JOHN DOYLE

The problem with Mad Men

The Globe and Mail

Actors Jessica Pare (R) and Jon Hamm, stars of the AMC drama television series Mad Men. The show returns April 7 to find suave advertising executive Don Draper on a beach in Hawaii reading Dante's epic poem inferno. (HANDOUT/REUTERS)

So here it comes, Mad Men, Season 6 (Sunday, AMC, 9 p.m.) starting with a two-hour opener. Stand up and salute, people.

But don’t feel obliged. The problem with Mad Men, and it is certainly a problem in the wider context of contemporary TV, is that the show’s slow, mordant exploration of its characters and setting is placing the quality bar at a particular, dubious level.

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Now, some people actually have a love/hate thing with Mad Men, mostly in a silly, superficial way. There’s an “I hate Megan” camp, which involves making nasty, nitpicky remarks about the character’s clothes, demeanour and her unsuitability for Don Draper. There’s the “I hate Betty” battalion, which mocks Betty Draper’s accent, surliness and often involves just mean-spirited remarks claiming that January Jones is an actor of very limited skill.

There’s even an “I hate Peggy” cabal. Nasty judgments about “strident cutthroat work behaviour” appear online. Often those who dislike the Peggy character simply want to see more of the curvaceous Joan on the show.

All of this is nutty, really indicating an obsessive love, and understandable given the rapidity with which viewers can comment on series as they watch. Not everyone’s a critic, but everyone’s got smart-alecky remarks.

But here’s the thing – there’s also a legitimate case to be made for loathing Mad Men. It’s a show that appeals directly to those who like pretentiousness, not vigorous confrontation of our time and issues, and that love of pretentiousness tends to ruin our enjoyment of TV that doesn’t aim for long bouts of melancholia and existentialist angst over the meaning of an ad campaign from the 1960s.

Television, mainly network TV, spent decades in the wilderness, in terms of serious attention. A vast bourgeoisie, raised on the idea that TV rots the brain and/or brainwashes the innocent into being crazy consumers, ignored TV. Not for them the reasonable view that television reflects our preoccupations, changes and neuroses, even in the most innocuous of dramas and comedies. Not for them the idea that silly TV can actually subvert orthodoxy and open up some closed minds.

They longed for TV with all the tropes and obsessions of the middlebrow novel, the sort discussed at book clubs – about a character remaking himself/herself, about the loneliness of the female in a male-dominated world, about the triumph of those who seek to find fulfilment in their lives. Bourgeois concerns.

They got it in Mad Men. All the characters are on a journey to a better version of themselves, just like in those pretentious but mediocre novels. Here is Jace Lacob, writing this week in The Daily Beast about Sunday’s Mad Men episode: “… Don, Peggy, Roger (John Slattery) and Betty engage in their own metaphorical searches. What they represent is a searing and honest exploration of the conflict between how we perceive the world, and how the world sees us, and how the dichotomy of heaven and hell depends on the beholder. The road to Paradise is fraught with peril.”

Right. It could be a Booker Prize-listed novel, one forgotten about after the initial fuss. In Mad Men’s company, the raw, livid anger of a TV show Boss is seen as inferior drama and the meticulously precise nihilism of The Walking Dead as mere entertainment. Breaking Bad seems kooky.

The Mad Men effect has diminished the importance of serious TV that dares to grapple with the complexity of contemporary circumstance and the society we live in. There’s something alluring about the sealed, stylish world of advertising in Manhattan in the 1960s. But the vast, chaotic canvas of our contemporary world needs attention too, even if it’s in network dramas such as The Good Wife or the American south as seen in FX’s Justified. But those shows are deemed less serious. Fact is, Mad Men ruined everything, especially how those other shows are viewed from the middlebrow perspective.

Happily, Mad Men creator Mathew Weiner seems aware of the situation. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, for this weekend, he concludes his discussion of Mad Men by saying, “No matter what happens, you’ll be able to understand it. It’s a TV show, it’s not War and Peace.” Say it louder, creator.

Also airing this weekend

Liberal Leadership National Showcase (Saturday, CPAC, 12 noon) shows the candidates vying for the leadership of the federal Liberal Party making their final pitch to voters. Delegates are at at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre to hear presentations from the six contenders: Martin Cauchon, Deborah Coyne, Martha Hall Findlay, Karen McCrimmon, Joyce Murray and that guy Trudeau.

Republic of Doyle (Sunday, CBC, 9 p.m.) hasn’t been getting the attention it deserves on Sundays. And it’s going gangbusters this season, with fine looping storylines and great guest stars in ideal roles. Tonight, Jake is laid up with an injury, and his medication causes some strange dreams. Possibly his dreams involve Gordon Pinsent, Michelle Nolden and Michael Hogan, who all appear in this episode.

The 48th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards (Sunday, CBS, CTV, 8 p.m.) is live from Las Vegas. Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan host the annual ceremony honouring the hats and no-hats country performers. The list includes LL Cool J, for some reason. Vegas, songs about heartbreak and critters. Yee-haw!

All times ET. Check local listings.

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