i Need Media
The brilliant mundanity of Mad Men
By Matthew Singer 04/18/2013
Mad Men is the best show on television in which, from week to week, nothing much happens. I’m not saying it’s a program devoid of drama. This past week’s episode — the third of the sixth season — was quite eventful. But the show’s draw has never been pulse-pounding, armchair-gripping tension like, say, Breaking Bad or The Sopranos or The Wire. Its appeal is in the trancelike quality of watching lives unfold. To paraphrase the final paragraph of Richard Hell’s new autobiography, Mad Men doesn’t pass through time. Time passes through Mad Men.
So basically, it’s like a live-action, 1960s-set version of The Sims.
It took me a while to realize this. Up until last year, around the time the fifth season aired on AMC, I rejected allowing Don Draper and company into my life. I presumed the reason everyone loved the show was the vintage clothing, mostly because the people I knew who loved Mad Men the most were neo-burlesque dancers yearning to live in a time other than the present. I somewhat begrudgingly gave myself over to catching up on the show, and for much of the first season it took some willpower on my part to keep up with it. I didn’t find any characters particularly engaging, and those initial episodes seemed dedicated exclusively to sledgehammering home the idea that, gee, the early ’60s sure were a shitty time to be anything other than a white male.
I can’t pinpoint the moment when Mad Men became a show I watched out of something greater than mere cultural obligation. To be honest, the first time I came away from an episode thinking, “Wow, that was pretty great” wasn’t until nearly the end of season five, when Peggy quit Sterling Cooper Draper Price and stepped onto the elevator to the opening chords of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.” Even now, I can’t say how I feel about any of the characters — a testament to the nuanced writing, but also to how gradually the show’s low-key temperament has eased me into its world. I’m like David Byrne in “Once in a Lifetime,” suddenly becoming aware of my reality and having no idea how I got there.
And yet, here I am. I’m watching Mad Men in real-time for the first time. Or, rather, I’m living it in real time. For all the infidelity and corporate ladder-climbing and existential dread, I don’t feel like it’s any less mundane than my own life. And, like The Sims, that’s what makes it great entertainment. I’m able to live outside myself and simultaneously see myself reflected in people who don’t actually exist for an hour each week. The episode descriptions in the cable guide each week are hilariously banal — stuff like “Peggy takes a trip” or “Don entertains a client” — as are the vague, misleading previews for the upcoming episodes that pop up under the credits. They tell you nothing about what you’re about to see. But, like Mad Men itself, they actually tell you everything.
I Need Media is a biweekly media column by Matthew Singer. Follow him on Twitter@mpsinger.