For more than 10 years, the intricate, multiseason narrative TV drama has exercised a dominant cultural sway over well-educated, well-off adults. Just as urbanish professionals in the 1950s could be counted on to collectively coo and argue over the latest Salinger short story, so that set in the 2000s has been most intellectually, emotionally, and aesthetically engaged not by fiction, the theater, or the cinema but by The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield, Big Love.
After watching videos of The Sopranos 13-hour first season, the film critic Vincent Canby discerned that this new genre—owing to its “cohesive dramatic arc,” the quality of its production values and ensemble performances, and the sophistication of its writing—amounted to a “megamovie” rather than merely a tarted-up TV miniseries. And he bestowed on it a fairly exalted pedigree, tracing it not just to Dennis Potter’s English production The Singing Detective (1986) and Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) but even to Erich von Stroheim’s lost silent masterpiece, the nine-and-a-half-hour Greed (1924).
Such claims were a tad much—as are, in a similar vein, The New York Times Virginia Heffernan’s avowals that The Sopranos premiere was “like the publication of Ulysses” and that the series “may have required more patience and effort from the lead characters than drama ever had, from Euripides to Artaud to Stoppard.” Still, the megamovies have warranted, and received, careful analysis—at least 20 books have taken on The Sopranos, and now we have Kings of Madison Avenue, by Jesse McLean, a companion volume to the megamovie of the moment, Mad Men, a series set in a New York advertising agency in the early 1960s. The book, at a well-padded 231 pages (complete with the inevitable cocktail recipes), is pretty slight, but its detailed, often observant exegeses of the first 26 episodes—and the release of the DVDs of the same, which include audio commentaries of every show and supplemental documentaries on the stylistic achievements and historical context of the series—prompt readers and viewers to undertake the considered appraisal that this deeply textured, painstakingly crafted drama deserves.
Video: Benjamin Schwarz deconstructs scenes from Mad Men that reveal Don Draper’s vulnerable side
Some elements of Mad Men’s appeal have been nicely explained by Charlie Rose (who can always be counted on to embrace the conventional wisdom) in that inimitably sycophantic, answering-his-own-question-that-isn’t-even-a-question way of his: “Why has this so resonated, especially with critics and people who like smart writing and tightly drawn characters?” he pronounced in an interview with the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, and two of its male stars, Jon Hamm and John Slattery. The writing—and the direction, photography, and (with one important exception) acting—is superlative, the show is dramatically compelling. Moreover, as Rose’s customarily reverential invocation of the critics suggests, not just Rose but also Mad Men’s affluent, with-it target audience are particularly susceptible to liking what TheNew York Times’ Arts and Style sections tell them to like (30-plus articles in two years!). Add to this the meticulous, lush styling and art direction, which make the series eye candy for its (again) target audience, already in thrall to the so-called mid-century-modern aesthetic—an appeal that’s now further fueled by the slimline suit/pencil skirt marketing tie-in with Banana Republic, that canny purveyor of upper-mass-market urbanity. Then there is the miraculous Hamm, playing the lead character, Don Draper. Here is an actor who at once projects sexual mastery and ironic intelligence, poise and vulnerability. That alchemy has created the greatest male stars, from Gable to Grant to Bogart to McQueen to Clooney, because it wins for them both the desire of women and the fondness of men. So the show’s white-hotness was all but predetermined.
Finally, there’s another factor, one that cuts both ways and thereby contributes to Mad Men’s inner tension: the peculiar emotional chord the show’s setting strikes with viewers over 30. Critics invariably discuss how the series echoes John Cheever’s stories, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road (a novel Weiner says he hadn’t read when he created the show). But for every audience member familiar with gin-soaked Shady Hill, there are dozens whose notions of the glamour of adult life, of Manhattan, and of “creative” careers were shaped by endless reruns of three sitcoms with concrete ties to Mad Men’s particular milieu: The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, and That Girl. The key to television success, Don Draper tosses off, is to offer “derivative with a twist.” Mad Men is those shows grown up, grown hard, and—in ways that flatter its writers’ and viewers’ images of themselves—grown wise.