Mad Men and Bad Men

James Scott Bell

AMC’s award winning series, Mad Men, is back for another season. It kicked off last Sunday to somewhat disappointing ratings.  Which makes it an interesting case study in storytelling. I’d like to explore that a little bit, and make a point about how to portray what I call “negative Leads.”
For those out of the loop, Mad Men  is a recreation of the Madison Avenue advertising world of the early 60s. It’s a fabulous rendition, down to the most minute set details, costumes, dialogue and current events. It really does feel like you’re back in time. The acting is first rate, too. But now comes the hard part.
The series centers around Don Draper, a handsome cipher who happens to be great at his job, advertising. He’s not so great at life. He’s a serial adulterer with a checkered past, given to losing his temper when things don’t go his way. The characters surrounding him are no angels, either. Everyone has “issues” (back in the day when it was not cool to say you had “issues.”)
Which is the challenge of the show. A good friend of mine said he tried to get into it but “I couldn’t stand any of the characters.” So he jumped ship.
And that invites (note: not “begs”) the $64,000 question: how can you tell a story with a Lead character who is not an admirable person? How long can you expect readers, or viewers, to stick with a negative Lead?
I am sure the show’s creators have taken on this challenge purposely. They did not want to create a “same old” show. In a way, they’ve given us the first truly postmodern series on TV: a meandering plot line about enigmatic characters who seem to have no purpose in life save the making of money in their work.
This is new because for millennia story has been about heroes battling on behalf of the community, upholding its sacred values and traditions (read Joseph Campbell for more on that.)
But Mad Men doesn’t give us this kind of Lead. Instead, we are asked to empathize with Don Draper as he goes about (for four seasons now) acting in ways that are self-destructive, immoral and confused. For many viewers, like my friend, that isn’t enough to hold them.
Here’s my theory on that. An audience will track with a negative Lead if they see a chance for his redemption. Or, in the alternative, to see if he will get his comeuppance. 
Think about that. Why do we read about Scrooge, a bitter misanthrope who hates, of all things, Christmas? We follow his account to see if he’ll be redeemed.
Likewise Scarlett O’Hara. What a little twit. But when the Civil War breaks out and she has to save Tara, we wonder, Hey, maybe she’ll grow up after all. (She does, but too late, and that’s a tragedy.)
What these Leads show us early on is the possibility and capacity for change. That’s what gives us hope as we read about them. Scarlett shows grit and Scrooge shows empathy. We begin to think they have a shot at getting things right.
In Mad Men, it’s unclear if there is any “right.” And that may be what frustrates a large bloc of viewers. Personally, I keep watching because I want to see if Mad Men ultimately has what the Greeks called telos – a purpose, a completeness – toward which it is working. But I have to say I’m watching more in the capacity of the interested observer than the passionate lover. I admire the show even as it keeps me at something of a distance.
Another example is House. Unlikable Lead very good at what he does. But as another close friend recently told me, “I stopped watching because I got tired of waiting. It wallows too much in its negativity.”
So there’s the challenge. Most readers and viewers hope for redemption, but if you make them wait too long you risk losing them.
What about you? Do you prefer to read books or watch shows about traditional heroes? (Note that a good hero has flaws, but is still aiming toward something we can vaguely label “the good.”) Or do shows like Mad Men and House do enough to hold your interest? 

27 thoughts on “Mad Men and Bad Men

  1. I’ve not seen the show in question, but reading the brief description here, I wouldn’t want to. Sounds like the same effect as watching the news–24/7 negativity.

    I don’t need a happy ending, but I do need to know the characters are worth spending time with.

  2. It’s really hard for me to get engaged with any television series enough to seek it out week after week. The only one I’m watching regularly of late is “The Mentalist,” oddly enough. An old-fashioned, light-hearted, totally unrealistic group of characters, but I find it amusing.

  3. I watched a few episodes early on but was not engaged enough in either character or story to stick with it. From what I saw, in addition to characters I cared nothing about, I saw no defining story goal.

    The one antihero character and story I did follow, and who got it right,IMO, is David Chase and the Sopranos.

    Tony’s methods were twisted, he was violent and an adulterer, and a criminal but he was living by a code, a value system we could all sympathize with: he was a family man protecting his family the best way he knew how.

  4. I think Mad Men has fulfilled its telos from episode 1. A large part of that is poking the myth of the ‘golden age of America’ it was supossed to be the counter culture youth movement of the mid to late sixties that skewed the moral compass of America and presaged modern America. Mad Men shows that the 40’s and 50’s, the era most of the characters grew up in, came of age was equally skewed toward the corrupt and profane and in many ways worse, that the golden age was a facade, a lie, like advertising itself, and like the fronts most of the characters put up.

    I mean, I’m not saying that’s all the show is, that’s perhaps not the entire premise, but it feels like that’s a major part of it.

    Then again, as a non-American I wonder if that effects how I view the show. Anyways, I love it, find it fascinating, and kinda enjoy the fact that there isn’t a traditional narrative going on.

  5. BK, I think you sum up the way many viewers feel. In a long series you do indeed spend a lot of time with the characters. Will that journey be ultimately satisfying?

    Kathryn, nothing wrong with being amused!

  6. David, your point about Tony Soprano is a good one. Yes, a negative Lead, but with a code of conduct that makes him more like an anit-hero, which is very popular in American lit and cinema.

  7. Lee, yes, that’s an obvious aim of the show, to critique the so called “facade” of the era. And the world of advertising, as you posit, is the right vehicle for that. But on the level of characters, It’s somewhat unrealistic, as the majority of men in that time were trying to lead decent and honorable lives. It would be nice to have a representation of that in the show. As it stands, it’s all skewed toward the “corrupt and profane.”

  8. Nice observations about character, Jim. These leads are flawed to an extreme. But like you said, we all hope some good will come of it. I’ve not watched MAD MEN, and abandoned HOUSE in the first season. But moving in the opposite direction, Dexter Morgan is a flawed character (serial killer) who, through great acting and writing, draws you in to the point that you can’t look away. My wife and I are such fans of DEXTER that rather than watching it on a weekly basis, we wait until the season comes out on DVD and watch 2-3 episodes a night, taking in the whole scope of the show in one big gulp.

  9. I believe you’re right about the redemption/comeuppance thing. In life, no one likes bullies. Also in life, people have a universal belief in justice, regardless of religion. Stories about characters doing bad things without consequences come across as unrealistic. But mostly, people like to cheer for good to win over evil.

  10. Joe, I’ve not watched Dexter, but what a concept, and apparently it works for many for the reaasons you suggest.

    And Timothy, that does seem to be a “universal” in us, which is why traditional storytelling is still the most popular.

  11. Thinking about this post, this is in part the reason I hated the movie Appaloosa. the lead character never changed throughout the course of the movie (sorry, I don’t remember character names, and don’t want to). He made stupid choices at the beginning, and he was still making stupid choices by story’s end. I walked out of the theater feeling my time had been completely wasted.

  12. Hi Jim and all you Kill Zoners,

    I never had a desire to watch Mad Men so I can’t comment on it. I did watch House for awhile. I hated it, and then I saw the episode about why he was in so much pain, I loved it, and then after awhile I got bored. And then I found out that Hugh Laurie supported NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness).
    So then I loved Hugh Laurie. I’m a full-time college counselor in a nursing college and I used that show to help my students.

    Now I’ve joined the ranks of Joe Moore and started watching Dexter(on DVD), which is a really interesting show with a lot of bad language and not for the young. Talk about Mad Men, Dexter’s a true Mad Man and way out there, but there’s just something about him that draws me in.(Probably because I want to find out why he is the way he is) I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing. My hubby keeps saying, “And why are you watching that show?” In this case if he’s redeemed everyone will quit watching.:)

  13. I’m a sucker for the “good” but quite acepting of ‘issues’.

    If a protagonist, though flawed and involved in negative behavior, can somehow show there is fundamental good somewhere at his core I’m on board.

    Sometimes the fact that the character recognizes and is uncomfortable with their badness (conscience) is enough. Tony Soprano is a good example(the code adherence and family focus likewise engages me). Did anyone enjoy The Shield? I felt that the lead character was a similarly conflicted, complex, “bad” yet somehow relatively sympathetic character(great suspense and a well written/acted show IMO).

    I see and hear it suggested in writing instruction that even the negative lead/villain should have some redeeming trait or humanity in order to be effective.

    How to slip that essence of good into these bad guy leads or villainous characters?

    Remember Nurse Ratchet (sp?) in Cuckoo’s Nest. Nasty through and through and one of the best negative characters in film history IMO.

  14. Personally I loved the Richard Stark “Parker” series. Did Michael Corleone ever make a character arc? Didn’t matter. Well, he did regret that he’d killed his own brother for that betrayal that led to his wife and him almost being killed outside Reno. I don’t need for the world to be bathed in a golden hue at the end of a book or movie. Good doesn’t have to defeat evil for me to enjoy, even if I don’t feel good about the resolution. Although a steady diet of bad guys winning would be an empty plate served cold.

  15. Personally I loved the Richard Stark “Parker” series. Did Michael Corleone ever make a character arc? Didn’t matter. Well, he did regret that he’d killed his own brother for that betrayal that led to his wife and him almost being killed outside Reno. I don’t need for the world to be bathed in a golden hue at the end of a book or movie. Good doesn’t have to defeat evil for me to enjoy, even if I don’t feel good about the resolution. Although a steady diet of bad guys winning would be an empty plate served cold.

  16. John, good point. I did mention in my post the “comuppance” aspect. A story doesn’t have to end in a rosy hue. That’s what tragedy is all about. The Godfather saga is a tragedy. And in that way, still “vindicates” the values of the community–as a warning.

  17. I love well-crafted unrepentant evil characters. I don’t need happily ever after and sometimes I like an unsettled uncomfortable ending (as in Pet Sematary).

    Tony Soprano, Dexter, Michael Corleone, are all excellent examples.

    They all faced consequences, but none had the eye-opening revelation that made them foresake their evil ways and devote their lives to orphaned puppies.

    What I really liked about Soprano is that every time I felt a twinge of sympathy or respect for him, he would do something so obnoxious that I would immediately be disgusted. What a fun ride!

    My absolute favorite character type is the reluctant hero. Either a common man forced to find greatness (Stu Redman in The Stand) or an villanous character that comes through either through a change of heart or enlightened self interest (Han Solo, ah heck memory is deserting me . . .)


  18. I love MAD MEN, Jim. I have all 3 seasons in boxed set form and I’m watching the fourth. Just so you know up front where I stand.

    I think the show is taking us from the 1950s to the 1960s. Yes, I know, season 1 started in 1960. But in my opinion, the 1950s carried on in full bloom until November 22, 1963.

    That was, IMHO, the most traumatic single day in our nation’s history. The country took a sharp left turn, and would never, ever be the same. All in one day.

    Don Draper and his band of merry men and women took three seasons to establish all the 1950s mores and ethics. There were a few little signs of change (the Volkswagen campaign, the openly gay man in the office), but basically, it was the fifties all the way.

    Season 4 opens in November, 1964. Don’s new agency has had a year to get on its feet and move into a real office, but Don, Roger, and many of the other characters are oblivious to the approaching clouds of the sixties. They think everything is pretty much as it’s always been. Even Don’s pitch to Jantzen looked dated, but nobody caught it.

    Peggy’s got a new do and a new attitude, foreshadowing the feminism to come. Joan is trying to change her wardrobe, but not succeeding. Sal will probably come back into the fold, but only after he comes out of the closet. Vietnam will eventually seep into everyone’s consciousness. Civil rights, and its resultant inclusion of blacks into all levels of society, will turn the advertising business on its ear.

    Don may even learn that his own sins have cost him, that simply having a cutesy, vacant trophy wife is not enough, that there’s a deeper meaning to it all. And the sixties may well show him how to redeem himself.

    How these people handle this cataclysmic change will, I believe, be the crux of the whole show from season 1 to its conclusion, whenever that may be.

  19. James, I think you captured my feelings when you said about decent and honorable folk –

    It would be nice to have a representation of that in the show. As it stands, it’s all skewed toward the “corrupt and profane.”

    That’s my issue with the show. It gets tiresome and predictable to have everyone be “corrupt and profane.”

    It seems to me that good storytelling would have some good characters as foils if nothing else.

    Don’t want to spoil it with details, but even tonight I thought for a moment that Don might be redeemed but no, he fell back into regular patterns. We’ll see what’s to come.

    BTW – my husband has the same reaction as your friend.

  20. You called Scarlett O’Hara a “twit”? Oh, JSB, such a dagger to the heart…

    But you have a point. Because Scarlett, whom I’m love, is very unlikable. I haven’t seen Mad Men, but I love House. I think the very premise of someone as sarcastic and nasty as House who is in the business of saving lives is what keeps me watching. Built-in irony. If he can save lives, he must care about those lives, which means he’s not as nasty as he wants us to think.

    Same with Scarlett. Obvious she cared about Tara and her family, right from the start, although she often put her desires first.

    Part of what readers want is what they want, i.e. don’t change the game. I heard that they were changing Mad Men. Perhaps this is what put people off. If House suddenly stopped being sarcastic, I’d stop watching. Just as I did with Maddy and David on Moonlighting when they forced them together. Changes the game.

  21. I love every frame of Mad Men and have seen all seasons twice. The story, the characters, the 60s furniture, the smoking, everything. I am not into stories with all good people in it. Very boring. Perhaps it takes a foreigner to appreciate the craziness of American 60s advertising culture.

  22. Pantau, it is an interesting take, the foreign view. Just remember Mad Men is heightened fiction. The truth of the period is a lot more complex, as reality always is. Thanks for the comment.

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