I saw something very novel and quaint on the most recent episode of “Mad Men.” I saw Don Draper reading. “Reading?” I asked. “What’s he doing reading? ‘Mad Men’ ‘s on.”
On Sunday, “Mad Men” returned to AMC for its penultimate season premiere, and the whole Internet resounded with the echo.
But are we sure we want to keep doing doing this?
Look, if I wanted to spend more time with deeply flawed people who drink too much and whose heyday was the ’60s, I have relatives for that.
I should mention that I don’t have cable. In order to watch the Buzzy Things of Now, I have gone so far as to date people with Netflix subscriptions. “Oh, yes,” I say, helping myself to more dip, “I love hiking. Just love it. Mountains — my soul! You say you’re how many episodes into ‘House of Cards’?”
Even then, it’s an uphill battle. I spend all my time limping from place to place pretending to have read things and seen things.
I thought that it was optional, that I could pass myself off as an educated person by reading books, watching the occasional movie and abandoning a few New Yorker’s in my bathroom. But that was before everyone suddenly decided that the Golden Age of Television was happening Right Now.
“Mad Men” is more than just a Recommended Show. It’s in our drinks. It’s on the racks at Banana Republic. It’s more ubiquitous than cat hair. Scratch the Internet, and you will find six lugubrious reviews about “What Don Draper Is Really Thinking and Who This Makes Us” or “What Sally Sees: The Ubiquity of The Teenage Gaze” or “Mad Men’s Water Jar: Punctiliously Noted Objects, Lurking Mortality.”
And whenever anything hits this level of saturation and acclaim, there’s always a creeping element of Emperor’s New Must-Watch Television Series that worms its way into the mix. Everyone likes “Mad Men.” If you don’t, you are a dishonest craftsman unfit for your position.
There are different layers of snobbery. It might be more accurate to call them circles of snob Hell, but that could be mistaken for an allusion to the Dante that Don Draper was reading on the beach.
“Mad Men,” the show, is all right. I have to say that, or someone would show up and flay me verbally.
But “Mad Men” the cultural complex, the dictator of dress styles, “Mad Men” the eternal example of someone saying Don’t You See That We Live in a Golden Age of Television, It’s the Only Real Story-Telling Medium, “Mad Men” the Of Course I Know Who Don Draper Is, I’m An Educated Human — that’s something else.
“Mad Men” is the flagship of the new Intellectual Vegetable Television complex, the kind of meticulously crafted TV that the formerly bookish spend their intellectual leisure taking in. It’s reached the point where lacking cable is worse than announcing you’re illiterate. “But I stayed in and read Dante,” you whisper, feebly. Why are you being like that? everyone asks. Dante was ages ago. Why aren’t you taking advantage of the Golden Age of Television and being part of The Conversation?
I tried to evangelize it to someone who hadn’t paid any attention before, and it forced me to question all my assumptions.
“What was that?” she asked. “I didn’t like the people, and they didn’t do anything.”
I explained that this was a bizarre standard to hold New Television to, but it was hard to argue with her. “But this is the new Dickens,” I said. “This is a rich multi-chapter tale, unfolding slowly with meticulous attention to detail and character. This is where you go to tell a nuanced unresolved life-like long-arc novelistic story rich in period detail and with Deep Running Social Commentaries, both on the Show Itself and on Our Lives as we Live Them.”
“But it’s not enjoyable,” she said.
“You don’t watch TV to enjoy it,” I said. “You watch it because it is telling a Rich Unmissable Story. Do you want to be mistaken for a cultureless infidel who watches TV to escape?”
“But,” she said, “it’s TV.”
It’s odd to be alive in this Great Age of Television that everyone admits is the Great Age of Television. People, as a general rule, seldom do this. It makes me nervous and jumpy. Ever since Hesiod, the Golden Age was something you just missed. It’s certainly not going on now. Now, at best, it’s the Bronze Age.
But no. We’re being urged to Take In This Great Television by people who used to recommend us novels. Television somehow crept up the ladder of culture and became a Vegetable rather than a saturated, fatty indulgence.
All I’m asking is, are we sure?
We live in such a great age of criticism that it is easy not to notice that what we are pouring this tremendous interpretive energy into is, well, just television.
After all, even engaged TV watching is a passive exercise. You sit forward and take in what someone else has put together for you, cut into neat bite-sized morsels. With the first novelistic medium, the actual novel, the first Dickens, you had to power the action yourself with your own imagination. With this, all you have to do is lean nearer to the screen and notice what’s been put there.
It’s hard to make, of course, much harder than a novel. There’s design, decor, music, actors to corral. Matthew Weiner‘s accomplishment is remarkable. The meticulous construction of this production is vastly more impressive than just words strung together on a page. Compared to this level of detail and craft, Dante was a piker.
But how hard is it to watch, really?
Is it really That Good? Or is it a sneaky way of letting ourselves sprawl in front of the TV watching Don Draper read Dante and get the same yeasty feeling of accomplishment that we would from finishing Dante ourselves? You get out what you put in. But why are we putting so much into this? Even made more difficult and less accessible, with long arcs, symbolism, and careful period touches — it’s all there. It asks nothing of our imagination. The conversation about it has only been going on so long, and can only encompass so many people. If we actually picked up the Inferno ourselves, we’d be talking to generations. different from out own. “No, but this is different. This is golden.” And the people who make this case make it convincingly and beautifully.
But is this really how we want to spend our time?