While I was on break last week, I had dinner with one of my former teachers and her husband, a graphics designer. They asked me what TV shows I keep up with, and I mentioned Mad Men. I had recommended it to them before and I thought it would be a natural fit for an art teacher and a graphics designer.
To my surprise, they said that they couldn’t get into the show. I thought perhaps that they gave up after a couple episodes, but they said no, they watched the whole first season. I asked what they found elusive about the show, and they agreed that there was no likable character, no hero. At the end of the season, they couldn’t get behind any of the characters, or care about what happened to them.
At some level, I think our difference of opinion comes down to differences in taste. I would agree that there is no “hero,” but I think that is because almost every character is the protagonist of the scenes they are in. Clearly Don is the focus of the show, and by screen time alone must be considered our protagonist, but at no time do Peggy, Joan, Betty, Pete, or even comedic characters like Roger or Ken lose independence to create a dramatic situation for Don to play against.
The more I thought about it, the more interesting I found the observation that there are no likable characters (whether that’s true or not). I’m pretty heavily invested in the series at this point, and at first I was surprised, because with very, very few exceptions (currently Dr. Rapist and Ugly Betty), I like every character. And that’s even more suprising. Don’s a bad philanderer (not that the activity is categorically wrong, but Don tends to have more destructive affairs than most), Roger is disgustingly sexist, everybody’s racist, most homophobic. Yet even with all of these very un-21st century attitudes, nobody is set apart as so bad that they’re a villain, or even an anti-hero.
I think that this is the thing that makes people so uncomfortable with race and, to a lesser extent, sexism and this show. We don’t get the psychological comfort of having a perfect Peter Fonda or Gregory Peck figure to stand in for us. We don’t even have a character that is so fundementally good that we can excuse their bad behavior. We just have people. People who are sometimes villains, sometimes heroes, and sometimes bad at both.
This is where my teacher and I diverge in opinion. Because of this impartiality, she can’t get into the show. I can’t get enough.