Mad Men and the Limitations of Television Criticism


In the age of social media and digital technology, it seems as if everyone has an opinion to express. When it comes to television, especially, there is no shortage of online forums and fan communities in which lovers of a given television series engage in heated debates and passionate discussions. Henry Jenkins studies this in great detail in his book Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, but one thing that he doesn’t really get into is whether or not this engagement is useful.

This article will use the recent reaction to “In Care Of,” the latest episode of Mad Men that just premiered and concluded the show’s sixth season, to consider whether or not criticism of a long-running television series is productive. By using various digital user generated content to exemplify the many different reactions to the season finale from so-called “fans” of the series, I hope to show that television criticism of a long-running series is nearly impossible to do.

Before I begin, it is perhaps necessary to note that I am a fan of Mad Men. I point this out precisely because I find it difficult after so many years of following the series and getting to know its many characters to criticize anything creator Matthew Weiner decides to do. Every Sunday night I am excited to watch the show, and despite what happens and what the characters do, I go with it and find it all so endlessly intriguing. Jon Hamm’s performance as Don Draper is brilliant and even when he is being a complete dog, I cannot help but be compelled by him. In other words, I’m so involved with the show and the many twists and turns it has taken over its six seasons that I am virtually incapable of criticizing it.

This is why it perplexes me even more to find that a number of Mad Men “fans” are not only disappointed in the season finale, but disappointed in the entirety of season six in general. On Goldderby, for instance, user Icky expresses his annoyance in Weiner for “leaning back on sad Don again.” Then there is SaraR, presumably a long-time fan of the series, who is angry that the show currently spends more time with newer characters like Bob and Ted as opposed to older characters like Roger, Joan, and Peggy.

The discourse on IMDB is a little more in-depth, and as a result, more emotional. For example, one thread entitled “What Don Should Have Done” basically considers an alternative action to the one Weiner gives us in the actual season finale. Fans are not satisfied by what Don did, so they instead consider what he should have done, presumably to rewrite what they think are the wrongs of the series. A similar thread features immediate reactions to the season finale, and although it is fun to read how seriously fans take a show that is, ultimately, a fictitious work, it is also a little despairing to know that fans are not above personal insults when other users disagree with them. There does seem to be a majority in the forums, and when one user comes along to disrupt that, he or she is typically called a “troll” for rocking the otherwise steady boat of conformity and agreement.

What does this fandom tell us about Mad Men? It seems that it merely tells us what it intends to tell us. That is, we can scroll through the forums or turn to Twitter to discover who likes the episode or who doesn’t. What is much harder to glean from all of this, I think, is how any of this criticism can be useful.

It can be argued that there is a certain value in television criticism that cannot be denied. For instance, when a show like The Killing premiers, it is much easier to determine whether or not the themes, characters, narrative, and aesthetics are successfully presented within each episode. Many critics and fans who followed along with the first season were ultimately disappointed with the finale because it essentially failed to do what it said it what do: tell us who killed Rosie Larsen. It started out with a promising premise and kept our interest throughout, and when the finale arrived it appeared as if we were finally going to discover the killer’s identity. Then, to much outrage, the series incorporated a final “twist” that turned everything on its head and left us in the dark. We call the first season unsuccessful, or “bad,” because the creator Veena Sud seemingly presented an implausible twist for the sake of shock. Although there are undoubtedly those who have stuck with the series and continue to watch it today, most agree that the first season, at the very least, was worthy of our negative criticism. But this can only be done, I suggest, after we watch the entire first season and get a sense of the narratives, themes, characterizations, and aesthetics of the series. Even then, however, it is a mixed bag, as it is awfully difficult to judge exactly where a television series goes wrong (or right). Further, other individuals often make a strong case that The Killing is not the bad series most critics and fans claimed it to be after the first season. What this leaves us with, ultimately, is confusion. Then, of course, is the fact that certain shows depreciate or appreciate in value as time goes by.

It might be fruitful to criticize a show on a stylistic, aesthetic level. In other words, when we watch Mad Men, we might be able to determine its quality based upon the art direction, cinematography, editing, acting, etc. But how many shows are poorly made on a technical, aesthetic level? Very few, I would argue. So would this mean, then, that every single show with quality aesthetics is by default a “good” show that is worthy of our attention? I don’t think it can be that simple.

There is also another approach to television criticism that I would call comparative criticism. That is, critics and fans compare one show to another in order to determine whether or not it is “good” or “bad.” But is this fair to do? And how far do these comparisons extend? For example, new series on HBO are often compared to previous HBO series. But can anything really be gained from comparing Luck to The Sopranos or The Wire? Isn’t every single show on HBO going to seem mediocre in comparison to the two greatest television series in the history of the medium? Moreover, what happens when the shows being compared are aesthetically and thematically different? When Lena Dunham’s Girls premiered, for instance, many critics and fans compared it to Sex and the City, simply because both shows are on HBO and both follow the lives of four women. But as we have come to find, the two are radically different in both style and tone, and they do not belong in the same category. Then there is The Newsroom, which had many critics comparing it to creator Aaron Sorkin’s previous television work, as if he is not allowed to explore new horizons and will always be judged by what he accomplished in his past.

There is a second type of comparative criticism that is more common but still inefficient. This is when a given episode of a series is compared to the broader medium and our expectations that go along with watching episodic television. For example, one would determine the success of “In Care Of” based upon how it measures as a standard season finale. That is, does it have enough dramatic bite? Is it “big” enough to warrant a finale? It is fair to say that Mad Men has been pretty consistent in delivering dramatic finales that satisfy the viewer’s craving for something “major” to happen. “In Care Of,” especially ,is a game-changing episode that many of us did not see coming. But other great series, including The Sopranos, have often delivered quieter, more contemplative finales. Does this make these shows or these episodes “bad’ simply because they do not adhere to our conventional standards? I certainly hope not.

Then there is the third and final type of comparative criticism that seems to get at the heart of what television criticism can offer. This is the case of fans and critics comparing the series to itself. For Mad Men, this usually means fans determining whether or not season six measures up to previous seasons. But this seems problematic because it is dependent entirely upon preference and taste. Who can truly say, for example, which Mad Men season is the “best” when they are all a part of a larger, continuing narrative? By contrast, is it possible to say that Mad Men is “good” if it is not yet completed? Where do we draw the line? Do we judge each episode separately, or within the context of the season? And then how do we judge the season? As a cohesive whole, or as a product of a larger series? What do we do when the series is still on the air?

This leads to my conclusion that is is arbitrary and inefficient to criticize a long-running TV show like Mad Men. Fans are inevitably going to be mixed over how Matthew Weiner decides to tell his story. Some, like SaraR, become disappointed when Weiner pushes aside old characters for new ones, while others, like Icky, are annoyed that Don returns to his old, unattractive self. Even more telling, however, are the fans who love the show too much to be able to determine whether or not what they are watching on the screen is “good” or “bad.” They are just happy to be there, week after week, as voyeurs of these complex, fictitious characters as they navigate the terrain of this endlessly fascinating world.

What is productive, then, is in-depth discussion of the thematic, aesthetic, and narrative elements of a series. For instance, it is useful to watch “In Care Of” and debate the thematic and narrative significance of Don’s decision to tell the truth, as opposed to criticizing whether or not the decision benefits the series or is ‘true” to the series’ thematic and narrative intentions. After all, how can anything be true to a show’s intentions if the show, by default, is fiction? Anything depicted within the world of the series will be constructed for dramatic effect, and as a result, no such truth can exist. The discussion often gets carried away, I believe, because many users tend to forget that the series is fiction and that the characters do not exist. In effect, users take what happens on a series personally, as if Sally’s discovery of Don’s affair in “Favors” actually matters outside of the construction of the series. When this episode first aired, for example, many threads on IMDB discussed how Sally’s future would be “destroyed” by her discovery, as if she were a real person we should worry about. This can be beneficial if it contributes to a discussion of the series as a work of art with a focus on theme, narrative, characterization, or aesthetic, but it is often bogged down by trivial, reductive comments like, “Don wouldn’t do that in real life,” or, “I don’t buy Sally’s reaction.” The implication that stems from these comments is: “I know these characters, and what they just did complicates my knowledge, and I don’t like that, so I’m going to say that their actions are the product of bad writing and unrealistic storytelling because I don’t want to think about what these changes mean and how they challenge my view of the series.”

I acknowledge that it is fun to debate our favorite television series and part of the joy that comes with watching television is the ability to discuss what happens with other fans. But the discussion needs to extend beyond the mere “good” or “bad” value judgments that fans often place upon the episodes. It hardly matters whether we like what happens or not. What matters more, I believe, is what happens, why we think it happens, and how this contributes to our understanding of the overall series.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Jon Lisi is a PhD student who writes about film, television, and popular culture. You can follow his work here:

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  1. Marcus Dean

    Mad Men is a show all about detail, whether its the painstakingly accurate attention to fashion, music or even the current events within its timeline. Which I think makes it probably one of the most ripe programmes to pull apart and examine and while I agree that simply saying its good or bad is a redundant message, I do think some episodes are better than others and I think as long as you have a reasoning to justify that when asked about it, it should suffice.
    A less than stellar Mad Men episode still gives me almost twice as much to talk about than most other shows so I personally don’t mind when I’m underwhelmed by an episode, because it makes me think about the characters thought track and where they are within the plot that little bit more.
    I don’t think season 6 was as good as season 5, but it was still brilliant. And the fact that Mad Men is all about the characters, I do agree with you in the respect that we don’t need to mark seasons against each other because each one feels like a chapter in the characters lives, rather than simply a season of network television catered to make audiences come back for more. But season 5 contained more episodes of realistic character exploration in my opinion and that is why I think it was a better season. And as for the finale, I’m excited by Don’s new direction, for a second I really thought he was gonna stiff Ted. I’m glad he didn’t, Ted deserves a fresh chance, Don doesn’t. Sorry for the essay in reply!

    • Marcus Dean

      Oh and I forgot to mention check out The AV Club’s reviews in their TV club section if you don’t already, they really are brilliant to read.

  2. Brandon Merriman

    I agree with your article in the case of Mad Men, for sure. I think the sorts of comparative comments you are scolding people for in this case are necessary in newer series though, to figure out their value as far as originality in the critical areas. In the case of Community, whether the new episodes have the same heart as the old ones. We definitely can’t assign good or bad to these, but we use the building blocks of good or bad to analyze them and come out with a whole picture. That makes it confusing to nail down exactly what we should and shouldn’t do critically. Unless we just say Art is Art and there is no best art. But that’s a pipe dream. :p

    Correct me if I’m wrong, then: We need to trust Matthew Weiner because he knows what he is doing and would never do anything too stupid, so welcome Weiner’s interpretation because he is the God of the universe.

    It is sad though…I like thinking that I have some idea of how a person will react at a thing in life. I suspect we are more intimate with certain TV characters than people we know in real life. That’s where the rub might come for people taking this stuff too seriously.

    • Jon Lisi
      Jon Lisi

      I probably would say Art is Art and there is no best art, but I do understand your point. I guess I was trying to raise a larger question of how do you criticize something when you are so invested in it? The Before Sunrise films are an example as well. I loved the latest installment, but I don’t think there would be a case that I wouldn’t because I’m so invested in the story/characters.

      • I would disagree; I think there is an objective good and bad in art. To add to the question: “[H]ow do you criticize something when you are so invested in it?”, I would say that you can’t as it removes your lens of objectivity. You would have to divest yourself of any emotive attachment to the art and consume it with an open mind. Only grow an attachment after making an assessment and that it demonstrates how beautiful, comprehensive and complex it is.

  3. The confession scene was touching and very well deserved of praise.

  4. probably one of the best articles I have read on this subject. mind the cliché but I stand completely in agreement. sharing this on fbook.

  5. Saad Telaviv

    Where would the show be without the fans. It is a praise to cast and crew that we are flooding the discussion boards with thoughts and reflections of the episodes.

  6. fchaser

    All information is useful. Take what you need and leave the rest. Fans shouldn’t be censored because without fans where would the series be? While I agree that there is a wider spectrum of descriptive jargon to use for purposes of describing, comparatively, the narrative, thematic, and aesthetic details of each episode of Mad Men, the general viewing audience cannot be expected to have the same standards of analysis as professionals.

    If the actors weren’t so believable, the viewing audience wouldn’t connect with them quite so personally, so…that’s kind of a compliment to them in a twisted way.

  7. Nilson Thomas Carroll

    I’ve been reading a few of your old articles and they’re very good.

    I’m not sure if I agree with your thesis on television and aesthetics, but still, great piece.

  8. I’m late to this piece and to Mad Men in general, but I really enjoyed your piece, Jon Lisi.

    I wonder about a couple of things though:

    1. I love your conception of going along with narrative elements and not criticizing the characters’ choices within a show. If a character acts “out of character,” we can assume that it actually WAS in character and our idea of the character was too limited. I think that is a great way to think about characters. However, this brings me to my next point.

    2. When is it okay to discuss whether one should invest in a show that one is new to? In other words, people discuss “good” and “bad” to often mean they like or dislike a show or an episode. With so many shows to watch, even so many “quality TV shows,” we have to have a way to judge what we should invest in. I wonder when it is appropriate in your schema to make those judgments, even when they are personal and not public. Likewise, is it okay to say or even think that we don’t like a particular episode or a particular character’s action or a particular narrative thread?

    Provocative stuff.

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