This morning, the first episode of the second season of Mad Men showed up in my TiVo’s To Do list. Finally!
With all of the great HBO series long gone, and Sci-Fi shows — even Lost and Battlestar Galactica — eternally (and wrongly!!) consigned to the weirdos ghetto, and/or losing audience as their plots get ever more complex, Mad Men stands as Quality Television’s Great White Hope.
And why not? As the first scripted series for the AMC channel, which had previously made its bones with movies movies movies, the story of the Don Draper and the rest of the crew at the Sterling Cooper Ad Agency was also an unflinching look back at the mores and lifestyles of the mid-20th century.
At its best, it straddled the line between deadly serious and darkly funny, and was easily the most fully-realized first season of any TV series since Deadwood.
It’s the type of show that TV critics are usually shouting from the rooftops about, trying to get the entire world to watch. Except in the case of Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe who now wants you to stay away.
Ladies and gentlemen, Indie Rock Snobbery has come to Cable Television.
As Gilbert writes:
I don’t want to see one of my most cherished objects become dissipated at the water-cooler, made into a “phenomenon” that turns star Jon Hamm into a cover boy and inspires Slate magazine to run brainy weekly analyses. I want to share all good things with you, really I do, but really I don’t. Once the universe – or at least planet Nielsen – fully embraces a TV show, that show officially loses its innocence, its diamond-in-the-roughness. It no longer has the allure of the underappreciated.
To which I say: Booooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo! (Though I do like the swipe at Slate, which has over-analyzed The Sopranos and The Wire by getting experts to deconstruct each episode on everything but whether or not it was great TV.)
Here’s my problem with his thesis: he’s wrong.
Being popular does not automatically mean that you are going to end up losing quality. Especially when it comes to TV, which is the massest of all the mass media. But in any artistic medium, the Snob factor is heavy: if too many people like it, then it must suck.
That’s just a load of bollocks, of course: artists from u2 to Martin Scorcese to Michael Chabon regularly balance high quality with high sales.
The correlation of that is if it was originally under the radar, but suddenly exploded in popularity, then it must a) either be doing something new and pandering (and therefore wasn’t as good as it once was) or b) really weren’t that good in the first place.
Which is also a load of crap: when the White Stripes hit big with Elephant, or R.E.M hit with Document they hit with records that were as good, if not better as the early, more obscure stuff.
And as to Gilbert’s other point, that suddenly becoming a water cooler show might end up killing what is special about Mad Men, well, he even points out that both Seinfeld and The Sopranos did some of their best work after becoming hugely popular, and I’ll add that u2’s best album, Achtung Baby! was done while they were still the biggest band in the world.
Becoming popular does not spell the end of artistic freedom. In fact, if artistic freedom is what you are looking for — even more than sales — popularity can actually free you up to explore. Had The Simpsons not been such an instant phenomenon, we may not have had those amazing early seasons where they took their power and popularity and ran with it. (Yes, I know that The Simpsons declined artistically, but their popularity wasn’t the specific reason for the artistic decline — it was more tied to story fatigue: they’d already done it.)
What Mr. Gilbert is looking for with Mad Men, of course, is the lifecycle of The Wire or Sonic Youth: popular withthe cognoscenti, but too something (weird, bookish, noisy, insular, dense, “urban”) for the masses. Me, I want the whole world to see what I saw in The Wire’s fourth season or heard in Dirty.
After all, there is way more popular crap out there than there is popular art. Same as it ever was. But rather than popularity demeaning art, I think that it’s the other way around: when something that is full of artistic merit also becomes wildly popular, it raises the bar, and makes the masses a bit smarter.
Look, Amy Winehouse is a fracking mess, but the fact of her success was a good thing for everybody. Well, everybody but her, I guess.
I’ve always wanted a pop culture world where “I Will Dare” by The Replacements was the first of their many top ten singles. A world where “Sequestered In Memphis” by The Hold Steady is played on radio stations across the country and a world where everybody is into Mad Men, and not American Idol.
How could that possibly not be a better place?
So I have the exact opposite message to everybody out there: watch Mad Men, and make the world a better place.