Meanwhile, much like "The Wire".......... hardly anyone is watching "Mad Men." Don Draper and the rest of Sterling Cooper set personal best ratings for Sunday night's premiere with 2.8 million viewers. To put that number in perspective, twice as many people watched A RERUN of "How I Met Your Mother." Don't get me wrong, "How I Met Your Mother" is quite a legen (wait for it) dary show, but COME ON, PEOPLE.
I know not everyone gets AMC, even fewer get it in HD, there are a lot of people Tivo-ing the show as they catch up with the Season 1 and 2 DVDs, and sundry other reasons for the low ratings. But still: it hasn't been since... well, "The Wire" that a relatively sparsely watched show has received such massive attention.
"Mad Men" has gotten me thinking about all sorts of topics - the way it unfolds so luxuriously, the way it looks (which has been influential in everything from fashion to antiquing), the social issues, the lurking specter of the '60s cultural upheaval, and what is surely the best opening credits sequence in television history (a notable departure from "The Wire," which was arguably the worst title sequence in television history).
Iconic shows tend to "get" something about the times in which they're airing and tap straight into the cultural zeitgeist. "Dallas" became a hit just as a certain Western actor was about to move into the White House, and J.R. Ewing's barely disguised glee for financial greed was contemporaneous with Michael Milken and the savings and loan crisis. In the '90s, "Seinfeld," "Friends," and "Sex & the City" progressively reflected the rapid gentrification and "youthing" of America's cities.
"Mad Men" is still a ways off from being an iconic show, except among critics and the 2.8 million people who are apparently watching it. And yet there's something about the show that is really touching a cultural nerve, especially in the cities. It's telling that AMC particularly focused its advertising for "Mad Men" directly in New York City.
In some sense, the mere fact that "Mad Men" is so relatively unpopular and yet has such fanatical devotion among its core group of fans is already reflective of our time. We're living in an age when audiences for movies and TV shows are splintering further and further. Even without factoring for inflation, the highest grossing movie of all time came out twelve years ago. The most watched television event, in percentage terms, was twenty-six years ago.
But setting aside its cult status, I think what might be most appealing abut the show is the way in which the characters of "Mad Men" are living the still-relevant cultural upheavals that have left such a lasting impact nearly 50 years later (women in the work place, creeping but primitive awareness of racial issues, etc.) just as the characters remain blissfully unaware of the upheavals as they're living them.
One of the most scathing articles I've seen about "Mad Men" was in the London Review of Books last Fall (via The Elegant Variation), in which Mark Greif lamented that the show was "an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better." He writes:
"We watch and know better about male chauvinism, homophobia, anti-semitism, workplace harassment, housewives’ depression, nutrition and smoking. We wait for the show’s advertising men or their secretaries and wives to make another gaffe for us to snigger over. ‘Have we ever hired any Jews?’ – ‘Not on my watch.’ ‘Try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology; it looks complicated, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.’... We’re meant to save a little snort, too, for the ad agency’s closeted gay art director as he dismisses psychological research: ‘We’re supposed to believe that people are living one way, and secretly thinking the exact opposite? . . . Ridiculous!’ – a line delivered with a limp-wristed wave. Mad Men is currently said to be the best and ‘smartest’ show on American TV. We’re doomed."
Greif does spot the most cringe-inducing of the "wink winks" in the show's history. But if the whole point of the show were these winks and nudges... yeah. It would suck. Only: it's not, and it doesn't.
Firstly, I would argue that the "Now We Know Better" genre is much preferable the "It Wasn't So Bad Really" revisionist history genre where protagonists from racially and sexually awkward times are blessed with modern day awareness and sensitivity so that we can feel okay about them. As Ta-Nehesi Coates writes, the virtual omission of black characters in Mad Men perfectly reflects that world:
"I actually think it's a beautiful, lovely, incredibly powerful omission. Mad Men is a show told from the perspective of a particular world. The people in that world barely see black people. They're there all the time--Hollis in the elevator, women working in the powder-room, the Draper's maid, the janitors, the black guy hired at Leo Burnett--but they're never quite seen. I think this is an incredible statement on how privilege, at its most insidious, really works."
Also, in order for a "Now We Know Better" genre to work... don't we actually have to know better? What is most enjoyable about these moments of awkwardness on "Mad Men" isn't that they're closed cases but that the characters are dealing with issues that are still roiling our own times. It's not as if we've closed the book on anti-semitism, racism, sexism, and homophobia.
Tumultuous change is in the air in the offices of Sterling Cooper, and yet the characters are completely unselfconsciously unaware. Peggy Olson is just ambitious and competent, she does not self-consciously think of herself as a trailblazer in the workplace. Pete Campbell doesn't see himself as the last bastion of New York aristocracy. They don't sit around talking about how the times they are a-changin'. They're just people living their lives. That unselfawareness perfectly encapsulates how we are living through our own tumultuous time in the present: with no idea how everything is going to turn out.
What do you think? Does the Don Draper stare and the rest of "Mad Men" capture your imagination or does it leave you cold?