Critic's Notebook

Now that 'Mad Men' has changed the TV landscape, what does it all mean?

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic
As #MadMen heads to its series finale, let's remember how it helped propel a new way of watching TV

High school AP classes may be churning out theories about the green light at the end of Daisy's pier or Andy Warhol's tomato soup cans, but the most popularly deconstructed symbol in and of American culture these days is "Mad Men's" falling guy.

As AMC's first scripted drama heads toward its May 17 finale, critics, bloggers and fans have been hotly debating the meaning and relevance of its opening credits, in which a black silhouette of a man slowly falls through an ad-laden cityscape. When the series premiered in 2007, some expressed concern over the possible evocation of 9/11; now many wonder if it foreshadows Don Draper's (Jon Hamm) suicide by defenestration. Or is it evocative of a more spiritual/emotional descent, a suggestion of despair, enlightened surrender or the inability to control one's own life?

"Mad Men" has most certainly been about reinvention on a personal and cultural level. But will it turn out that all has been in vain? Has Don simply been falling through the years and all the changes they have wrought? Have we all?

If you think this is a bit much, a bit fevered and fraught for a television show, especially one that many feel is currently not quite up to the (extremely high) standards of earlier seasons, then you haven't been paying much attention — to "Mad Men" or to television in general.

For millions of television viewers, God is in the deconstruction, and "Mad Men" helped put him there.

Hailed first for its sleek look and stories both streamlined and dream-like, "Mad Men" changed the world in many ways. It made AMC a purveyor of Emmy Award-winning drama and, along with shows on FX, revealed that the line between premium and nonpremium cable was a thin one — that creator Matthew Weiner did time on "The Sopranos" and that "Mad Men" was rejected by HBO had people talking for months before the show even aired. Weiner's unusually public ownership of the show — in early years, he did more publicity than his cast — brought television writers into the spotlight, ushering in an age in which show runners are often as famous as their stars.

"Mad Men" also broadened the definition of "period," proving that shows did not need powdered wigs or covered wagons to be considered historical, and offered the Big Four a nongraphic model to follow. Broadcast TV could never beat cable in the hard-R game, but it could create lush dramas evocative of time and place. "Mad Men" even, one could argue, catalyzed the return of strong female leads to TV; title aside, the show's women, including Joan (Christina Hendricks), Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Betty (January Jones), were as key to the story as the men.

Even more significant, "Mad Men" turned television into an honors English class.

Four years ago, a story about the show appeared in the New York Review of Books. Written by regular contributor Daniel Mendelsohn, the piece was not a rave. Mendelsohn began in fluttery intellectual bewilderment — great heavens, such a fuss over a television show! — before going on to explain in great detail why "Mad Men" wasn't very good: weak writing, shallow characters, bad acting, etc. The only explicable reason for its appeal, he concluded, was the immature gaze of the audience. Fans watched "Mad Men" the way children sneak out of bed to watch their parents at a party. From a distance and with no real understanding.

Critics from platforms as diverse as the New Yorker and Nerve quickly dissected the dissection, but the point was not so much the details of the conversation as the fact of the conversation.

There it was: a piece of 29 long and loaded paragraphs and all but footnoted, explaining the nonmerits of a television series. In the New York Review of Books. "Mad Men" was being treated to the sort of smart and passionate debate previously reserved for, say, the works of Norman Mailer or Robert Altman.

Not since "Lost" has a show been so combed through, picked over and commented on. "What Would Don Draper Do?" became a cultural construct. Gothamist began a standing feature called "Unpacking Mad Men," which details the show's historical references in alarming detail and more general tea leaf reading quickly became ubiquitous. Aided by social media, Easter egg hunts followed virtually every episode: Was that a secret reference to "MASH" (Esquire.com)? Did someone on Reddit find the Rosetta Stone of Sterling Cooper (Uproxx.com)? Was that a dream sequence in reverse, and what did it mean (slate.com)?

Audience speculation and detailed exegesis drove certain shows before "Mad Men" —"Star Trek" built an ancillary industry on symbolism and trivia, as did the soon-to-be-resurrected "The X-Files." Indeed, the foundation of geek culture, now a dominant force in pop culture, is careful reading, painstaking cataloging and wild theorizing.

But "Mad Men" does not fit the traditional geek demographic. It is not a sci-fi or fantasy tale populated by superheroes or citizens of the supernatural. It's an adult drama that revolves around work and sex, identity and social change. It's set in an office, for heaven's sake, where characters wear hats and clip-on earrings.

But as the programmers of Comic-Con discovered, there are geeks within us all, and just as millions of people devote hours of their lives analyzing sports statistics, millions more now find communal and personal happiness deconstructing their favorite television shows. "Recapping," once a way for audiences to play catch-up, now ranges from OCD navel-gazing to inspired literary analysis, which in turn spurs writers and programmers to create shows worthy of such careful consideration.

The Internet and social media make this level of obsessiveness easier just as the increased diversity, quality and quantity of television make it tempting. But it was "Mad Men" that gave the water cooler a new intellectual credibility.

Highly stylized, "Mad Men" always courted its own annotation, with many episodes seeming more like a series of carefully curated still lives than traditional story lines. What seemed at first a drama about the advertising agency soon became a self-conscious primer on mid-20th century America, replete with references that increasingly seemed less about time and place and more vehicles of social commentary. (Weiner's famously tyrannical "no spoiler" letter to critics always included the time in which a season occurred, an acknowledgment that figuring out the precise year of the action was, for viewers, half the fun.)

And as the show winds down, the traditional concepts of plot have been all but overwhelmed by the attractions of subtext.

"Is That All There Is?" scored the season premiere and look, Betty is reading Freud in the same episode in which "Moby Dick" is referenced! As for Don's fate, well, Weiner has consistently toyed with viewer expectations, most recently by having Don contemplate the view/drop from his new office and test the strength of the glass before putting him on the road headed west with a hippie.

What happens, though, has become less important than what it all means. The slow and often preening pace, more marked in these final episodes than ever before, has worn on some, but many others watch, dutifully logging various literary elements and internal references, breathlessly anticipating a Steinbeckian final image that, one hopes, will answer the Big Questions: What is the meaning of the show that so clearly wants television to mean something?

What is the final message of "Mad Men"?

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