Why I Don’t Like “Mad Men”

For some reason, I feel compelled to explain.

worldshowcaseitaly.jpg
I’ve already documented the horrible destructive powers I have over popular entertainment. I can bring about the end — not just abrupt cancellation, but slow, painful decline — of bands, TV series, and movie or book series just by liking them. To date I’m responsible for the break ups of The Pogues, the Pixies, and Soul Coughing, as well as the downfall of “Alias” and “Battlestar Galactica.” I suspect I had something to do with “Lost”‘s weak second season as well. So it was with some trepidation that I recently started to watch the first season of “Mad Men”, after hearing people rave about it for the past few years.

It turns out that I didn’t need to worry, because I watched the first three episodes last night, and I just can’t get into it. Now, fans of the show should be thrilled, since I’ve just guaranteed it’ll run as long as “Desperate Housewives,” “Gray’s Anatomy,” “American Idol,” and “Survivor,” just to name a few other long-running series that have managed to avoid my Galactus-like gaze. But you can’t tell someone “I don’t like that thing you’re a fan of” without its coming across as a challenge or an insult, so I feel obliged to explain.

I don’t care about any of the characters
The first episode is very well-structured, so by the end of it I felt that I knew what the situation was and what all the characters were about. I just didn’t care at all about what happened to them. Contrast it with “The Sopranos,” another series about a bunch of deeply flawed characters with no obvious “good guy:” I could see what the characters’ problems were, but I was intrigued about how deep the problems went and how they were going to resolve them. And I gave up on that series when the characters became more annoying than intriguing; why watch a show about people who just keep doing stupid or downright awful things and never learn from them?

Hello, My Name Is Sexually Manipulative Office Woman
Just after the first 45 minutes, I could make a fairly reasonable prediction of what each character’s story arc was going to be — and after checking out the Wikipedia version, I could see that my predictions were depressingly accurate. (To be fair, there’s been a good bit of cultural diffusion going on as well; even without watching a show this popular, I knew going in that infidelities and secret identities and babies were going to come into play, and that one of the characters grows a beard).

It’s not as bad as something like American Beauty, where each of the characters seems to be a cliche whose depth turns out to be a different but just as shallow cliche. But the characters still have their one note that they keep hitting, from Painfully Good-Looking Ad Exec Who’s Conflicted And Has a Mysterious Past, to Mousy Girl From the Steno Pool Who Doesn’t Want to Be Limited In Her Life Choices Just Because She’s a Woman, to Young Asshole and Closeted Gay Guy.

The Epcot Effect
Disney parks, especially Epcot Center, are my ideal vacation, but whenever I mention this to anyone I get the reaction “I’d rather go some place real.” I can see where they’re coming from, and the reasons I disagree would fill a whole other post. But I get the same feeling from “Mad Men.” The set design, costumes, and music choices are all just about perfect. But it’s not as if the 60s aren’t well-documented. If I want to watch a show about ad men in the 60s, why don’t I just watch “Bewitched”? If I want to see demeaning attitudes towards women, why not “I Dream of Jeannie?” If I want to see excessive smoking, there’s “The Twilight Zone.”

At least in those series, you get a better idea of what people really put an emphasis on. “Mad Men” feels to me like everything incidental about the 60s crammed together and made the focus. The pavilions in Epcot’s World Showcase aren’t really the countries, they’re the first thing that someone in America thinks of when he thinks of those countries, all crammed together in one small place. And “Mad Men” isn’t really the 60s, it’s how people in 2007 imagine the 60s: “hmm, people were sexist and racist and smoked a lot, and the clothes and the cars were really cool.”

Did I mention I’m casually racist?
And I don’t want to imply that the series is all just about the incidental stuff — clothes and cars and architecture and cigarettes. But when they deal with the deeper aspects of America in the 60s, it’s given the same treatment. Scenes feel to me like a TV biopic, where the screenwriter is desperately trying to cram a chapter’s worth of thematic material into one scene. The end result is that the ideas that would have resonated with me if they’d been mentioned casually or incidentally, I instead feel like I’ve been bludgeoned with. The characters don’t just smoke; the plot of the pilot episode is about selling cigarettes while knowing about the health risks. A woman can’t just be subtly reminded of the double standard of sexual promiscuity between men and woman; we have to see a Cronenberg-like scene with a leering gynecologist whose every single line of dialogue repeats the point. Closeted Gay Guy is completely established as such in his first scene, but we still have to see him in a strip club leering at other men in case anybody didn’t catch on. Again, kudos to them for not going with the most obvious cliches, but I still felt myself, in scene after scene, yelling at the screen “OKAY YES I GET IT LET’S MOVE ON.”

I’m still a 14-year-old boy in a 38-year-old man’s body
And yeah, it’s got to be acknowledged: I like plot-heavy stuff, and have never been a big fan of character studies. I’ve jokingly said that a show’s got to have robots, spaceships, time travel, or magic to hold my interest (and Tony Soprano’s dreams were just supernatural enough to keep me occupied), but what I really want is something that keeps everything moving. Again, all of the stuff in the first few episodes of “Mad Men” felt like incidental stuff made focus: these characters’ quirks might interest me if they were doing something more interesting than being 60s people.

So I can definitely understand what other people see in the series. Like I said, the music and the costumes and the production design are just outstanding. And I’ll gladly watch an hour of “The Clone Wars” no matter how weak the story, just as an excuse to see cool sets and costumes. (And a huge part of why “Lost” is such a big deal for me is that whole early 70s aesthetic that they get just right). There’s just not much else there for someone like me. So all of you “Mad Men” fans can breathe a sigh of relief; it’s probably going to run for a decade at least.

27 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Like “Mad Men””

  1. Sorry, but you’re just so wrong on so many levels. But the main thing is you can’t make these blanket judgments about the show based on three episodes. One of the best things about the first season for me, (and I was kind of bored with it until about episode five), was it never did what I thought it was going to do. It was the only show on TV that WASN’T completely predictable. At least until one big plot development at the end of the first season that I really hoped they wouldn’t go ahead with, but did. But I was even able to forgive that because come the second season, they didn’t do with that story what most shows would do, either.

    Anyway. It’s the best drama on TV, and you’re wrong about it.

  2. I love how I can do an entire page of qualifications and still get a response like that. No, “sorry,” but I’m not wrong in saying that I don’t like a damn television show. Especially when I take pains to say that I could appreciate other people liking it. If I’d said it was “wrong” to like it, that would make me an asshole.

    And I sure as hell can make blanket judgments about a show based on three episodes. If I watch something for three hours and don’t like it, I’d be an idiot to keep watching just based on somebody else’s assurance that it gets better. I gave it more than enough chance and it failed to interest me. I don’t have the patience to wait for it to get good, and I don’t have the patience to hear any bullshit about “blanket judgments” and being “wrong” for having a fucking opinion.

  3. Sheesh. As much as you think you’re right for not liking it, I can think you’re wrong for not liking it. That’s my opinion of your opinion. Of course you’re not wrong for having an opinion, but I think you are basing that opinion on untruths about the show.

    I think the blanket statements you are making about the show are wrong, because I had some of the same assumptions when I first began watching it. I thought a lot of it was painfully obvious and overplayed–all the smoking and sexism, to name two things. But it was like they wanted to overplay that hand at first, so they could get it out of the way, and then proceeded to make a show that was very subtle, nuanced, and unpredictable. I stuck with the show because the actors and the sets are pretty; that was enough to keep me watching. And I’m really glad I did.

    I don’t think you’d be an idiot to keep watching something just because someone says it gets better. Didn’t you say you didn’t really like “The Might Boosh” at first, but then kept watching anyway, and then it became one of your favorite things ever? Some entertainment DOES get better than its beginnings may suggest.

    So much of what you write is so negative about the show, aside from saying you think the sets, costumes, and music are good, that as a fan, I can’t help but take some offense from it, especially when it’s coming from someone who has only seen a very small part it. So, yeah, that’s my opinion of your opinion. Don’t tell me you haven’t at some point read someone’s negative opinion about something you really love, and come away from it thinking they’ve got it all wrong.

  4. I read opinions about things that I love that I disagree with all the time. But two things: First, I don’t take it personally, unless it’s about something I worked on, and even then I try to keep the taking-it-personally to a minimum. If I “couldn’t help but take offense” any time somebody disagreed with my opinion, or even insulted something I really loved — which I did not do here — then I wouldn’t have any friends.

    Second, when I do feel consumed enough with nerdrage that I just have to respond, which happens more often than it should, then I show the other person the courtesy of saying “I disagree” instead of saying “You’re wrong.” And that’s the part that pisses me off, when I go out of my way to be respectful of other people’s opinions and they won’t do me the same courtesy. If someone wants to get into a discussion of the merits of the show, that’s what the comments section if not the whole blog is for. If somebody just wants to contradict me and tell me I’m wrong and have no business stating my opinion because I only spent three hours on it, that’s where I get to be the one to say sheesh.

    Did I call this “Why ‘Mad Men’ Sucks And The People Who Like It Are Stupid?” Nope. Did I say there was no redeeming value in the series? Nope. Did I say that my problems with the show were objectively true and my personal taste in TV had no bearing on it? Nope. What I said is that what I saw was unsubtle and repetitive and didn’t interest me, but I could see how people who liked the art direction and music would be willing to stick around and keep watching it. What an asshole I must be, making blanket statements like that.

  5. I don’t think I ever implied you’re an asshole, or that you shouldn’t state your opinion. I just said that opinion is based on what I think are wrong assumptions about the show, which were founded on a limited exposure to it.

    A lot of the time when you rip into something I love, I do take it personally. That’s obviously my problem, and something I should work on. But it’s also something that only happens when I read reviews by people I know. It doesn’t happen with every critic and blogger I read. And I think it happens particularly when I read your stuff because you’re very good at knocking things down; very cutting. Most of the time I don’t bother replying because I’m just not as good at articulating my counter-arguments.

    And this whole thing just proves that point. So, I’ll learn to keep my fingers away from the keys next time.

  6. Well, I definitely don’t want that. If people don’t respond on here then it’s just a big poorly-edited echo chamber. And I’d rather be hearing from people like you, whose opinion I respect.

    And I definitely don’t want to be the guy who shits all over something people love, either. I try hard as I can not to be the “this absolutely sucks and has no redeeming value and the creator’s an idiot” guy for anything other than The Wicker Man. I’ve got enough experience having stuff I’m absolutely loony for get dismissed or ignored, that I no doubt over-react when I suspect my opinion’s getting dismissed. The funny thing is that I’d included a whole paragraph about how this wasn’t like “Family Guy” or “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia”, shows that are objectively bad and that no one should like, both because I thought it was overkill and because it was too mean-spirited.

    But this should be a joyous occasion: “Mad Men” is safe. But now I’m not just too lazy to watch all those episodes of “The Wire” I got gifted; I’m scared to.

  7. Finally. I hear ya Chuck. I tried five episodes and it didn’t take. Now, I’m the first guy to tell you that I’ve recommended shows where I’ve said, “give it 2 episodes”. However, if something hasn’t grabbed me by *five* episodes, why should I waste my valuable time, and life trying to like it.

    I don’t doubt fans of the show love it. And, it very well may be great after five episodes. The near five hours of story I’ve watched, failed. I don’t think I owe them any more effort.

    But it’s just a tv show folks. So many things factor into why we like something, and I think a great deal of it is your current mood (well, for me). Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood?

  8. That’s kind of what I was saying a while back: we’re at a point of media saturation now, so it’s not a case of separating the good from the bad anymore. You’ve got to be able to pick out of the good stuff. And if the core idea isn’t something you’re already interested in, then there’s not much point in waiting for it to magically turn into something you love.

    And stuff can work without being perfect, too. I wrote a whole treatise on my problems with the Batman game, and it’s still easily my favorite game of the year and I loved it enough to finish playing through & go back for extras. I heard from plenty of people who hated it and stopped playing for stuff that didn’t bug me, and plenty of people who weren’t interested just because it was a Batman game. No harm done either way.

  9. Chuck,

    I’m telling you, man, you should give “The Wire” a chance. If nothing else, I would love to read a post titled “Why ‘The Wire’ Sucks And The People Who Like It Are Stupid.”

    In Mad Men’s defense, it has one problem that “The Wire” didn’t have: Weiner wrote the pilot years before he was able to write anything else, (and shot the pilot long before the show got picked up) and hadn’t figured out where the show was going in any detail, so in the first episodes, they’re still figuring out the tone (and the characters, for that matter). “The Wire” also starts slow, but Simon sold HBO an outline for the entire season–it was thought of as more of a long miniseries from the very beginning. Weak early episodes are less noticeable with shows that don’t have that kind of continuity (e.g., “30 Rock” or “The Simpsons,” both of which took a while to get rolling).

    I have one bone to pick with your essay; you wrote, “Why watch a show about people who just keep doing stupid or downright awful things and never learn from them?” To which I reply, “Arrested Development,” “Arrested Development,” and “Arrested Development.”

  10. I saw the whole first season during a Sunday marathon and had the same initial reaction. Since I didn’t know any of the characters yet, the whole production design and cool detachment seemed very off putting. I stayed with it and and about three or four episodes in gradually became engaged with the characters. After subsequently getting Collette hooked and watching the whole series with her, it’s hard for us to imagine waiting half a year for the next season to start.

    But I get what you’re saying. I never took the time to try and connect to “Lost”. Every time see a commercial for it where a muddy character screams “We’re all gonna’ DIIIE!” I roll my eyes. But if I had invested in it from the start maybe it would have grown on me. Maybe it’s like having kids, you can stand being around your own cause you watched ’em grow up.

  11. To which I reply, “Arrested Development,” “Arrested Development,” and “Arrested Development.”

    Point taken. Change that to: “Why watch a show about people who just keep doing stupid or downright awful things and never learn from them, unless there’s the potential to see them do the chicken dance?

    I never took the time to try and connect to “Lost”. Every time see a commercial for it where a muddy character screams “We’re all gonna’ DIIIE!” I roll my eyes. But if I had invested in it from the start maybe it would have grown on me.

    Coming in late to the party is some of it, I’m sure. Also, there’s just a question of how much you’ve bought into the main concept. For “Lost,” they were throwing guys into jet engines and polar bears in the jungle and a numbers station all in the first two hours. I didn’t have the option not to be hooked. By the time they got to 70s bunkers with film strips hidden in books detailing secret experiments in electromagnetism, that was just gravy.

  12. But you like Epcot for the same reasons you don’t like Mad Men.

    Actually I wouldn’t say that. One of the reasons I like Epcot (and Animal Kingdom, for that matter) is that it presents an idealized version of each of the countries, not just a simplified one. So you get little hints of Parisian architecture and food, but the people are friendly. Or the coolest aspects of Japanese culture, but you can understand what people are saying. Or the folklore of Norway, but it’s actually interesting.

    What I saw of “Mad Men” was more like trying to cram all aspects of a time period into too small a space. The idealized stuff about the 60s like clothes and architecture and cars are the hook, same as Disney, but they’re a drama, so they have to make a stab at depth. And while the depth may well be there later on, it wasn’t there in the three hours I was willing to devote to it.

    It’d be kind of like if Disney did a “Medieval Times” park, where instead of just focusing on castles and knights and jousts and such, they made you work in a stable, and gave you the plague, and gave everyone bad teeth and reminded you that they’d all be dead by the age of 40. And when you get to see the king’s court, it wouldn’t be a big coronation ceremony or feast, but the king beheading his wife because she couldn’t bear him a son.

  13. I’ll second that motion on ‘The Wire’. Certainly not an ‘uplifting’ show, but damn…just packed with a meaningful story, and great drama. That is one that I’m sad that’s gone, but happy as well, because it did exactly what it needed to do.

  14. I’ll second that motion on ‘The Wire’. Certainly not an ‘uplifting’ show, but damn…just packed with a meaningful story, and great drama.

    No worries on that one. One of the commenters on here has guaranteed I’ll end up watching the first season eventually via iTunes and guilt.

  15. I like what you say about the show Chuck – I did an internet search to see if anyone else out there didn’t like Mad Men – and was interested to read your comments – which I broadly agree with. I also think there is something quite bullying about the episodes. Women often end up as victims/crying etc. Ok, the show could be just dramatising how bad it could be for Women in the workplace during the early sixties – or it could be adding to this, by often showing women as victims – I know a number of the episodes are written by Women – but I think that that is irrelevant really.

    But … I do still watch it – something to do with the pretty colours or not having the courage of my convictions

  16. I actually just saw this site after doing a search “Mad Men Sucks”. I just watched the first season. I was recently in an advertising class in an MBA program and became curious because my professor and other students thought the show was “the bomb.”

    Yeah, it’s the bomb if you are a man who has not matured and wish for a fantasty life of doing whatever the hell you want and if you are a man with no ethics and morality in life.

    Yeah, it’s the bomb if you are a head case of a woman who will take love anywhere you can get it, i.e., a married man or a woman who thinks she needs to have sex to move up in the world.

    I seriously drank a few drinks and smoked an entire pack of cigarettes trying to figure out why the hell it won so many awards. Our society surly has not grown in any way if we are applauding a bunch of screwed up people who are so narcissistic, desperate, unethical and down right pathetic. These are not role models, these are messed up people who need their asses kicked. I was so angry and depressed after getting through the first season because it was more of a reminder of how I feel there is no hope for good people like me and/or good women like me in this world, and the realization that it is only getting worse. I won’t even get into how the show reaffirms how the world still thinks of women behind closed doors.

    As far as the advertising aspect. There is nothing there. Just a bunch of scenes where Don Draper saves the day by thinking a bit differently than everyone else. Big deal! There is so much more to advertising and the show doesn’t even touch on any of it. I just love when Draper has loyalt to a client when he hasn’t a loyal bone in his body otherwise. What a loser.

    All in all, I feel the show is a worthless piece of ____ that should be banned from television along with all the other stupid reality shows and shows that have no positive influence or that have no morals, ethics and intelligence.

    Too bad we cannot have more shows like LOST. That show was intelligent, meaningful, and brilliantly written. Unless of course you were only into the mystery and believe in nothing. I am sure those people were a bit disappointed.

    As for Mad Men, I am not a violent person, but part of me hopes that the man falling from the building in the beginning credits is a foreshadowing of the ending of this piece of crap series.

  17. I, too, found this page by Googling “Mad Men sucks” and I completely agree with your assessment. And count me in on the LOST love. The question is, what will I watch now that Mad Men didn’t pan out?

  18. I got to this page by googling “Mad Men sucks”. I’m mostly through season one and I don’t like it either, for precisely the same reasons you elaborated on. Well said, and I’m glad I’m not the only one.

  19. /Agreed

    “Mad Men” is more overrated than AMC’s other pseudo-hit “Breaking Bad.” In reality, in an era when “Glee” is considered a cultural masterpiece, anything resembling a thought-provoking show is immediately praised. But the truth is “Mad Men” sucks, and ten years from now no one will remember it.

  20. Mad Men is male fantasy, period. It pretends to be poo-pooing how narrow-minded and bigoted everyone was back in the bad old days, but then it forces us to ogle Amazonian pin-up secretaries and watch women, blacks, and Jews be either “put in their place” or tokenized over and over. Don Draper is obviously presented like an Everyman for male audience members to identify with. He’s always laying the smack down on somebody, but what he’s saying isn’t actually that profound. He’s also shown repeatedly reigning in the other rabid white men in his office by giving them the straight talk- not because it’s wrong to be bigoted sexist pr*cks, but because slick businessmen know better. He’s not as smart or as appealing as the show wants us to believe he is… especially not if you’re not a white male viewer.

    Unless the show is *really* about how little things have actually changed- and I don’t think it is- it’s the worst kind of middle-brow high budget prime time soap.

  21. Mad Men is a terrible show, all around. I don’t feel like I need to give any reasons, that is my opinion and I won’t change it or feel guilty for saying the show sucks. It sucks, and everyone who likes it is stupid.

  22. thanks for this page. I recently netflixed my way through the first two seasons and now poked my way randomly at episodes of 3 and 4. I don’t like to call people dumb but this is disturbing in how one dimensional these characters are. So much so that one can only conclude that the writers really don’t have much to say other than a cursory feeling for the fashions and Wikipedia references to history. One could make a case that this time was exciting, that everything in this show could possibly have an undercurrent worth exploring. The early 60’s were a fulcrum that hurled us into the present time. Instead, its just surface and again, its clear the producers can’t get below the surface because they are as one dimensional as the characters they have created. For an episode or two in 1963,Kennedy and Dylan, I thought it might break open. Instead its more Draper and sex. What I don’t get especially is what anyone sees in Draper as an ad man. Surely someone in that profession would have an interest in the culture, in history, in the times. Instead his pitch meetings are idiotic pronouncements about human nature. No wonder he will never develop anything of quality in his ad campaigns like the VW ads in the first episode. As weird as it was, 30 Something and its ad men at least reflected the angst of the times and the writers who created it.

  23. i will keep it short. i suspect people who love this are:
    1) being distracted by the visuals and set pieces.
    2)they are likely very easily entertained
    3)this particular period or industry is very relevant to them.
    outside of that i can say one thing that is fact. when you are writing for the screen one of the main fundamentals is that something huge must happen around 10 minutes into the story. pilots tend to be more under the rules of film, as you should be considering you have to grab the audience quickly and glue them to the chair.
    in that respect, this is a complete and utter failure. you could write 1000 versions of this same story and 999 would go in the trash by a professional reader.

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