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.