Suzanne Fields
"Mad Men" is back with a loyal audience after a 10-month hiatus. It returned with 3.4 million viewers, its second-highest rating, and is again getting so much intellectual attention you might think it was "War and Peace."

Such literary pretentiousness veers close to satire, but it's in dead earnest, and that's the rub. It's a testament to the triumph and pomposity of pop culture that we grant soap opera such serious status.

Serious political journalists reach for a soap opera analogy to illuminate, if not explain, candidates and issues. Professors weigh in on "what it means." Walter Dellinger, a lawyer who hosts an online show with scholars and historians about the series, thinks he can make a case for the proposition that "multi-episode, multi-season serial television is the great art form of our time." (Are we that far gone?)

He's not alone. Historian Alan Brinkley says the show echoes the culture of the 1960s and "some of the greatest artists of the era," including Saul Bellow, John Updike and Edward Albee.

Serial television may be called the "novelistic medium" for the 21st century, and critics can deconstruct the meaning of this show with the lavishness they analyze great literature. But that doesn't put it up there with Dostoyevsky just yet. With such pontification in flower, we can expect Don Draper, the leading character, soon to discover, like Moliere's "Bourgeois Gentilhomme," that he's "speaking prose."

Reading lists on the Internet actually footnote the show's book references, and Matthew Weiner, the creator of "Mad Men," cleverly teases (or flatters) the viewer in this season's opener, by having Don read Dante's "Inferno" on the beach in Hawaii. Are we being asked to contemplate what punishment will be meted out to him in hell? (Since the book was recommended by his latest mistress in bed, the adulterous couple could join Francesca and Paolo in Dante's second circle.)

Even the Brits are agog over the series, perhaps patronizing their American cousins for finally having found a medium that suits our taste. James Walton, writing in the London Telegraph, discovers that the suburban town of Ossining, N.Y., where Don Draper in early episodes tucked away his family, was the home of John Cheever, and riffs how Cheever was "the Chekov of the suburbs." By such insinuation, this makes the creator of "Mad Men" our Chekov -- or at least our Cheever. He also finds themes similar to those in Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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