Really, It's OK to Ignore Game of Thrones and Mad Men

The self-fulfilling hype around certain TV shows makes it seem as though nothing else matters in pop culture. But plenty else does, of course.
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I read the first two pages of Game of Thrones, and then I tossed the book aside probably forever because I spent my entire adolescence reading sword-and-sorcery fiction and playing Dungeons and Dragons, and I think I'm just burned out for the rest of my lifetime, thanks.

I watched the first episode of Mad Men, and enjoyed the pretty period outfits and set design, but, again, I watched a lot of Hill Street Blues and LA Law at one point way back when, and prime-time soaps just aren't something I'm all that interested in right now.

I did manage to get all the way through the first season of Breaking Bad, albeit not with a whole lot of enjoyment. The series' overplayed emotional chain-pulling and cheap irony is a bad fit with its pretensions to moral seriousness. Of course the drug dealer has to be turned into a sympathetic character before we kill him. Of course the Hispanic janitor is a saint who happily mops up Walt's vomit so that we can really feel it when Walt throws him to the wolves to save himself. The golden age of television serials often doesn't look that much different than the less-golden ages, unfortunately.

I'm sure lots of folks are saying right about now, "You can't dismiss Mad Men after only one episode!" Or "You can't dismiss Breaking Bad after only one season!" Fair enough. I don't need to, or mean to, claim that these shows are worthless, or that anyone who likes them is foolish. I just. Don't. Want. To. Deal. With. Them. I don't want to know that there was a Martin Luther King Jr. episode of Mad Men featuring interracial hugging. I don't want to know how much nudity there is on Game of Thrones. That's why I don't watch those shows, just like I don't watch any number of other shows. The difference being that all the serious pop-culture critics aren't constantly shouting at me about those other shows, and so I can happily ignore them. Mad Men or Game of Thrones, though—you almost have no choice but to hate them.

If that reference to "serious pop-culture critics" sounded a little bitter, it's only the self-loathing speaking. I'm a "serious pop-culture critic," after all—I've got a book contract to write about Wonder Woman and everything. And I like lots of pop-culture. I love The Wire. I think Beyoncé is great. I'm not one of those high-culture Frankfurt School Marxist snobs who think jazz is undermining the revolutionary potential of the proletariat. Nor am I one of those high-culture conservative Allan Bloom types who think rock eats IQ points. I believe in cultural studies. I like Madonna. I think Charles Schulz is a greater artist than Saul Bellow and Salman Rushdie put together, or even multiplied.

The academies' enthusiastic embrace of pop was supposed to release us from the heel of elitist snobbery, but it just seems like it means that we have to kowtow even more abjectly to the flavor of the moment than we ever did to the canon.

But while I don't agree with the Frankfurt School or Allan Bloom, I do wonder if their utter marginalization has been entirely to the good. It's been a long while since a cultural arbiter of any standing has been willing to just flat-out dismiss pop culture, or to insist that massive popularity is inevitably linked to massive banality. Instead we seem to have reached the point—perhaps especially with the snootier television dramas—where popularity seems to confer critical bona fides, while critical bona fides feed into popularity, which in turn confers critical bona fides, in an ever-ascending spiral of adulation and hype.

It's natural that people talk about popular things, of course; that's what it means to be popular. But the death of academic pop-culture snobbery and the scrabble for Internet readers seems to have created a particularly vociferous and endless chorus of group think. Orwell was wrong: It's not Big Brother controlling your thoughts. It's millions of pundits chanting Don Draper's name, sacrificing slivers of everyone's brain to the hungry god of their own much-touted perspicacity. Cultural studies and the academies' enthusiastic embrace of pop was supposed to release us all from the grinding heel of elitist snobbery, but in the end it just seems like it means that we have to kowtow even more abjectly to the flavor of the moment than we ever did to the canon.

Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe things haven't changed that much. Perhaps this is what Beatles skeptics felt like during Beatlemania, or what Dickens skeptics felt like back in the day. There no doubt has always been something totalitarian about pop culture and its monomaniacal attention on this, this right here—whatever that this might be. At the moment it's Mad Men, and Game of Thrones. Next year it'll be something else, please God. In the meantime, I'll be sitting here contemplating Nora Olsen's Swans & Klons, a YA lesbian sci-fi novel that's one of the best piece of new fiction I've read in a long time, but which no mainstream publication will pay me to write about because it doesn't have a massive marketing budget and everybody else hasn't already written about it. Such is democracy.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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