Return of the Gray Flannel TV Ego

With the premiere of its fifth season imminent, Mad Men is trending hard. Everywhere in the mediasphere, you’ll hear that the return of Matthew Weiner’s dramatic series about the social and professional doings of 1960s advertising pros in New York City is a Cultural Event of Unquestionable Importance.

Mad Men, like The Sopranos and The Wire before it, now enjoys a singular cultural status. Neither pop nor art, it is smart TV. And smart TV, we’re told, is not for analysis or even entertainment; it is to be dutifully let into our lives, much as we’re meant to bring in the newspaper every morning.

Smart TV is a unique kind of aesthetic non-entity, but even non-entities have to come from somewhere. Mad Men’s creator Matthew Weiner, like HBO’s three Davids (Chase, Simon, and Milch of The Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood respectively), has a media profile that mixes elements of many leadership archetypes–he’s part film director, part producer, part CEO. Because they preside over a vast creative apparatus rather than yoking themselves to any particular aspect of production, Weiner and his fellow smart showrunners are presumed by journalists to be above the unfortunate susceptibilities that plague the individual artist.

As part of this post-auteur framework, the protagonists of smart TV shows are usually distorted extensions of their creators. Mad Men’s Don Draper often makes pronouncements that have no precedent in the early-1960s mainstream but could easily fit into contemporary liberal-bourgeois conversation (e.g., “You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts, but I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.”).

In Draper/Weiner’s case, Mad Men’s benighted ‘60s perspective lends a transgressive thrill to these sorts of sentiments. For certain viewers, there’s perfect perversity in a character embodying chauvinism and capitalism who carries on about the meaninglessness of existence like a dweeb from a recent Woody Allen film. Someone of a New York Magazine mindset might ask with fascination, How’d a guy like that come by such deep thoughts?

Don Draper and his predecessors Tony Soprano and Deadwood’s Al Swearengen don’t reflect real people or raise hard questions like great characters are supposed to; they’re merely puffs of choking smoke released by the backfiring of the American liberal-bourgeois imagination. In the absence of empathy for the ethnic, conservative Other, Weiner and the Davids were forced to build their characterizations using nothing but uncomprehending identification and projection.

Class politics are central to both the phenomenon of smart TV and its aesthetic failures, which is why critic Daniel Mendelsohn’s 2011 consensus-breaking critique of Mad Men in The New York Review of Books doesn’t quite make the grade. Mendelsohn wrote, “[T]he show is melodramatic rather than dramatic. By this I mean that it proceeds, for the most part, like a soap opera.” Both melodrama and soap opera open doors of emotional expression that Mad Men pointedly slams shut. Neither term is classy or unsophisticated enough to suit the show’s accuracy-obsessed production design (too literal-minded to be called fetishistic) and the draggy pace of each episode.

Yet the show’s undeniable watercooler factor points to possibilities Mad Men itself could never realize. Its product tie-ins and pop culture impact indicate that despite Weiner’s best efforts to infuse 1960s glamour with dark sociopolitical undercurrents, viewers are spitting out his serious political point-making and savoring the surfaces. And it is only on the surface that Mad Men is (sometimes) tolerable. Curvy Christina Hendricks certainly seems capable of subverting current beauty standards…until she opens her mouth and that stilted, overcerebrated dialogue comes spewing out like tickertape.

I think the success of Mad Men has much to do with its audience’s glamour starvation, their neglected need for a rich cultural life. Don Draper’s conference-room reveries about brands are like cynical, collapsed versions of cultural criticism, a debased semiotics. While Mad Men’s production team issues assurances as to the period accuracy of the stuff in the show, the audience waits patiently for the resurrection of the sign.

Mad Men (Fifth Season) premieres on American Movie Classics Sunday, March 25