Easing back into Mad Men

I am a fan of Mad Men, which puts me in a tiny minority consisting of just about everyone I know, and most of those I don’t. Perhaps it’s a holdover from my recent post on 4chan’s reaction to The Hunger Games, but I can’t shake the sense that it’s getting harder to find points of obsession in the pop-culture-scape that haven’t already been thoroughly picked over. Credit AMC, a channel that has branded itself as a reliable producer of hit shows that play like cult favorites. I suspect that my desire to hold onto the illusion that I and I alone understand the greatness of Mad Men is the reason I saved its season-five premiere a full 24 hours, sneaking upstairs to watch it in the darkness of our bedroom, the iPad’s glowing screen held inches from my eyes, the grown-up equivalent of reading under the covers with a flashlight. Let me be alone with my stories.

Somewhat hardening the hard-core of my fanboy credibility is the fact I’ve followed the show religiously since it first aired in 2007; it jumped out at me immediately as a parable of male terror, a horror story dressed in impeccable business suits. That basic anxiety has stayed with the show, though it’s only one of its many pleasures. One aspect of the series that I once believed important, the 1960s setting presented in such alien terms as to turn the past into science fiction, turns out not to be so crucial, if the failure of broadcast-network analogs Pan Am and The Playboy Club are any indication.

As for the premiere, I enjoyed it well enough, but not nearly as much as I will enjoy the rest of the season. It always takes me a while to get back into Mad Men’s vibe, with the first episodes seeming stiff and obvious, even shallow, only later deepening into the profoundly entertaining, darkly funny, and ultimately heartbreaking drama I recognize the show to be. The slow thaw reminds me of how I react to seeing Shakespeare on stage or screen: it takes twenty minutes for the rarefied language to come into focus as something other than ostentation. Mad Men too initially distances by seeming a parody of itself, but I suspect that the time it takes for my eyes and ears to adapt to this hermetically-sealed bubble universe has more to do with its precise evocation of a juncture in history when surfaces were all we had — when the culture industry, metonymized in Madison Avenue, found its brilliant stride as a generator of sizzle rather than a deliverer of steak.