“Mad Men”: Just Great TV Without an Agenda

“Mad Men” is great television. What it is not, however, is a social agenda. I have sat idly by too many times, listening to bandwagon critic-quoters regurgitate the underlying “purpose” of “Mad Men”, and I have had enough.

“Mad Men” doesn’t care that Nixon lost the election, that Marilyn OD’ed, or that JFK is about to be shot. “Mad Men” does care that it creates great drama, which in turn generates great ratings, which in the end means that “Mad Men” gets to stay on the air.

“Mad Men” is a character-driven show. Its quality comes from the depth and complexity of the personalities in its cast. Because “Mad Men” takes place in the past, the characters are influenced by events; however, their actions are by no means determined by these occurrences. Characters act based on personal motives, and that is why they are interesting—characters, unlike events, are unpredictable.

I’ve heard that Betty’s so-called descent into madness mirrors the descent into the chaos of the 1960s; I’ve heard that Don’s life apparently falling apart mimics the breakdown of the family unit in the 1950s. Shut up. Seriously, shut up. I know you didn’t come up with that—which almighty critic would you like to fail to give credit to? If “Mad Men” “mirrored” or “mimicked” anything, you would hate it. It wouldn’t be worth watching for two minutes (with the exception of the slick opening credits), because you would know what to expect. Compelling screenwriting incorporates events into “Mad Men”’s storyline; events give context to characters’ behavior, but characters always have been, and will always remain, first and foremost.

Viewers need to understand that “Mad Men” will address historical events not because it cares to make a statement about them, but because they happened. Are the writers cherry-picking events to prove a point? No—the events featured aren’t forgotten tidbits from the annals of history, they’re the well-known goings-on of the day.

When “Mad Men” “addresses” events, it does so through its characters’ eyes. It does this precisely because its wonderfully complex characters will have a multitude of differing reactions to events—and not uniform, politically correct reactions, either. You want to assert that “Mad Men” is pushing an agenda by addressing the Birmingham bombing? Let me know what agenda that is after Betty says to Carla, “I hate to say this, but it’s really made me wonder about civil rights. Maybe it’s not supposed to happen right now.” Carla’s certainly quiet on the issue—why do you have any reason to believe the show is pushing her silent opinion on the matter? But that’s the point. None of the characters would look at that situation the same way. There’s no agenda to push because it’s not about Pete being right, or Joan being right, or Don or Peggy or Sterling or anyone else. It’s about what each and every one of them makes of that event in terms of their own lives.

If you think “Mad Men” is pushing something, you get into all sorts of trouble. “Mad Men” tries to be accurate to the times it recreates. That’s what makes it great. It doesn’t hold back. It treats women and minorities as crappily as they would have been treated back then. It’s compelling because it is frank. If it is pushing a certain view of the civil rights movement, then what view is it pushing of women?The most important question, however, is for those who think “Mad Men” glorifies the lifestyle of the late 50s and early 60s—and that question is: Do you watch the show? “Mad Men” does a great job painting the 1960s in full, rich, glossy Technicolor—it gets the clothes right, the hair right, the habits right. But it also gets the stereotypes right—Jews, women, gays, blacks—you name it, they’re all treated like crap. “Mad Men” isn’t glorifying that. Viewers can think Don Draper is a baller without cheating on their girlfriend. I happen to agree with a great many of Don’s opinions. However, I have no plans to take up smoking, buy a Cadillac, or down six drinks before noon, let alone cheat on a significant other. Normal people are able to separate one aspect of the show from another, and are even allowed to sit back and enjoy it, without an agenda.

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