I must admit that, when I first thought about writing something for this month, I planned on writing about the personal impact of season finales, like Mad Men’s or Justified’s or The Walking Dead’s. Although the rational part of me knows that these breaks are deliberately created and necessary, so that the writers, actors, producers, etc., can regroup and plan out the next story arc or the next series of episodes, the endings themselves, as timed as they may be, still feel real to an extent, particularly at this time of year, like saying good-bye to friends in high school or college before a long summer break. While I know that I will be seeing these characters again, I also know that the viewing experience may well be different, because of me as much as because of them or what the writers, directors, and actors have in store for them. So, when I do catch up with them again, I know that I will wonder exactly what has happened to them during this interlude and who they are now.
But I found myself questioning that idea after I came across Tom Scocca’s scathing, controversial piece in Slate on Mad Men and Don Draper, a piece that seemed to take my post to task before I had even started, a piece that could, on a larger level, work as a pointed critique of any television criticism that dares to think about the impact of television characters beyond their fictionally constructed limits.
“Don Draper is a made-up person inside your television set,” Scocca scolds before considering at length how Mad Men “makes [us] stupid.” Referring to a number of different references in the New York Timesand elsewhere, he goes on to show how the AMC drama has become a common cultural reference point for writers who would give its slick portrayal of the Sixties the force of historical reality. “In the collision between the actual and the simulacrum,” he laments, “the simulacrum is winning.”
To his credit, Scocca’s essay is provocative and forceful—dare I say like one of Don Draper’s ad pitches—even as it condescends and condemns. In the three weeks or so since it came out, MM lovers and haters alike have been posting, tweeting, blogging, and raving in response. And here I am still thinking and writing about it as well, chewing on the salty bait even as I continue to contemplate the closing moments of Season Five.
As someone who is writing about television for a website devoted to television criticism, my knee-jerk reaction to it was and continues to be, unsurprisingly, defensive. Of course, Don Draper is not real. Neither is Raylan Givens, Dexter Morgan, Tony Soprano, or Nurse Jackie. Or, for that matter, Barnaby Jones, Barney Miller, Gilligan, the Skipper, Mr. Magoo, Mr. Ed, or the Energizer Bunny.
We do not necessarily engage television (or literature or theatre or art) because we are looking for reality. In many cases, we are trying to escape what Scocca calls “the world-world” by engaging the imaginative world on the other side of the screen and losing ourselves in the problems, the possibilities, the decisions of characters who are distinctly not us. What is real, though, and what we cannot escape is our reaction to what we see. In its finest hours, television affects us on a variety of different levels—emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, morally. It moves us not only to question what we believe in terms of plot structure, narrative, and character development, but it also challenges our core values and beliefs. (This is not a bad thing.) Long before Scocca dissed and dismissed Mad Men mania, Aristotle, who was real, famously upheld the benefits of the imitated (fictional) actions of tragedy on the audience, leading to “pity and fear [resulting in] the proper purgation of these emotions [catharsis]” (61).
As far as the charge of “stupidity” goes, Steven Johnson, in his book Everything Bad is Good for You, suggests, on the contrary, that shows like The Sopranos and, by extension, Mad Men are actually “making us smarter” and that they “have […] increased the cognitive work they demand from their audience, exercising the mind in ways that would have been unheard of thirty years ago” (62). The plot structures are more intricate and complex, as each individual episode asks us to keep track of various characters, storylines, symbols, and allusions while considering their place as well as the episode’s within the framework of the season and the more global narrative of the series itself. Tony Soprano’s therapy sessions with Dr. Melfi or Don Draper’s marital concerns with his new wife Megan thus become significant for viewers in terms of what they mean individually and microcosmically, even as they remind the audience of larger character issues that were established in the very first episode.
Scocca’s obvious anxieties and his harshest words stem more directly from the apparent confusion of the fictional and the real, but, in this regard, what he has identified is perhaps more postmodern than stupid. Since he brings up the simulacra, let me turn to Baudrillard, another real person who, thirty years ago, described the proliferation of hyperreality and “the precession of the simulacra”—“the map that precedes the territory[, …] that engenders the territory” (1). If Baudrillard can be believed, then the simulacra are not just winning; they already won. And Don Draper’s great trick, in making us think that he did have some ironic, anachronistic relevance to a history that he was never actually a part of or, better yet, in helping to create what we know to be history becomes yet another trademark of this postmodern or post-postmodern world, another signpost on the larger map. A show about advertising in the Sixties has sold us on the history that it fictionally purports to represent, just as advertising and the creation of consumer perception are ultimately responsible for the show itself—“the generation by models,” as Baudrillard deems it, “of a real without origin or reality” (1). So, when Scocca proudly states that he knows Don Draper “without seeing a single scene of a single episode of Mad Men,” his claim is not so much a testament to the banality of the series as it is an indication of his experience in this hyperreal culture. Of course, Don Draper is not real. But he is everywhere, in one form or another, created, recreated, regenerated, copied, and revised.
On a slightly different and perhaps less theoretical note, while Scocca complains about the laziness of so many writers who refer to the show as a matter of historical record, the examples that he gives just as easily speak to “the moment” and to the matter of context that I discussed in my last post. Mad Menworks as a kind of cultural lingua franca for any current conversations about the Sixties, in the same way that any conversation about the Old West might have resulted in a Deadwood reference a few years back. The series is of the moment and, in Gary Edgerton words, “express[es] the zeitgeist” (xxi). As such, it has meaning for the public at large and, rightly so or not, credibility for writers who are looking to reach them. (Scocca himself was clearly aiming at a wide audience when he put Don Draper in his crosshairs.) Five years from now, the Times writers will have probably moved on to some other equally popular reference, to the same effect. In the meantime, given Mad Men’s value both as quality television and the stuff of significant critical study, we should take advantage of what it does say about us right now, as well as our perceptions of the past and present as fictional commentary. At the very least, that would be more productive than rejecting it outright without watching and just getting mad about it.
Douglas L. Howard, who is also a real person, is Chair of the English Department on the Ammerman Campus at Suffolk County Community College, editor of Dexter: Investigating Cutting Edge Television (2010), and co-editor of The Essential Sopranos Reader (2011) and The Gothic Other (2004).