Thursday 18th January 2018,

Why We Love Mad Men: Ambiguity in Character and Plot

Aymar Jean Christian August 18, 2009 uncategorized Comments Off on Why We Love Mad Men: Ambiguity in Character and Plot

ORIGINAL at Ronebreak.

UPDATE: Check out my comparison of Mad Men with True Blood. The theme: guilty pleasure of watching naughty conservatives.


Yes, critics love Mad Men; anyone who doesn’t watch the show must be confused and annoyed at all the hoopla over this great show. I hear you. Hype is dull. Still, critics love lots of shows — anyone watch Friday Night Lights? Damages? Breaking Bad? (I do) — and not all of them are hits. Mad Men, on the other hand, has never been more popular. Nielsen ratings released today showed a total of four million people watched the premiere Sunday night, 2.8 million in the first hour. That’s a series high and comes close to being a top cable TV show on a very niche network, depending on how you slice the numbers.

Why Mad Men?

Short answer: Mad Men is smarter than your average TV show. Longer answer: Mad Men bucks a long-held television tradition of making a character’s development and emotional state clear and relatable. Over the last ten years there have been two dominant trends in television programming. 1) Treating viewers like adults. 2) Treating viewers like children. You can explain #2 through the rise of reality television. The first trend starts, for me, with the West Wing, but that’s probably my age showing. It continues with Lost, 24, The Sopranos and The Wire, but you can name any number of shows really. (This is not to say TV has always been stupid; there’s always been smart TV: MASH, Hill Street Blues, Twin Peaks…)

Mad Men is so popular because it takes the smartening up of television to a ridiculous degree. It’s an extremely intellectual show. How? Because it’s a very subtle puzzle. The hallmark of television has always been emotional accessibility: unlike in Oscar-winning film drama, characters are pretty clear about their views and actions. They say or show exactly how they feel. TV is the land of emotional clarity. Close-ups tell us who is sad, angry or happy and why. Even when the plot is confusing, characters typically aren’t.

Mad Men’s characters are mostly puzzles. Half the time we have to debate why they do what they do. Don is the biggest puzzle of all, shifting from family values to philandering bachelorhood within the course of minutes. He literally has two identities. Like Tony Soprano, he is both endearing and infuriating. He makes strange allies and is at times oddly empathetic. The third-season opener showed him — SPOILERS AHEAD — completely nonjudgmental of a coworker’s homosexual indiscretions.

I realized this while reading Slate’s discussion over the premiere, which showed how easy it is to debate simple facts about what Mad Men’s characters do. Why did Joan give her British counterpart, a presumed enemy, his own office? It could be burgeoning attraction, her belief in gender roles, a way to shut him up, or a way to set him up for disappointment. Why is Don back to cheating, or, did he cheat reluctantly? A pre-coital moment with him and a stewardess only hinted at his psychology. Or, what’s the deal with Ken Cosgrove? Is he cocky, self-content, nonchalant, or an idiot-savant? He’s bright, but doesn’t show it. Why?

On Mad Men, we rarely get speeches about how characters feel — I feel this because…I’m mad at so-and-so because… — like we do on Grey’s Anatomy, Brothers and Sisters or most network TV dramas. Even better-written critical darlings like Friday Night Lights are guilty of this. Part of Mad Men’s economy of emotion, maybe most of it, is 1950s restraint. But part of it is just grown-up television.

That a TV show has enough faith in its audience to figure out for themselves why each character acts the way he/she does, where they’re heading and whether they are good, evil or a mix of both, is very refreshing. And loads of fun.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.