In Defense of 'Mad Men'

In the current issue of the New York Review of Books, along with characteristically thoughtful essays on upheaval in the Middle East and health care, the lead article by Daniel Mendelsohn is a critical dissection of Mad Men, the celebrated AMC series. Mendelsohn's best known book is The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million, a personal account of his family's fate in the Holocaust. The contributors' page lists his translations with commentary of Cavafy's Collected Poems and Unfinished Poems. He teaches at Bard. The article is splenetic:

The writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the acting is almost without exception bland and sometimes amateurish.

Worst of all--in a drama with aspirations to treating social and historical "issues"--the show is melodramatic rather than dramatic. By this I mean that it proceeds, for the most part like a soap opera, serially (and often unbelievably) generating and then resolving successive personal crises...rather than exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena it regards with such fascination.

That may be the harshest paragraph I've ever read in the New York Review of Books, at least outside politics, and I've been a reader almost since it was founded in the midst of a newspaper strike in 1963. Mendelsohn's portrayal of the show's failings--tempered slightly by praise for its design, a few scenes, and the roles played by children--is for me, perhaps paradoxically, a significant affirmation of Mad Men's standing in what he describes as "a new golden age of television, a medium that has been liberated by cable broadcasting to explore both fantasy and reality than ever before."

I am not really a television viewer. I have never seen Breaking Bad, Glee, Lost, Law and Order, Big Love, and a long list of other shows that have fervent fans. But I have watched every episode of Mad Men. I have already written about the series once, mainly to complain that its first Sunday night showings have added commercials each season, which disrupts the story line and inevitably has to shape the writing to fit the necessary breaks. On the other hand, I ordered the season four DVD weeks ago. It doesn't arrive until March 29. And I am among many (a number in the low millions) who have assiduously followed the series, either in disagreement with Mendelsohn or because the features he so dislikes are actually what make it so absorbing.

Mad Men's characters actually do reflect the spirit of the age in the way popular culture should, amplified for effect but not to the point of caricature.

During the summer-fall seasons, Slate has run a dialogue on each episode, with anchor writers and dozens of comments. I've never joined the fray, but I read them all with a diligence I can't remember having applied to a movie, television show, or book since my first encounter with Catcher in the Rye, fifty years ago when I was Holden Caulfield's age and enrolled in a boarding school very much like the fictional Pencey Prep. So my question is whether I am attached to Mad Men because I remember the period vividly, even though I was too young to be one of the characters. Mendelsohn's argument is that the portrayals of the era are exaggerated, including the morning drinking, chain smoking, misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, and other socially unattractive features embedded in that age, which seem so decadent now.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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