I know I might have my Cultural Literacy card revoked for admitting this, but I’ve never succumbed to Mad Men mania. I’ve seen bits of the show, but after a few minutes I start to catch an offputting whiff of easy cliché. (Ah, postwar suburban ennui, how many souls must you kill?) Still, it’s not the show itself that turns me off as much as it is the relentless evangelization on its behalf. (Slate, New York Times Arts section, I’m looking at you.) I went through the same experience with The Sopranos and The Wire, other hour-long TV dramas that once dominated discourse among the kinds of people who pride themselves on their good taste. I can’t help thinking of these kinds of shows as something like highbrow versions of “Dancing with the Stars:” You have to watch them if you want to participate in your clique’s water-cooler conversation. There gets to be something cultish and compulsory about the whole thing. Sorry, but I’d rather just watch the Blackhawks—or as I’ve been doing the last few nights, reading Eric Sanderson’s Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City. (I’ve checked the index, and Don Draper doesn’t seem to make an appearance.)
MM gets another thumbs up from Benjamin Schwarz in the current Atlantic, but he also faults the show for getting some period details wrong. What made me sit up and take notice of Schwarz’s take on the show, though, was his invocation of one of my lifelong TV loves: The Dick Van Dyke Show. He speculates that many Mad Men maniacs are viewers “whose notions of the glamour of adult life, of Manhattan, and of 'creative careers' were shaped by endless reruns of three sitcoms with concrete ties to Mad Men’s particular milieu: The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewtiched and That Girl.” Schwarz writes that Mad Men is “those shows grown up, grown hard and, in ways that flatter its writers’ and viewers’ images of themselves, grown wise.”
It’s a provocative, slightly counterintuitive point, but I haven’t seen enough of MM to know if it’s on target. (Any thoughts, lovers of Mad Men?) Still, I have to like any essay that argues, in effect, for the timeless relevance of Mel Cooley.