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The ‘Mad Men’ Dilemma

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(L-R) The Sopranos; The Wire; Lost  

Which brings us to Mad Men. My aversion has been, I think, a reaction to this phenomenon—this ADD-ish quality in viewers that leads us to collectively anoint a masterpiece every year. The whole process is counterintuitive. The programming universe has been fractured into shards. There are dozens of glittering offerings competing for our eyes. If anything, we should be less likely to rally around a single hit, rather than more so. But recently (actually, while writing this) I started thinking about it differently.

Maybe the furor around shows like Mad Men is not the product of some rampant mass hysteria. Maybe it’s the expression of a yearning for the last remnant of the traditional viewing experience we once shared. Long gone are the days when we would all sit down on Thursday at 10 to watch L.A. Law. So instead, to retain some sense of communal experience, we cling culturally to a single show. We don’t want to admit we’re splitting off in a million directions; we want to believe that all our eyes still occasionally turn in the same direction. (For the past year, the election campaign served this purpose—the one great show we all tuned into.) So it doesn’t even matter that not many people, relatively, are actually watching Mad Men. What matters is that everyone’s talking about it.

No doubt there will soon be another Mad Men—another must-watch show on another channel, with just as many vocal advocates. That idea used to make me weary, but I’m starting to think maybe I should be hopeful. If I ponder Mad Men mania like that—not a herd mentality but an affirming desire for social cohesion—I’m slightly less averse to tuning in. It helps if I think of it as joining in rather than signing up.


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