In a recent New York Review of Books (Vol. LVIII, No.3), Daniel Mendelsohn gives Mad Men a run for their money.
The [show’s] writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the character-izations 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 (p. 4).
Mendelsohn then attempts to examine what it is about this show that, despite its poor quality, propels such outrageous popularity and enormous thirst for more. His answer is thoughtful - the craze is driven by offspring of Mad Men generation in their tender, yet misplaced, attempt to better understand their still obscure parents (even if that means watching a bad TV series).
Unfortunately for Mendelsohn, many of his readers disagree vehemently, and their responses are, according to him (Vol. LVIII, No.5., p. 41) marked by “the hysterical tone, intellectual sputter, and ad hominem vituperation.” It made me wish I could peek into his e-mail inbox to see what it contained (reconstructive psychoanalysis?). In any case, this was certainly not a response of tender introspective children, letting others nostalgically, and badly, reconstruct their parents’ generation.
A clue to Mad Men popularity is something that comes up in every discussion of the show, yet the very thing that Mendelsohn glosses over in his article – style. Of course, style is easy to dismiss when it evokes fads in hair-cuts or vests. But when one creates an outer arrangement that symbolically represents an inner truth, then we call it an art. The creators of Mad Men managed to capture, stylistically, something that we yearn for in modern life; something as simple and as necessary as embodiment. The protagonist’s face, tie, shoes, telephone, desk, glass and the ice in the glass, even his wife, mistress, and secretary (some of whom overlap), all have stylistic weight and precision that viewers can read existentially.
In the modern era of plastic desks, paper cups, and electronic everything, the Mad Men style is solid, grounded, hefty. It fulfills the same function as silence does in some French movies – removes the frills and offers presence, which viewers see as essence. The obsession with style, then, is not incidental, but central, to the show’s popularity. Actually, you can even try watching it on ‘mute’. You won’t miss much, yet oddly, you may still like it.
Of course, this is just my guess for Mad Men madness. I hope I have better luck than Mendelsohn.