Mad Men Fans Are Unappeasable Destroyers of Joy

by Tim Cavanaugh
With two years left, cable aces have turned on the critical favorite.

Fans of AMC’s Mad Men have either abandoned the show or never existed in the first place, according to disappointing reports on the debut episode of the period soap opera’s penultimate half-season.

“A show whose most sociologically interesting fact is its overratedness,” huffs Marc Tracy of The New Republic.

“I felt disengaged when the episode ended,” sighs the Daily Beast’s Andrew Romano, “like I’d just watched a bunch of people treading water.”

Other fans dismissed the critical and awards favorite as “out of ideas” and compared watching Mad Men to “refusing to break up with a girl because you don’t want to admit the last couple of years were a mistake.”

More worrying than the fans’ unkind words is the possibility that the fans, in a profound statistical sense, never existed. Mad Men has never scored even big-for-AMC ratings, and Sunday’s premier bowed to a mere 2.3 million viewers. Astoundingly, that is fewer than half the number of people who turned out for a show viewers have to pay a premium to see: HBO’s Game of Thrones. Mad Men also stands accused of having lost its social status.

The desertion of television fans in the final days of a series’ existence is now a familiar drama with well established dynamics. Disenchanted viewing partners watch for irritable gestures, clumsy touches, and other signals that the moment has come to jilt before being jilted: before the screen cuts to black in the middle of a boring diner scene after viewers learned that some or all of the characters were actually in Purgatory after some point in the storyline, and the mother mentioned in the title died, and also it was all a dream.

It’s hard to imagine all this tsouris in an entertainment environment where television still worked for you rather than the other way around. TV shows have been going off the air for more than half a century, sometimes without warning, sometimes with maudlin self-celebrations, sometimes with clumsy set-ups for spinoff series. Even Three’s Company, the Aristotelian model of throwaway small-screen entertainment, treated die-hards to a farewell two-parter which seemed to take place in a science fiction universe where John Ritter and Joyce DeWitt and Priscilla Barnes (the show’s third blonde by that point) became Ibsenesque characters with deep emotional cores; yet — in a last gesture of the kind of meretriciousness Reagan-era viewers tolerated, even enjoyed — which also managed to set up the debut of the replacement series Three’s a Crowd.

Nor is it even new to Western culture that masterworks sometimes go on after the spark has died. If you don’t believe me, read Homer’s Odyssey afresh and note how much of that epic tells not of the travels or homecoming of Ulysses but of his talks on reparations with the families of the slain suitors.

The most lamentable thing about the rise of prestige television used to be that all these shows with vast “story arcs” and elaborate writerly conceits had numbed viewers’ appreciation for the glories of laugh-tracked, no-commitment television that made crowd-pleasing its highest goal. It’s understandable that after binging (yet never purging, why never purging?) on full seasons of House of Thrones and Breaking Dead you might miss the great skill and wit and patience embedded in a good episode of Sanford and Son.

But apparently now even Mad Men isn’t good enough for TV snobs. That there should be such a thing as a “penultimate half-season” is a pretty good indication that something’s gone too far. Fancypants television has built itself a tomb in which just entertaining people with funny lines, interesting scenes and beautiful images is not enough.

Mad Men’s half-season opener featured plenty of fun for this viewer. Canadian national treasure Jessica Paré got out of a convertible wearing a fluffy powder blue miniskirt in the shimmering Los Angeles sunshine. There was a pleasing “Where’s Don?” buildup catching the viewer up with old and new characters. (For this viewer at least, the real question that drives Mad Men is “Where’s Cooper?” But show-business legend Robert Morse appeared only by name in the opening credits.) Intriguingly, Paré’s character Megan, who has already been seen wearing a Sharon Tate t-shirt, now lives in an eerily remote Alpine-style house in the hills above L.A.; and the show, in its nicely leisurely way, eventually lets on that the timeline is now at the beginning of 1969.

In short, I don’t know what the bellyaching is all about, unless it be the very Mad Men--worthy predicament that people who haven’t got a damn thing to complain about are still dissatisfied. This is the kind of unhappiness that rules when you charge a television show with the duty “to probe the mythology of what we think of as the American dream.”

Who says stuff like that? Maybe it’s another compliment to Mad Men’s artful period design that people actually expect it to shed artistic light on the actual world of upper-class media professionals in the 1960s. This is a recommendation I never thought I’d make, but maybe people should be reading more of the writings of John Cheever and Richard Yates.

Or actually, make it easy on yourselves and just watch the first season of Bewitched in reruns.

— Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.