A reader writes:
I think the answer to the question of why people so inordinately love the show is simple: People enjoy seeing the culture and attitudes of the '50s and pre-counterculture '60s displayed. It’s fun to see how different attitudes towards women in the workforce, smoking and drinking, gender relationships, religion, etc. were back then compared to our contemporary world.
Ben Schwarz explored that theme of liberal self-congratulation in his 2009 review of the show:
In describing a scene in which sexist badinage is exchanged at an account meeting, [Jesse] McLean correctly points out that “the series is critical of this limited view and is not afraid to spell [its criticism] out.” That stance—which amounts to a defiant indictment of sexism and racism, sins about which a rough moral consensus would now seem to have formed—militates against viewers’ inhabiting the alien world the show has so carefully constructed, because it’s constantly pressing them to condemn that world.
And that stance is responsible for the rare (and therefore especially grating) heavy-handed and patronizing touches in an otherwise nuanced drama. Must the only regular black characters be a noble and cool elevator operator, a noble and understanding housekeeper, and a perceptive and politicized supermarket clerk? Must said elevator operator, who goes unnoticed by the less sensitive characters, sagely say when discussing Marilyn Monroe’s death, “Some people just hide in plain sight”? Get it—he’s talking about himself. He’s invisible.
Even worse, that stance evokes and encourages the condescension of posterity; just as insecure college students feel they must join the knowing hisses of the callow campus audience when a character in an old movie makes an un-PC comment, so Mad Men directs its audience to indulge in a most unlovely—because wholly unearned—smugness. As artistically mistaken as this stance is, it nonetheless helps account for the show’s success. We all like to congratulate ourselves, and as a group, Mad Men’s audience is probably particularly prone to the temptation.
The above reader continues:
Other than that, I don’t think there’s a whole lot to recommend the show. It seems to me that the plot moves along slowly and not in an especially compelling way. The characters are, for the most part, not particularly interesting; and the writing is certainly very good, but not Sorkin-like in its brilliance.
Speaking of which, the trailer for the latest Sorkin just came out. Another reader:
What many people overlook about Mad Men is how comforting a slow-paced show can be. It’s a really difficult balance, because it’s so easy to fall into boredom and self-importance. But the show’s pace, minimalist design, and familiar characters create an appealing mental ease. Also, while 75 percent of the shows are merely good; when it’s great, it’s the best. So we watch for those moments.
Another fan counters Marc Tracy's critique:
I have friends who thought the brief scene between the new hire and his father was too something – sentimental? on the nose? I defended against their criticism by pointing out how, in his interview with Peggy, Mike had said he had no family. Whether that was a spur-of-the-moment lie to create a special image of himself, or one he commonly uses, that creates a distance between him and his father. And that distance was demonstrated in the prayer scene, with Mike's back to the camera, and the father in the shadows. So the gravitas or spiritual importance that Tracy harps on is actually undercut. Add to that the irony of Roger's comment that a Jew will make the office more modern. SCDP might be valuing that identity trait more than Mike himself does.
These are meanings, and I derived them from only a few minutes of action. This is one of the reasons I like Mad Men: I think it does a great job of introducing new characters by setting up tensions in the relationships.
Another also liked the scene:
Matthew Weiner and his writers gave us a completely unexpected moment that adds depth and pathos to the character. After exclusively focusing on him in the context of his job and talent, we get to see the difficulties of his home life with what seems to be a difficult but loving father. We know something personal and very real about this new character in the space of just a few scenes, something the other characters don't know, which adds richness to the show as a whole. And we know more about this one, brand new character from those few scenes, than we ever know about a multitude of characters in traditional television (or even movie) narratives.