On Sunday night, AMC will debut the seventh and final season of “Mad Men”: Seven episodes will air this year, seven next. Many of us will watch—I will watch—because the melodramatic plots, flamboyant characters, and wacky costumes have kept us hooked this far. But let’s be clear: We will be watching a show whose most sociologically interesting fact is its overratedness. It’s not that “Mad Men” is bad. It’s just not nearly as good as most people say it is.
Why has a mediocre show been welcomed—with Emmys, with critical acclaim, with canonization in books like Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised and Brett Martin’s Difficult Men, and with undeniable water-cooler chatter—as a full member in our ubiquitous conversation about the Golden Age of Television? Daniel Mendelsohn hinted at an explanation three years ago in The New York Review of Books, writing: “That a soap opera decked out in high-end clothes (and concepts) should have received so much acclaim and is taken so seriously reminds you that fads depend as much on the willingness of the public to believe as on the cleverness of the people who invent them.” In the case of “Mad Men,” the public and the inventor have enthusiastically embraced each other, signaling a pact of mutual benefit and delusion, and the media has stood right behind them, arms on both their shoulders. “Mad Men” creator, lead writer, and showrunner Matthew Weiner was the pretentious-tortured-genius showrunner we deserved. Understanding why is crucial to understanding where high-quality television is headed next.
The great unanswered “Mad Men” question is why it is so revered. Don Draper is so much a cipher that who he really is—the question upon which, Weiner says, the dramatic weight of the final season will be laid—cannot possibly interest us. The ostentatious intrusion of historical events is rarely more telling than it is annoying. (It is actually possible to do period pieces in which larger developments and happenings feel like organic parts of the characters’ lives rather than showy Moments for the readers/viewers.) Much of the show’s meaning is ostensibly conveyed through significant glances and overwrought tableaux—women going down in an elevator together, Sally Draper scowling—that cannot possibly do the heavy work of Saying Something.
Mendelsohn, an award-winning drama critic, told us how he really felt after “Mad Men”’s fourth and strongest season: “The writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug.” The show, he adds, “keeps telling you what to think instead of letting you think for yourself.”
“Mad Men”’s pretensions are all Weiner’s doing. We know this not only because the media never writes about the show without citing his control-freakishness, and so therefore we know he deserves the lion’s share of credit and blame. We know it also because we have a wonderful control group, in the form of episodes Weiner wrote for another TV show he worked on. No, not “Becker.” You can frequently tell which “Sopranos” episodes Weiner wrote just by watching them. The humor in them is unusually over-the-top—Paulie, having received a massage, remarks, “I had no idea I was so tense!” The subtext has had the “sub” amputated—David Straithairn’s teacher, engaged in a doomed love affair with Carmela, keeps Heloise and Abelard in his bathroom, and then tells her its story of a doomed love affair. The symbolism is ham-handed—if Tony’s dream-state alter ego puts down a suitcase, something very bad will happen to Tony. (Weiner recycled this exact device in a “Mad Men” episode called—wait for it—“The Suitcase.”) Grand gestures are intended to communicate meaning through their own incomprehensibility—Tony goes to Vegas, does peyote, and yells, “I get it!” into the desert sunrise, even as the viewer himself struggles to get it.
This trying-too-hard brand of seriousness characterized “Mad Men” from the beginning. Don has a secret! Betty (Friedan?) is a bored housewife! The 1960s are sexist and alcoholic! Even many fans’ favorite part of the show, the ascent of Peggy Olson, feels like a sop to contemporary viewers, an anachronistically Whiggish vision of women’s liberation. No better contemporary example than “Mad Men” exists of what Dwight MacDonald called “midcult”—unexceptional art whose highbrow trappings convince consumers they are putting real cultural work into consuming it. It’s worse than something that both looks, and is, trifling. It’s empty calories that leave you feeling full.
So what caused the hypnosis that convinced tastemakers of “Mad Men”’s nutritional value? The timing is instructive. When the show premiered in July 2007, the Golden Age of Television had been codified but not yet confirmed as more than a fluke. “The Sopranos” went dark a month before. “The Wire” approached its final season. Proto-offerings like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Freaks and Geeks,” and “Six Feet Under” were in the past; “Friday Night Lights” soon debuted on a purgatorial Friday night timeslot; “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” didn’t yet exist. In its first season, “Mad Men”’s viewership was anemic, and it wasn’t yet central to the conversation. In early 2008, three of the most prominent television critics could earnestly debate which of “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” and “Deadwood” was “the greatest TV drama ever.” The end had arrived.
But critics by and large don’t enjoy being museum curators. They needed a new Great Show. And so “Mad Men”’s anointment came in the summer of 2008, just before season two, in the form of a New York Times Magazine cover story. Alex Witchel’s portrait of Weiner remains the dominant one: “He is both ultimate authority and divine messenger, some peculiar hybrid of God and Edith Head.” Weiner tells her, “I do not feel any guilt about saying that the show comes from my mind and that I’m a control freak.” You can trace a direct line from then to now, with Weiner flaunting his obsession with preventing spoilers from getting out (before last season, critics were warned not to disclose how many floors the ad agency had); making gnomic pronouncements in The Paris Review like, “The driving question for the series is, Who are we? When we talk about ‘we,’ who is that?”; and insufferably telling one interviewer, “Well, that’s the state of mind I want you to have when you watch the premiere. (Laughs).”
I wonder, though, how much of Weiner’s control-freak persona, so central to the show’s critical esteem, isn’t one big misunderstanding. Going back to that 2008 feature, we find Weiner, in Witchel’s words, “still a work in progress”: “For 41 of his 42 years he has not been a star, and he is not used to presenting himself as a brand,” she wrote. Perhaps Weiner was just another cranky writer, and it was only the demands of the recap-industrial complex that thrust a more grandiose role upon him; he then found that this suited him, and ran with it. Replace “TV critics procliamed him the next genius” with “he stole the dog tags of a dead buddy in Korea,” and this story even gets a little poignant.
Today’s most celebrated TV auteurs seem less likely to fall victim to their own marketing. They are self-effacing, like “Breaking Bad”’s Vince Gilligan. They collaborate, both with each other—“South Park”’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, “The Americans”’s Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg—and with an origin text, like “Game of Thrones”’s David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Or they are writer-performers—Larry David, Louis C.K., Lena Dunham—and so have no interest in perpetrating a shamanistic-genius-guru schtick, and probably no ability to do so.
That leaves Weiner as the last of a breed that is probably best left for dead, and same goes for his show. Both represent the culmination of trends that flourished but then had to go too far before they were refined into something more sustainable. If, as seems likely, Weiner concludes his show in 1969—the year of Woodstock, the year of the moon landing, and the year of Altamont—it will be more appropriate than even he realizes.