Mad Men – Why does it attract?

I really don’t watch television.  It’s not due to some sort of moral position or any objections to its content.  I either don’t have the time, or I can’t maintain my interest whenever I’m watching (the lone exception being soccer, which I watch whenever I get the chance).

In any case, the first episode of the second season contains (like many others) allusions to literature of the time.  In this episode, our protagonist Donald Draper reads through Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in a time of Emergency.  In the final moments of the episode, Donald reads a few lines from “Mayakovsky”:

Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.

The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.

It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.

The subtle genius of this show:  After its mention, Meditations in an Emergency shot from around 16,000 on Amazon.com’s bestseller list to #161.  However I am not writing this to discuss the humorous economics of Mad Men.  Instead I want to think about why a show seems to resonate so deeply with so many people.  After mentioning a book, thousands of people went online to find it (myself included).  This is not some simple consequence of a cable television show being broadcast nationwide.  It demonstrates a remarkable amount of resonance that this show seems to create between its viewers and the time it depicts.

The quote above suggests that there is a deep current of malaise running through the American bloodstream.  The United States is living in an era in which material riches and personal prosperity are at an all-time high.  If you were to take the American as depicted on television and compare him to the average American in real life, several descrepancies would immediately appear.  Our TV-American would have a high-paying job, would be enquiring about the purchase of a flat-screen television or cellular phone or new car–this is a tired cliché. Our real-life American would be tired, hollow, and sullen.  He has accumulated a decent amount of wealth, but inside he knows it is not real (the sub-prime mortgage crisis – the evaporation of credit).

Mad Men, then, is a perfect corrolary for this man’s life.  We are given an image of Donald Draper, a man at the top of his life, with mistresses, a beautiful wife, kids, and a high-paying job.  He is riding the crest of his entire country’s ascendance to the world stage.  And yet, not everything is as it seems, and Donald Draper, like the viewer, is never happy.  For all the climaxes this show has on offer–sexual, sensual, and domestic–Donald Draper, like the viewer, is strangely unfulfilled.  Indeed, the man himself is tasked with flogging images of love, happiness, affection, and above all-fulfillment, to the American consumer.  These things which are denied to himself are in turned fashioned out of a thin vapor and sent back down the pipeline for their widespread acceptance.  As Draper puts it at one point: “I invented what you think is love to sell nylons.”

“What does this all mean?”

What Mad Men succeeds so well at is taking a man who is the rational aspiration of all Americans–affluent, suave, good-looking–and shows us him confused, downtrodden, and above all, bored.  For what other reason has reality television been so successful than to give us a peek into the dark recesses of celebrity without tearing down the veil of beauty, and success?

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