I don’t just mean that they’re both Emmy-winning, critically-acclaimed, somewhat heartless cable shows with attractive casts and great clothes. I mean that Mad Men is on its way to becoming to men what Sex and the City was to women in the late ’90s and early ’00s (also Ally McBeal, for a little while): something that gets dragged into every cultural analysis of what women want, or what men want, or what women want in men or vice-versa and back again. Remember when you kept reading about Sex and the City and the question of what it meant for feminism? Well, the same thing is happening with Mad Men; it’s a convenient symbol of cultural longing for a time when men were men:
The popularity of the likes of Mad Men comes from a wave of nostalgia, says Kimmel, for a time when men were less confused about what it meant to be a man: “It’s the vicarious thing of ‘Look at how entitled Don Draper is! I wish it was like that in the workplace now, but now the women aren’t just the secretaries, they’re my goddamn boss!’
I find it a little odd that the shows that are most often cited as cultural symbols are shows that are on cable, and don’t have very large audiences. If there’s a character who embodies male nostalgia for a simpler time, it’s not Don — who is on a show with a growing but modest-sized audience — but Charlie on Two and a Half Men, a huge hit that succeeded by bringing back the fantasy of a guy who can drink heavily and sleep around with no consequences. CBS characters like Charlie and Barney Stinson live the life now that Don Draper lives in the early ’60s, except without the burden of a wife and the sombre atmosphere of Mad Men. Obviously Mad is a better show with “Men” in the title than Two and a Half, but in terms of its cultural significance, Two and a Half probably has more to say about who we are and what we want to be.
Still, as with S&TC, Mad Men should benefit from being chosen to sum up the hopes and desires of an entire gender; it helps it build a reputation as a big show with big themes. One of the differences between broadcast and cable shows is that broadcast shows tend to focus on small things, whereas cable shows try to present themselves as dealing with big, epic questions. A regular TV Western is about defending the ranch from bad guys; Deadwood is about all of America. A broadcast TV crime show is about cops and crooks; The Sopranos and The Wire were about all of America. Even a comedy like Sex and the City had to be about the entire experience of being a woman in, you guessed it, America. Small shows have trouble making it on cable channels that aren’t USA; to get the attention and acclaim that a cable show needs to surivive, they have to be recognized as unusually ambitious and wide in scope. The more Mad Men is seen as summing up almost 50 years of American masculinity, the better it will do.
(And yes, there are lots of exceptions to this over-broad rule of mine. I mean, Curb Your Enthusiasm is not trying to be an allegory for all of America. I hope. I don’t really want to know what Larry David’s allegory for America would be.)
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