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Why Mad Men is the anti-soap

So, around a month ago, Lex posted a blog giving all the reasons why “Mad Men” is way overrated by the critics. While the show will, without a doubt, walk away with a lot of Emmys on Sunday, and the critic gushing will continue for a few years, I would like to make a few points regarding the show’s own merits. Those points, in my opinion, haven’t been made enough in the mainstream press, and really, who could blame them.

This week, we learned that Oprah Winfrey would host a 60s-themed show next week, in honor of “Mad Men”, with the Drapers on her couch, or rather, Jon Hamm and January Jones. It’s really cute of her, and any publicity is good publicity. As Lex would probably say, it continues to “crown” endlessly a show that has been marketed as “the little show that could, so it’s cool to root for it”. But by doing this stunt, Oprah misses the point of the show completely.

The show is meant to surgically deconstruct any good memories we may have had, or our parents may have had, of the swinging sixties. While “American Dreams”, a network show that was chronicling the same period-to be fair, the pilot episode of the show picks up after the Kennedy assassination, while Season 3 of “Mad Men” will probably end there-was perpetuating the myth of a solid family, through the Pryors, without omitting social issues and rampant segregation, “Mad Men” still portrays a corporate, sexist world full of cynicism, which may change too fast for the advertising employees that work there. But, most importantly, it chronicles the slow downfall of a marriage, those of the Drapers. Each season, the viewer anticipates the moment where Betty will walk away from Don, and sign divorce papers, only to be disappointed-last season, with the pregnancy, was seen as the final straw that can keep the household together.

And that leads me to the main point I want to make: “Mad Men” is not a soap opera. Nevermind the attractive cast, it takes great pleasure in making them the most unlikable characters on TV. There’s barely any love or interaction in the Draper household, no matter how effectively they try to keep it together. It’s reminiscent of the Tony/Carmela relationship in the final seasons of “The Sopranos”: the marriage was seen more as a business partnership than anything else. Don is still an unrepentant cheater, now stuck with Betty’s dad. The show is about keeping appearances, it has been said many times by many people. But it’s funny to see people gushing about these characters like they were on “Grey’s Anatomy”. Maybe because the media loves the glamour and extra-clean atmosphere of the 60s of “Mad Men”. But to me, this clean atmosphere hides a deep discomfort, almost in the manner of “American Psycho” if it makes sense.

The show has often been accused to be dull, since it doesn’t even stay on the topic of the “Client of The Week”. But to me, this dullness is on purpose: there are not that much displays of love or affection in the show, if you look closely, not really physical violence. The moral values are strongly implied in the show, so any outburst, like the fired advertising guy at the beginning of the season, or reprehensible behaviour, like Roger Sterling in blackface, is noticed, but barely mentioned. The show is more about fleeting frustration, lost “accounts” and lack of good ideas for their campaign. To me, every week, “Mad Men” gets more oppressing in its depiction of characters rotting from the inside, characteristically unhappy. That a show still manages to attract viewers despite the depressing content is, to me, an amazing feat.

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