Nope, I don’t get it. I’ve watched five episodes of the madly praised Mad Men without coming any closer to understanding what the fuss is about. And this is all the time I’m going to waste on it: I won’t make the same mistake as with The Collection and spend hours on a TV show that I don’t enjoy in the vain hope that it will get any better, just because there’s some slight improvement after the first one or two episodes.
It may sound harsh, but though I understand that television can be considered an art form of sorts, it still has to entertain. Theoretically, I can buy that one could read a book in order to improve one’s soul rather than be entertained, though it’s hardly something I tend to do – I read for pleasure. The pleasure factor is even more important when it comes to TV, though. No-one is going to give you kudos for watching something on the gogglebox, however much it’s been hyped.
And my goodness has Mad Men been hyped; it’s supposed to be the height of high-quality drama. When Downton was still airing, this was the kind of show it was compared unfavourably to – and if we Downtonites felt like sharpening our knives, our hostility was hampered by the fact that Julian Fellowes watched and admired Mad Men, too.
So what did I find when watching it? The first two episodes were downright clumsy. In episode two, one of the ad men suggests to the new girl in the office that they should “go to the zoo and see what the animals are up to”. This is exactly how this show feels: going to the zoo that is the US in the late Fifties and early Sixties and see what the human animals are up to. Look, how they drink and smoke! And how the men tell sexist jokes, and make a pass at everything in a skirt, and how the women have to bear it, and then there’s the casual racism… Oh, shocking, shocking.
One politically incorrect reviewer praised Mad Men because he thought (or pretended to) that it depicted the ideal life: lots of guilt-free smoking and hot babes. This was disingenuous, though. We are clearly meant to tut-tut in our enlightened way about all that was going on, and so close to our own age too. At the end of the second episode, I felt quite depressed at the thought of having to continue with it, but I've heard it said that the series picks up after three episodes, so I persevered.
It did pick up a little bit, and spent more time exploring the characters and less pointing out what horrible times they lived in. The problem is that the characters aren’t that worth exploring. Never mind not igniting my passionate engagement, as my favourite TV dramas do (especially when an intelligent villain’s happiness is on the line): Mad Men doesn’t even spark the mildly benign interest I take in the characters in Game of Thrones. While I still don’t care a lot about the GoT crowd, I don’t mind spending time in their company. A few episodes into season three, I even find myself kind of “shipping” a possible, unlikely romance. But no character in Mad Men is interesting or likeable enough to give a fig about even for a moment – and the depressing thing is that I think it’s deliberate. The men are all jerks. Don Draper, the protagonist, is a little more pensive and tormented jerk than the others, but that’s it. The women – whether “liberated” or “conventional” – are ciphers. We see a lot of the action through the eyes of Peggy, the new secretary, but I have no idea why we should root for her especially. She doesn’t seem to be that smart, considering that she sleeps with the baby-faced jerk Pete Campbell at the end of the first episode. Her worldly-wise colleague Joan looks like a million dollars, but what personality does she have apart from being worldly-wise? Heck if I know.
Hype really is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, you might very well start watching a praised-to-the-skies series hoping you’ll dislike it, like I did with both Game of Thrones and Mad Men. On the other hand, you’ll most likely give it more time than you would a less well-known and less well-spoken-of series – because if even Julian Fellowes thinks it’s great, then there must be something to it, right?
Five episodes must be considered giving a series a fair trial, however. I could see how it could possibly make decent-enough, meditative post-gym viewing (not a lot happens in each episode) – not that I’ll continue with it even for that. But a subtle and sophisticated masterpiece? I think not.