In 2011, cultural critic Daniel Mendelsohn penned a 4,000-word review laying out a case against Mad Men in The New York Review of Books. This was no unhinged rant but a calm, blow-by-blow critique of a show that had just wrapped its fourth and arguably most beloved season (the one with “The Suitcase”). Mendelsohn’s piece wasn’t a total takedown — it explored what he called Mad Men’s “irrational,” nostalgic appeal, which Mendelsohn himself found fascinating. But his words touched a nerve, leaving fans stunned by how broadly and unsentimentally he dismissed significant swaths of the show: The writing was “extremely weak,” he wrote, the acting “bland,” and the plotting “preposterous.”
After seven seasons of nearly rhapsodic critical praise for Mad Men, which airs its series finale Sunday, Mendelsohn has been the strongest voice of the opposition to register, and most effective at getting others to come to the show's defense — but he’s not alone. A vocal contingent of Mad Men haters has persisted since day one, and they draw their fire along similar lines. “Despite high praise from the Times, People, and the Los Angeles Times,” Sacha Z. Scoblic wrote in her review of season one in The New Republic, “Mad Men is ultimately as self-indulgent and annoying as its terminally repressed characters.” Mendelsohn recalls the many who reached out to him after his piece was published. “They made comments along the lines of, ‘There was something about this that was bothering me and I was never able to put my finger on it, and I read your piece and I get it,’” Mendelsohn told Vulture by phone. “Michael Chabon the novelist wrote me and said he loved [the show], but that he really liked my piece also.” (His conversations, he adds, also involved “a lot of unproductive yelling.”)
Mendelsohn, who stopped watching Mad Men after its fourth season, clarifies that the show evokes something less emotionally intense than hate for him: It’s more that he feels no love for it. But this, he says, qualifies him as a hater in fans’ eyes. “Unfortunately, the way the public operates in this day and age is that everything is reduced to black or white,” Mendelsohn explains, “and the fact is that most of what we see we have mixed responses to.”
Scoblic reviewed the pilot in 2007 and is now a fair-weather fan, keeping up with the show only to stay a part of the conversation. Her feelings toward the show echo Mendelsohn’s: not hate but more a passive disinterest. “It never quite won me over,” she says.
Mendelsohn and Scoblic were turned off by Mad Men in similar ways, and they crystallized the main issues that have stuck with them:
Overdoing the whole ’60s thing.
“There are so many scenes where the punch line is, ‘Ha-ha, they’re clueless people in the ’60s,’” Mendelsohn says. Scoblic adds, “I think because I wrote this [review], I became hyperaware of the ‘It’s the ’60s!’ meme that just would hit you over the head every episode to the point where it was just a distraction. That nod to authenticity made it inauthentic — it made the show so self-conscious and aware of itself.”
Scoblic points to other period shows she appreciates for not bringing attention to the era. “I was reading something on The Americans, and the designer was saying how even though it’s set in the ’80s, she’s not making the characters wear huge shoulder pads because she doesn’t want it to take away from the story. I felt a deep connection with this person.”
“I felt like I was driving past a series of billboards, with several important exceptions [feminism],” says Mendelsohn. “I got the patriarchy, I got the race thing — I didn’t feel that things were integrated in a way that was real and meaningful.” Scoblic agrees: “The women in the workplace stuff was relentless. I wasn’t alive back then, maybe that’s how it was, but it seems like Matthew Weiner was trying to make a point about it every single chance he got.”
Mendelsohn dislikes the number of subplots, which, he says, often “fizzled out because something more interesting came along.” Scoblic takes aim at the larger arc: “There are shows like Breaking Bad that take a dramatic arc and thread that arc through every episode and you have a destination,” she explains, “and I don’t feel Mad Men was ever going anywhere in particular, except teasing us about Don Draper’s background.”
Both Mendelsohn and Scoblic feel he was given a heavy-handed backstory and cartoonish portrayal. “He jumped the shark, too, with the glamour, fedora, cigarettes, and the whiskey,” says Scoblic. “I just felt like the character was not as mysterious and interesting as he was supposed to be.” Mendelsohn: “When your main character is opaque on purpose, that’s a very hard thing to bring on because you run the risk of having the viewer just not care, which is what happened to me.”
Mendelsohn and Scoblic diverge on one point, though: Jon Hamm’s portrayal of Draper. Scoblic faults the characterization but credits Hamm for playing him “really well.” Mendelsohn believes Hamm's casting was fatal. “There are certain kinds of American actors," he says, "who specialize in bringing forward the anxious inner turmoil of ostensibly bland, all-American characters.” Hamm, he thinks, isn't one of those actors. Imagine, he says, what someone like Jimmy Stewart could have done in the role. “In all those Hitchcock films," says Mendelsohn, "it was his job to be the ordinary guy who was just at the edge of something wrong.”
Beyond those issues, Scoblic has since softened on some points she made in her early review. “I said there was no character development, and certainly there was loads of it,” she says. “The show also moves through time by jumping through the years — that was something interesting that I didn’t expect."
On the eve of the show's finale, Mendelsohn’s larger critique is almost meta, aimed at the response to the show rather than the show itself. Mad Men, he argues, receives an undue amount of attention, the cultural force of the show not commensurate to its quality. He compares this imbalance to how Alice Sebold’s blockbuster novel, The Lovely Bones, was received in 2002 (which he wrote about similarly). “It was the same sort of juggernaut, and I thought it was so disproportionate to the actual merit of the novel — it sort of seems to be about something aside from what’s in the thing you’re reviewing,” he says.
Would Mendelsohn and Scoblic like Mad Men more, then, if it weren’t so worshipped? Both are quick to point to other shows they love with big followings — Breaking Bad for Scoblis, House of Cards for Mendelsohn. “It’s possible the more phenomenal it became, the less likely it was I was going to be interested,” Scoblic allows, “but the phenomenon is too big for the serial. It’s a telenovela set in the ’60s that’s really beautiful to look at.” Mendelsohn saw the fandom as more of a reason to explore it: “When there is this very strong public enthusiasm for something which you don’t share as a critic, then your job is to figure out what the difference is between what everyone else is seeing and what you're seeing.”
And in his view, the popular obsession with Mad Men can be explained as deeply emotional, which precludes viewers from making more objective critical calculations. For Mendelsohn, nostalgia is the overriding draw of the show, which he theorizes is also the case for its largely 19-to-49-year-old demographic — a cohort, of course, who mostly never lived through the ’60s. “I remember my parents when I was a 6-year-old in 1966, and even though I know that on most days my mom was wearing a sweater and pants and vacuuming the living-room carpet, in my memory she’s dressed up to go to a party like January Jones,” he says. “The show sort of captures the look of the era but also filters through a kind of beautifying nostalgia, and that says something very true about how we relate to the past with filters.”
Mendelsohn calls the show “irreplaceable” for this reason. “It doesn’t have to do with the quality. What makes something a phenomenon,” he argues, “is that it has satisfied some kind of emotional need in the audience.”