The missing ingredient from Draper and nearly all of Mad Men‘s characters is empathy, as virtually nobody’s behavior or situation invites me to place myself in their shoes. Instead, I watch the characters from an emotional remove that makes them appear as pieces in a mannered dance rather than fully realized people to care about. This might be the ultimate answer to the core appeal of serial drama, as without empathy toward the characters, viewers lack the emotional connection to sustain the commitment of weeks, months, and years that a successful series demands. Even though their actions are reprehensible, I feel empathy toward [Tony] Soprano, [Walter] White, [Dexter] Morgan, [Vic] Mackey, and [Al] Swearingen, understanding their acts in the context of their lives and situations. Draper’s blank slate doesn’t leave me with more than just the sense of him being a “cold bastard” as his core. And I translate this lack of empathy to how the show’s creators seem to regard their characters – while Al Swearingen might be a bastard, I always feel that creator David Milch loves the guy. While I know it’s my own projection rather than any authentic access to authorial intent, I can’t help but feel that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner ultimately feels contempt toward Draper and the rest, fueling the emotional gap that keeps me from warming to the show.
In the end, watching Mad Men leaves me feeling unclean and unpleasant, having spent time in an unenjoyable place with people I don’t care about, and coming out smelling of stale cigarettes. The gloss and sheen is meant to charm me, but instead it masks something hollow, dark and cancerous. For people who like the show, this resonance is affecting and provocative, but for me, it feels like one of Don Draper’s callow ad pitches. None of the emotional arcs of the characters feel real or earned – instead I’m being sold the illusion of drama rather than honest drama itself, much like the packaging of nostalgia and memory in a Kodak slide projector. Enough people whom I respect feel quite differently, so I know it’s not because the show is a failure per se, but clearly there is a short circuit for me and presumably others, disengaging me from the show on its own terms and failing to create sufficient empathy to go along for the narrative ride that I want to enjoy....
It's funny; I was thinking this week, as I've been frantically marathoning season 3 of Mad Men to catch up and watch the current season as it airs, how odd it was to belatedly find myself empathizing with Don Draper. And yet I did, just as I've sporadically empathized with various other characters on the show at different times. But that empathic response isn't really the primary thing I seek out in television; especially with a self-consciously "quality" TV show like Mad Men, I'm looking for interestingness. I'm quite happy to get engaging characters with dilemmas and predicaments that I haven't experienced and can't relate to, leading lives that don't resemble mine (nor would I want them to). Those fleeting moments of recognition, identification, empathy -- if the characters are drawn and acted well enough, they'll inevitably come, but they're not necessarily the main event or precondition for my enjoyment.
Though I think I've been watching Mad Men as a modern tragedy crossed with more than a dash of A Doll's House, which might not ultimately turn out to be the best reading.
ETA: Ian Bogost, Against Aca-Fandom: On Jason Mittell on Mad Men