Thursday, May 23, 2013

How I'd fix MAD MEN

MAD MEN is a wonderful show. It has richly deserved all the many honors it has received. Part of its appeal is that the viewer has to work a little to fully appreciate what's going on. He has to decipher subtle clues and make connections between events and moments – some that are separated by three or more seasons. The viewer is usually rewarded for such diligence with a deeper understanding of the characters and themes. And you get to feel superior to all the nimrods who think HAWAII FIVE-O is complex.

But this season it's become harder for even us diehard fans to follow. This was one of my Tweets from yesterday:

"I still haven't figured out last Sunday's #MadMen." -- Sherlock Holmes

According to what I've heard and read, Sherlock and I are not alone. In last Sunday's chapter: Everyone was on meth, Don was pitching gibberish, there were flashbacks where the kid they got to play young Don Draper (who at the time was young Dick Whitman) looked nothing like either Don or Dick, there were symbolic wooden spoons and moles, a burglar posing as the mom from GOOD TIMES, Betty no longer was a brunette and no longer wore a fat suit, hippies roamed the ad agency, Joan was nowhere to be seen, and the cast now equals the population of Lichtenstein. It was like somebody watching DR. WHO for the first time plus it was dubbed in Mandarin.

MAD MEN rolls out these more confusing episodes at their own peril. Loyal fans may throw their hands up and say it's just not worth it. Or they may get disgusted or even insulted that the show doesn't seem to care that they don't get it.

And it's not like they can make a mid-season adjustment. All of the episodes for this year have been filmed. If fans are fleeing there's nothing they can do.

Ah, but there is.

And so, as a passionate MAD MEN viewer, I offer these few suggestions to help bring the flock back into the fold.

At the end of each episode, instead of those nonsensical preview snippets (“This can't continue!” cut to: “I'm going to lunch” cut to: “I hate dogs!” cut to: “You...” cut to: “Lettuce?”) distribute a reading list of books that must be read by the next episode. The recent DR. FEELGOOD biography would have been on last week's list. Maybe five or six a week. It's a small price to pay.

For the “Previously on MAD MEN” segment – expand that each week to an hour. So lengthen the show to two hours.

Use Pop Up videos during the episode. Quick little blurbs like “Don gave Sylvia a red dress but equates red to being a whore and he detests whores because his mother was one and died during Don's birth and he was raised by whores so by giving Sylvia a red dress he is in essence calling her a whore.

Flash one of these on the screen every ten to fifteen seconds to enrich the viewer's experience.

At the halfway point, instead of a commercial break, have James Brown and the rest of the CBS NFL TODAY crew analyze what we've seen so far. Let Dan Marino, Boomer Esiason, Bill Cowher, Shannon Sharpe, Jason La Canfora, and Lesley Visser kick around the plot points and get you ready for the second half. For example: they could compare the shots they've all gotten before big games. Also, throw in some highlights.
Instead of airing the show in spanish on the SAP channel, provide a running commentary, a la a director's track on DVD's.

Furthermore, form chat groups with each others so you can text back and forth during the episode and keep those slower members (I.Q.'s of only 130, the poor wretches) up to speed.

Encourage the faithful to hit pause, go back three or four times if there was something they didn't understand.  Watch the show in slo-mo if necessary.

That's it.  And you'll notice that nowhere did I suggest they alter their content or storytelling.  

Will these steps eliminate all confusion and bring back your loyal legion of fans? I don't know. But it's a start.

Any books I should be reading for Sunday night?   It's Thursday already. 


emily said...


Pete Grossman said...

Perhaps as viewers were supposed to feel what the characters were going through - trippy, confused, disoriented and delusional. That and having sex in the office.

Bill said...

As I posted on my Facebook page a few days ago (with all my friends agreeing): "Mad men is so bad this season, I'm questioning why I liked the show to begin with."

Bryan L said...

This is sort of beside the point, but I simply have never been able to watch Mad Men. Friends kept telling me I "had to watch it," and I trudged through the first season and I can't stand it.

I spent a lot of time working for ad agencies, and I guess I have the same problem that cops have with cop shows or doctors have with doctor shows. The show is nothing like any agency I ever worked at. It's so ... dreary. The salaries at agencies were poor, so we tended to make for that with sheer fun. Practical jokes, laughing, goofing on each other. There was lots of politics, and LOTS of ... umm, various interpersonal relationships, but those tended to be odd. Lots of quirky personalities. The whole ad agency concept always seemed to me to be better suited for a comedy than a drama.

Pamela Jaye said...

If it wasn't for Sepinwall and his com enters I'd never have made it thru season 1. But it's pretty bad in general and especially the last two weeks when I've found myself just waiting for Alan to explain the whole mess (substitute TV critics for your sports play by play guys - and your SAP could be a caption track - it helps to have your explanations as you go along).
Not sure why I watch this (I've liked Peggy since she was Zoe(y)), but I've never done it alone. A friend tried and just gave up - in season one (just us such an ambiguous word).
Great ideas.
This was my childhood, except we were less rich, less divorced, in no way into drugs, and I'm five years younger than Sally.

Daniel said...

I'm going to follow your suggestion about the books, except that I'm going to read a book instead of watching Mad Men.

Anonymous said...

Huh, I must admit I have been thoroughly hooked, line and sinker from Season One, E01. And while I admit that it is probably not a show for everyone, I don’t agree with your premise that it needs fixing. The last season was the best yet and this one is nicely picking up speed.

Perhaps it’s because I am an international viewer with an iTunes season pass and don’t have to watch it on air with any ads interfering. I don’t have ADHS and my memory is quite good and I lam familiar with the sixties timeframe and advertising, so that probably helps.

I positively loathe Don Draper and while I see that he probably is essential to the show I am much more interested in more or less everybody else on the show.

Scooter Shechtman said...

Far be it for me to suggest anything unsavory,but ingest a heavy toke of Indica and then the show totally works.

KenNYC said...

ABC did this thing with LOST, where they showed last week's episode, but with caption bubbles to explain the shot or some element on screen. They called it "Enhanced Viewing". Then they would should the All New(tm) episode right after (minus the caption bubbles). I think they still do this with other series from time to time. Anyway, maybe AMC should do that with all their shows. Certainly Mad Men and The Walking Dead could benefit.

Josh Carnes said...

I still love this show. In fact I've found the last three weeks to be spectacular. The only thing I dislike are those Young Don flashbacks. I just accept that Don is a womanizer. I don't need to know "why". And I think January Jones is still wearing padding under her dress, but the fat face is gone.

J. Allison said...

I don't see Mad Men as needing "fixing." Last week's episode didn't work for me, but expecting every episode to be a triumph isn't realistic. It's certainly a show that rewards close viewing and thought, which is a good thing.

I guess there are three things about Mad Men that keep me coming back (aside from the obvious excellent acting and production):

1. The pacing is uneven, just like life. Some episodes have a lot going on and others have very little. And there's no effort to wrap everything up at the end of the hour.

2. Since it's set in the past there's a sense of melancholy over the whole thing. Even if Peggy succeeds beyond her wildest dreams we know that today she's in her mid 70's now and past her peak. Older characters like Bert and Roger are almost certainly dead. The setting isn't about fashion, it's about that sense of inevitability.

3. No matter how much of a cad Don Draper is he is still interesting to me. I may not like him, but I'm still interested in him.

Lots of people are bashing Mad Men this year. I think it's still excellent TV.

normadesmond said...

did i ever mention how much i hate dream & drugs/alcohol sequences on tv shows?

i see it as lazy writers.

Anonymous said...


Steve Pepoon said...

Is it just me, or is television the wrong place to tell stories where you have to remember something from several years ago in order to fully understand and/or appreciate what's going on now? If you want to be that complex with your storytelling, write a book.

craig m said...

Ken, I had a detailed 500-page analysis of what everything meant in last week's Mad Men, but unfortunately this lady who said she was my grandmother broke into my house and stole it from me.

Mark said...

Wow. I thought it was a great, intense episode. It did a terrific job or making me feel like the characters. Lost, high, confused, driven, but for what? Like a fever dream that is as exhausting as the sickness that causes it. I thought it was great TV.

Johnny Walker said...

Time to switch to THE WIRE.

chuckcd said...

At least Hawaii Five-O is not the whiny snore fest that Mad Men is.

bill said...

"(aside from the obvious excellent acting"

I've always found the acting uneven on Mad Men: as if the only had enough money to hire a few good actors and so with whatever was left over we got January Jones.

Ski L.A. said...

I guess I'm in the minority around here, but I've actually been gushing over this last episode as being one of the best the show has ever done.

I still think the first season was the best, and the finale of that season (culminating with Don presenting creative for the Kodak Carousel, where he's talking about the product, but he's really talking about his own life) approached perfection.

This last episode actually made me think it was close to that level.

The drug stuff was fun (especially the exacto knife in the forearm scene), Don losing time was intriguingly disorienting, the robbery with the kids was really intense, and the realization that all the work Don had been doing all weekend wasn't actually for Chevy, but to try to get his mistress back, was amazing. (Did you notice that she, the hooker who deflowered him, and the mom in the oatmeal ad all had moles on their cheeks? The guy's obsessed.)

I found his kicker line at the end of the episode about whenever they get a car account, the place turns into a whorehouse to be delightful. Again, he's talking about the business, but he's also talking about his own life.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am currently a writer at an ad agency, so perhaps everything I just wrote can be discounted because I'm just full of shit.

Unknown said...

Interesting. All these people who don't watch Mad Men or can't stand Mad Men or even detest Mad Men - reading a blog about Mad Men. VERY interesting. It's probably like when people don't get the joke so they bash it.
Every season this show has one of those mind-benders, but what I dog is that Weiner & Co. totally go for it. The object of any show worth its salt is NOT to feed lazy viewers, but rather to make you work at least a little. I am enjoying this season AT LEAST as much as I have any other season, which is saying something.

Wayne said...

MAD MEN is like the Super Bowl. I watch for the ads. AMC shows the same episode three times in a row. It's like Groundhog Day. But the ads change. The first showing, they have classy car ads. The last, it's late night stuff. "Order the Pickle Jar Opener now and we'll throw in the Olive Jar Opener! You just pay shipping!"

外國人 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I still am amazed at the amount of people on Twitter and larger sites like avclub who go nuts at each and every episode.

They seem to love whatever the writers and actors put their way.

I'm not sure what they're seeing at all.

Compared to S1/S2, Mad Men started going off the rails around S3 and it's got nothing but worse into S4 this year. Every avenue there is some new storyline or plot that usually never gets solved or is too abstract to be solved without a Ph.D. They also seem to have got away from what made the show good: advertising.

What does anyone do for work anymore at the office? It's nothing but drugs, sex and drinking now. You turn on some garbage reality show on Bravo for that stuff.

The latest numbers from last weekend, barely 2.1m with a 0.6 share, and the 5 reruns they show right after don't even register enough to hit the Top50 of cable shows on Sunday evening.

D. McEwan said...

"It was like somebody watching DR. WHO for the first time."

I vividly recall how completely bewildered I was by my first Doctor Who episode, albeit it was 30 years ago. My second episode was bewildering also. Then I found an essay by Harlan Ellison about the show (Which was then celebrating its 20th anniversary) which explained the premise clearly (Ellison digs it too), and I was okay and on board ever since, even in the Dark Days of the wretched 6th Doctor, and these days its my favorite current show. (A current show that debuted the day after JFK was assassinated.)

Generally, one should begin Doctor Who at a point when a new companion is signing on, because one can get up to speed on what the heck is going on as it gets explained to the new companion.

I don't watch Mad Men, yet this week even I'm aware of how bewildering folks found this week's episode. Facebook was full of "Can anyone explain to me what the frig tonight's Mad Men was about?" comments.

To be fair, I am still a tad bewildered myself by last week's Doctor Who season finale. I enjoyed it, but I don't fully grasp it yet.

Greg Ehrbar said...

I have to say again, I still watch the show and still like it, but we fell in love with a show that was unique because of its early '60s setting, and now it's becoming more like countless movies and shows about the late's '60s. The recent episode was fascinating and so was SKIDOO.

As someone who also works in an agency, I couldn't stand the AMC show about the real agency -- that was too close to be entertaining -- but the style, writing and performances of MAD MEN are still captivating.

It's also interesting that Ted, who was the adversary in the past, is now appearing more solid than Don (though that will probably change).

It just would have been nice, and more unique, if MAD MEN took one year for each season -- 1960 to 1967 -- and let the summer of love be the ending for the characters.

MAD MEN made a statement that no other show made: that the early '60s set the stage for a lot of what we know today. Now it's making a more commonplace statement that others have made over and over.

Mama Cass sure is groovy, though.

-bee said...

While I think Megan has been the show's biggest mis-step, I still think it's great and really enjoyed this last episode. I chalk up a lot of the dissatisfaction to people being pissed off that Don's mystique is clearly fraying at the seams and he is losing the coolness factor people like to project onto.

YEKIMI said...

I had no trouble understanding it. Then I realized I was watching MAD TV.

Allison E said...

I have never had a problem understanding Mad Men so I'm always confused by people's confusion. The stories are not obvious, I get that but people who go THIS MAKES NO SENSE...well, they do not make sense to me.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

The New Yorker recently commented that the show works best for people who were kids in the era MAD MEN covers - and that's me. Sally Draper is a few months younger than I am and there are other personal resonances (my father worked with ad men in NYC at that time and we lived in a house much like the Drapers'in Westchseter county). I don't know if that's the only reason why, but I've found every season of this show absorbing and interesting. This one included. It's actually making me think somewhat differently about the 1960s than I did before - so much is written about the counterculture and social change, but I can understand much better now how we came out of that decade into electing Nixon and an era of growing conservatism. Honestly, I don't think the show needs fixing.


Greg Ehrbar said...

"The New Yorker recently commented that the show works best for people who were kids in the era MAD MEN covers - and that's me. Sally Draper is a few months younger than I am and there are other personal resonances (my father worked with ad men in NYC at that time and we lived in a house much like the Drapers'in Westchseter county)."

I lived in Westchester county around the same time at the same age! The New Yorker is correct by target marketing guidelines - viewers like to see themselves reflected in media and advertising, thus demographics and target markets. Most anything else might be considered a niche.

But MAD MEN, while I still really enjoy it, was a niche show for that very reason. Now it's like other shows, miniseries and movies that explored the late '60s -- albeit with what most agree to be superb writing, acting and direction.

It was fascinating to see my parents' era, though. Sort of a darker Rob and Laura Petrie. MAD MEN is now about sex, drugs and rock & roll; it used to be about sex, cigarettes and Sing Along with Mitch.

Sung said...

Ken, I think the sad part is that some of these ideas you suggest here aren't ridiculous...they actually sort of make sense!