Mad Men – Art vs Commerce

Mad Men ETB StorywritingMad Men has had wide-spread critical acclaim, won numerous awards and has become a cultural reference– but it has a very small audience.  The show is not widely popular with television viewers.  This struggle between art vs commerce and high brow vs low prestige mass entertainment is a dilemma writers and producers wrestle with continually.

The question boils down to:  What audience do you want?  Once you target the audience the question becomes:  What does that audience want?  High brow audiences look for a very different experience than mass appeal audiences.  In fact, the very things that attract one audience repel the other.

This is not to say art is better or worse than commerce– they just are DIFFERENT.

What exactly are the differences?  What is necessary to attract a wide audience?  Below are a couple of articles on Mad Men I have annotated that get to the core of the art vs. commerce divide.  My comments follow.

LA Times: The TV Hits That No One Watches
By Scott Collins

Mad Men” was the most-honored of any drama series this year, a surprising achievement given that it represented AMC’s first real stab at traditional series development. It was only the latest stop in “Mad Men’s” astonishing trip from a spec script hammered out by a moonlighting TV writer to cultural phenomenon, critics’ darling and Golden Globe winner.

…Too bad, then, that about 98% of Americans have never watched the show. In fact, whatever the interest in this acting showdown or that snub, this year’s Emmy nominations may be most notable for underscoring a growing cultural trend: the yawning gap between what critics and industry veterans cherish and what the rest of the public actually watches.

It’s the relentless narrowing of what was once, in a pre-Internet era, a mass culture, a shift that mirrors what’s happening in movies, books and other art forms.“In terms of nominations, it is a very elite group,” said Shari Anne Brill, an analyst at New York-based ad firm Carat.

Referring to today’s most-honored TV shows, she added: “They get an upscale audience; they just don’t get a mass audience. ”Scripted series, from “I Love Lucy” to “Dallas” to “Friends,” traditionally netted some of the biggest audiences in television history. But now TV’s comedies and dramas are, with a sprinkling of exceptions, becoming expensive diversions for the cultural elite, akin to opera in the 19th century or foreign films in the 1960s.

Critics may love shows such as “Mad Men,” FX’s “Damages” (seven nominations) and HBO’s “The Wire,” but not many other Americans have caught the fever. Even popular network dramas such as ABC’s “Lost” and NBC’s “Heroes” have far fewer viewers than comparable series even a few years ago.

Instead, the TV masses tend to flock these days to major sporting events– such as February’s Super Bowl telecast on Fox, which drew a record audience of 97.5 million– and live reality shows such as “American Idol” or “Dancing With the Stars.” The latter were Emmy-nominated but mostly in the relatively low-prestige “reality competition” category.

My comments:  What makes these “low prestige” show so compelling to audiences?  They are immediate, urgent and authentic. Yes, these shows (and their contestants) are also manufactured, manipulated and managed.  But the contestants, in any situation or challenge created for them, respond by revealing their true characters.

They are real people struggling, failing or overcoming obstacles in real time.  They can’t help showing us who they truly are– that’s what every human being does under extreme pressure.  Over time these contestants’ facades are stripped away.  The audience sees everyone at his or her most vulnerable.  Strengths and weaknesses are exposed. The contestants fall and battle to rise again.

Forget the shiny floor or the flashy lighting.  In these shows something is at stake.  There is struggle, pain, and disappointment but most importantly there is hope.  If your football team falls to take home the trophy at this year’s Super Bowl, there is always next season.  If your favorite singer or dancer is defeated there still is joy in seeing a new star emerge.  And you can pick a new favorite next year.

Another key factor is that these “low prestige” shows are entertainment the whole family can watch together.  This is viewing that isn’t dark.  It isn’t edgy.  It doesn’t “push the envelope.”  And then at the end, there is a sense of affirmation, joy, triiumph or even redemption.

Contrast this with Mad Men and it’s dark relentlessly downbeat tone and stylish but rather empty lives. The characters seem to drift through the story much like the cigarette smoke that fills their homes and offices.  There is little flesh and blood urgency and little worth fighting for.  There is pervasive disillusionment, detachment and disappointment.  Each of the characters is distanced from their emotions (and from us as viewers). The show is stunning in its careful attention to period detail.  It looks beautiful and is beautifully written.  It is also as slow, measured and somber as a classic Requiem Mass.

The Hollywood Reporter
Mad Men Bottom Line: All Pitch and Windup with a Soft Delivery

By Randee Dawn

…(I)f the pieces are in place for “Mad Men” to break big, why does its center feel so hollow? Watching characters indulge with relish in what today are vices has a transgressive quality, yet it’s all done with an insider’s wink to the audience. A fawning tone would grow just as tiresome, but who can identify with characters from whom even the writers seem to shrink?

…There’s much to admire about “Mad Men,” and much worth tuning in for. But so far, it’s all soft sell. At one point, Draper advises a cigarette exec (John Cullum) that they’ll promote his product’s “toasted” quality,” thus ushering in the era of pitching lifestyle over product, the birth of selling nothing. Unfortunately, at this stage, “Mad Men” is giving its audience pretty much the same thing.

If you are a fanatic fan.  Here is a great site analyzing each episode along with PDF episode scripts.  High art or “low prestige” mass audience. It is your choice.

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