There are two major complaints cropping up about this season of Mad Men: the characters are too unlikeable and the commercial breaks are too abrupt. I’m waiting to see how the season plays out to say much about the first complaint (although I will note that I’ve found Don Draper pretty irredeemable for two or three seasons now, but my fascination has never wavered) but the second is in some ways more interesting. The abruptness of the cuts to commercial break on Mad Men is nothing new, but as more television critics stopped getting pre-air screeners from AMC and were forced to watch the episodes live, the complaints have become more and more vocal. However, there’s a possibility that I think is worth exploring: the commercial breaks are supposed to be jarring.
A couple of quick notes. First of all, it is important to establish that the jarring commercial breaks are a matter of authorial intent and not AMC’s fault. Mad Men is a hypnotic, languorous show, more so than almost anything else on TV, and snapping out of its trance is not easy. But, more to the point, there’s a specific structural quirk at play. For those who might not know, most commercial television scripts are structured to accommodate commercials by breaking them up into several acts. Each act corresponds to a segment and ends with an act break, some kind of moment that’s meant to push viewers into the commercial while making sure they’ll want to stick around to see what happens next. Matt Weiner and his writing staff intentionally write episodes of Mad Men without act breaks. They aren’t the only people who do this, but pretty much everyone else who does writes for premium channels like HBO, which are commercial free. This is how Weiner would have written scripts for The Sopranos and how screenwriters have been doing it for decades.
The writers aren’t stupid; they know they’re writing a show with commercials and could choose to accommodate the ads if they wanted. So why don’t they? It could be because this is simply how Weiner wrote on The Sopranos. But he’s not the only writer of the show and The Sopranos isn’t the only show he wrote for (he was also on the staff of Andy Richter Controls the Universe, which aired on FOX). It also could be so the show plays better on DVD and Netflix. But whatever the reason, the result is that it strengthens the show’s critique of American capitalism and, especially, the ways that advertising propagate ideology.
If you are already on-board with the concept that at least part of what Mad Men is doing is critiquing of American capitalism in general and advertising’s role within that system specifically, feel free to move along to the next paragraph, but I would like to show my work a little. Mad Men does more than just peel back the curtain on the process and people behind advertising; it looks like an advertisement. The gorgeous, meticulously arranged mise-en-scene wouldn’t look out of place in a Sterling-Cooper design, but an ad by the agency (or anyone else) would be using those images to suggest that the same perfection and happiness is within your reach through consumption of a given product. On Mad Men, the point is the opposite. These are the people living in those ads, consuming and consuming, and all they’re left with is emptiness and displeasure. Think of “The Wheel,” where Don turns family photos into a literal advertisement for Kodak, convinces himself that domestic perfection is within reach, and then returns to find an empty house.
So Mad Men is a show critiquing advertising’s role in society, but this is a difficult argument to coherently communicate when you have to stop the show down every ten minutes to air commercials. I would argue this is one of the reasons why scholars have been so quick to look down on TV for so much of its history: how incisive and critical can a series be when its main reason for existing is to provide a hospitable atmosphere for advertising. Mad Men side-steps this by creating as inhospitable an atmosphere as possible. The cuts are abrupt and jarring, the show makes no effort to incorporate breaks into its overall structure. The ads don’t fit because the show doesn’t think they should fit.
As a result, the commercials exist as the breaking of a trance, an imperfect, loud, and classless intrusion on the perfect structure of the show. They don’t fit and, as a result, draw attention to themselves. You think critically about them. You notice how irritating and fake they are. You are angry about their very presence. It is a small leap to move from feeling like the presence of the ads is artificial to feeling like the substance of the ads is artificial. Mad Men takes a simple fact of its form, commercial breaks, and contorts them until they fit its larger critique of American society.
Of course, the obvious retort to all of this is the fact that Mad Men has relied on product integration for much of its run. However, as the show has had more autonomy, it has reduced the amount of paid product placement and also made the real brands that appear in the show pay a steep price for that exposure. Most obviously, Jaguar, which was shown as structurally corrupt in “The Other Woman” and utterly unreliable in “Commissions and Fees.” Heinz is shown as immature and high schoolish, with an executive who is a unpleasant, petty mess and the Chevy car that Don and Teddy pitched for last night turns out to be a historic lemon. Those appearances may not have been paid for, but one that was, by Heineken, was used as a backdrop to Don’s humiliating manipulation of Betty.
If I had to guess, I would say the main reason Mad Men ignores the commercial breaks is simply because they can. However, the result is that it deepens one of the show’s most important, and yet easy to miss, themes. These people have been lied to all their lives by the very industry they work for and tricked into believing that the right car and the right suit and the right job and the right wife would make them happy. Why would the show help keep up that illusion when it can subvert it instead?