Critic’s Notebook: ‘Mad Men’s’ true legacy: Bringing high art to the TV masses
The state of Megan and Don’s marriage, the return of Bad Mom Betty Draper, the advent of the Computer Age and the new tyrannical Peggy have been the subject of much communal handkerchief-twisting as “Mad Men” begins its extended-version swan song. (There is also, apparently, some concern that Megan is being set up for a time line-appropriate Sharon Tate-like death, which seems tonally impossible.)
Television recapping has become its own art form, but there is something elegiac in the minute description of Betty smoking cigarettes on the lawn during a field trip or the slumber-party speculation of Don’s drinking. Where once it drew essays in the New York Review of Books, landed deals with Banana Republic and drove conversation among people who previously would not admit to watching any television program not personally vetted by Alistair Cooke, “Mad Men” is now dutifully cataloged, plot point by plot point. Just another show, one of many now worthy of Da Vinci-code like deconstruction over whatever high-end single-serving coffee/chai maker has replaced the water cooler.
Indeed, as “Mad Men” moves into its seventh season, there has been some speculation that the show has miscalculated its timing, which has always been unhurried. Certainly, the decision to break its final season into two parts seems at once self-serving and self-defeating.
Yes, the split season was the right move for AMC roomie “Breaking Bad,” but that was a very different show — fast-paced and brutal, with a very narrow focus. It struggled to find an audience early on, which meant that many were discovering the show even as it hurtled into its final bloody lap.
“Mad Men,” on the other hand, is driven more by thought than action, with a large ensemble and an often dream-like quality; a steadfast refusal to bow to the violence and graphic sex that have become signature elements of “prestige drama” remains the show’s most heroic quality. We will not be facing its finale wondering which of the main characters will be killing the others. It’s difficult to imagine “Mad Men” finding the kind of new viewers that allowed “Breaking Bad” to soar so spectacularly into its dark, dark night.
Too much has happened in the last seven years. Netflix, Hulu and Amazon got into the game, while every network with access to a soundstage and a screenwriter launched a period drama with a brooding protagonist. Americans even discovered the thrill of subtitles (“Borgen,” “The Returned”),"Downton Abbey” highjacked accouterment nostalgia, and parent company AMC Networks’ cable channel SundanceTV branched out with Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake” and Ray McKinnon’s “Rectify.”
All of which makes it easy to forget one important fact: “Mad Men” started it all.
The modern notion of television as high art may have begun on HBO with “The Sopranos” (and on the comedic side, “Sex and the City”), but “Mad Men” launched the popular revolution by bringing that art to the masses.
Seven years ago, the idea that fusty old AMC was getting into the original content business seemed like a joke. With reality television boosting their ratings and saving on costs, the broadcast networks had begun to mourn the hour-long drama. AMC’s early attempts were not earth-shaking — “FilmFakers,” a short-lived super-mean reality show, was followed by “Broken Trail,” a decent miniseries western starring Robert Duvall.
And then, suddenly, in the soupy heat of July, there appeared a show so lush and lustrous, so sexy and smart and utterly different that we didn’t quite know what to do with it. This was television? On a nonpremium network?
The critics reeled, the axis tilted. Discussions of “Mad Men” began showing up on National Public Radio, in the New York Review of Books and the Atlantic. Fedoras came back, and the pencil skirt; Christina Hendricks’ figure launched the eighth wave of feminism, and cocktail culture went mainstream.
At times, it was difficult to resist the urge to smoke.
Meanwhile, creator Matthew Weiner redefined the role and status of his profession. Unlike film, where directors rule, television has always been a writer’s game. Over the years, a few have achieved name recognition — Norman Lear, Carl Reiner, HBO’s Davidian trinity (Chase, Milch, Simon), Aaron Sorkin and John Wells. But in the public imagination, most television writers remained anonymous, until once a year they showed up in herds to collect a few Emmys and remind everyone that, as the Writers Guild would say, somebody wrote that.
Never before had a relatively unknown been immediately and inextricably attached to a brand-new and explosive show.
Even before “Mad Men” premiered, Weiner was everywhere. First teasing the tantalizing back story — although he had cut his teeth on “The Sopranos,” HBO and Showtime rejected “Mad Men” — then discussing his socio-literary ambitions and praising AMC’s decision to let him just write his show without the infamous onslaught of network notes. And it was very much his show; his name was just as firmly attached to the supernova as was Don Draper’s or Jon Hamm’s.
Led by Weiner, television writers became the new rock stars, gracing the cover of magazines, even getting their own show (SundanceTV’s “The Writers’ Room” just entered its second season). Over the years, Weiner’s relationship with AMC grew slightly less breathless — he fought for more money, and he refused to cut the show’s running time — but it is, undeniably, one of the most fruitful marriages in the history of television.
“Mad Men” not only put AMC on the map but also created a whole new map, one in which nonpremium cable networks could produce high-quality, game-changing dramatic television. Hence all those network-establishing scripted dramas with their troubled but attractive protagonists and, like as not, historical settings.
Its success also answered many of the anxieties of the Digital Age by proving that, when it comes to audiences anyway, size doesn’t matter. Weiner was among the first to publicly demand cumulative, rather than first-night, viewership numbers. Yet even with those expanded tallies, “Mad Men” did not have big numbers in its early years.
But that did not keep it from becoming a cultural juggernaut (winning 15 Emmys didn’t hurt either). Its fans were deeply and vocally committed, a paradigm that, up until “Mad Men,” only the creators of science fiction really understood.
In other words, virtually everything that has happened in scripted drama since, whether on broadcast networks, cable or streaming services, has been, to some degree or another, in response to the success of “Mad Men.”
So, do we worry if Don will ever find happiness or Peggy satisfaction? Is it fun to speculate how and when the show will end, if Roger will get to Woodstock, whether Joan will join the National Organization for Women? Yes. And undoubtedly great attention will be paid next year, when Weiner reveals, or doesn’t, the overarching theme (transcendence? futility?) of this journey through his version of American consciousness.
But it doesn’t really matter. “Mad Men” could run out of gas tomorrow, it could kill off its entire cast via the Manson family or directionally impaired members of “The Walking Dead.” Or it could go out in a blaze of narrative glory that rocks us all back on our heels just as the pilot did.
Either way, its legacy has already landed. Wherever you look on television’s ever-expanding landscape, it’s a “Mad Men’s” world.
From the Emmys to the Oscars.
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