Mad about “Mad Men”: Critics gone wild

draper

The writer Rob Sheffield, writing in the April 11 issue of Rolling Stone (posted online today) reviews the new season of AMC’s hypnotic drama “Mad Men” in terms so wildly enthusiastic the piece becomes its own tribute to itself. “One thing is for sure: “Mad Men” is the greatest TV drama of all time, and it’s not even close.”

That’s biting off a lot, but wait because we’re still not quite done: “It has no competition.”

The earth shakes, the stars tremble, the dog goes yipping for the basement.

Or at least that’s the idea. There’s not a lot else in the review, mostly reflections on things that have already happened on earlier seasons (for this we can perhaps blame “MM” creator Matthew Weiner, who all but threatens critics with bodily catastrophe if they reveal crucial plot points, which to his way of thinking is basically ALL plot points). The point of the piece, then, is less about critical analysis than it is about image and power. And not “Mad Men”‘s, either.

Which in a weird way makes it all about “Mad Men,” or at least “Mad Men”‘s core themes: identity; self-invention; the distance between image and reality. By reducing aesthetics to a kind of single-elimination tournament with clearly defined contests that separate winners from losers the author grants himself not just expertise over the realm, but also mastery. And guess what — it works! AMC’s full page ad for “Mad Men” in today’s New York Times includes the show’s name, its network, the time and date of the season premiere and one critical notice: “THE GREATEST TV DRAMA OF ALL TIME” — Rolling Stone.

The review that promotes the show becomes an essential part of the show’s self-promotion, which in turn promotes the magazine, whose elevated image lends more power/authority to its writers and critics, whose careers ascend accordingly, and. . .everyone gets a trophy.

I’m not trying to twit Sheffield, or even Rolling Stone, both of whom/which are just as capable of producing terrific stories, reviews, photo captions and all the rest. But as the age of multi-platform media saturation lurches onward “Mad Men”‘s gimlet vision of America’s fungible sense of reality is reflected back on itself. Five decades later everything is still up for grabs, only, somehow, more so. The product defines itself to appeal to viewers who define themselves by becoming associated with the product.

The best part of Sheffield’s piece comes at the start, with his description of Don Draper watching a steamy Robert Mitchum film noir in which one character whispers to another: “Are you alone?” The question hangs over Draper’s head because it so clearly defines the ache that haunts and propels him through his tangled existence. Solitude will fuck you up. Make as many friends as you can and hang on tight.

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