Is "Mad Men" the Greatest Novel of Our Time?

I ask the above question at least halfway in earnest, and also as an excuse to write about Mad Men. (The season premiere has been delayed by contract disputes, so I have to get my fix somehow.)

Mad Men is the Russian novel of TV shows. Its power derives partly from the dramatization of large-scale historical events, but mainly from the slow accumulation of meticulous slice-of-life vignettes. It’s paced unevenly and plotted like a soap opera, but the depth of its character studies and the quality of its dialogue surpass anything else on television.

The dialogue in particular—with its relaxed wit, its attention to irony both verbal and dramatic, its microscopic fidelity to varying (often bygone) styles of speech—is literary in the best sense of the word. Let me pick out two examples almost at random. In an episode from Season Three, a British firm has recently merged with the Sterling Cooper ad agency, creating tensions throughout the New York office. A British male secretary, who has just been mocked for his pretensions (he asks to be addressed as “Mister”) by the American secretary Joan Holloway, complains to his boss, Lane Pryce:

Secretary: This place is a gynocracy.

Pryce: Hadn’t noticed.

Any other show would have rendered that line as, “Women run this place”; but the word “gynocracy” not only sounds funnier, it rings true. It’s exactly the kind of word that an overeducated Brit from the middle of the last century would have been prepared to deploy as the occasion required. And while this seems to be a throwaway exchange, its interpretive possibilities cut in many directions at once. There is a sense in which Joan, along with her female acolytes, runs the office, but this being the early '60s, she is consistently denied any genuine status or recognition. (Unlike her coworker Peggy, she seems hesitant to seek it out.) The power she wields is the kind that male executives like Pryce are permitted the luxury of not noticing. Or does Pryce's line reveal a naivete, a vulnerability, when it comes to the subtler kinds of feminine influence?

This little scrap of dialogue, in other words, offers real ambiguity. It forces us to ask: To what extent are these words ironic, intentionally or otherwise? To what extent are they true? And do they say more about Sterling Cooper or about the characters themselves? The tone is understated, but the words bear a hefty thematic burden.

Another wonderful moment, from the same season, comes when Peggy posts a terse roommate-wanted notice touting her apartment’s modest furniture. Joan says: “It reads like stage directions from an Ibsen play.” Not only does Ms. Holloway again reveal herself to be intellectually overqualified for her thankless job, she also intuits something important about Peggy’s character. Later in the episode, when Peggy gets a response to the more “fun” ad she posts with Joan's help, she and the prospective roommate discover that they share Scandinavian roots. We’re left with the suggestion that Peggy really is a product of Ibsen’s Norway—that her serious-minded ambition and the other girl’s bubbliness are separate, but related, reactions against a heritage of repression.

Mad Men carries its literate tone so well in part because its characters are so convincingly literate. Along with all the casual drinking and smoking it spotlights (or fetishizes) as artifacts of a vanished world, the show returns us to an age of casual reading. We may not be surprised to see creative guru Don Draper reading Frank O’Hara—although it’s a clever, non-obvious choice—but we do take notice when his wife, a character with no visible intellectual aspirations, chooses Porter’s Ship of Fools as home entertainment when no one's around.

If that kind of popular literary culture has atrophied, the show itself suggests one reason why: Don and Betty are constantly telling their kids to “go watch TV.” Show creator Matthew Weiner, himself a member of the raised-on-TV generation, has proved that such parenting techniques didn’t kill literary ambition entirely—though they may have transferred it to a different medium. The final shape of Mad Men remains to be seen, but it already ranks among the best serious fiction of the twenty-first century.

[Image courtesy AMC TV Blogs.]

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