An acquaintance of mine posted this question on Facebook last week: “Does anybody else find Mad Men‘s writing to be vapid, direction glacial, acting somnambulatory, and the cultural references boring?”
I asked my friend Swamp Rabbit if he’d like to respond, knowing he’d had plenty of time to watch TV while in rehab these past few months. “You jokin’ me?” he said. “I got a life, Odd Man. Got no time for TV.”
So I posted an answer of my own: Yes, I suspect most discerning viewers who followed Mad Men noticed that some of the plotting sagged and that many of writers’ references to the cultural milieu of the 1960s were laughably superficial.
So what? TV is a diversion. The most you can hope for in a TV series — in this case, a TV serial — is writing that’s good enough to occasionally generate scenes that illuminate the human condition. The same is true of most long novels. Viewers will encounter a lot of filler, no matter how good the writing, but they continue watching a serial for the same reason readers persevere with a long novel. They become emotionally invested. They stick around for the story-telling and, in particular, to witness how their favorite characters behave at critical moments.
I didn’t watch all of Mad Men, but I was a fan. The show had an unusually charismatic lead character — Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm — a quirky supporting cast, and a thoughtful head writer, Matthew Weiner, who focused on the world of commercial advertising to dramatize the socio-economic forces that metastasized into contemporary American culture, such as it is.
Weiner and his co-writers juggled a lot of sub-plots, some compelling and some not so much, and they seemed in early episodes of the final season to not know how to successfully resolve most of them. But give Weiner a lot of credit for how he handled what looked like the total crackup of his enigmatic anti-hero. In the final show’s final scene, Don Draper, after hitting bottom, is shown having an epiphany while chanting “Om” in a meditation group at some New Age-y spiritual retreat. His epiphany involves conceiving what will become a famously insipid TV commercial (circa 1971) that uses touchy-feely cliches to sell Coca-Cola, “the real thing.” Mad Men ends with the showing of the actual TV commercial.
I’d thought Don might kill himself or be killed in some sordid way, or maybe even find redemption in a good cause. Instead, he apparently is reborn as a sleazier version of his former self, selling a nutritionally empty icon of a spiritually bankrupt culture. The real thing.
Not bad for a TV show.