But that's the trouble with all this oh-so-cool criticism. It shows off the critic rather than what's being criticized. It becomes a Rorschach test for literary pretentiousness, telling us more about ourselves and the fads we follow than the people it depicts.
While "Mad Men" is a costume drama of the 1960s, a time a lot closer to us than "Downton Abbey," it offers a nostalgic trip down memory lane for many viewers. But "The Great Gatsby" it's not. It may be fun, but fun is different than "fine." What's sad is that it's an accurate measure of what has happened to the culture -- entertainment and celebrity is all.
Most of the audience for "Mad Men" is made up of the children of parents of the '60s, eager to check out their perspectives against blurred childhood recollections. They can enjoy a condescending hipness when Don Draper fails to appreciate the Beatles, or experience the superiority of hindsight that smoking, though portrayed as glamorous, wasn't healthy.
The sexual hypocrisies are palpable, and issues of race and feminism seem positively fossilized. Viewers can have fun playing "Gotcha," looking for anachronisms such as Don watching a nighttime NFL game in 1964, though prime-time weeknight pro football didn't come on the tube until 1970.
"Mad Men" lacks the emotional depth or moral insights of a good novel (or even a mediocre one). It wallows deep in the shallows, jumping around haphazardly, offering just enough information to fill in the numbers. The dialogue is unintentionally ironic when it sounds like advertising copy, and the characters are as flat as a television screen. Reviewing an episode is a little like reviewing an unfinished book.
It also uses the cheap tricks of soap opera, what Daniel Mendelsohn in The New York Review of Books says is "simultaneously contemptuous and pandering," allowing the audience to feel superior at a less enlightened time, at the same time it eroticizes and titillates through the dramatic action. The leading man is both the face of the clean-cut man in the old Arrow shirt ad and the actor whose trousers are so tight that he was cautioned to be sure to wear underwear to make it "family friendly." The show is not soft porn, but it's not profound, either.
Children who grew up in the 1960s think the historical details of "Mad Men" let them imagine what their parents were like. Uh-oh. Surely we weren't really like that.