The Cultural Imperialism of Mad Men

Next March,  AMC’s Mad Men will return to the airwaves after a year and a half absence.  It’s return will be treated as the most significant cultural event of the year.  Its stars will blanket the covers of our glossy magazines.  Articles will be written in the New York Times and our most elite literary journals dissecting the show’s meaning.  Banana Republic will promote its high end Mad Men line.  

Mad Men at its height was watched by 2.9 million viewers.  In contrast, CBS’ military police procedural drama NCIS last week was seen by 19.7 million viewers.  As far as I can tell, NCIS has never been featured on the cover of any major American magazine apart from TV Guide and one issue of Inland Empire, the magazine of California’s suburban Riverside and San Bernadino counties.

This is not to say that NCIS is more deserving of a magazine cover than Mad Men, or that ratings numbers alone should determine what gets coverage and critical attention and what gets ignored.  With its layered, morally ambiguous plotting and characters, Mad Men no doubt provides much richer fields for critical inquiry than the straightforward crime of the week NCIS.   This odd division does however underline yet again the disappearance of our common broad culture and the gravitation of the media to the interests of a relatively narrow niche, in particular to the upscale, educated urban viewers who tune into Mad Men, favor independent film and tend to listen to the sort of self-conscious twee music produced by acts such as Feist, typically sold at the Starbucks check out counter.

The New York Times and GQ Magazine have the right to cover whatever shows they wish and are free to bury themselves in any obscure niche they like. Our great journals still behave and write however, as though their coverage is guided not by personal preference but totally and completely by that good old objective journalistic judgement of what is important.  It would be one thing if the papers (and the New York Times certainly is not alone in this) were to say, here’s our picks for the new season or what we think is the most interesting show on TV, or perhaps more to the point, here’s what we believe that the rarified niche of upscale, urban readers that we target will be interested in reading about.

But they don’t; they still operate under the frayed pretence that they are covering the “news” of culture, giving their readers a report on what the most important developments of the day in the entertainment world.  By that standard, the “flood the zone” coverage of Mad Men is completely unjustified in comparison to the information blackout on NCIS.  

Scarier though is the suspicion that arises in reading the frenzy of coverage on a subject like Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s contentious contract negotiations with the AMC network.  The press offered nearly moment by moment dispatches as the threat hung briefly that Don Draper and company might not return to continue their run after the then just completed fourth season.  The brinkmanship was covered with the solemnity and awe worthy of a Cold War nuclear stand off.  Reading the frantic coverage of those days, not only was their no reminder that this was in fact a show of interest to, by TV standards, a pretty small number of people, one suspected the reporters no longer remembered that was the case.  More to the point, our cultural reporters have become so focused on this narrow niche of programming and have been given licence to be so blind to the broader entertainment story, that it is reasonable to suspect they may have actually forgotten that it is a niche they are covering.  One has the sneaking suspicion that they have had so little contact with the world outside this niche, onscreen or off that they now actually believe that this little sliver they are covering is in fact, the entire world.

  1. Foxman

     But nobody I know voted for Reagan.

  2. Andrew Barrett

    I watch Mad Men, and enjoy it; the show is well written and the acting is top-notch.  NCIS is my favorite show on television, however.  The big difference between these two programs, beyond the obvious–one is about a 1960s advertising firm, the other a modern day cop show–is the tone.  Mad Men is about a world where everyone is depressed and self loathing, while adultery is as routine as brushing one’s teeth.  Despite the gruffness of its lead character (who actually has a heart of gold), NCIS is about a group of law enforcement officials who love and respect one another.  They enjoy their work–as much as homicide detectives can–and their colleagues.

    Sadly, our American culture is becoming too much like the cynical one portrayed in Mad Men.  And, despite its tone, I’ll watch Mad Men when it returns.  I nonetheless prefer the world as presented by NCIS, where honor, respect, dignity, courage and, perhaps most important, friendship still exist, even if there is a dead body or two each week.

  3. Beasley

    While I see your point, my response is still just a to sigh.

    Undoubtedly, part of my lack of sympathy is that I find Mad Men to be very engaging and have never had the slightest inclination to flip the dial over to an episode of NCIS. (in its defense my grandparents never miss an episode.)

    There is something engaging about a chain smoking functioning alcoholic in a glamorous past. My guess is, that the reasons that it makes such good TV, are the same reasons that it makes good media in other mediums. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the actors or producers in USA Today or TV guide for the same reasons you see Mad Men in the NYT. 

    I guess it simply strikes me as more of an instance of correlation than collusion. 

  4. r r

    Oh, I get it, I’m supposed to like Mad Men.

    After Rob and many others were singing the praises of Mad Men, I went ahead and watched all 4 seasons over the summer.  During those weeks I kept asking people, “what’s the big deal about Mad Men?”  Most guys had no idea and most gals said, “Don Draper.”

    Aside from indulging my desire to wear a suit every day and drink scotch at work, I don’t really enjoy the show.

    Plus, it takes a time (50′s/early 60′s) when America was at the height of it’s cultural, economic, and world power and says that it wasn’t that great.  Sneaky Hollywood mumbo jumbo if you ask this Midwesterner.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some corn to shuck.

  5. Nyadnar17

    More to the point, our cultural reporters have become so focused on this narrow niche of programming and have been given licence to be so blind to the broader entertainment story, that it is reasonable to suspect they may have actually forgotten that it is a niche they are covering.  One has the sneaking suspicion that they have had so little contact with the world outside this niche, onscreen or off that they now actually believe that this little sliver they are covering is in fact, the entire world.

    There is no like button for articles so I just wanted to tell you this post was amazing.  The last paragraph was especially killer.

  6. BradnSA

    AMC should have looked at the ratings of Pan Am and Playboy club and told Draper to pound sand.

    Plenty of good shows out there, and most of them are on USA and FX.

  7. Songwriter
    Nyadnar17

    More to the point, our cultural reporters have become so focused on this narrow niche of programming and have been given licence to be so blind to the broader entertainment story, that it is reasonable to suspect they may have actually forgotten that it is a niche they are covering.  One has the sneaking suspicion that they have had so little contact with the world outside this niche, onscreen or off that they now actually believe that this little sliver they are covering is in fact, the entire world.

    There is no like button for articles so I just wanted to tell you this post was amazing.  The last paragraph was especially killer. · Nov 9 at 5:13am

    Precisely.

  8. Johnny Dubya

    Like the influential band The Velvet Underground, Mad Men is a cultural force whose strength is greater than its mere popularity.  The (hyperbolic) cliche is that every person who bought VU’s first album started a band.  (It sold around 10,000 copies.)  The difference between VU and Mad Men is that the latter is actually good, and I believe it will stand the test of time.  That said, I can understand why some don’t care for the show.  The pace can be glacial, and thematically it is somewhat of a downer.  But for me, the smart writing, the terrific acting, the amazing production design, and, yes, the costuming are a winning combination.

  9. Richard Rushfield
    Beasley: While I see your point, my response is still just a to sigh.

    Undoubtedly, part of my lack of sympathy is that I find Mad Men to be very engaging and have never had the slightest inclination to flip the dial over to an episode of NCIS. (in its defense my grandparents never miss an episode.)

    I guess it simply strikes me as more of an instance of correlation than collusion.  · Nov 9 at 4:00am

    I am in fact with you, and with the media’s preferences, and those of my socioeconomic/urban demographic.  I do love Mad Men and have watched NCIS exactly once, so this was not to imply otherwise. I am however aware that I am indulging a taste that is very specific to me demo. My point was that the entertainment media in choosing one over the other, doesnt seem aware anymore that they are making that choice but seems to have forgotten that a broader culture – for better or worse – even exists.

  10. anon_academic

    You know what, I have no problem with this, and not just because I love Mad Men. Nor for that matter do I take issue with the fact that several new translations of The Iliad are receiving a fair amount of press attention despite the fact that none of them will sell as well as your typical ghost-written celebrity memoir. I also like the fact that John Adams gets a lot of press even though his record and concert sales are dwarfed by Justin Bieber. 

    Traditionally conservatism went along with the idea that there were objective cultural achievements, both canonical and new, and these deserved society’s respect in an aspirational sense even if they failed to attract a large audience. This is increasingly replaced with a sort of lowbrow populist politics of resentment that attacks perceived slights of the cultural elites failing to respect the tastes of the average man, and moreover bases this resentment not on any kind of positive argument for the cultural worth of these tastes but as pure mau-mauing demands for affirmative action for red state tastes. I say it’s Palinism, and I say to hell with it.

  11. Caleb Taylor

     Great post, sir. The Slate coverage, while favorable, of Friday Night Lights reminds me of the same phenomenon of culture journalists covering Texans like Francis Parkman writing about the Native Americans of the West in “The Oregon Trail.” To Slate, going to Wal-Mart is as intriguing to them as Parkman seeing human scalps as decorations.

  12. Richard Rushfield
    anon_academic: Traditionally conservatism went along with the idea that there were objective cultural achievements, both canonical and new, and these deserved society’s respect in an aspirational sense even if they failed to attract a large audience. 

    I agree with you completely on this. Im all for a cultural hierarchy that is willing to say Beethoven is better than K$sha. I mourn however, the loss of a vital center in our culture. There was a time as recently as a couple decades ago when you could say the highest rated shows on tv were the best.  That clearly has past, but what makes me sad is that with the collapse of that center, there is no conversation between the poles.  We don’t have to say NCIS is the same as Mad Men, but for the media to just ignore the culture of the vast majority of Americans paints it into a corner.  If NCIS is awful, make that case. But instead they tell Americans, your pastimes are not even worthy of noting in passing.

  13. Bruce in Marin
    Richard Rushfield, Guest Contributor

    Beasley: While I see your point, my response is still just a to sigh.

    I guess it simply strikes me as more of an instance of correlation than collusion.  · Nov 9 at 4:00am

    … My point was that the entertainment media in choosing one over the other, doesnt seem aware anymore that they are making that choice but seems to have forgotten that a broader culture – for better or worse – even exists. · Nov 9 at 8:32am

    I don’t know. I think Mad Men gets coverage because it’s fresh and well-done.  Plus, for a show on AMC, that’s a pretty terrific audience it’s pulling in.  I just can’t see this as an example of cultural imperialism.

    And as for the entertainment media ignoring the broader culture, that’s really not the point you’ve made.  You’re talking about the NYT and GQ.  That is not “the entertainment media”.  Check out the tabloid covers, watch E network for a while… they are covering a whole world of broader culture that I’m a complete alien to.  What you’ve shown is that cultural elites are elitist.  Well, yeah.

  14. Elena

    Mad Men reminds Americans of a time when men and women went to work in proper business attire, impeccably groomed, instead of dressed like skateboarders.  What’s wrong with that?

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