Fair enough: Mad Men has been on for a long time, and there was bound to be a backlash at some point. What’s interesting to me, though, is the form the backlash has taken. Over and over, people are saying: okay, we get it. The symbolism is heavy-handed. Parallel plots are too elaborately coordinated. Everything is becoming too simplistic. A recent manifestation of the backlash in the New Yorker has claimed that Don Draper is less a character than a “thesis statement.”
In other words, the show is being castigated for remaining true to its original vision and for continuing to explore the same themes it’s always focused on. And again, fair enough: people are allowed to get tired of things. Yet it seems to me that there’s always an underlying demand, an unspoken grievance motivating these complaints. “Yes, yes, we get it, we realize that Don Draper is a terrible fraud, a pure surface whose success is an indictment of the system he operates in — so can you please get back to plotlines that allow us to view him as a charismatic character with real depth?” “Yes, yes, we understand, the system is rigged so that do-nothing old white dudes continue to triumph over more talented young people and particularly women — so now that we’ve acknowledged that, can you give us a fantasy portrayal where Peggy is totally put in charage and succeeds brilliantly?” “Okay, God, we hear you, we know that the advertising milieu is so toxic that even an apparently innocent character is ultimately pulled into the self-centered scheming — but why did you have make Megan seem to be more or less a naturally good person at first and deprive us of the fantasy that everyone is always-already a backstabbing social climber?”
As Gerry Canavan said on Twitter yesterday, Mad Men, like other “high quality” shows, succeeds because its audience doesn’t understand it. They tune in for the suave Don Draper, and they resent being deprived of that fantasy — even though the entire work of the show has always, from day one, been to deprive us of that fantasy. They tune in looking for a soap opera filled with sexy people and elaborate sets (and “fan service” such as more screen time for Peggy or the triumphant return of Sal), and they resent that the show has a moral critique of the milieu it’s documenting. If you really “got it,” you’d either stop watching — or start watching the show differently. As it stands, the backlash seems to be driven by the fact that the show’s viewers simply don’t want to “get it.” And the fact of that paradoxical combination of addiction and resistence makes me wonder if Mad Men will turn out to be the most interesting and artistically successful example of the early 2000s “high quality cable drama” genre.