The Problem with Mad Men

An enormously insightful review of Mad Men from Daniel Mendelsohn at the NYT Review of Books (read at: clusterflock).  Here’s an excerpt from the article, which is worth reading in it’s entirety that pinpoints his central issue with the show:

[T]he problem with Mad Men is that it suffers from a hypocrisy of its own. As the camera glides over Joan’s gigantic bust and hourglass hips, as it languorously follows the swirls of cigarette smoke toward the ceiling, as the clinking of ice in the glass of someone’s midday Canadian Club is lovingly enhanced, you can’t help thinking that the creators of this show are indulging in a kind of dramatic having your cake and eating it, too: even as it invites us to be shocked by what it’s showing us (a scene people love to talk about is one in which a hugely pregnant Betty lights up a cigarette in a car), it keeps eroticizing what it’s showing us, too. For a drama (or book, or whatever) to invite an audience to feel superior to a less enlightened era even as it teases the regressive urges behind the behaviors associated with that era strikes me as the worst possible offense that can be committed in a creative work set in the past: it’s simultaneously contemptuous and pandering. Here, it cripples the show’s ability to tell us anything of real substance about the world it depicts.

While I see this as an intelligent observation, I find myself asking, “is there a problem with being both contemptuous and pandering?”  My hunch, in this case, is no.  Especially, when you take into account that some of the show’s appeal comes from the fact that the characters are comically hypocritical.



  1. Sometimes I think people intentionally look for problems with Mad Men because they feel it’s critical acclaim has gone too far. Reviewers are getting desperate, clutching at straws. What the show does, it does extremely well, better than any other. If the makers were to compromise on the style at all it would be a different show. In my opinion it’s the greatest drama ever. Better than The Sopranos even, but only marginally. I’ve never read a Sopranos review in which the reviewer claims that there’s too much violence and cursing, which prevents the show from portraying drama, substance and tension to the optimum degree.

    TV is about escapism. There doesn’t always have to be 100% substance complimented by moral fortitude. Why can’t people take the show for what it is; an amazing piece of drama.

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