Last night saw the season finale of AMC’s Mad Men (no spoilers, and this isn’t going to be a “you should be watching this show” deal either). Events transpired, characters went places, as is bound to happen on a dramatic program, and fans will be back for season five.
And everyone had something to say about it. Slate had a 67-part exchange of letters about season four. The Awl, New York Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, an adorably delayed Guardian and too many others to list have had recaps and responses to every episode. The New York Times has run a number of trend pieces both in the actual paper and online, and at the moment “mad men” is the site’s most searched term.
If you really want to read detailed, thoughtful articles on the show itself, these ones from The Atlantic, London Review of Books, BBC, Vanity Fair, this potlach dude, and to a much lesser extent, this should keep you busy for a while.
All these articles form a general consensus: Mad Men is great. The characters have depth. The acting is superb. The writing is, if not the best on television, right there. The social commentary is understated and sophisticated. The characters are modern style icons—Don Draper is impossibly dapper, Joan Harris impossibly curvy, Pete Campbell, impossibly, um, bitchfaced. The sets, from the suburban tranquility of Ossining, NY, calming pastels of southern California to the always-buzzing offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Price are always pitch-perfect. (Of course where there’s consensus, there’s backlash, and where there’s backlash, there’s backlash-backlash).
In short, Mad Men is at the moment, the most talked about, most critically-acclaimed show on television. People who watch Mad Men love it, love to talk about it, and get worked up thinking about the characters’ motivations, futures, romantic intrigues, and propensity for industrial accidents.
But people who don’t watch Mad Men don’t really care. The ratings from this week are not available yet, but among shows airing on cable in the same timeslot, the October 10 episode got its ass kicked in the ratings war by such juggernauts as Swamp People (someone help me out with this one?) and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. The penultimate episode of the fourth season of the best show on television, and it couldn’t keep up with Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
Two things about this: one, be wary of the availability heuristic, which states that people’s predictions can be biased by how easily certain facts are brought to mind. The availability heuristic is why when asked whether there are more words that begin with “k” or have “k” as their third letter, we choose the former (incorrect) answer more often then not. Another amusing example of the availability heuristic in action is the fact that an American is 30 times more likely to die from parts falling from an airplane than in a shark attack, local news coverage to the contrary.
Facts that come to mind easily can be misleading. Just because you can’t swing a dead cat without finding someone discussing Mad Men in a newspaper, on the internet, or—if you live in a fictional world—at a water cooler, that does not mean it is actually all that popular. Though hopefully we are a little more used to this phenomenon, having gone through the same thing with The Wire.
Two, Mad Men is not an easy show to watch. It challenges the viewer, and rewards patience. Episodes build off one another, plot points disappear for weeks, if not years (where have you gone, Pete Campbell Shame Baby?), only to return unexpectedly to play a crucial role in a concurrent plotline.
If your job is to watch television shows, this is pretty great. It’s easy to write about, and interesting. Where will the plot go? Which beloved character will leave, never to return? These are discussions that, say, Swamp People (I’m guessing) does not provoke. There is a sense of motion, rather than the stasis that defines a show such as Two and a Half Men, a show so popular, it can pay its child star a quarter million dollars per episode.
But that stasis also makes those shows easier to watch for people not contractually obligated to do so—an episode of Seinfeld or Dancing with the Stars doesn’t need a broader context. Sitcoms and reality shows (and sports and comedy shows, etc.) don’t really have overarching narratives that require a dedicated viewer—which makes them easier on the casual viewer. You can kinda like The Office or Jersey Shore. Mad Men demands too much time and energy to be lukewarm about.
Which do television networks prefer: unbridled passion (books have been written!) and a smaller, more devoted following, or a more massive, amorphous audience?
Given the growing sophistication of market research (every time you “like” something on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg gets a little bit richer), it would seem possible that a regular audience such as Mad Men’s might be more valuable because advertisers can tailor their message (some disagree). Then again, more eyeballs means more potential customers.
As to which one is more valuable, well, that’s for the Don Drapers of the world to answer.