Why I Don’t Like “Mad Men”

For some reason, I feel compelled to explain.

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.