I recently finished watching the first three seasons of Mad Men.
The second viewing confirmed many of my first impressions, but I have come away with some new thoughts as well.
Where the acclaim is concerned (the show won its fourth Emmy for Best Drama in a row last year), it would seem critics are responding not only to the aesthetic-nostalgic appeal of the show's recreation of a more glamorous-seeming era; or its iconoclastic portrayal of the early 1960s, (the echoes of Thomas Frank's The Conquest of Cool and Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road not groundless, but greatly exaggerated); or even its giving the audience the guilty pleasure of vicarious indulgence in un-p.c. behavior while still feeling superior to it.
The truth is that almost everything about the show is a perfect fit with highbrow critics' views on what constitutes Good Drama – the slow pace and the heavy use of indirectness and implication (e.g. subtext) to drop a massive freight of irony on the heads of its mostly unlikeable characters that might seem like liabilities to many a viewer a big plus in their book. The upper-middle class social setting, and the premise's allowing for a great deal of writing about writing, media about media, the positioning of identity, domestic life and suburban dissatisfaction as central themes, are likewise much in line with their tastes. And the association of show creator Matthew Weiner with the last cable drama to win such heaping (over)praise, The Sopranos (which worked in a not dissimilar manner), only helps.
All this makes the show not just a triumph of style over substance, but a reminder that pandering to the snobbery of the upmarket review pages (and the viewers who mindlessly follow their lead) can pay real dividends.
Mad Men: My Two Cents