Karin and I started watching Mad Men last week. Not since The Wire have I jumped into a series that had years and years of hype, praise, and critical acclaim to live up to in my mind. All the smart people I know, family, friends and bloggers whose opinions I respect and admire have sung the praises of this show for 4 years. By all indications I am supposed to enjoy this show. So why am I having a hard time getting excited about the arrival of the second disk from Netflix?
I really wanted to like this show. I still do and I’ll give the next few episodes a shot to turn it around but I’m struggling to understand its appeal beyond its stunning look and set design. Enough so that I have spent more time than I should have over the last three or four days wondering why I feel this way. Enough so that I think I must be missing something that everyone else sees.
There are plenty of things to love about this show which is why I hope that something happens to change my opinions in the next few episodes. My biggest gripe is simple. I just don’t care about these characters.
The King stay the King.
In the first episode of HBO’s The Wire D’Angelo Barksdale explains the drug dealing operation he’s a part of to Wallace and Bodie, two low-level corner boys, using a chess set as an analogy. The scene is less than 5 minutes long and yet by its end the drama and tension for an entire season is laid out. More than that, even though we already know that D’Angelo was just released from prison and is now going back to work selling drugs, that he was flawed, this was a character we could root for. In one five-minute scene we learn that even the “bad guys”, the drug-dealers and gangsters could be the hero of the story as long as he is likeable. I’m three episodes into Mad Men and I don’t know who to root for and don’t understand why I should be rooting for anyone at all.
Enter Don Draper. The man’s man who drinks and smokes and sleeps with whoever he wants. An ad executive at a top NY agency. Suave and dapper, I just can’t figure out why I’m supposed to like this guy other than the fact that he’s so dreamy. I get it he’s handsome but shouldn’t the show’s hero have some sort of other redeeming quality? Should I like him for sleeping with anything that will let him, or because he wouldn’t even speak business with a woman until the prospect of a date and eventually sex became a possibility. Or maybe I should be rooting for him because he drank himself so drunk he missed his daughter’s birthday party. Perhaps in the next episode I find out about his inner demons and why he behaves this way. The struggle that makes him sympathetic. The heart of Don Draper. I propose that 3 episodes in is far too long to find that out. Three episodes in, he just seems like an asshole to me. Because gee-wilickers it must have been pretty hard to be a successful handsome white guy in the 1960’s.
The supporting cast doesn’t do anything for me either. Enter Draper’s weasely junior executive Pete who gets married in episode 2 but that doesn’t stop him from sleeping with the new secretary in episode 1. Yay, he’s an obnoxious jerk too. The blurb on the Netflix envelope refers to Don Draper’s fight to stay on top when the young guns come for his job but this guy’s made to look so inept that there’s really no threat to Draper there. No real tension at all. The rest of the ‘mad men’ are just the usual cast of fraternity brothers. They tell the off-color jokes and say yes to whatever Don Draper wants. It’s not that I hate all of these characters, it’s that I simply don’t care about them. The only sympathetic characters for me at all are Draper’s wife and daughter. Both of whom have just as limited and small a role in the show’s first three episodes as they seem to have in Draper’s life.
But hey there were women in the early 60’s too and they were either secretaries, or wives, with the exception of one powerful woman who runs a local store and in becoming a client becomes a sort of love interest for Draper. I sure hope those two can get together so Don can successfully cheat on his wife, again. Because even the powerful women in the 1960’s weren’t really good for anything but sex. Oh, and minorities, let’s not forget them. Why, of course there were minorities in the 1960’s because where else would the punch lines of any of the office jokes come from without them. I understand that the show depicts a different time where these thing were the norm but when heaped onto the writing without a counterpoint, without balance, without a heart, it just feels like revelling in misogyny and racism.
There are things I love about this show. I, like everyone I’ve heard speak of the show, absolutely love the set and costume design. Its attention to detail makes me assume it must be as historically accurate as it looks. There are images before and after commercial breaks, wide-angle photos of the street or the building, that are brilliant but the killer for me is the opening credits. From the bold graphics to the screeching theme song there is more intensity in those thirty seconds than there has been in any one episode. Are these things enough to carry a show? Between the Draper and store owner, and the new secretary with Pete, the only story lines I can see developing are the old-fashioned ‘who’s gonna sleep with who’. If that’s the case please tell me now so I don’t waste time on this show when I should be focusing on my General Hospital, and Desperate Housewives. It may not show but they care just as much about set design.
The advertising angle interests me quite a bit and I wish it were more focused. While the Draper and waiter discussion about cigarettes left me flat, the office discussions of the advertising process were great. More storylines about that and I’d be singing the show’s praises. But just like set design and costumes a four or five-minute scene about a Volkswagen ad is not going to sustain 40 minutes of boredom and indifference.
I fully expect to hear people who read this to tell me how wrong I am and how I’m missing how complex and worthwhile it all is. I don’t doubt that after 4 seasons there is plenty of subtext and plotlines to confuse and delight but shouldn’t I get at least some sense of that three hours into the story?
So let me hear it internets. What am I missing and why should I keep watching? I should be writing instead of watching TV anyway so your argument better be good. I’ll give it a few more episodes but I’m just not sure this show is for me. C’est la vie. I’ve still got 20 years of Doctor Who to catch up on so I’m not sweating it too much.