and comforting elements of the show don’t seem to be as much contradictions as they are two sides of a coin I’ve never seen before, a coin that existed twenty years before I was even an idea. Maybe you’ve heard similarly fascinated (and probably naive) responses from other viewers my age.

    My thoughts aside, I want to thank you again for your effort in creating this insightful and enjoyable piece!

  8. 18 Lauren G.

    Jason, I want to thank you so much for writing this essay which, as you already know, I appreciate in many ways. I know that you were hoping for some debate and you have already gotten a fair amount of much-deserved praise; so I hope you won’t mind my leaping into the role of devil’s advocate. Let me say first that if I experienced Mad Men as “selling” the early 60s “to viewers as a comforting and stylish option” I would not like show either. Stylish yes, comforting no. Glamor aside, what exactly would anyone find comforting about this world? The growing incidence of lung cancer? The dead-end jobs for talented women like Joan? The racism and anti-semitism? The Cold War? The unhappy marriages?

    More positively, what I really love about Mad Men isn’t actually the glamor: though I do enjoy that as well. It’s the novelistic detail. There is a Flaubert-like care taken with every episode from the opening lines to the choice of the song at the end. Most episodes have a particular thematic running through them the plays out differently in the various subplots. Perhaps it’s because I focus so much on these details–much more than on the good looks of the cast, I think–that my interpretations frequently differ from yours.

    For example, you write that your “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”

    Now I agree that Don’s behavior in this episode is inexcusable and I think just about everyone feels terrible for Sally (who has become a kind of cult hero among fans of the show). But I disagree that Don’s behavior is either unmotivated or forgiven. It not unmotivated because (and I am speaking here of an episode I haven’t seen many months) he is thinking about Rachel whom he feels drawn to partly because, like him, her mother died during childbirth. That is why when he comes back he brings Sally a dog: because Rachel loves her dogs and says that every girl should have one.

    Nor is he forgiven. I have the advantage over you in having seen the whole of two additional seasons: but even by the end of season 1 I felt that Betty never forgives Don for any of the things he has done; even the things she hasn’t yet permitted herself to acknowledge that he has done (which is why the surprise of season 1 is that we keep expecting her to find out about his infidelity and discover that she has always known).

    Finally on “The Wheel” (the season 1 finale) you write: “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 with the show’s explicit criticism of the illusion of nostalgia…”

    I don’t think the function of the time machine in this episode is “I want to live in Mad Men’s world.” There might be fans who have thought so but surely that’s not what the “aca-fans” to which you address your essay are thinking, is it? The function of the time machine is, as I remember it, to take you back to the place where you are loved. If we wanted to psychoanalyze Don we’d say that he grew up feeling unloved, and hardly knows how to deal with the actuality of being loved. He clearly loves his family but cannot retain their love. He comes home to be with them on Thanksgiving but it’s too late: they’ve already left. He sits down on the step alone. That’s a metaphor for his the way he lives his life. “The Wheel” is about nostalgia (the pain from a wound) for the few moments he’s had when he actually was in the right place at the right time. I don’t think it’s anything to do with nostalgia for the 1960s.

    • 19 Lauren G.

      BTW, if you are watching Season 4 as it airs, you are most welcome to join in a discussion of a multi-authored series of posts here:


    • Lauren,

      I can definitely see these explanations for Don’s behavior, Betty’s buried resentments, etc., but only after you point them out. Perhaps this is an corollary to empathy – not only do we want to care about characters, but we want to be interested in them. I have no doubt that there are depths and complexities to most of the characters, but something about them made me not want to put in the effort needed to flesh them out. I appreciate that the characters have been crafted with such detail, but if there’s not an emotional motive to dig into them, it may not matter. Does that make sense?

      As for the time machine, I think I was unclear – I mean the function of the show itself as a time machine, not the carousel. At least for some people, the retrospective gaze serves to invite them to imagine themselves back in the era & milieu. Perhaps that’s not the show’s intent, but I’ve heard that sentiment enough to know it’s an actively voiced perspective.

      • Thanks v. much Jason for taking the time to reply. Does it make sense, you ask? I think yes and no. I think it may well require empathy to notice all of these things though, from another perspective, the task of analyzing one’s own dislike (or as you prefer, disinterest) is easier the more we tell ourselves that we cannot see complexity because it doesn’t interest us (it becomes a circular logic in other words which, while valid as an account of viewer experience, is not very analytically illuminating). In my case an example that springs to mind is “Mulholland Drive” a movie that many friends of mine love to discuss, write about, see multiple times, and which left me about as cold as “The Marriage of Fiagaro” left you. I don’t doubt that my friends’ fascinating and fascinated interpretations are valid, but none has ever made me want to watch the movie again on my own (though it might be fun to watch it with one of these folks).

        The thing is though, there is a clear disconnect between some of what you are alleging about MM and what some people on this blog (along with others writing on Mad Men) are telling you. You are assuming (as you say above) that “the retrospective gaze serves to invite [some people] to imagine themselves back in the era and milieu.” No doubt it does but the question is whether what they imagine is comfortable and desirable–constituting a place in which they’d prefer to be–and that question also needs to be disentagled from “nostalgia.”

        To explain: I’m old enough that I can feel some “nostalgia” for some things I see on Mad Men. In last night’s episode I saw a lanyard on a bed of the kind I remember making in summer camp when I was about 7 years old; it triggered all kinds of forgotten memories. But that nostalgic feeling did not make me want to leap back into the past: not even into my own past (I do not miss being 7 years old) much less the world depicted in Mad Men, last night and otherwise. I simply think it is mistaken to assume that the kind of audience addressed in your essay watches Mad Men and leaves it with a desire to live in the early 1960s. They may crave the glamor–in which case thanks to our high-functioning consumer capitalist machine they can buy themselves a Brooks Brothers or Banana Republic suit, a Holly Golightly knock-off, or a vintage tie or pair of shoes. But that is a very different thing from wishing themselves back into an era of unreconstructed sexism and racism, etc.–or still more wishing to live their lives as Betty does hers or Don does his (and so on).

        I do understand that there is a vocal fandom around this show, particularly around Don but also around other charismatic characters like Joan; and as fandoms generally do, the investments of this kind of fan go beyond mere enjoyment of or interest in the show and identification with its characters. As you know, in my view Don Draper offers an iconic figure for today–and the cultural resonance with the character tells us more about our own moment, IMO, than about the early 60s. Then too, in real-life Jon Hamm is a new discovery and in the role of Don Draper, good looks that might find us turning the page without a second thought if we were looking at an ad in GQ, make us look twice: or maybe thrice. His retro style of good looks, combined with the character, make him come across as a latter-day Cary Grant or Gregory Peck or Paul Newman–something that we haven’t had lately (though some would say George Clooney is that style of leading man). I have a funny feeling too that the cult-like status that surrounds the fusion of Don/Jon Hamm is helped by the fact that Jon Hamm seems to be very different than Don (despite the sad past). I have not seen very much (never saw 30 Rock for example) but in one interview I saw he comes across as modest and self-deprecating and reasonably forthcoming. I personally was pleased to learn that he was an English major. So when you say that Don is “forgiven” I can’t help but think that you are thinking about the celebrity of the character/actor dyad rather than about Mad Men. Or perhaps it’s the fact that on the show beautiful women throw themselves at this scoundrel and fans of the show keep watching him take part in ever more duplicitous and repugnant behavior–but that doesn’t mean that they are cheering him along, any more than they were cheering along Tony Soprano when he stopped to strangle a guy while taking his daughter on a college visit. For those viewers who actually sympathize with Don (and I count myself among this number), the feeling is of watching someone repeat mistakes in ever more self-deluding and destructive ways: you hope he will learn but you know that he won’t.

        More specifically to your essay and the claim that Don is forgiven. On Mad Men by my count at the end of Season 1 Rachel hardly forgives Don–she moves on–Midge has moved on, and Betty is clearly unhappy in this precarious marriage. Meanwhile Don has no actual friends, and co-workers like Pete Campbell are deeply resentful of him, or just relate to him as someone they must please to get ahead, when not actually out to get him. (The exception is Peggy and Don is actually very supportive of Peggy in seasons 1 and 2. I can tell you that he is much better to her than several male bosses I have had!) If anyone forgives Don–idealizes him that is–it is probably Sally and that is why, for me, it almost hurts to watch her adoring a father whom we know has more warts than she will see for a very long time (one of the most memorable Season 2 episodes shows that Don knows this as well; he’s almost ashamed to see himself through Sally’s idealizing eyes).

        Certainly, at the close of “The Marriage Figaro” Betty says something like “I just don’t what to say.” But what you hear somehow is forgiveness. To me that just seems inaccurate; and the assessment of Mad Men as “selling” a “comforting” 1960s to its viewers likewise seems inaccurate, or perhaps just unconvincing insofar as it’s based on the alleged reaction of unspecified fans somewhere on the internet. (At the very least it is under-substantiated as many on this blog have said.)

        So no, those features of your essay don’t make sense for me. Despite all your good work, the excellent writing, the really interesting points you raise about academic writing, and taste, and so forth, I think you in your shoes I would want to revisit these parts of the essay no matter how tedious the task might seem. Instead of writing that Don’s actions are unmotivated and unforgiven you might perhaps write instead that they are complexly motivated and hardly forgiven: but in ways that you can’t tune into because you’re already watching through a gauze of disaffection and disapprobation.

        I’d love to know more about what motivates the latter and “disinterest” isn’t sufficiently informative. It becomes a chicken and egg question. If not being interested makes you not see half of what’s there to see, the challenge becomes figuring out what made you uninterested in the first place. In this version of the essay you do try to get at this question; but central to your account are a number of demonstrably weak or false impressions that stem from (prior) “disinterest.” There’s the circularity.

        But it seems to me that without much extra work you could peel away the superficial impressions of behavior that is unmotivated and forgiven and of a show that “sells” the 60s as a comforting option and get to a deeper level of analysis. Given the seriousness of what you’re trying to do, these stand out as strawman arguments. I would go so far as to say–perhaps exaggerating a little (but what the heck)–that nothing is unmotivated on this show and nothing is ever forgiven (certainly not infidelity). If it has not struck you that way I can imagine your giving a very interesting account of why, beyond saying over and again that you weren’t interested enough in the characters to pay attention.

        And if you do this perhaps I will follow up with a short piece on Mulholland drive 😉

      • This is in reply to Lauren’s reply (but sadly WP doesn’t allow comments below three deep, I think). Anyway, I like the way you unpack nostalgia and it reminds me of something I’ve been thinking about a lot since I read Jason’s essay, namely the ability (or lack thereof) of identifying with rather than against television. (Insert rant on white males writing for themselves and the white male gaze, bladibla 🙂

        Thinking about this, I kept on returning to Munoz’s Disidentification. So much work has been done by subaltern subjects to pull out moments of enjoyment and identification from texts that on the surface may seem quite unpalatable. This is not to say that Jason fails in identifying more fully or more complexly, but I do think it gestures toward how and why many of us succeed in identifying where it seems unlikely. (And then, of course, there are those of us who do not identify nor objectify but watch for completely different things…)

        Also, because I was linked to this yesterday and it seemed appropriate here: The Moonlight And Magnolias School Of Women’s History: Katie Roiphe’s Take On Mad Men (just in case y’all hadn’t seen it).

  9. 23 Annie Petersen

    I’ve been anticipating this essay — and we’ve gone back and forth on several of its points on the Twittersphere — and really appreciate the nuanced and incredibly well-thought out way in which you’ve approached your reaction to the series.

    With that said, at several points I found myself exclaiming “But if only you saw ….. in Season 2!” or “But in Season 3, this happens!” I realize that you’ve probably heard such promises several times — just as you were promised that “The Carousel” would prove a pay-off at the end of Season 1 (a scene which I also found unsatisfying). However, at the risk of broken-recordness, I would argue that much of the series’ complexity (and abandonment of historical winking and cuteness) develops in Seasons 2 and 3; I fell for the characters — all of them; I also felt that both seasons offered the women incredible and nuanced development — far more than any other ‘quality’ series on television today.

    But if you don’t like it, you don’t like it — and it’s *very* difficult to start liking a series after disliking the first season. So what interests me in this essay, then, is your approach to critiquing “Mad Men” writ large, knowing that you haven’t viewed the subsequent two seasons. I think this gets at much larger questions with which all television scholars must grapple — do we need to watch all seasons, or even all episodes, or text before we comment on it? This has obviously been an issue with scholars writing on texts that they enjoy that are still on the air — and sometimes grappling with how narrative/network/content changes affect their arguments. How does it affect an argument against the show? Is it fair for me, or others, to say “but you haven’t seen the other two seasons” and discount your argument? Do I qualify your argument as one that I respect in regards to the first season, but wouldn’t apply to seasons 2 or 3?

    I realize that these are somewhat theoretical questions — plus, why would you want to submit yourself to 26 more episodes of a show that you already know gives you little pleasure? However, I do think that they’re important for us to consider as we look forward to the future of quality television studies, embracing scholarship that both appreciates, interrogates, and questions shows saddled with that label.

    • Annie, I kind of drew the literature/media studies analogy on Ian’s blog but your questions raise them all anew. Think about asking these questions of a literary scholar. Or rather, which question would it be? Are you asking whether one can write about All the Pretty Horses without the other parts of the trilogy? Or about Absalom, Absalom without knowing The Sound and the Fury? Or is this more like reading the first part of Ulysses and leaving the other 12 [?] chapters unread? And I really don’t know which it is, and I think it may indeed depend on what approach one uses…

      What fascinates me more, is “why would you want to submit yourself to 26 more episodes of a show that you already know gives you little pleasure?” Which is not a question I have ever heard anyone ask in literature departments. It reminds me a little bit of my amazement when I realized that y’all screen TV IN THE CLASSROOM! I imagined the equivalent of reading Middlemarch together in class… But then I started thinking more about how we do pick our subjects. And in the end, we pick periods and genres we like (or that fascinate us, at least). Now, we still have to read primary texts in that period and genre we dislike. But one would assume that most are at least manageable.

      So…what does that mean for Jason and Mad Men? Should he have to watch it because it is complex quality TV, which is his niche? Or is it OK to just not watch a series one has realized one dislikes. And could one still write about it? As a show? Or only on a metalevel about viewer affect, reception aesthetics, and the necessity of identificatory characters on screen for some viewers. [To which I also have to wonder, now in direct response to you, Jason: do you think it is your somewhat privileged viewer status that makes you demand identifiable characters whereas many of us have learned to take what we can get, so to speak? Or is it a fundamental viewing difference as to whether any identifiable character is even in the show, which clearly matters to you but seems not to matter for others?]

      • Kristina,

        I addressed the question of watching in full below. As for the question of “needing” identifiable characters – I think identification is different than empathy. I don’t need to be able imagine myself like them, as much as care about their situations as fully realized human beings. Almost none of the characters I love in my favorite shows are identifiable per se, but they evoke empathy and investment, even when they’re “bad.” I find the bad men of Mad Men much less engaging than the other anti-heroes mentioned in the essay.

        I would be really surprised if fans of a show don’t care about any characters – do any of Mad Men’s defenders here not care about any of the characters in that way? It seems like Peggy generates a lot of that type of investment, and maybe my problem with the show boils down to finding her off-putting & thus searching for someone else to connect with.

    • “With that said, at several points I found myself exclaiming “But if only you saw ….. in Season 2!” or “But in Season 3, this happens!” I realize that you’ve probably heard such promises several times — just as you were promised that “The Carousel” would prove a pay-off at the end of Season 1 (a scene which I also found unsatisfying). However, at the risk of broken-recordness, I would argue that much of the series’ complexity (and abandonment of historical winking and cuteness) develops in Seasons 2 and 3”

      Exactly. I honestly have a real problem with writing about a series before it is complete for this exact reason. I feel that we have an obligation to write about the experience of the entire work of art, not just its first act. That obligation is to the readers, somewhat, although clearly the people who buy this kind of book are pretty well equipped to talk back to it.

      The real obligation to wait is to the creators of the series. When I teach Birth of a Nation, I show my students the entire film, because they need to experience it all to have a complex understanding of that work, its context and its phenomenon. When I teach my censorship course, I show the entire objectionable work, not just the naughty bits, because the entire context is important.

      And that’s especially important when a series is a study in evil, the writer has a particular obligation to let the creators let it play out. Because the ending of the last season does change everything, as every structure that supported the evils of Sterling Cooper is upended (such as the radical changes in America post-1963) and the possibility of redemption or at least change is foregrounded.

      While your writing has merit to me as an investigation into television studies writing and as a personal narrative, its portions on the show seem to me to be insightful, stylish and automatically invalid. Even as a record of your engagement with the show, I can’t help but read it as incomplete, a draft. If it’s any consolation, that observation is going to apply to the entire book. I really, really wish book publishers would leave the instant reaction to cultural phenomenon to scholarly journals, blogs and smart pop magazines. The first draft of history belongs there, not in book publishing, where more considered argument should have their say, drawing off the first wave of response.

      In short, how distorted your view of Twin Peaks would be if you wrote a book about it after the first season? What richness of analysis is lost when you read a book about Lost that’s published after its third season? Why doesn’t that apply to Mad Men?

      • Essentially, I think this is what happened with your response to Mad Men. This first section is from Umberto Eco:

        “Since the intention of the text is basically to produce a model reader able to make conjectures about it, the initiative of the model reader consists in figuring out a model author that is not the empirical one and that, in the end, coincides with the intention of the text. Thus, more than a parameter to use in order to validate the interpretation, the text is an object that the interpretation builds up in the course of the circular effort of validating itself on the basis of what it makes up as its result.” (Collini 64)

        Authors and audiences imagine and construct models of one another by means of the text. The text is built by interpretation but also provides limits for valid interpretation of it. Critical readers make initial judgments about the model audience. They make these judgments largely from their experience of the text while experiencing it, rather than from observing the author or others in the audience. Critical readers then confirm or reevaluate that hypothesis in light of later developments in the text. If a sufficiently negative hypothesis is confirmed, critical readers may then choose to opt out of experiencing the narrative further.

        That’s what you chose to do and that’s your right. But it means that you’re always going to have an incomplete understanding of Mad Men, because it’s meanings are always in motion.

        In serial narratives, actual authors (the person or persons creating the text to be shared) create additional texts informed by their imagined model of the audience. Actual audiences (the persons with whom the empirical authors’ work is shared) then change their imagined model of the author in light of the new evidence provided by the evolving serial text. The result, for Eco, is not a direct communication between actual authors and interpreters. It is an indirect dialogue between actual authors and their imagined models of their text’s interpreters on the one hand and between actual audiences and their imagined models of the authors implied by the text on the other. This conversation can be repetitive, requiring little alteration in either’s model of the other. Aaron Spelling’s Charmed serves as a useful example of the repetitive author-text-audience paradigm, in which dozens of episodes seem to have been inspired by the costume changes that they would require. Or, an actual author may create an innovative serial work that challenges actual critical readers of it to live up to the empirical author’s especially demanding model of the audience. Those actual critical readers, potentially, could then challenge that actual author to live up to their model of an especially innovative author. Serial narratives that are consistently innovative are created out of an indirect dialogue between authors and audiences in which each encourages the other to strive to embody an ever-shifting ideal.

        And this is where the book you’re publishing in inevitably must fail to completely understand the series… because it is a serial, the text is ever-shifting, as is the author and the audience. It’s not about Mad Men; it’s about a snapshot of Mad Men’s evolution.

  10. Knowing this essay has been coming for a while, and watching through Facebook and Twitter as you went through the task of watching the first season after having decided to write the essay, I will admit to finding the whole process a bit abstract.

    I have no doubt you really did go into the first season with “open eyes,” but I can’t help but think how bizarre it must be to watch a season of television, having already formed various arguments against its first two episodes, for the purpose of writing an article about why you dislike it. While you admit that you would have been just as comfortable (or perhaps more comfortable) writing a piece about why it took two tries to really engage with Mad Men, your piece also (justifiably) explains why having a piece which so describes your dislike is of great value to this collection and to critical discussion of the series in general.

    As a result, while your piece nicely captures your arguments about why you dislike the series, I think I wanted to hear a bit more about how you thought your viewing experience (on DVD with a distinct, if not dominant, critical mandate) would differ from those critics who praise the series (week-to-week, with either no mandate or a mandate to appeal to those readers who want indepth analysis of “Quality TV,” which gets into a much broader issue that we can perhaps discuss at FLOW). I actually agree with a number of your comments (like Annie, I’m at that point where a qualified “Agreed, for Season One” is probably my basic response to the article), but I find myself wondering whether these are arguments which stemmed from your initial viewing of those first two episodes rather than arguments which emerged from this later return to the series. If they’re the former, it doesn’t invalidate your response, but it sort of shifts your exercise from “giving the show a second chance” to “gathering evidence for your article,” and I am curious to hear more about how you reconciled those two modes (which you may feel are completely distinct).

    As many have noted, I love what this article says about how we approach material critically, and it also leads to some key reflection on Mad Men which helps put my own point of view into perspective. However, I will admit to sharing Annie’s questions regarding these concerns with the first season (and the fourth season finale) being largely applied to the series as a whole. In terms of the aesthetics, the show has not changed fundamentally, but I shared Annie’s numerous “But, but!” moments where the characters are concerned: when it comes to elements like the way male characters treat female characters, for example, events in Season Two start to differentiate between the men of Sterling Cooper, at which point the series becomes less concerned with how men *were* treating women, and more concerned with how these individual men *are* treating individual women. I think Season One is purposefully designed as an introduction to this world, and while I don’t blame you for continuing on considering your more basic issues with that introduction I do think that in this and other areas the show uses the base foundation which these episodes offer to do something much more substantial – this doesn’t change your issues with the first season, but it does make me wish that we could have seen your perspective extended into these seasons if only to be able to see how the serial narrative, as we experienced it, evolves within the framework of your argument.

    I think that the article is somewhat trapped between expressing your dislike of the show and contextualizing your dislike of the show, and I think that in trying to express both it leaves me wanting a bit more in each area. However, in your mediation of the two different functions of the article, I think you’ve raised more discussion than either one alone would have offered, and so I think that your modus operandi of promoting self-analysis of our experience with the show and how we relate with the experience of others has been more than satisfied.

    • Myles,

      You captured many of the challenges and awkwardness of the essay. It is in-between a lot of possibilities, and hasn’t really found a real function. Likewise, my watching was between searching for evidence and looking to be swayed. There’s no doubt that my viewing was framed by thinking about my initial dislike (fleeting or permanent), and I often do think about whether had I been able to watch the show initially with a more forgiving eye, this whole experience would be different. And if so, does that mean that the whole taste & critical endeavor is rooted in far more contextual intangibles than we give it credit for?

  11. Jason, I keep on thinking about what I said in Ian’s blog, namely that your essay told me more about you than about MM (which may indeed be because I know you and could care less about MM : ), and I suddenly realized that far from a potentially insulting statement it is, in fact, at the heart of this conversation, isn’t it?

    Reader response/reception aesthetics/ audience studies/ fan studies…all are different ways to understand and think through affect and emotional responses. And all too often, we want to nail it down and center it in the text. We’ve seen that in Iser et al but even in Fish and in early film studies, all of which tried to find the markers IN THE TEXT that would allow us to construct the ideal readers for the text, the readers who’d have the…proper?…responses.

    And yet all of these endeavors ultimately failed, because maybe it is indeed impossible to give aesthetic arguments as to why an individual (or more importantly, an entire group) falls for a text. And to ignore that question means ignoring the huge cultural force of popular texts. In the end, I think fan studies is important, because I’m *not* a New Critic. I don’t want to believe that the text is an abstract entity that can be measured outside of cultural contexts an get assigned an aesthetic evaluation.

    I’d still argue that Twilight is a badly written and malicious book, and yet, all my literary analyses will not help me understand the intense love and strong emotional affect this book and its fandom have created. For that I may need to go elsewhere. And that’s what we’re interested in, right? Not an objective truths of value but the subjective responses of the many and how and why they differ.

    Which means that this is exactly the perfect essay to bring up questions of emotional responses in scholarship; moreover, the way you continued to be self-reflexive throughout was more important to me than the reasons you found (for better or worse) as to why you ended up understanding your dislike. Of course I’m not reading as a someone interested in MM criticism. But I do think you raise important questions not just about the role of the media scholar and his or her emotional investment but also about the role of studying these investments in ourselves and others. Beyond the Nielsen ratings and beyond the imaginary ideals of aestheticism so to speak…

    • I agree 100%, and would just add that if you haven’t read Carl Wilson’s book, you really must. And yes, it’s much more about him than Celine Dion…

      • No, I haven’t read it. I will, though.

        I do think we need to talk more about these issues as well as the relationship of enjoyment and quality.

        Because while I’ll continue to disagree with you about what we should or should not have researched when writing about serial texts, I do think that the much more interesting issues your essay brought up are in that direction.

        In fact, I really liked Derek’s defense of your only watching one season and writing on the show–except I’d have liked to see that become even more the center of the essay as he laid it out in his comment…

  12. If it helps, this was basically my reaction to Inception: well-crafted, smartly written, expertly produced, and effectively acted… and it leaves me cold. I even did the “it was the conditions of exhibition” dodge. (The theater had the lights on dim for the screening, as they had sold so many tickets that there were people sitting in the aisles, making it hard to fully enter the waking dream state of movie watching that Inception, particularly, depends on.)

    Mild SPOILERS….

    But, really, it was that I had trouble with certain aspects of the work itself: its heavy use of dream, the resulting early suspicion that “it’s all a dream trope” is in play, the lack of character development outside of flashback, the CGI undermining the fight scenes, the fact that the fifth layer (the waking layer) is the only one we never get access to…

  13. In addition, I REALLY hope that you show your research in the printed version of this article. For example, “fans voicing “I want to live in Mad Men‘s world!,” a sentiment I’ve seen frequently in online forums” in particular requires several citations to help you avoid “implicating its fans in my critique” through your assumptions rather than a documented observation. In fact, look at the number of times you talk about fan responses and your evidence is personal interactions that you don’t or can’t cite. I’d really recommend you attend to the citations for your final draft of this for publication.

  14. 35 Eric Lohman


    I loved this article, but I must say that while I empathize with not liking a text everyone seems to love ( I hated Lost in Translation), I was a bit disappointed that you seemed to give up so easily on Mad Men. While you make incredibly valid points about why MM repulses you, one would have to assume that most of us who love MM have had similar moments of distaste. After all, Carl Wilson set out to understand how people can love an artist he has zero connection to, and his resolve far exceeds my own. It is easy to find redeeming in qualities in anti-heros like Tony Soprano or Dexter Morgan, it’s much less easy to find something compelling about Don Draper, who is almost universally loathed by even his fans! After reading this, I found that I could easily identify with everything you found reprehensible about MM. And yet, all of these factors are exactly what pulled me in to the narrative.

    We all sometimes scoff (perhaps secretly) when we find a narrative character to be too accessible and likable, it’s too easy and the payoff is minimal. However, Mad Men issues a sincere challenge to us by making it difficult, if not painful to try and figure out how to identify with these characters, reconcile the legitimate contradictions you raise, and all the while understand where our enjoyment is then coming from. I wont make the case for why MM is good, I know you’ve already heard it all and thought it through, but what I would like to do is reframe your dislike of MM as a Carl Wilsonian challenge for you to try and find a way to like the Mad Men experience. I think I’m going to rent Lost in Translation and try the same thing…

    • Eric,

      I could rewatch repeatedly until all becomes more clear like Wilson, but I think that’s a difference in medium (as music demands frequent relistening much more than any narrative form) and serial vs. stand-alone (rewatching Lost in Translation is a bounded endeavor compared to a TV series).

      Your comment reminded me of another film that I saw favorably linked to MM in a review, which I found completely underwhelming: Sideways. Perhaps there’s a connection between the two?

  15. 37 Enrique Garcia

    It seems to me that the Mad Men fetish comes all they way from when film professors glorified the works of Douglas Sirk and Fassbinder. Another example of this film subculture is the film Far From Heaven, which sometimes I think was made by the director so that Criterion could put him in the special edition of All that Heaven Allows. I was never impressed by those Sirk classes in college and the professors’ fetish with his work and was not impressed either by Far From Heaven mimicking the Sirk style. However, I could see the other people enjoying the fetishistic aesthetics of the bourgeoisie, etc. My undergraduates certainly like this type of film.

    To be fair, I do not know if I am tainted by all the marxist-third world theory I had to consume for my dissertation. At the end this type of melodrama may have some criticism of the upper middle class but if at the end you just want to be ‘a better version of them,’ then the narrative is a failure as a counternarrative. I thought this is why the Sirk model collapsed after the sixties.

  16. 38 lstein

    I very much enjoyed this post, Jason, and also the terrific comments that follow. I’m torn in my response, though. I feel that your call for and modeling of self-interrogation as we perform TV criticism is of vital importance. Unlike Ian, I feel it speaks to the rich insight and complexity that self-reflexive aca-fan positioning stands to offer.

    And yet, at the same time, I feel hesitant to dig in and respond piece by piece (and I may not be the only one who feels this way) to say why I differ in my interpretation and assessment of Mad Men. My issue comes in, I believe, with the tricky but promising integration of self-reflexivity and evaluative assessment. Because if we’re concentrating on the role of subjective investment in interpretation, that leaves little room for me to convince you to see things differently, or to give MM another try.

    I feel it’s crucial that we don’t ignore our own investment, and that we pay heed to the insights that come from self-reflexive analysis. But how do we foster our own (subjective) interpretations and also engage with the diversity of perspectives and interpretations that accompany any show?

    So I guess the problem for me–as I think about further integrating this acafan perspective into scholarly work–comes in negotiating the distances that pop up between my own understanding/reading of a show and my sense of what others see in a show. Many of the above commenters have pointed to their differing take away from the same seeming elements of Mad Men: the ambivalent but familiar mix of cultural/historical critique and nostalgia, unlikable but (seemingly, at least) nuanced characters. For you, these elements fell flat, or worse, pushed you away; for others, myself included, they resonate and offer a compelling serial viewing experience.

    For my part, one of my knee jerk reactions to your post was to take issue with the notion that in season 1 of Mad Men, (or in any of Mad Men) anyone is really watching for the relationships, rooting for specific ships as they might in Smallville or Supernatural. I’d venture to say that we’re asked for empathy but not sympathy, that neither sympathy or romantic identification serve as dominant modes of engagement offered by the text.

    But of course, there are fans who do engage in terms of unambiguous character celebration and relationship favorites; it’s not the mode of analysis I’ve primarily encountered in my own engagement with online Mad Men culture, but it’s out there. if I assert my interpretation of why Mad Men works for me, I obscure or sidestep others’ experience of the series. 

    So where does the insight come in if we practice a sort of situational/relational self-reflexivity? Is it in the acknowledgment and exploration of the distance between our individual reading and others’ reading? Is there indeed somewhere to push to beyond “agree to disagree” and what would that look like? And finally, now that you stand at the other end of this project, what’s your sense of the pitfalls of this approach?

    • Louisa,

      I didn’t mean to suggest that there’s a hardcore shipping fanbase for Mad Men (although a good rule of thumb is somewhere out there, there’s a fanbase for every possible reading). Instead, the show spends so much time showing Don’s romantic exploits that it makes me feel like I’m supposed to care about whether he hooks up with Rachel, how he juggles Midge, and how he treats Betty. The fact that I don’t have any investment in those relationships makes me feel like that’s time wasted on the show, as those are my least enjoyable moments of the first season. It may not be outright shipping, but I assume people are invested in Don’s character & his relationships – although based on these comments, it seems like many fans hate Don just as much as I do!

      As for the reflections from the other side – I don’t think I’m quite there yet…

      • 40 lstein

        Ha–now I’m seriously considering digging around to see what Mad Men shipping fandom looks like. I can’t quite imagine it, and do think it’s less prevalent for Mad Men than for other shows. Actually, The Wire comes to mind as another show that inspires character devotion but not shipperdom.

        I wonder if, for Mad Men, some of the energies that would normally go into a shipping fandom go into fan devotion and creativity around the show’s style, clothing, etc. In what I’ve seen in MM fan conversations, (and this is true for me as well, really) people are more inclined to feel devotion to particular characters than to their relationships. Perhaps this is because all of the relationships seem to be so destructive? No relationship really seem to offer solace or escape for any of the characters.

        So yes, I’m invested in Don’s relationships in that I cringe to see the damage he inflicts on others. This doesn’t mean that I dismissively judge him, or see myself as above him or Betty or Rachel. But he’s in no way a romantic hero. Indeed, the only characters I see as romanticized at all are Peggy and Rachel, as both function in a sort of mythic way as a stand in for contemporary women in the workplace.

        Mad Men walks a strange line in terms of character investment. Upfront it encourages an estrangement (much like you describe), but over time the characters draw you in (OK, not you, apparently, but I mean figuratively! 🙂 and you become invested in them, flaws & all.

  17. 41 Fernandez

    I wish I had more time to formulate a response, but I don’t, so here goes.

    1 – I think there comes a point in every trend where people start turning against it just for the sake of doing so. In this case, the author acknowledges that he had only seen two episodes prior to being invited to write his dissenting opinion on the show. Then he watched all of season 1, but not 2 or 3. As a media scholar, I’m sure he’s aware of the criticism such a tenuous grasp of the text can provoke. My thoughts? He just didn’t like the show and found a bunch of academic reasons to attempt a justification. I wouldn’t classify this as true academic criticism when it really boils down to a simple opinion.

    2 – The cold distance that the author hates about Mad Men, the contradictions, the fact that the ’60s are simultaneously repulsive and idealized – for many, those complexities and imperfections are what makes this show so intriguing. You’re not supposed to love all the characters all the time, you’re not supposed to identify with everything they do. I mean, honestly, cutting out the jargon, do you do this in real life? I’m a fan of the show, but I wouldn’t dare say there isn’t anything to criticize about it. Some people just may not enjoy challenging television and it’s as simple as that.

    3 – The author is attempting to combine what is essentially a criticism of fan culture surrounding the show, with a critique of what he views as the show’s premise (in season 1 only). It is a stretch at best to hold a text liable for what fans might take away from it due to their own ignorance. Moreover, it’s insulting to active viewers to assume that they’re unaware of contradictions and conflicting pleasures in texts.

    The problem with so much of media scholarship is this complete disconnect from reality. All the discussion of empathy and character identification in this piece is really masking a basic dislike of the show’s characters and actions. It would have been quite effective if, as Ian wrote, we’d learned something new about the show. Instead, we were shown how little the author knows about it. If your piece is open to so many Grad School 101 critiques, then you didn’t challenge your readers’ sensibilities nearly enough.

    • Well, I guess I’m glad that at least someone seemed to react with the umbrage I’d anticipated! I obviously disagree with many of your claims, and I certainly would ask you to sample the rest of my blog before claiming that I don’t enjoy challenging television. As I stated in the essay, I was trying to analyze my reactions to the first season, and if you think it was just opinion, I guess I fell short of my goal (at least for you). As to whether this piece suffers from a “complete disconnect from reality,” I’d say it’s the most experientially grounded essay I’ve ever written. Maybe that’s not your reality, but clearly our mileage may vary…

  18. 43 Elizabeth

    It’s A television show for god’s sake!

  19. Hi all – I just wanted to offer a quick placeholder saying that while I’m reading all and appreciating most of the comments here, I’m on vacation for a long weekend and thus can’t offer attempts at thoughtful replies until Monday. But please continue the conversation without me!

  20. 46 Susan

    I’m surprised to be the first person to say this: I had an extremely similar reaction to the episodes of Mad Men I have seen. When I have to explain it to people simply and briefly I just say, “It depressed the hell out of me and I didn’t give a crap about any of the characters,” but it’s more complex than that, and you really get at a lot of the problems I had with the show in this piece.

    Your discussion of affective engagement and value judgments in relation to scholarly work are still more interesting to me, though. To say nothing of the reactions this piece has garnered, which arguably say more about these issues than the piece itself. Personally, I don’t see enough good reasons to justify ruling out doing academic work on a series that hasn’t finished, or a series that you haven’t watched every extant episode of. One obvious objection to this is that it would preclude work on a number of TV texts (e.g. most soap operas) and make working on others prohibitively difficult (e.g. Doctor Who), it seems to be informed by an approach to TV that is based on conventions from other media like the novel that simply don’t apply to television. Most of the objections on these grounds (as most commenters admit) are based more on a desire to convince you that the show deserves more of your time and open-minded attention than any theoretical argument. I think this seems like a more reasonable request when it’s made about a show you like, because it really does seem like more time with the text will cause the other person to begin liking it. But as someone who couldn’t bring herself to keep watching Mad Men after two episodes, your fortitude in sitting through the entire first season seems to me like it’s above and beyond the call of duty. You wrote that one full season should be long enough to find a character you can relate to. I think it’s long enough to be able to find enough value in a show to motivate you to watch subsequent seasons. If that doesn’t happen, I don’t think you’re obligated to watch any more before you can make any sort of commentary on the series.

  21. I don’t think one should be required to watch an entire show before commenting, whether in passing or critically (Susan, above, gives some excellent reasons why), but I do think that it’s problematic to engage critically (ie: not just in passing) with a text and to hone in on its supposed problems when others are telling you that some said problems sort themselves out in parts of the text you haven’t seen.

    To strike close to the Mittell bone, let me discuss a show I recently saw Season One of: Breaking Bad. I loved Cranston’s performance — it’s easily one of the better performances on television, and I pity anyone up against him in an Emmy battle. Captivating. And Jesse’s excellent too. But the rest of the show was not good. Skylar is a nasty caricature of a buzzkill wife; her sister is also a boring stereotype I’ve seen way too many times on television; the wise saintliness of his child with a disability is tired; the drugdealers are often laughably bad and overdone (and that’s before mentioning racial stereotyping), all the more tragically so (cf. Tuco) when Cranston’s actually trying to act opposite their suckishness; and the plot is predictable. But Jason and others tell me that Season Two gets a lot better, that the writing improves, the characterization smoothes out, etc. So I have no problem commenting as I’ve done above in a blog post, but I don’t think it’d be wise to discuss the text of BB critically yet. Even if it was an essay about the problems with Season One, now that I’ve been told that other seasons are different, surely I should check em out first, if only to make contrasts?

    And so, I’m not at all on board with Susan’s complementing of Jason for watching a show he didn’t like, since I’d like him to watch more of it. Not because he should as a human being, because that’s junk. Not because I think he owes it to MM fans, since he doesn’t. But because he’s writing on it critically and has been told by many that some of his concerns with the show don’t exist to the same degree in future seasons.

    Let me be clear: in watching more, his opinion may harden all the more. I don’t mean to suggest that watching seasons 2 & 3 will prove to be magic bullets of fandom. I suspect they wouldn’t. It’s not as though, if this was a criminal case and I’m the defense attorney, I think seasons 2 & 3 will be the airtight alibi that allows MM to go free into the open arms of Jason’s eventual fandom. But right now the trial isn’t over, and some people think that the alibi matters, so I want the jury of one to consider that evidence. If MM’s going to the chair, let’s at least know the jury saw all the evidence that he was told he needed to look at. His official decision will be stronger, will deflect more of the rebukes it is receiving, if he does so.

    So — and I say this in a friendly way — c’mon Jason, it’s just another 12 hours or so to watch another season. The appeals court is looming, its legal team clamoring in your blog commentary, and that extra 12 hours might help you close the case more definitively.

  22. One issue that many of you have raised is the question of whether watching one season is enough to render a critical judgment. I’ve thought a lot about this, both prior to writing the essay and in reading all of these comments. I definitely think that in this case, it’s appropriate to pass judgment on MM based on the first season, not as a declaration that the show is crap (because it’s not), but as an assurance that I don’t like it & never would. Maybe I’d dislike it less, but I’ll never come around.

    That impression is based on a few facets. First, the tone/style/pace don’t change much (all this according to the many critical assessments I’ve read), and since I don’t particularly enjoy those elements, I can’t imagine ever quite warming to the feel of the show. While I’m sure I’d grow to like Peggy more, and maybe even find her an empathetic character that I care about, she’s still only one decent person in a cast of many. And a good number of the things that I point out here as negatives are noted as positive attributes by commenters, meaning that I’ll probably never perceive the show’s “strengths” as fans do.

    Moreover, comparisons with Breaking Bad & The Wire highlight a larger issue. Breaking Bad’s staunchest defenders (and I include myself in that camp) fully admit that the first season is a mixed bag – after season 1, I lauded Cranston’s performance while noting that it was not a great show. In season 2, it transforms into something truly stupendous. However, if anyone watched the first season and actively disliked Cranston’s performance (shudder to think!) or hated the premise, I’d tell them not to bother going forward as it’s clearly not their cup of tea. Likewise, I regularly tell people that The Wire’s greatness cannot be fully appreciated until season 3, where the scope of the storytelling expands and the boldness of the worldview comes to fruition (ah, Hamsterdam…). But if somebody actively disliked season 1? I’d say they shouldn’t bother, as the core building blocks & storytelling approach remain the same throughout the series. In short, if you dislike the core things that admirers praise about a show, you’re probably never going to.

    In contrast to Breaking Bad, the first season of Mad Men is not viewed as a weak link in an otherwise great series – the accolades (awards, critical adoration, fan word-of-mouth) were generated first during the first season, and the vast majority of the show’s admirers love the first season (even if they think it does improve as it matures). And I didn’t simply find the first season to be “meh” – I actively disliked it. While I’m sure the rationale for my feelings might change & I’d revise some of my critiques, I cannot imagine that the show could pull a 180 and convert me. So I’d be watching simply to gather evidence against the show, and that feels even more of an anti-fan move than stopping short at a single season.

    Finally, I do think that a single season needs to be treated as a critiquable unit, even if an episode cannot quite stand on its own in a highly serialized show. I’m glad I watched all of s1 to erase any doubts lingering from my first failed viewing. But while I would never claim to be writing with any degree of mastery of the series, for a personalized critical reaction, a show must be able to be critiqued in smaller units than its entirety – otherwise, nobody could have anything meaningful to say about a series until it finished.

    Bottom line – life is too short to watch TV you dislike!

    • life is too short to watch TV you dislike!

      But see, Jason, i think that’s where a lot of us feel a disconnect. Life’s certainly too short for people to watch TV they dislike FOR PLEASURE! But you’re talking about your profession here. You get paid to watch and analyze and teach TV, and I’d argue that includes TV you don’t like.

      Now, granted, no one demands you you actually teach Mad Men (though if you taught a class on representations of the 60s or the ad industry in contemporary television I probably would expect it). But the essay that you shared with us is a publication, the reputation and research component of your job, and as such I do think you may be asked to watch TV you dislike!

      • I don’t know that I agree. The justification for reading the canon or the officially recognized best of the best in any given form is that 1) it’s what people are talking about and 2) it’s what more minor artifacts are inevitably entering into dialogue with/drawing inspiration from. And so, one should engage with the canon unless and until one has sufficient cause to take a different route. But we have limited time at our disposal for reading and viewing, especially if we want to keep current in a dynamic field, and so I think it’s reasonable to draw the line somewhere. I do believe that scholars can maintain some semblance of an organic relationship with the texts they consume, while also making sure to enter into ongoing debates in their chosen field. Perhaps this is simply a moment for defining one’s objects of study more specifically, because the category of narratively complex serial drama has simply become too bloated. I can imagine all kinds of justifications for removing historical fiction like Mad Men and Deadwood from one’s argument about 21st century television.

      • Right, this is part of the issue underlying my modest gripes in my response. Life is too short, that’s for sure, but this is our job. Mad Men is definitely in your bailiwick, and it seems like you ought to want to suffer through it, even despite not liking it, for the sake of figuring out what it’s for.

        FWIW, notwithstanding what I just said. I don’t think you needed to watch more seasons of the show to write about it.

        As for adornofangirl’s comment, I rather feel like canonicity is dead in a popular medium like television or videogames … which just makes things harder, because you cannot make appeals to the canon, you have to spend all this time making choices. I’m in no position to make suggestions about how to think about genre television, however.

    • I think of this in terms of peer review. A reviewer will often say, “how can you write about X without having read the groundbreaking work of Y?” In such a case, most editors will determine that you need to address Y. You may read it and determine it’s not worth it and all you’d end up doing is adding a footnote that explains how you think it doesn’t fit. But it’s rare to simply say “nah, I don’t think so.”

      Here, several of your peer reviewers (literally, since surely this is in part behind your impressive practice of putting work on your blog before it’s typeset) have determined that you should see Season Two. You may respond, “yes, but those peer reviewers are meddling, and not really helping.” As is often the case with reviewers 🙂 But one of the reasons one writes the footnotes I allude to above is to defuse easy criticism of one’s work. So even if you don’t think S.2 would make a smidgeon of a difference to your regard of the show (as I’m inclined to believe is the case), it might help defuse easy criticism of your piece. If others think you might “get” Don more after seeing some of his flashbacks, why not check out a few? If anything, your argument may be considerably stronger after seeing them.

      • But my argument here would be that watching a season of television requires a much greater affective investment than skimming an academic article, or even reading it properly. One of the exciting things about complex/high/art television is the level of engagement it inspires and requires, but this comes with the drawback of alienating many viewers, including a scholar of the form itself.

        I think Jason would indeed have to watch another season if he wanted to write a chapter about Mad Men in a book that makes an argument about how television works, but in this case, I think it’s intended to do something a bit less definitive. I like Derek’s summary of the purpose of this piece below, that the piece is raising as-yet unanswered questions about what we are talking about when we talk about a television show, and it’s calling on scholars to be specific about their objects of study. Maybe one could even compare it to some of the negative work in film studies — I’m thinking, for example, of the article “Fiery Speech in a World of Shadows: Rosebud’s Impact on Early Audiences by Robin Bates with Scott Bates,” (Cinema Journal 1987) which explored precisely why the narrative revelation of that film does not affectively register with modern audiences. This kind of scholarship is important, I think.

    • I’m wrote in to provide feedback on an article. I third Gray and Busse’s recommendation that watching more of Mad Men is your professional responsibility to make a valid argument for an academic book. Even if nothing’s going to change in your opinion, significant things will happen to your argumentation, evidence and credibility.

    • I agree that if I were trying to make an argument about the show’s value, construction, or aesthetics, I would need to watch as much as is available at the time of publication. But as I tried to make clear, this essay is not an argument, but rather a journey. For the purposes of this essay, my journey ends in season 1. Telling me I should have gone farther might be good advice overall, but I don’t think the terms of the essay necessitate it. I fully admit that it creates a huge opportunities for “yes, buts” for readers, but I think it might need to stand as is given the timetable of publishing. It does raise a huge question for academic publishing though – how do you peer-review an aesthetic journey?

      I might still watch onward for my own curiosity – would s2 really be able to transform my reactions, make me a fan, and cure lung cancer? – but time is scarce for a scholar of serial narrative (and parent of 3!).

      • oh, at this point, I’m simply invested in drawing out the discussion longer. After all, the anti-fan work is writing itself here and at Ian’s blog 😉

  23. 57 Sarah

    I wouldn’t attempt to talk you into liking the show, but there is one comment you made that I really have to ask about:

    “Finally the revelation of [Peggy’s] unknown pregnancy both feels like a plot contrivance and exposure of her growing callousness…”

    I’m trying to parse out what you mean here. Do you mean that you think Peggy somehow deliberately ignored her pregnancy as a kind of “callousness?” Can you really think of no other more likely reason that a “good Catholic girl” brought up in complete ignorance of sex and her own body who gets pregnant by a married man in an era when illegitimate pregnancy was viewed as deeply shameful could fail to recognize her pregnancy or bond with her child? Truly?

    • Sarah,

      You’re right that I was unclear in the sentence. Assuming the plot contrivance part is clear, what I mean by “exposure of her growing callousness” refers to the moment in the finale where she has the baby & rejects it. We don’t see anything about her decision on what to do with the baby, but only glimpse her dispassionate refusal to turn and look at it. As seems to be MM’s mode of characterization, we are left to fill in the gaps. A sympathetic viewer like you views it as part of the context and her own deep shame & regret; as I’d been finding Peggy less sympathetic over the final few eps, I found that it confirmed her descent into becoming callous and cold, a marker of her fall from earlier innocence.

      Perhaps this is another key clue to my problem with the show – since so much of the characterization is opaque and left for viewers to fill-in, a viewer’s attitude toward the show colors the affect much more deeply than other shows. If you’re inclined to view it charitably, you fill in the gaps with depth and nuance (as I’m sure they’re intended to be seen). If you’re like me & can’t find reason to give the show the benefit of the doubt, the gaps simply annoy you and confirm your worst assumptions about the character. It’s kind of an emotional-MSG, intensifying the flavors that you bring to it.

      • 59 Cole Moore Odell

        Case in point: my interpretation of Peggy was not that she had fallen from innocence, but that she simply hadn’t yet been given the opportunity to be ruthless and self-interested. Her turning away from the baby isn’t what she had descended into, but who she actually always wanted to be.

        Note that this doesn’t make me recoil, or condemn her. She makes the calculation that the life she wants for herself, one defined by her talents and ambition, a burgeoning possibility for women roughly of her generation onward, is not one that includes a fatherless child at age 21. This is made more evident in season two, which spends more time with her family in Brooklyn, including her deeply resentful older sister, a conventional Catholic housewife in Brooklyn with a bunch of kids.

      • 60 Sarah

        I consider the evidence that she is profoundly depressed, to the point of delusionality, to be so strong that I don’t find the show to be at all opaque on that point. What you see as “dispassionate” I see as a deep, reflexive inability to accept the evidence that she is now a “fallen woman,” who must either give up the child or live in bitter shame and dependency for the rest of her life. The show expects us to recognize Peggy’s experience as one that many women had to suffer through or conduct their romances in fear of; perhaps this is something a male viewer has been shielded from.

        I do, actually, think that Peggy becomes colder and more self-protective as the series progresses, but I don’t see it here: I see someone pushed to the absolute breaking point by a terribly unjust system. She is hardened by the experience, yes–she makes a beautiful speech to Pete about this at the end of season two–but I don’t see much of an argument for her having consciously turned her head away from her pregnancy or (as the commenter below me suggests) coolly and rationally decided to estrange herself from her child. Peggy is flawed, but she’s not monstrous; I see no need to adopt the “monstrous” reading when a more plausible one is so ready to hand.

      • 61 Cole Moore Odell

        Okay, “calculation” is too strong a word–I don’t think these thoughts are necessarily operating in her on a conscious level in that hospital bed. Clearly she’s deluded herself into ignoring her own pregnancy. So maybe she *feels* terror that accepting this baby will cut her off from the life she wants, and so disassociates herself from the reality of the baby. In any case, given her intimate knowledge of what life with the baby would be like, and what it will cut her off from, I find her actions totally understandable, if not admirable. And I do think that her conception of herself as a decent, innocent Catholic girl is a fiction that she wants to use as a shield when it suits her, but which she wants to discard when it gets in the way of her success. She’s a *lot* like Don in her relation to her own actual and constructed identities.

        For me, the key to understanding Peggy is what she says to her failed date who, speaking on behalf of seemingly everyone in Brookyn accuses her of putting on the airs of a big city big shot–“Those people in Manhattan? They *are* better than us, because they want things they haven’t seen.”

    • 62 Liznyc

      I think this is actually what is so important about the strong portrayal of the 60’s within the show. It’s funny, I do not see these characters as despicable, but as human. People who are victims of their circumstances. Peggy’s mother and sister, to an extent, do not accept her. She is from a different mold than most women from that decade. As the responder above points out, she has gotten pregnant by a married man in a time when deep shame was attributed to even having pre-marital sex (remember her mother’s reaction to her moving in with her boyfriend). I think, for Peggy, being pregnant was so disturbing to her she disassociated from herself and her body in order to not have to feel the pain.

  24. 63 Derek Johnston

    I think that this is a very interesting and useful article, and I’ll look forward to seeing how it fits into the dialogue of the complete collection. Because, let’s face it, you are writing this for an anthology of critical approaches to the show, as an invited piece no less, so part of its value lies in its relation to the rest of the book. There could be considered to be some similarities to the way that a single episode relates to the rest of a TV show, although the comparison would be stronger with an anthology show like ‘The Twiligtht Zone’ than a seriealised show like ‘Mad Men’.

    Which should bring me to my main point in this comment, but I want to make a brief digression first into what I am not focussing on. I like ‘Mad Men’, disagree with some of your interpretations, but am not going to try to convince you to change your mind. From the first episode, I could tell that this was a ‘good’ show, stylish, well-made, well-performed, but it took me a while to work out what it was doing and why it was more than just good craftsmanship, which can, after all, be nothing but style. The show ultimately appealed to me on a couple of registers: appreciation of the skill of its production and through its themes and concepts – liking characters or not came later and was far more nuanced than that simple binary, rather like real life relationships.

    But what I wanted to pick up on was the regular question in television studies of how to approach a text, and what the text should consist of. Due to the limitations and demands of teaching, our students (or mine at least) will often only be exposed to one or two episodes of a television series. Obviously they will be encouraged to investigate the rest of the programme, but that can be problematic, particularly with longer running series, or those with missing episodes. And even then, they will be missing out on the context of other programming that the core ‘text’ is interacting with. However, when the non-academic viewer selects a programme to try, will their opinions not be based on just one or two episodes? And, even in a serialised drama, I would argue that the majority of those episodes will be intended to have a satisfying self-contained arc, even if they also show how much more there is to the series and contain elements that encourage continued viewing.

    What I am arguing, in this unplanned way, is that the television text consists of multiple levels of text, each of which can be assessed on its own grounds. The individual episode is a text on its own, which interacts with the rest of the season, which interacts with the rest of the series as a whole, which interacts with the rest of the television landscape, which interacts with the wider culture. And each is a valid subject for investigation. Provided that the appropriate framing is put into place. So, we know from this article that it is about not liking ‘Mad Men’ (the series) based on a viewing of season 1, but a viewing of the season that was occasioned by the requirements of a research project based on opinions which derived from viewing two individual episodes. Because we know this we can unpick some of the connections which influence the construction of the essay, and construct our own rebuttals or supporting concepts based on our own experience or considerations of the evidence.

    So this is a valuable essay, no matter how much I disagree with many of the opinions on ‘Mad Men’ that it contains. I agree that some more evidential support in terms of references rather than anecdote would be useful and provide a more academic framework to the concepts in the essay. But if the essay’s purpose, divorced from its context in a collection on ‘Mad Men’, was to encourage considerations of how we evaluate programming and how we select our objects of study, then it has succeeded for me.

    • Thanks Derek – I agree that we need to have a multi-layered understanding of television textuality. The answer isn’t to strive for completeness, but transparency of what levels & experiences are being addressed. We could also add the multiple contexts of textuality – watched in DVD boxes in a binge vs. weekly live broadcasts complete with ad breaks (arguably more vital to MM than other shows) vs. out-of-order catching-up vs. online shared clips, etc. The notion expressed above by some that we can only say anything substantial about a series until it’s done is not only impractical but also completely foreign to the television medium.

      • 65 Derek Johnston

        A picky but relevant point: ‘weekly live broadcasts complete with ad breaks’ would be the American way of viewing the show. Here in Britain the broadcast context is different. ‘Mad Men’ was first shown on BBC4, a non-terrestrial channel but free to receive for everyone who has cable or satellite packages. BBC4 is a public-service channel aimed at an older market, probably 35 and over, and is heavily invested in social history. To accompany ‘Mad Men’ there were a number of documentaries shown, including (if I remember correctly) a short series on television advertising of the past and another short series on the development of advertising as a profession. There was also a documentary specifically on the Madison Avenue advertisers of the 60s and later, I believe.

        So the programme was contextualised as social history, interconnected with British social history through familiarity of products shown in the documentaries but also the demonstration that advertising was and is a transAtlantic business (global did not really come into it – the documentaries were strictly Britain and the US). But the historical progression of the documentaries from the past to the (almost) present also suggested that ‘Mad Men’ was not just about the past, but was also about how we got to today. In other words, it is a programme to be considered not so much as to how accurate it is to the historical past, but in relation to its relevance to our current experience (and the same could be said of ‘Rome’, ‘Deadwood’, ‘Battlestar Galactica’ and a bunch of other shows). That was the reading that was implied by the BBC4 context; the reading implied by other contexts would be different. For example, when repeated in a late night BBC2 slot (terrestrial, larger but more mainstream audience) the show was not accompanied by the themed programming but stood on its own as ‘quality drama that everyone’s talking about’.

        So contextualisation does not just need to consider how the programme was watched, but also wider, and sometimes seemingly obvious elements of the context. Channel identity, scheduling, commercial or non-commercial television, DVD but one episode at a time or play all, slumped on the sofa, sat at a desk doing something else at the same time, taking notes or concentrating on viewing, and so on. Not all need to be stated, but all influence our experience of viewing and we need to think about that when we write about our experience, especially when it is a piece like this which is about that experience more than about the programme. (I expect that for most of us writing professionally about a film or show we will watch it – or part of it – multiple times in different contexts, and that will obviously mitigate some of the specificity of the context. But I still think it worth considering as to how it has influenced our attitudes and approaches.)

  25. 66 Lauren G.

    You have such a wealth of commentary here, Jason, that mine might have easily gotten lost in the riches. Alternatively, there might be other topics you’d prefer to discuss here. But for what they are worth, my comments are limited to season 1 and to what you specifically said about it. I am curious if they inspire any further reflection on your part. The main things for me are 1) whether it’s accurate to claim that MM “sells” the early 60s to its viewers as a “comforting” as well as “stylish option” and 2) whether you still feel strongly that in episodes such as “The Marriage of Figaro” (1.3) Don’s actions are “unmotivated” and “forgiven”.

    Again, don’t feel pressured to answer if you would rather focus your energies on the many other interesting topics raised here. Well, I guess this inevitably is pressure of some kind, but please feel free to take the most comforting option. 😉

  26. First of all let me say that this piece is beautifully written and an enjoyable read from start to finish. I also think you offer some compelling arguments about some of Mad Men’s weaknesses. Yet, I also agree with a lot of the counter-arguments offered in the comments section. I won’t rehash what has already been said, but I would like to offer a few more points.

    One of your critiques of the show is this “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 agree that this feeling of superiority is encouraged early in season 1 (particularly with the pilot episode), but ultimately I don’t think this that MM is aiming for a lot of social critique. Rather, one of the primary pleasures of this show–at least for me–is the process of watching a moment from the past unfold. The Kennedy assassination, which occurs in Season 3, is a great example of this. We all know how this historical event played out, but it was so fascinating to watch the impact of this national trauma on characters who I’ve come to know over the course of 3 seasons. These moments are less about social critique and more about offering another perspective into a moment in American history. Mad Men handles these major historical events in such a nuanced, unconventional way.

    Second, much of your dislike for the series seems to stem from your disinterest in its characters, particularly Don Draper. You write ” The show plays with the enigma of Don Draper’s identity, but as a viewer I find little beneath the surface to care about.” But for me, the question “Who is Don Draper?” is one of the key mysteries of this series, much as “Who Killed Laura Paimer?” was the mystery of TWIN PEAKS. If Laura’s murderer had been revealed in ep. 2 of that great show, I would have stopped watching it. And with MAD MEN I enjoy the fact that it takes not just multiple episodes, but multiple SEASONS, to figure out who Don Draper is. The show doesn’t rush it, it takes its time revealing little details here and there. It drives me mad and it also keeps me tuning in week after week. [SPOILER ALERT] The way Season 3 tackled Betty’s discovery of Don’s true identity was a feat of storytelling. It took several episodes to build up to the “big confrontation” and when it happened I was literally on the edge of my seat. It was one of the most satisfying hours of television ever for me.

    So while I do agree that a viewer should not have to sit through 3 seasons worth of a series in order to finally see what might be compelling about it (if you don’t like the show after watching season 1, then you don’t like the show!), I do think that show’s strength is to slowly build its characters and plots. Very few shows allow themselves to move at this piece (THE WIRE is another), and the rewards of this pacing are in episodes like “The Gypsy and the Hobo” and “The Grown Ups.”

    • It’s interesting, because comments like yours that highlight how you experience pleasure in the show make me want to keep watching in hope that it starts to click with me, as the joys you describe sound like exactly why I love serial TV (long builds, watching the storytelling unfold, etc.). But in reading critics whom I respect (like Alan Sepinwall and Todd VanDerWerff) write celebrations of season 1 eps that left me more annoyed than moved, I fear continued disappointment with the show if I did. As I mentioned in another reply above, Mad Men more than most other shows seems highly dependent on viewers’ work in filling in gaps and forging their own pleasures in the subtext – if I can’t do that, am I bound to always find the show impossible to enjoy?

      • 69 Cole Moore Odell

        Princesscowboy’s comparison to “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” is apt–perhaps moreso than she realizes. That’s because Lynch–at least at first–never intended the Laura Palmer murder to be solved, but only to serve as a permanent enigma that drove subsequent plotting. Likewise, I don’t think “Who is Don Draper?” is a mystery at all. It’s certainly not a question that–contra Noel below–could *ever* have a satisfactory resolution–for the character or the viewer.

        While the mystery is a red herring, the obvious answer is in front of us in every scene. That guy being a heel? The square-jawed coward? Broken as a kid and never put back together right? *That’s* Don Draper. So there will be no long build to some logical, shocking reveal or climax. He’s lost in the fog, with episodic flashes of self-aware guilt but without the strength of character–or enough external impetus–to reform himself.

        I accept that the lack of a readily apparent direction to the series, along with the old-fashioned TV show pace (things unfold about as glacially as a Roy Huggins “Maverick”) and more or less despicable characters, can be off-putting. I guess I was inoculated early by reading lots of Super-Villain Team Up, where the closest thing to a hero was Dr. Doom, and that’s just because the Red Skull was in the room.

        If you do decide to continue, I wouldn’t look to ruthless, self-delusional (among many other things) Peggy but instead to Sally Draper as your “in”. She’s the closest thing to a conventionally sympathetic character, in that she’s too young to be defined by the lies she tells herself, and you are invited to hope she can escape/rebel from her awful parents in a satisfying way. Knowing that the late 60s are going to coincide with her teen years helps in this regard.

  27. Let me, first, echo the sentiments about the quality of the writing for the piece.

    Second, as someone who mainlined all 3 seasons this summer (and is watching new episodes as they air), and who had all the same problems you outline here, continuing to watch the show will be an exercise in futility. The problems may lessen but they never go away, or they are replaced by other problems. The central question of the show may be “Who is Don Draper?” but with each season, the show has Don coming closer to that answer only to backslide into his old ways. He realizes he loves his family at the end of S1, only to start an affair in S2; he realizes he can be a better person at the end of S2, only to become colder and more lost by the end of S3. At least with S4, he’s become fairly pathetic, and for a character I dislike so much, I find pleasure in that.

    For the size and the scope of the essay, I don’t see much reason to move beyond S1. If you wanted to do more with this particular topic then yes, of course, you should suffer through the remaining seasons, but unless you intended to write a companion to Wilson’s Dion book on Mad Men, stopping here makes sense. I do agree with the idea that looking at why we dislike certain media is a valuable one, and this essay is a good step in that direction. It helps us navigate the areas between of fan, non-fan, and anti-fan, which (clearly from all the comments) opens up more areas of discussion.

    I just expect the same understanding if I stop watching The Wire after S1. 😉

  28. 71 cassettenova

    Jason, thanks for starting the conversation. I tend to mostly agree with the follow up comments, especially the ones that highlight the fact that the strength of Mad Men lies in its contradictions. Next, I largely interpreted your critique as a spotlight on the many opportunities Matthew Weiner and his team seem to have squandered: opportunities to discuss race, gender and social dynamics with more intelligence that the more-than-occasional “gee whiz, guys” they throw us. Even as an avid fan of the show, I completely grand you this. The show is goofy at times, which I actually find sort of endearing.

    Now for my dissent… First off I want to apologize for the emotional, likely irrational, possibly provacative nature of my response. Sometimes I find that an unbridled, vulnerabile and anecdotal argument sometimes succeeds where an academic or critical one can fail, simply by virtue of the fact that it often contains glaring contradictions and logical inconsistencies, exactly the kinds of things one hates in academia. With that disclaimer, here I go.

    Jason, I’m not sure anyone can provide you with the lens that would allow for you to overlook the transgressions you find with the show. I have only been as viscerally annoyed on one occasion, which was while watching the movie Chicago, a movie I found similarly frustrating for comparable reasons. Nevertheless, I love Mad Men, and I find it worthy of some sort of defense even if it flawed.

    Not to give away the candy store right off the bat here, but the following is potentially the most provacative part of my argument, which is simultaneously the point I feel most vulnerable making. If you’ve ever wondered why the girl went for the a-hole instead of the nice guy, or the jerk got a promotion instead of you, then Mad Men provides you with some answers. It’s a despicable show about despicable characters, characters that you’re supposed to hate but end up liking.
    (See: Russell Brand in… well, everything). To quote someone much smarter than myself, “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” Mad Men is the game laid bare for all to see, all to learn from, and all to accept or dismiss as they see fit.

    It’s the perfect show for a person in their late 20’s (like myself): part cautionary tale and part instruction manual. Here’s how people get ahead, here’s why it’s great, here’s the kind of trouble they get in, and in turn here’s why it sucks. It reminds me of the Onion headline “Casual Sex only gratifying for the first 50 years” or something like that. It might be vain, it might be superficial,
    but it sure is entertaining.

    I obviously don’t remember the 50’s or 60’s, and most of what I know about the period comes from much, much less nuanced representations of the period. (As an aside, if any of the media theorists in the room can explain to me what possessed Ang Lee and Demetri Martin to take on Woodstock, I would appreciate it). But as any fan can tell you, Mad Men isn’t about the 50’s or the 60’s; it’s about today. It’s about where we’re at, and moreover, it’s about how little
    we have things figured out.

    This may be a controversial point, but I grew up in a generation that genuinely seems to have achieved real, genuine gender parity, not just political. Many of my female friends command larger salaries and hold more prestigious and powerful positions than myself or my male friends. Hell, just the fact that I have as many female friends as I do is reason enough to show how much progress we’ve made. It was never unusual for me to have female friends that are as close if not closer than my male friends. It goes without saying that I see them as equals, if not
    a more advanced species that has to put up with our doltish behavior in order to procreate (though thanks to science, less so than before).

    And to tell you the truth, it’s confusing. It isn’t an especially easy time to be a male in your late 20’s, in the era of “it’s complicated” and “she’s just not that into you.” Then along came Don Draper, with his naive notions of how to treat women and co-workers, and as much as I hate to admit it, it’s sort of been an education. I don’t know if that’s what the 60’s were like, but I can tell you that the kind of courtship and relationship my grandparents had (who were probably about Don’s age
    in the 60’s) feels far different than any that I or any of my contemporaries seem to have experienced. They grew up in a period of stringent gender roles, and yet their mutual respect was unquestionable to anyone who met them.

    It even spread to their professional life. My grandfather was a doctor and my grandmother is still a nurse, and you couldn’t get more stereotypical than that, short of maybe being a secretary for an advertising executive. And yet, I don’t think a day went by that my grandfather didn’t praise my grandmother for something, even until the day he died. My grandfather, a product of archetypal gender dynamics practiced greater chivalry than anyone my age could ever hope to, whatever the
    implications are of that.

    Now, my grandfather was hardly Donald Draper, but they are products of the same time: post-war America, a nation trying (perhaps too hard) to cultivate some sort of tradition that would be easily replicable for generations to come. Instead, the 60’s happened and the backlash against traditionalism won out. For someone of my generation, I was never really sure why things played out the way they did but Mad Men has at least provided a glimpse, a hoaky, soapy glimpse
    of why the sexual revolution happened, why the psychedelic era took hold, and why our parents all listen to NPR and wear Birkenstocks, or watch Fox News and rail against socialism. But it’s a dichotomy that seems outdated to the post-modern sh*tshow my generation seems to find itself in, a confusing melee of ideologies, philosophies and overabundance of information. Now that we know everything, we don’t want to know anything. In other words, maybe Mad Men is boring, but
    deliciously so.

    I remember having a conversation with one of my female friends about Sex and the City and post-feminism. Now, I always found Sex and the City pretty offensive, probably because I am a shauvinistic pig of a male that believes that men should control everything all the time juss’ becuz’ womens can’t be trusted, but my biggest problem with the show was that it hardly seemed banal. I lived in New York while it was the epicenter of the Carrie Bradshaw bomb, and it was disgusting, to say nothing of the fact that I think it did more damage to the cause of women’s progress
    than good. Far too many people took that show seriously, and for a while New York was single-handedly keeping Manolo Blanc in business.

    On the sociological side, article after article talked about how great Mr. Big was. Every week Slate seemed to have some column from a so-called feminist who would talk about how great her empowering husband was, he who would wear a prosthetic pregnancy belly and change the diapers and lactate, only to secretly be pining for a Mr. Big character to provide some escape. We’ve come a long way, baby.

    Then along came Mad Men to restore New York to its natural, outdated order: a male-dominated place of social climbing machistas hell bent on world domination. In other words, a universe of Mr. Bigs. In Mad Men, Don Draper is a king’s king, a captain going down with his ship. In Sex and the City, Mr. Big just didn’t get the memo re: the 60’s, the 70’s, or even the 80’s or the 90’s. In fact he’s so powerful he doesn’t even need to get memos. Probably because he’s drug kingpin. He’s all that’s left of a world that has left real men behind, and where boys roam free in t-shirts, levis
    and sneakers.

    The Sex and the City/Mad Men dynamic sheds light on the real issue: how exactly do we all get along? The answer to a male-dominated political, economic and social structure was never to have the pendulum swing completely the other way; the opposite of extremism isn’t extremism, it’s moderation.

    Again, if your central point is that Mad Men could be doing a much, much better job of bringing this to the public, then by all means I agree whole-heartedly. But make no mistake about it, the show is responsible for an important dialogue that’s being played out on many of our televisions every Sunday night (or Monday, depending on how soon the torrent file hits the web). And I think I speak for many of us when I say that I can’t wait to see how it ends.

    I doubt anything I’ve just said would convince you that the show isn’t as boring as you think it is, so we’re really right back where we started. But hopefully this is a fresh perspective that you haven’t gotten from the academic perspective, probably because it would result in one’s tenure being revoked.

    • 72 cassettenova

      Also, apologies for some of the typos. The first part was written on a phone…

      • Wow, cassettenova, I’m curious how Jason will respond to you. If I’ve got you right you’re thinking that women today really want someone like Don Draper. Well maybe women today really want someone who looks good in a skinny tie. But I don’t think it goes much deeper than that. After all, it’s never been easy for men to be in their 20s: just ask Dick Whitman. And Don’s relationships with women always fail; neither he nor the women are happy. I don’t think you should stop changing diapers just yet. Mr. Big is just a fantasy. Anybody can be him anytime they want to be.

      • 74 cassettenova

        @Lauren G, I really don’t mean to generalize that much, and I don’t purport to know what women today want or need or anything of the sort, which sort of goes without saying. I’m with you, it’s a fantasy and I don’t find it educative by even the loosest definition of the word. However, I do think the show is a product of its time, our time, more so than being a product of the 60’s. The rest of what I wrote was perhaps just superfluous context.

    • 75 Liznyc

      However, that is the way that the world operated back then. There was sexism and there was racism. It was the norm. IMO, this is the point that Weiner wanted to get across. That people were clueless and ignorant about many of these issues. I grew up in the 60’s, and my mother told me when she started working after my parents divorced, employers actually asked her when her last menstrual period was. The 60s and 70s were fraught with sexism and racism.

  29. Kristina B. Thanks for that link.

  30. @cassettenova, I thought your comments were incredibly interesting and I really appreciated them. And I could not agree more that the show is a product of our times; all the emphasis on authentic surface detail is just that. I also don’t purport to know what women today want, though if the tie suits you I do recommend it 😉

  31. 78 Susan

    A quick thought on the “life’s too short” argument vs. the “it’s your job” argument. There’s a marked tendency in much of academia, especially in media studies departments with a significant cultural studies influence, to avoid making value judgments. For good reasons, it doesn’t seem like the job of television studies scholars to tell people what is “good” or ‘bad” tv. But there are other good reasons why we should query this assumption. I think that Jason is getting at some of these issues in his piece. As Simon Frith points out, by simply turning our attention to a given text we are, in a sense, canon-building. Even more so if we, say, screen an episode of something for a class. Whether we pay attention to something to critique it heavily or because we find a richness there that we enjoy, in the process we are sending a message about which tv texts are important. A message that is determined in large part by what we like, and also by what we hate, but seldom by an objective assessment of what’s culturally significant.

    One thing that is kind of unspoken within this conversation is the set of assumptions we all have about Mad Men’s importance as a tv text. Yes, it is the job of a tv scholar to watch tv shows, not necessarily just ones they enjoy. But why is it Jason’s job to watch Mad Men specifically? I don’t think this argument would be made in the same way if he said, for example, that he didn’t like Two and a Half Men or The Vampire Diaries and didn’t want to watch more than one season of those shows.

    There is a sort of canon of what Jason refers to as “quality television” as we’ve seen it develop in the last decade or so. I think the fact that he is writing off a show from the quality canon is part of the reason this piece is weirding people out. I think it shows a little bit of a bias in favor of the significance of a certain style of television that isn’t being examined. Maybe the bias is due exclusively to the quality of these shows, their cultural significance, or other obviously legitimate reasons. But it’s worth asking whether some component of this is due to the prestige accorded to these shows. Which might be something we should question.

    I work in a video store and I see this canon in action every day, as a certain type of customer comes in to watch one series after another (The Wire, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Six Feet Under, True Blood, Lost, Weeds, Big Love, etc.). These shows have a great deal of cultural capital invested in them. There’s a demographic that I see watching these shows that is too cool for anything that’s too upfront about being science fiction or fantasy (Lost, True Blood, etc. get a pass but they wouldn’t, say, go for Battlestar Galactica), that take pride in only watching tv on dvd, and generally seem to get that these shows have a certain amount of cachet and they like that. Mad Men is, from what I can see, the coolest of all the new cool shows, appealing to the snobbiest people. I don’t know if this has any connection at all to the currency the show has with tv scholars, but if nothing else I think it means a certain degree of skepticism is called for about the attitude that understand Mad Men is de rigeur. And it raises some other, more general, questions about what sort of material it behooves tv scholars to be familiar with and why.

    • But why is it Jason’s job to watch Mad Men specifically? I don’t think this argument would be made in the same way if he said, for example, that he didn’t like Two and a Half Men or The Vampire Diaries and didn’t want to watch more than one season of those shows.

      Susan, actually, if he were to write an essay on The Vampire Diaries (which personally, I will argue to the bitter end is a *much* better show than True Blood, but that’s for another thread :), I would totally expect him to watch everything (i.e., if this were next year, yes I’d expect anyone who contributes to a book on the show to have watched all available eps and, probably, would at least expect of myself to have looked at the books). So, no, this is *not*–on my end at least–an argument about quality TV vs bad TV (if for no other reason that I very much don’t appreciate value judgments even as (or maybe because?) i’m all to aware of the way scholars and teachers create canon! It is an argument about writing on a show and publishing on it without having watched the available seasons.

      Now, I took Two and a Half Man out because i think types of television do make a difference. I think it’s much more easily possible to write on episodic TV without full source text knowledge and I don’t necessarily expect someone to write on Luke and Laura or on the tenth doctor to have screened 60s eps from either show. Which is where I think the quality TV argument comes back into play, because at least in the way Jason has often argued it (and I have deep sympathies with that, trained modernist that I am :), quality TV is connected to narrative complexity, and those tend to be more predominant in serial televisual forms.

      So, while I agree with everything you suggest (skepticism toward ‘quality,” potentially larger focus on academically unpopular shows, self awareness of the impact of what is studied and taught), I do want to make sure that none of these were the arguments I considered when suggesting that Jason should watch all of MM. It was a simple argument of comprehensive research when publishing on a given text.

  32. i agree with Kristina Busse’s post

  33. 81 Clare

    Jason, I thoroughly agree with you about Mad Men. Thank you so much for this article. I also tried to like it as all my friends were raving about it, but I found it very contrived with its constant retrospective judgements on the 60s, the characters unpleasant and the atmosphere unremittingly bleak and depressing.

    It is not about the 60s at all, but is more reflective of a new millenium political correctness combined with a kind of ambiguous nostalgia. In short ‘weren’t the 60s stylish, but their social attitudes on gender, ethnicity, care of the body and so on and so forth were outrageously reprehensible and we need to emphasise that as often and as unsubtly as possible’.

  34. 82 Colin Tait

    I have definitely joined the conversation late, but have greatly enjoyed reading the original article and the ensuing conversation that it generated.

    Up until recently, I have been attempting to explain the resurgence of nostalgia for 1970s film and TV as seen in movies like Summer of Sam, Anchorman and Zodiac. For me, what is the most interesting aspect of these works is that they revel in and seemingly long for a time that was definitely worse than the present-day. They precisely imitate the bad iconography and style that belongs to a bad era of American history and usually generate embittered, if not ambivalent responses (do you know any fans of Summer of Sam? Really?)

    I think that sometimes the connotations of nostalgia are misinterpreted (as perhaps by ad-men like Don) to refer to a “good time” rather than a bad one. Moreover, the origin of the term originally referred to the physiological symptoms of an immigrant or traveller and the pain of their missing homeland. Evoking Don’s carousel speech (where he speaks of the “old wound”) involves the alternative idea that looking at the past might mean picking the scab that covers it – a painful process to say the least.

    Which (finally) brings me to my point. For me, what is compelling in these works is that they attempt to bridge the distance between our present realities and our past, allowing us to remember correctly (or at least correct-lier) rather than continuing to pave over and edit the past accordingly.

    I don’t know if this has anything to do with liking or disliking the show, but I think accounts for some of the ambivalence. I don’t think Don is necessarily a compelling character either, but he is fascinating to me as are the glimpses of the lives that the show portrays.

    For me, the quintessential Mad Men scene is similar to my favorite one in Anchorman. As the Draper family sits in an idyllic picnic setting, they shake the garbage off of their blanket, get in the car and leave. The scene rewards on many levels, including the fantasy-fulfillment of being able to behave badly but also knowing that it is so very wrong.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that maybe you not liking Mad Men, Don Draper, etc… is also the point of watching it, however bizarre that sounds.

    Thanks for being so generous with your thoughts on this!

  35. 83 Susan

    I like the show but always interested in other opinions. But I must say….you dither about so much in the beginning that this reader — who reads & writes for a living — didn’t go further. Please edit. Will be back.

  36. 84 Boh Ring

    Why, oh why oh why must academic writing be so CONSTIPATED? The strain is evident from the very beginning of this, and it doesn’t improve from there. Perhaps if you didn’t try so hard to impress your colleagues, then you might actually connect with the people who could gain the most from a “devil’s advocate” point of view: your students and the public at large. Or perhaps it’s far more comfy in the academic cul-de-sac. Yawn.

    • 85 Liznyc

      Actually, Boh Ring, I was thinking the same thing. What was ironic to me was that somewhere in all of that mess, he pointed out that Mad Men was boring. Lol, I couldn’t get through the whole original reading.

  37. Hey there,

    I am very intrigued by this essay and was wondering if perhaps you could post some more information about the collection of articles being compiled regarding Mad Men. I have just embarked upon my research regarding the rhetorical devices used in Mad Men, particularly the opening credits. Your essay has proven to be of great use to my paper and is helping to serve as a jump off point for some further research. When is this compilation you mention to be published? What is the title?

    Thanks so much,

    Courtney L. Smith

  38. 87 Cynthia Meyers

    Just came across this–would like to chime. As a media professor & advertising historian, whose MA thesis focused on 1950s-1960s advertising, at first I was excited to see Mad Men. But my reaction was similar–a feeling of deep repulsion. I wondered if my initial negative reaction was because I knew too much about 1960s advertising and could spot the anachronisms too easily. (Despite Weiner’s vaunted “research,” his version of agency dynamics is as phony as a 3 dollar bill.) I kept trying to sample it, hoping the drama/characters would “click.” When peers raved, I’d mutter something vaguely unenthusiastic, then have to listen to them “explain” that MM was really about the “crisis of masculinity” or some such.

    You are very careful to couch your critique in a multitude of qualifiers, and given the horrendous peer pressure to love MM, I understand perfectly. It’s why I’ve been quiet about MM. However, I’ll come out of the closet all the way now. I think MM is badly written & badly acted. The characters are nonsensical: their behavior is inexplicable. The actors speak like robots–as if people back then had flat affect and took diction classes. The self-conscious obviousness of the cultural critique is cringeworthy. When I see fans/critics dissect a MM character’s motivations, I think: well, the character doesn’t have any motivations because the writers for this show use them as stand-ins for obvious ham-handed points about the good bad old days. Oh, but the set and costume design is lovely! Surely that makes up for the lack of good writing and acting!

    So you nailed it: MM flatters its audiences by helping them feel superior to the benighted folk of the past, while simultaneously allowing them to identify and desire to be like them. Not only is it disingenuous, it’s repulsive. No, the sets and costumes do not make up for that.

    Thanks for voicing the alternative view. We’ll never convince anyone else, but at least we know we’re not alone!

  39. 88 Lynn

    As an aspiring academic and a Mad Men fan, I first read this essay a few months ago, intrigued by the concepts of narrative complexity that Mittell is developing. I am returning here today, following the finale of Season 4 of Mad Men earlier in the week, with the notion of trying to add something new to the discussion.

    The final episode of Season 4 has crystallized for me a set of parallels that I think have been present throughout the show, but have now been brought into greater focus. For me, the soap opera elements of the show, who is bedding who, are not as interesting as what is happening on the symbolic level.

    In the essay above, Mittel says, “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.”

    While I think that is a harsh reading of Draper’s character, I would argue that even if you find that to be true, there is still something worthwhile about understanding the character as a symbol.

    I believe there is ample evidence in the series for parallels between Don’s constant re-invention of himself and the ad agency and the long arc of American history — of the countries attempts at re-invention.

    America is an invented country and Americans are united around a set of ideas about freedom and democracy, not a common ethnic heritage. At the big moments in our history, we have re-invented, re-told the story of what it means to be an American — the Civil War – Lincoln’s Gettysburg address – being the most prominent example of that. The Sixties are another example — from the civil rights movement (which we saw references to in season 3) to the women’s movement (which we’ve focused prominently on this season) to the counterculture and Vietnam War protests (which we as an audience know are coming soon for these characters). Today, Americans debate these symbols of sixties re-invention (or nostalgia for a mythic fifties), particularly at election time.

    To me, what the series is trying to say with these parallels between Don’s re-inventions (successful ones, false starts, ones that start out hopeful but fade, ones that never quite come to terms with his “original sin”) and American re-inventions in the sixties is this: re-inventions are complicated things. They aren’t done in one fell swoop. The involve, at least initially, a dream, a romantic belief that life can start again, and be a little better — even if that dream has a shaky foundation and can’t quite match the realities.

    Don makes bad choices and never truly comes clean about the sins of his past or rises above them, but he continues to have a romantic belief in re-invention. That, to me, says something important about what the country has been trying to do since the sixties.

    • Sorry for the delay in responding to this well-articulated point, but it helped me figure out another aspect of my interest/disinterest in shows like Mad Men: I have no investment in symbolic or allegorical readings, except when they are a minor component of the text’s pleasures. For instance, parts of The Wire offer allegories to Iraq War and the way that television fictionalizes crime – but these pleasures are always secondary to the drama of the characters and life in Baltimore. It seems that for many (although certainly not all) fans of Mad Men (and similar shows like The Sopranos), allegorical pleasures are much more central, providing a level of investment into characters & plotlines that may not be compelling on their own terms. I personally find that approach off-putting, pushing me away from the drama rather than adding depth.

      • Sorry for an even longer delay in commenting on your response. I am in a graduate program now and starting some work with Mike Newman on Mad Men, and he pointed out to me yesterday that you had replied to me here.

        I appreciate that you pointed out the distinction in ways of viewing. As someone who appreciates symbolism in a narrative and finds that it enhances my viewing pleasure, it had not occurred to me that others would find it off-putting or detracting from the drama. I will certainly keep that in mind as I move into my class with Mike.

  40. 91 Ian

    This is a fantastic, bold essay. While I didn’t have time to fully read through the extensive follow-up comments, I just want to thank you for writing an essay that has helped me understand my own disinterest (although I wouldn’t say dislike) in the show.

    I watched the first season last year after many friends and reviews described it as the “show to watch”. Lost was ending, and I was in search for another hour long serial drama to replace it. The first season left me saying, “well…that was good.” But at the same time, I didn’t immediately start in on the second season, despite its availability (part of the reason I love watching shows on the internet years after the episodes have aired). In fact, I never watched the second season, and I could never figure out why until now.

    I’ll never deny that Mad Men is a well-made, intelligent, and all together “good” show. But for many of the reasons you describe, it never drew me back for continued viewing. Like you, I know and respect many people who adore the show, and I understand their reasons for doing so. However, it just doesn’t do it for me — and now I can articulate why!

  41. 92 Rosie

    I’m not criticizing you for your dislike of “MAD MEN”. Nor will I try to convince you that you’re wrong or anything like that. Personally, I find your reasons for your dislike of the series to be very interesting and worthy of thought. However, I only wish that your article had been less “wordy” and more to the point. What can I say? I’m not a college graduate.

  42. How do I feel about “MAD MEN”? There were times when I truly loved the show. And there were times when I found it very frustrating. Some might say I have a love/hate relationship for the show. I have similar feelings for the ABC series, “LOST”.

    After reading some of the responses to Jason’s article, I get the feeling that many fans of “MAD MEN” did take his dislike of the show rather personally. Some made a great effort to be polite and rational in the responses to his article. But underneath the polite veneer, I keep sensing a good deal of resentment and determination to convince him to like the show. And a part of me keeps wondering why is it so important to some that Jason likes this show?

  43. 94 Ken

    It’s a TV show. Get over it and rewrite War and Peace or whatever it is that you really want to be doing. I am certain that the Gods of literature await your next effort with breathless anticipation.

  44. 95 Cathy

    So — on the eve of the 5th season, I stumble across Jason’s essay, which I found tortuous AND torturous reading. MadMen sure touches a nerve.
    The 1950’s: A house in the suburbs, Dad took the train into the city, Mom stayed home while slowly, quietly going crazy with boredom and loneliness. A lot of drinking, a lot of smoking, a lot of flirting and sexual shenanigans — men back from WWII and Korea, throwing themselves into their work and determined to never be poor again, like their own upbringings in the depths of the Depression. I recognize my own parents very clearly, so I find the show painful, gripping and rewarding. I learn more valuable lessons from bad times than from good…

  45. 97 Julia Daugherty

    I just watched seasons 1-5 within a period of a couple weeks. I think the basis of the show’s appeal (which I appreciate) is that we get to the see the U.S. at its most beautiful and glamorous and unreflectively, unrepentantly powerful from a post-9/11 vantage point. Now we must be reflective and consider perspectives other than our own, as the less powerful have always had to, but then our parents were young, we were even younger, and the U.S. was young, brash, confident, and flexing its muscles. The opening credits sequence says it all for me. When else have we seen figures falling from a NYC skyscraper?

  46. I very much enjoyed this essay. I have attempted to like MM twice, but have given up. When asked why, I usually say, “I don’t see anything more than emotionally stunted people being cruel to one another.” Now I can point the people that question me to this essay–which articulates exactly how I feel.

  47. 99 holdrelf

    First off, thank you so much for writing this essay! I guess I’m a little (ok, a lot) late to this party, but I really wanted to comment.

    I, too, tried Mad Men once and gave up a few episodes into the first season (found it boring, didn’t care about the characters, etc.). Then, as it became a critically acclaimed and beloved show, my dislike began to make me feel like a failure as a media scholar – so, I signed up for Annie Petersen’s Mad Men class (hoping that the class would help me to enjoy and understand the show – or at the very least force me to watch it so that I could participate in all the surrounding discourse).

    Halfway through the 6th season, I wouldn’t be watching this show if it weren’t for homework, but I have become at least partially invested in a few of the characters (I just want Peggy, Joan, Ginsberg, and Stan to go form their own ad agency so I can stop watching and be content with the ending). I’ve actually enjoyed the 6th season so far more than I’ve liked the other seasons – and it’s supposedly the least palatable season (interesting…). Maybe I just feel rather vindicated because viewers are starting to see Don in the ambivalent/lacking empathy/unattractive light that I’ve been muttering about since episode 1.

    At least Mad Men has helped me to develop and recognize my own discerning taste. At the same time that I was watching this show, I was re-watching Lost with a friend who was seeing it for the first time. Now there is a compelling show that I LOVE – one that I can still draw pleasure from even after multiple viewings (and now I’m going to go read your essays on Lost).

    I’m intrigued about the uses for negative critical analysis. Your analysis was incredibly and personally valuable to me, as well as to other non-fans of Mad Men who found themselves in the minority. After reading this, I no longer felt like there was something inherently wrong with my taste, and my confusing and badly articulated opinions felt validated. I’d had trouble discerning the origins of my distaste for Mad Men, but your words gave me the perfect foundation on which to base my own feelings and analysis. It’s powerful and wonderful gift to be able to effectively articulate concepts that others have difficulty putting into words.

  48. 100 Melvin Dortheimer

    Yo, this essay is super boring. I read two or three paragraphs of the author excusing himself from having an opinion before I just gave up altogether. Is this what post-modernism is like? You just talking about talking about something and never get around to talking about it?

  49. Good piece, and one that I found helpful. You said, “But as I’ve been writing this, I have had a hard time understanding the precise function of a piece of negative critical analysis.” The function that your piece served for me was to help me understand the root causes of my basic lack of connection with the show.

    No matter how realistic the chimera of 1960’s life that the show presented, and no matter how laudable it was to achieve that feat, it could never compensate for my lack of connection with the characters. Production values, character development and story – two out of three ain’t bad. Mad Men aimed to master the first two while conceding the third, but only delivered the first. That’s why it always felt like an underachieving series.

  1. 1 Ian Bogost
  2. 2 Elokuvallisia huomioita maailmalta 30.07.2010 // Kuva
  3. 3 Mediavorous » Blog Archive » Links for August 15th through August 16th
  4. 4 On disliking Katy Perry and Ke$ha « Feminist Music Geek
  5. 5 Season Finale — Mad Men, “Tomorrowland” « TV Surveillance
  6. 6 Modelling Imagined Engagement: The Gender and Fan Studies Debate, Three Years Later « Fictional Fans
  7. 7 Ian T. Thomas » Blog Archive » Mad Men, Aca-Fans, and Online Scholarship
  8. 8 Why (the Term) Acafan Matters (but maybe we could lose the “dom” in acafandom) « transmedia
  9. 9 From Mad Men to Black Maids: Desire, Position and Cultural Critique | Terri Senft
  10. 10 When is a Publication Not a Publication? « Just TV
  11. 11 Complex TV: Evaluation « Just TV
  12. 12 Top 25 TV Shows (post 1990) « Drowning-By-Letters
  13. 13 The Impostor Syndrome in Video Games | The Ludologist
  14. 14 MAD MEN ANALYSIS | aimeesparkes
  15. 15 Mad Men – Complex Narratives ¶ le blog de Anh
  16. 16 It’s Not (Just) HBO | megdoyletvcultures1037
  17. 17 Analysing Madmen – Television Cultures

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