“Its main theme is change,” the “Mad Men” set decorator said to an NPR interviewer.
Now that the third season is underway, I am confident that this was a flat-out lie—maybe one that the show’s producers believe, too, but a lie anyway, since nothing ever happens on “Mad Men.” If “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is a comedy without jokes, “Mad Men” is a drama without a plot. What happened in seasons one and two? Not a whole lot—barely enough, in fact, to be condensed into the “previously on ‘Mad Men’” montage aired right before the first episode of season three.
Here is some dialogue from those scenes:
”I want you to be my wife.”
“Just don’t come home.”
“I had your baby… and I gave it away.”
Are you sensing a pattern here? This is the same kind of crap that sustains telenovelas and soap operas. “Mad Men” traffics exclusively in well-worn tropes and banalities. It is even less about advertising than “The Big Lebowski” is about bowling. Its subjects are love, adultery, working, and children. Its themes are trite. Its pacing is lethargic.
And nobody seems to mind.
Why? I think it has everything to do with the target demographic. The average “Mad Men” viewer considers himself above typical prime-time fare. He is at work when the re-runs of “General Hospital” are on. He objects to the notion of TV in general. He also abhors lowbrow conventionality, with its bad dialogue, outlandish scenarios, and demand of total passivity.
So he loves “Mad Men.” He loves its fine writing, its meticulous historicity, and its sumptuous sets. And because plot is all that matters for a typical TV drama, he likes that there isn’t one. He is the same mensch in your Literature Humanities class who, during “To The Lighthouse,” exclaimed, “Plot is the least important aspect of a book.”
None of this would matter if “Mad Men” didn’t have the potential to be a great show. But it does. With such a relevant subject, you’d think the writers would use it to their advantage. After all, advertising is compelling stuff—it permeates our present consciousness and dictates our future media. I had a professor who viewed history as a series of information revolutions, and what better topic to put at the center of this than advertising?
The forces were revolutionary, and the possible subjects were inexhaustible. And yet the writers, who pen flawless sentences about nothing, are content to make Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) the head of the television department and leave it at that. And the critics rave. But defining yourself in opposition to an ethos is not the same as having an ethos. “Mad Men” has little character beyond the wood-paneled offices, bottles of whiskey, and silhouettes smoking cigarettes. Without a plot, it turns into the kind of period piece that’s contained within its era instead of vice versa, and it falls prey to the same superficiality it wants to float above.