Mad Men, or the Realities of Realism

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So Mad Men is in its final victory lap, and I really have to hand it to Matthew Weiner.  I mean, imagine trying to pitch a television concept about a group of more-or-less middle-aged characters struggling to make it in the advertising business to a bunch of age-averse entertainment industry executives.  And set it in the 1960s—which means that the lead characters will all belong to my parents’ generation.  And don’t even try to frame it as a comedy.

Wow, that took a lot of imagination, not to mention perseverance.

But beyond the kudos, which we will be hearing a lot of as the series winds down, and the possible speculation as to whether Jon Hamm (Don Draper) will go the way of such hopelessly typecast television stars as Lorne Greene (Ben Cartwright), Richard Thomas (John-Boy), and Henry Winkler (the Fonz), there lies the story-telling genre in which Mad Men firmly belongs: that of literary realism—which would not be remarkable except for the fact that realism, in this era of superhero blockbusters and fantasy favorites (from Harry Potter to Katniss Everdeen and a mess of Starks and Lannisters), has not exactly been on the upswing in our popular culture.  And therein lies a semiotic tale.

Oh, you might point to the enormous success of such shows as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and, more currently, House of Cards, while the entire category of Reality Television (RTV) would seem to indicate that realism has been all the rage for quite some time.  But, as literary theorist György Lukács put it, realism depicts the lives of typical human beings in typical circumstances, and there is nothing typical about being a mob leader, a meth king, and the President of the United States; RTV manages to take the typical and turn it into game show, soap opera, or farce.  And though a case could be made that the continuing tradition of the family sitcom belongs to the category of realism, the need to tell the story in the form of contrived situations, punctuated with one-liners and laugh tracks, substantially undermines any reality that might be found there.

Not that Mad Men doesn’t have its own rather soapy moments, but that is a result of a challenge that literary realism has faced from its beginnings, as authors have struggled with the problem of depicting the typical lives of ordinary people while somehow making it all entertaining enough for readers to want to read.  And even An American Family, that early pioneer of reality TV, lapsed into soap opera after a valiant attempt to capture life as it is really (that is, typically) lived.

So, I’ll refrain from nit picking and concentrate on what Mad Men accomplished.  By focusing on Americans at work in what is probably America’s second most iconic industry (the entertainment industry comes first, I suppose, but advertising is what America runs on), Matthew Weiner and his writers held the sort of mirror up to reality that can make us think about who we really are.  And by setting his series in the 1960s, Weiner took the additional step of causing his viewers to think about a critical threshold in American history that saw the transformation of the country in ways that we are still coping with today.

That is the fundamental value of realism: rather than distracting us from reality (as fantasy, in its myriad of forms, does), realism makes us think about ourselves.  That can make realism uncomfortable, but it also makes it a more mature venue for entertainment than fantasy can ever be.  That Matthew Weiner managed to hold onto his audience for eight years (albeit on cable, with Nielsen numbers that are only a small fraction of the top network programs, not to mention its AMC colleague, the fantasy series Walking Dead) is therefore quite an accomplishment.

And while I do rather wish that fans of the show would focus more on what it can tell us about how we got to where we are today as a country than on its clothing fashions and steamy affairs, that, I suppose, is part of the price that realistic entertainment has to pay in order to get anyone to pay any attention at all.

About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.