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?