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.

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.

I'd argue that what makes the show so intriguing--and I've tested this theory with the twenty- and thirty-somethings who watch it almost as faithfully as I do--is that the 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. Most of the major figures gradually reveal enough about their lives to humanize them within the bounds of familiar behavior rather than rendering them off-the-wall. Take Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), who comes from a working class Brooklyn Catholic family. She evolves from a plain, though sexually adventurous, secretary into an accomplished advertising professional whose self-confidence and adroit office navigation is perhaps the most "instructive" role in the show for displaying how women in the workplace have shaped their personalities to changing standards.

Mendelsohn's appraisal of Mad Men as shallow and overwrought with occasionally sloppy plotting may well be true when the measurement is literal accuracy. But what he misses, with an earnestness that undermines his impact, is the combination of irony, dark humor, offensiveness, and poignancy that were also the main elements of The Sopranos, which Matthew Weiner, Mad Men's creator, was also instrumental in developing. I watched every episode of The Sopranos. James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, and many others were brilliant in their roles, and the Mob setting against family life in New Jersey was surely as dramatized as Mad Men's setting is. The difference is that The Sopranos represented an "exotic" panorama (so did The Wire), whereas Mad Men is close enough to the world of most of its viewers that we can recognize and identify with it rather than just accept it as entertainment.

I gather that Weiner and AMC are still haggling over the terms for season five. They'll probably reach agreement: more commercials on its initial showing, bigger paychecks for the stars, and maybe the first signs of fatigue with the concept. Whatever. Mendelsohn may not watch Mad Men when it returns, but I certainly will.