This week, I did a bit of informal research into the widespread appeal of “Mad Men”, 5-season hit drama from AMC. As one of the biggest successes in recent television history, I wanted to know what draws the people I know into this world of selfishness, callousness, ignorance, and much-discussed misogyny. Those who responded were fairly diverse within a somewhat narrow slice of contemporary society but as far as ratings are concerned, they also represent the choicest slice.
You’d think that with all the hype and chatter that the discussion would revolve around a core set of points: Walter White on “Breaking Bad” is heartbreaking and amazing; Tony Soprano of “The Sopranos” is terrifying but a sweetheart; “Arrested Development” is all about the writing. That sort of thing. But for “Mad Men”, the responses were surprisingly vague.
This was not surprising in the way you expect the majority of people to be somewhat inarticulate when it comes to parsing their own emotions and intellectual processes (this was a very introspective, articulate group, as it happens). It was surprising in that the reasons given were not what one expects when discussing a hit show. There was mention of subtlety and an excruciating pace. There was talk of setting and tone. There was nostalgia. Many people mentioned that you really had to work for the enjoyment. But not one mention was there of engagement to the characters.
Wait, that’s not true. There was one person who “had empathy for [the lead] most when he was visiting his ex-wife/friend in California a couple seasons ago.” What gives here? One moment of connection to one character a couple of seasons ago?
Say those words to any network exec and you’ll be doing the cancellation shuffle faster than this cast of characters can knock back a mid-morning scotch.
When showrunners, writers, and execs spend so much time, energy, and budget on creating compelling characters and storylines, how did they arrive at a series that needed half of its pilot season to begin to open up? My research into this story conundrum is just beginning. I will be reading what’s been written over the past several years about this to learn more about what’s happening with our tastes in general these days. Links are appreciated. Thanks to all who offered their thoughts on the matter. I am grateful for your willingness to educate me.