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Critical Consensus, Mad Men and Crime Fiction

June 28, 2010

Season four of Mad Men premieres July 25th on AMC, and I seem to be the only reviewer with the opinion that it would take a miracle to salvage the show from the disaster of season three. Mad Men is not traditional crime fiction in any sense, but it does share some parallels with the crime genre my thoughts on which you can read here. I thought Mad Men was a great show until season three when it all began to fall apart. Maddeningly, I have found only one review which comes close to sharing my opinion, Peter Hoskin at Coffee House and his review only covers the first two episodes of season three.  Has a false critical consensus emerged around the show? One good review follows another, critics repeat other people’s work and pretty soon the show has a reputation as a classic that reviewers are afraid to question. Now I may be wrong, and Mad Men is still a great show which simply isn’t my cup of tea anymore, but a critical consensus does emerge for certain books, films and television shows and they can be misleading and false. 

On the subject of critical consensus, I was intrigued to read some of James Ellroy’s comments in a recent Paris Review interview regarding the negative critical reception to his novel The Cold Six Thousand.

Ultimately, I’m impervious to criticism. The ass kicking I got by a lot of critics for the style of The Cold Six Thousand was a real motherfucker, but I stopped reading the reviews. You can’t start thinking that critical consensus is a guarantor of quality. This is something I feel very strongly about. I remember when L.A. Confidential went to the Cannes Film Festival, a critic from The Hollywood Reporter wrote a negative review. He just didn’t think the movie cohered. But by then then all the other critics had loved the film, and this guy at The Hollywood Reporter had to join the club, so he included L.A. Confidential on his list of that year’s best films. The irony is that I think much of what he wrote in his original piece was actually dead-on.

Intriguing words from the Demon Dog of crime fiction. There is an irony here as some critics automatically dismiss crime fiction out of hand but could the film adaptation of L.A. Confidential, despite all the critical praise, really be not that good? Did a false critical consensus emerge? Contrarily, The Cold Six Thousand,  is a flawed but stunning novel which in my opinion received an unfair hammering from critics when it was released. Perhaps its reputation will improve with time.

No doubt season four of Mad Men will dazzle the critics once again, and it might prove my instincts wrong and win me back as a Mad Men addict. But a little dissenting opinion might do the show more good than harm.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 2, 2010 10:37 am

    Mad Men certainly changed in season three from a show about 1960s advertising to a show about the lives of a set of people. It became a soap, sure, but quite a classy one: lovely to look at, well scripted, and compelling in its way, despite having a tendency at times to be an unintended parody of itself.

    • Powell, Steven permalink
      July 2, 2010 11:08 am


      That’s a good way of putting it, a parody of itself. One example would be is when Kinsey is at the office working late one night trying to come up with a great ad idea and meets a janitor called Achilles (he even bangs his heel as he walks past him!) Sure enough he comes up with the idea but gets drunk and forgets it the next day. It’s as though the writers are saying ‘This is Mad Men. That’s why you have janitors called Achilles and people bang their heels as they walk past them!’

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