'Mad Men' - More fun to think about than watch?

Baltimore Sun reporter

From the Z on TV blog:

Last week, Andy Bienstock, the program director at public radio station WYPR, said something about "Mad Men" that I have been thinking about for days.

Since we were talking casually, I wasn't taking notes, so I will paraphrase rather than risk misquoting a thoughtful guy who chooses his words with some care. But what Bienstock, a serious fan of "Mad Men," said was that each Sunday night as he's watching the show, he's thinking, "Yeah, this is OK, this is pretty good." But then, later in the night and during the next day as he thinks about what he saw onscreen, he comes to believe it was a lot better than just good -- it was exceptional.

Because his words dovetailed to some extent with my own sense of some of episodes "leaving me cold," I started thinking maybe "Mad Men" is far more a cerebral pleasure than a visceral one -- and I want TV to move me. It also fit with some of the terrific and rich readings commenters at this blog have been offering on Mondays following the show.

But is that a good thing? Should it be, "Let us all praise Matt Weiner" for writing such a richly intellectual text? Or should we wonder if maybe the audience is such a relatively small one because there is not more of an emotionally engaging narrative?

Regular readers of this blog know how thrilled I was the emotional charge at the end of the opening episode this season -- screaming "yesssss" at the TV as Don started spinning a new story line for the reporter at lunch, and the soundtrack kicked into "Tobacco Road."

And there was one good strong emotional moment Sunday night when Betty slapped her daughter's face. It was an unpleasant emotional moment to be sure, but it was gut-grabbing and it snapped me back into the episode.

Look, I am not going to be the critic who rips an author for creating cerebral TV -- especially when I have been championing just that kind of TV for more than 20 years. But you can write too much for the head and not enough for the heart and gut.

The Sally story line is profound and complicated and richly textured. When she says after cutting her hair, " I just wanted to look pretty," you can't help but think she believes somehow if she was prettier her father would not have abandoned her. But I didn't feel anything for her until her mother slapped her.

The Honda story line left me cold as a fish again. I have come to believe Weiner tries to show off with his social history, and it is usually pretty much a superficial pop pastiche when you really start to deconstruct it.

I'll spare you that deconstruction. But, on the other hand, look how much I've had to say about last night's episode, and I have barely started nibbling at one story line.

Bienstock is right: "Mad Men" is better as you think about it. But I believe great TV should move me profoundly as well -- even as it makes me think.

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