Is Mad Men a “Soap Opera”?

 Posted by on October 25, 2010 at 8:36 am  Season 4
Oct 252010

Criticism of recent events on Mad Men, especially the Season 4 finale, have started me on a series of posts on Mad Men as a whole. Future posts will be on Matt Weiner’s intentions for the series and how I see it, and I have one on the subject of metatextuality and metanarrative that will be presented in the form of an email correspondence. Stick around. O, the places we’ll go.

Anyway, I wanted to start here, because this is the shot fired at Mad Men even before Tomorrowland‘s final song began to play. ‘The hell with this show,’ a large number of fans said, ‘it’s just a soap opera.’ A search in the comments (you can’t do that, but I can) gives me 7 pages of comments with the phrase “soap opera,” including a dozen on Tomorrowland threads (and I didn’t search for “soap” or “soapy” or “melodrama”). Three of four Mad Men season have ended with the unexpected revelation of a pregnancy, and all of those revelations brought some soap opera accusations. This year, with pregnancy, a marriage proposal, and an abortion appointment fake-out, there was really a clamor.

So objectively, is Mad Men a soap opera? A soap opera is: A drama…characterized by stock characters and situations, sentimentality, and melodrama or: a serial drama…chiefly characterized by tangled interpersonal situations and melodramatic or sentimental treatment. Since two definitions give me “melodrama,” I looked that up as well: A drama…characterized by exaggerated emotions, stereotypical characters, and interpersonal conflicts.

Okay, so let me get this straight. There are people who think Mad Men is chiefly characterized by stock, stereotypical characters and situations, sentimentality, exaggerated emotions, and tangled interpersonal relationships?

Look, that’s obviously false. That’s just…false. We can fairly say that some complaints are rooted in the notion that unwanted pregnancy is a “stock situation” and that the relationships between Roger, Joan, and Greg are “tangled.” But the show always aims for a larger meaning, the characters are far from stereotypes, and their emotions are not exaggerated. Most of the time, in fact, they’re all fairly understated in response to difficult events, despite occasional bouts of puking. Additionally, a soap opera is a series of disconnected (yet “tangled”) melodramatic events. On All My Children, Erica’s story doesn’t inherently have anything to do with Greenlee’s story, and neither necessarily connects to Scott’s story. But each Mad Men episode aims for thematic cohesion, so that in Chinese Wall, Trudy’s impending delivery, Ken’s dinner with his fiance, and Don’s argument with Faye are all connected by the theme of the bleeding of work into one’s personal life.

I believe the “soap opera” accusation is rooted in something else: Sexism. Now, if you follow my writing you know that when I say something is sexist I am not calling a person sexist. “Sexist” (like “racist”) is a word I use only as an adjective, not a noun. We are all the products of a sexist culture, and are therefore capable of sexist thoughts and behaviors, no matter how much we may consciously choose to be and do otherwise.

There are only so many situations. Stock situations become stock in part because we recognize them so well. Some stock situations are fantasies (rags to riches), some are fears (home invasion), and some are day-to-day comedies and tragedies familiar from our own lives and the lives of those we know (unwanted pregnancy, heart attacks, annoying coworkers). I don’t think anyone can fairly criticize Mad Men for showing us unrealistic or ridiculous situations (except in the sense of “goofs,” like having the New York Times run your ad the morning after you write it).

Dramas get called soaps, though, not when their situations are “stock,” but when their situations are female. Losing a big client, blowing it in a presentation, or winning a coveted award are just as melodramatic as unwanted pregnancy, unexpected proposals, or backing out of an abortion, but only the latter group gets called soapy, because only the latter group is about women’s lives. Workplace drama doesn’t get called soapy. Army flashbacks don’t get called soapy. The fact is, we still consider the day-to-day drama of men’s lives more meaningful or important or worthy of dramatic consideration than the day-to-day drama of women’s lives. Don’t be fooled by the fact that there are women at the office, or by the fact that the men also have home lives; home is the traditional realm of women and gets coded in our minds as female, just as work gets coded as male.

Fun fact: Of the past ten Best Picture Oscar winners, six were about men almost exclusively, three were about men and women, and only one—Chicago—was about women and women’s lives. Prior to Chicago in 2002, you have to go all the way back to 1989 to find another Best Picture primarily about a woman’s life. “Chick flicks” are stupid but action films are cool, war movies are Important but family dramas are maudlin, and these gender stereotype divides permeate our understanding of movies, TV, and other art forms.

I think it’s legitimate to criticize all kinds of things about Mad Men, and that’s a lot of what we do here. We praise the show because we love it, but we also slam it when warranted. I think it really behooves us, though, to reexamine this as individuals; what do we consider a soap opera, and why? Often, our (and by “our” I mean me, you, and maybe my kitten) gendered thinking feels so “natural” that we don’t even consider that it might be gendered. We don’t necessarily recognize a thought as coming from a sexist place. I’m pretty sure the Oscar voters, for example, aren’t consciously saying to themselves that women’s movies are soapy, but men at war is real drama. It just “happens” to turn out that way. Unexamined assumptions are still assumptions, though, and this one is worth rethinking.


  70 Responses to “Is Mad Men a “Soap Opera”?”

  1. As long as we don’t get a coma situation or twin sibling separated at birth, we’re OK in the soap department 🙂 yet we already have a case of stolen identity which qualifies as ‘fake death’, I think. 1 out of 3 is still not a soap opera in my book.

  2. I do wonder whether anyone who called it soapy has ever actually watched (devotedly) a soap opera? Because I have, and MM has nothing remotely soap opera like about it. The key to a soap opera is that nothing ever changes. You can pick up 6 months from where you left off and you will still recognize not only most of the characters, but most of the storylines as well.

    Does this sound like Mad Men this year?

  3. Soap operas are about people but superficial and necessarily plot driven. I remember them serving as comfort for for socially and intellectually isolated housewives.

    Madmen is not plot driven, it’s a character study. It’s an inner drama that deeply explores the characters sometimes paradoxical behavior.

    Frankly it’s a whistle not everyone can hear.

  4. First off – This blog entry is saving my Monday morning sanity. One Sunday into the offseason and I already miss Mad Men more than I expected. Monday mornings at work seem to go faster when I have Peggy, Don, Joan and Betty to think, read, talk and write about.

    Your comment that: “We don’t necessarily recognize a thought as coming from a sexist place” reminded me of a heated debate I twice had. The first time was with my father-in-law. The second time was with a college buddy. Topic: “Was it a bigger waste of time to watch soap operas or sporting events?” My position was that it was not a “bigger” waste of time to watch either. IMHO, neither has any intrinsic value.

    I enjoy watching baseball, football, golf and hockey on television and I have never watched more than 15 minutes of a soap opera. Okay, okay I got caught up in The Guiding Light when I was in High School for a couple months, but that’s it I swear. At any rate, my viewing tendencies skew toward sports and away from soaps.

    Both my father-in-law, and my college buddy took the position that sports were real and somehow more “important” because of that fact. I couldn’t get past my own thought that their position was guided largely by gender bias. They both obviously had the same conversation/debate with their wives, were still frustrated, and trying to get me to cosign their side of the argument. When I wouldn’t agree, and even went so far as to tell them that I thought that their position was short-sighted, I got quite a surprised response. I felt like I’d violated the “code of men” or something.

    This doesn’t make me the patron saint of gender equity, but I was happy that I was able to be honest with myself. Soaps and, as you point out, FEMALE dramas are no worse than their equivalents on the MALE end of television programing (Sports and War for the most part). I really can’t say that Pro Wrestling is better than an episode of General Hospital unless I have some specific preference. And, that’s all it comes down to really: preferences.

    Anyway, I agree with much of what you wrote here. Very thoughtful. I might add that judging strictly by the definitions you quoted, Mad Men is NOT a soap opera. Phwew! That ends that….

  5. I wouldn’t say Mad Men is full of stereotypical characters. There are a lot of archetypal characters with complex relationships. I think the beauty of this show is the viewer can try to paint each character’s motivations into a box; however, the writers and the story will take them right out of it again. I also think as a show, Mad Men is too honest to be considered a soap opera. Do people have their secrets? Yes. But often the characters come clean with someone, and we get to see the toll the secrets take on their lives. Soap operas thrive on secrets being blown way out of proportion; the storytelling on Mad Men stays true to life with subtle unfolding, reinvention, and confrontation of demons (literal and figurative).

    Also, I don’t think soap opera is a bad word; a lot of primetime dramas would be labeled soaps if they aired during the day with that criteria.

  6. As long as Anna doesn’t turn up “Surprise, I didn’t die” this will never ever be a soap opera.

    #2: I totally agree! When I was about 13 I devotedly watched a soap opera, and recently I bumped into it again: same people (just older), same stories.

  7. Perhaps viewers are confusing “stock situations” which define classic soap operas with “plot devices”? In this last season of MM, especially in the latter episodes, there seem to be many more instances of deus ex machina which seem jarring against the normally careful story telling I associate with MM. This development frankly worries me because I think it leads itself to accusations of “soap opera.”

    And yes, it’s true that “soaps” are associated with women and things female; however, at its best, I have always thought the women’s stories on MM were rich, complex and that the show had very important things to say about sexism both in marriage and at the workplace that no other show had tackled before. Or perhaps, as a woman myself, I find those issues inherently interesting and thought that that message was obvious in the show.

    And btw, if we’re talking about “stock” situations and how they relate to women, I believe there are also “stock” situations that apply to men as well. Typically in the past, although that seems to be changing, they seem to evolve around some variant of the of the lone male challenging the system in one way or another, and/ or riding in to save the day. To me Don’s rebranding of SCDP with a dramatic full page ad in the NYT , is a variant of the guy riding in on a white charger to save the town/company from wrack and ruin. So I’m not saying that sexism in calling MM a soap opera because there’s a lot of women’s issues going on doesn’t have validity; it’s just that I think there’s less explored stuff about how those stock situations relate to men as well.

    So while I think it’s valid to point out the sexism in branding recent episodes of the show as “soapy” I don’t completely buy that as the sole reason for BoK accusations of it. To me, I see it more as less than crisp writing and plotting, especially as several other basketcases have pointed out, lately characters and storylines seem to be “shoehorned” in–and then completely vanish. This dilutes the richness of the character-driven story that is MM and leads people to accuse it of being “soapy.”

  8. Very good post, good start. I sometimes characterize “soap opera” or “chick lit” (not meant to be offensive) as art that portrays to a greater degree than other genres, the discussion of feelings and inner states.

    Alan Ladd had a interpersonal relationship with Jack Palance in Shane. He just didn’t talk about it.

    Action is character, and speech is action.

    I have trouble seeing anything on screen, or in real life for that matter, that is outside of what people (or actors) do. Presuming that speech includes tone of voice, facial expressions and body language, etc…there may be a question, that might be gendered or culturally conditioned, as to whether the communication of inner states or feelings is reducible to what can be directly observed.

    “Men do,women feel” or “Men show their feelings, women talk about their feelings” are part of the sexist or gendered tropes that define genres.

  9. I have had trouble understanding how fans interpreted the pregnancy situations as “soapy,” as if women don’t get pregnant, or want to get pregnant, or get pregnant when they don’t want to, or can’t get pregnant when they want to, or have abortions, or think about having an abortion and then change their minds, or worry about an ill-timed pregnancy or unprotected sex.

    It happens ALL THE TIME in real life.

    For most of us women, pregnancy is up front and center as an issue, sometimes THE DEFINING issue, for at least a good chunk of our lives.

    It would be much less realistic, frankly, if pregnancy didn’t come up as a situation for the women on the show to deal with.

  10. It’s just as sexist to tie yourself in knots trying to shake off the moniker “soap opera” as though it were something stuck to your shoe. If it’s bad to put something down just because it deals with women’s problems, then why do you still think calling Mad Men a soap is an insult? I mean, sure, Mad Men is more artsy and better written than your average soap, but its plot elements are straight out of As the World Turns. And so what?!

    It’s like taking back the word “queer.”You’re giving the term “soap opera” too much negative power. Embrace the soapiness!

    I dunno, maybe there’s really more of a class issue here than sexism. Well-educated (i.e. higher class) people like character development and heavy themes, so that’s obviously “better” than melodrama because any mouth breather can follow along with that and enjoy it. We can’t possibly admit that sensationalism and stock plot elements are part of our special show.

    (And I agree with whoever said above that following soaps is the same as following sports. As a rabid Giants fan, I can tell you, it is. GO GIANTS!)

    • Donny Brook, I disagree entirely. First of all, it’s not sexist, although you make a better case that it might be classist. But if a soap is the same as any other type of drama, why bother having different words for different things. Hey, Giants, Jets, what does it matter? It’s just a label!

      I went to the trouble of pulling dictionary definitions of soap opera and melodrama and seeing if Mad Men fits those definitions. Since I concluded it doesn’t (and since, like a good math student, I showed my work, so that you could decide for yourself), then I believed I was justified in looking elsewhere—to sexism.

      To take your “queer” example. Reclaiming the word is great, but it’s still worth examining why we might call something queer that isn’t. If a straight kid gets labeled queer, for example, looking at how that happened and why might illuminate underlying assumptions about gender identity. And examining those assumptions and learning from them doesn’t mean it’s bad to be queer.

  11. I do not necessarily think that MM is what we have come to consider a “soap opera,” but if it were, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. The first time I ever watched a soap happened to be the day that show began. The show was “All My Children,” and I was home from work, sick in bed with pneumonia. As a result of my illness, I watched the entire first week of the show. What I discovered is that there was a comfort to watching it, like the comfort a child growing up finds in being read the same bedtime stories. It was a safe place to be, because by and large I knew what to expect from it.

    Some years later, I read that the watching of soaps was being used with psychiatric patients, because they were able to talk about what they saw on the screen – some of which they might have been experiencing and unable to verbalize with therapists – when they could not confront the same experiences or reactions in their own lives. Soaps can provoke discussions.

    I went back to “All My Children” about once every couple months, and it wasn’t hard to pick it up, as #2 Tovah said, because I knew who the characters were and generally, I knew what the situations were. I could stay up on what was happening. I happened to tune in one day when a major character died, and that night I was going to the Hollywood Bowl with a friend who had the same relationship with AMC that I did – a once-a-month-or-so drop in. As we were leaving the Bowl, in the exiting crowd, I mentioned I had seen it that day, and he asked what had happened. I said, “Mary turned her face to Jeff to tell him she loved him, and then she died.”

    A woman in a gown and jewelry that would have bought a whole bunch of me, three people in front of me in the crowd, turned around and said, “Mary DIED?”

    People cared. In that people care about the characters on MM, it is indeed like a soap. I don’t find anything wrong with that.

    But where it is in no way like a soap: I never ever know what to expect from MM. I do not consider it a safe place. I consider it a place that challenges me, that pulls me outside myself and makes me think deeply about the characters and situations on the screen. It never seems to go in the directions I expect it to. The person most viewers seem to dislike is Betty, and she is the one who changes least and who does what we tend to think she’s likely to do. Yet I never expected her to fire Carla, because she depended on Carla, and Betty does not like to lose what she depends on. When it happened, it was totally logical, totally in character at that moment, and totally out of the blue.

    I could say the same thing for Don paying Pete’s “partner tax” when he knew Pete didn’t have it. I could say it for Bert Cooper quitting. I could say it for Peggy stripping down in the hotel room with Stan. There are lots of other examples.

    I think the original post, about soap being seen as a female realm and action as a male is quite perceptive, but I don’t necessarily see it as a purely sexist division. I have a good friend who says, of men and women, “Look, the plumbing is different; we have to assume the wiring may be different as well.” My husband and I have two separate satellite feeds because sometimes he really likes to watch Chuck Norris films, and I really don’t at all. And I’m thinking of a radio talk show I heard in Central California when a man called in to complain that his wife told him they were going to a Clint Eastwood movie, and it turned out to be “The Bridges of Madison County.”

    I don’t believe it’s sexist to say that men and women are very different beings and therefore tend to gravitate to different kinds of entertainment. (I do believe that testosterone has a lot to answer for in this world, but that’s my opinion and a separate issue.)

    Whether or not MM is a soap is less important, I think, than whether it is good – and I believe it’s brilliant. Once it’s done, we will be able to judge whether or not it is (as I’m hoping) a masterpiece of television.

  12. #11 Deb, I got your original point. My point was, that by the definitions you chose, the only bit of those definitions that really doesn’t apply to Mad Men, is stock characters. I do believe that Mad Men does contain melodrama (screaming fights, drunken showdowns, puking, etc.) and sentimentality (Carousel pitch) and soapy plot points, but they are mixed with more “highbrow” elements so we gloss over them. And it doesn’t detract from the quality of the show to have those soapy elements.

    Perhaps when people throw the word “soap” around as a denigration, they are being sexist. That’s exactly why we need to take back the word, because “soap opera” is not necessarily a bad thing. Calling someone “queer” is not an insult, neither should be calling Mad Men a soap.

    Still, I do believe they’ve gone to the pregnancy well too many times, and not because it’s a “women’s issue” but because it’s getting old. At least they’re running out of women to knock up.

  13. Good point about relative value placed on “male” dramas versus “female” dramas. Every hear of the Bechdel Test? This was named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel. A movie passes the Bechdel Test if it features (a) at least two female characters with names (b) who talk to each other (c) about something other than a man. Think hard. What is the last film you saw that passes that test? What is the last film to win an Oscar that passes that test?

  14. I think that crazy and melodramatic things can happen in a play, a movie, or a show, but if they are well-handled the audience loves it. All the things mentioned as being in a “soap opera” occur in Shakespearean plays. I think it has more to do with the tone, the intent, and the skill with which it is handled.

    I think “if nothing happens” the audience will complain. If “too much happens too quickly” people will complain.

    I think that Deborah makes a very good point that some of the criticisms may have an element of sexism. That is a good point. I don’t disagree with her at all.

    But I think there is another element to the discussion. What was it that people were reacting to that made them throw out the word “soap?” (whether or not it is an appropriate word.)

    I also read a lot of comments using the expression “jump the shark” this season, and I think that is another way of saying what some people were trying to say with the “soap opera” comments. I don’t agree that the show jumped the shark or that it is a soap opera (if that’s even bad), but this is what I think commenters meant.

    “The writers–in an attempt to titillate the audience, keep people talking about the show, and to get a reaction–got a bit distracted from “believability” and “greater artistic purpose” and put some clumsy things in to thrill and amuse viewers.”

    I don’t think the writers have “lost it” or that they’ve “sold out” but there were more moments this year when I was distracted by “the device” and I felt like I’d ‘snapped out of the moment’ because I was thinking “would that REALLY happen like that?” Even when I cut them a little slack for the fact that it’s dramatized for TV.

    So while I agree that the inclusion of some women’s issues should not make it “soapy,” and I agree that there are strongly drawn characters and heavy themes, I do think this season was a little it “bumpier.”

    Examples of things that seemed a little distracting to me:
    1. The flashback to Roger and Joan that seemed to make their affair much longer than I’d imagined. (Trying to make it more sentimental?)

    2. Duck attempting to defecate in Don’s office and getting the wrong office.

    3. Peggy stripping down for Stan.

    4. The Carla/Betty/Glen conflict at the end seemed invented because it was already decided that Betty should look bad for firing Carla and it would be an excuse for getting Megan to CA.

    5. The mugger and the outdoor encounter btwn Joan and Roger. (I wouldn’t have found it too difficult to see them getting back together without the mugger.)

    6. Faye’s mob dad, and her apparent success compared to Peggy’s struggles. What is this mob dad thing supposed to make me wonder about?

    7. Lane getting drunk with the piece of meat, and Lane and the bunny. I can’t put my finger on where the line was, but in each of these scenes I thought it went just a little farther than I found believable.

    8. Bert C’s balls. Mrs. B being the “Queen of Perversions.”

    I am not saying that I hated these scenes. Some of them made me laugh. But they all jarred me just a little bit. They made me wonder “is this really what this character would have done, or was this put in primarily to get a reaction out of the audience?”

    I’m not even sure if it is “what happened” or “how it was written” or “how it was acted”. I just felt distracted more times this season.

    But I don’t think there were enough of these moments to bring down the whole show. I know some people loved theses particular scenes and will think I’m crazy. We all react differently.

  15. Saying plotlines or certain episodes are getting soapy, or are too soapy, is not the same thing as calling the show a soap opera. I think you’ve sort of thrown the bathwater on the baby in this case.

    You have 3 episodes – The Suitcase, The Summer Man, and The Beautiful Girls – which were among the best the show has ever produced. Decidedly NOT maudlin or rote or cliched. Then you are suddenly thrown into this miasma of pregnancy, love triangles, and Don’s secret identity coming back up. All of these are plots or threads we’ve seen well played out on this show and others. Every show has a fine line to walk when deciding how much characters should develop, and how much they should fall back into their ruts. You just have to hope that movement is deftly handled and doesn’t reek of a sudden need for plot development. Speaking for myself, it felt like things were rushed and it played awkwardly and a little desperately. More like a daytime soap than a well considered work of art. I thought Tomorrowland was actually a step back in the right direction after the previous two.

  16. I’d also like to say that “I’m not feeling this episode much right now but I might change my mind” is too lukewarm to be called a slam.

  17. Thank you for writing this…I’m one of the people annoyed by the soap opera business & vented a bit (just a leetle) on a blog. Since it’s one of mine, I can do that. I’ve wondered where some of the people who see MM this way grew up/how they grew up. More another time, but thanks. I lurve your blog.


  18. Just my two cents:

    I often think show are in danger of getting a little too “soapy” when they have too many characters sleeping together. With workplace dramas, it can be hard to avoid.

    To give an example: ER. I watched ER from the beginning ’til the end. It got a little too contrived with having this nurse get together with this doctor, after she had already been with that other doctor….etc. But, I do know why it seemed to happen so often. ER took place at a hospital. It was easy and convenient to have the doctors and nurses get together with other people who did the same job. Or occasionally, with a paramedic or a hospital administrator. But to have them get involved with someone from a totally different field….it took a lot more maneuvering to show those characters together, they had to change sets, etc.

    To bring it back to point: “Mad Men” is a workplace drama and it also features several characters who are super-super-devoted to work: Don, Peggy, etc. So do I think that more and more, the accounts people and the copywriters will get involved with other accounts people and copywriters? (Or with secretaries, receptionists, and consultants?) Sure, to some extent. So far though, they haven’t overdone that and they haven’t presented things in a contrived or unrealistic way. IMO.

  19. I think that a fair question is; are the writers of Mad Men targeting a female audience? I think to a certain extent they are. I don’t have a clue who AMC is trying to reach in its programming, but will make an educated guess and say College educated females over 35. I have no problem with AMC and Mad Men targeting this age group. They know who watches their show.
    I watch the show because it tells the story of advertising and the era accurately and correctly. It does not tell the story from a 2010 perspective. The writers also understand that I have a brain and knowledge of the era. They are faithful to the era of the 60’s.
    They also understand that their target audience are not the only viewers. The quality of the writing has what has lifted this show away above the Soap Opera. It is very hard to stay on top, and Mad Men viewers are very demanding. We really identify with the charcaters. We may not like the plotlines, but Mad Men is not a Soap!

  20. I’ve enjoyed the conversation so far, especially the discussions about how and why we choose to label certain forms of entertainment and what this might have to do with gender.

    The original post, as well as many of the comments that followed, argue that Mad Men is not a soap because it’s of better quality–i.e., more realistic, more challenging, more original. And I agree–compared to what you see on daytime (or on primetime, for that matter), Mad Men is much better.

    However, one aspect of the definition that hasn’t really gone remarked on is that a soap is a “serial drama.” Sure, any tv show is going to be a serial, but Mad Men’s seriality seems to have more in common with soaps than with your run-of-the mill network drama. Although episodes are to a certain extent self-contained, part of what’s most rewarding about Mad Men (along with many other recent cable shows that have been critically acclaimed) is how the plot develops over an entire season or even multiple seasons. You can jump in to pretty much any episode of a procedural like Law & Order or House and be pretty sure that you’re going to catch everything, but jumping in to the middle of a season of Mad Men would be rather disorienting.

    I’m also not the first person to notice that this is exactly the kind of seriality that made Victorian novels so popular–since they were mostly published in installments in magazines over many months, these novels could gain a following as readers anticipated what would happen in the next chapter.

    What seems interesting to me is not defining what separates highbrow/quality dramas like Mad Men from soaps, but what unites them.

  21. Anything that passes the Bechdel Test is going to be dismissed as Soap Opera by a certain segment of the population. To folks of that mind-set, women talking work is always the provence of “Melrose Place”. The only relationships women could have with each other were the ones on “Dynasty”. The only way something can be serious is if there is the prospect of violent death, which favors male dominated genres.

    Considering its time period and setting, “Mad Men” passes the Bechdel Test amazingly easily:
    1. It has two (2) or more female characters.
    2. They talk to each other.
    3. They talk each other about something other than a man.

    Nearly every significant female character has been given at least one scene with another. Almost none of those scenes have been solely about a male character. In fact, we had never seen Peggy and Joan talk at any length about the male protagonist until “Tomorrowland”. Another show would have them talking little else.

  22. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jonathan Ichikawa, Cantara Christopher. Cantara Christopher said: [Mad Men] Is Mad Men a “Soap Opera”?: Criticism of recent events on Mad Men, especially the Season 4 finale, have … […]

  23. Losing a big client, blowing it in a presentation, or winning a coveted award …but only the latter group gets called soapy. ?

    I loudly proclaim all of these as potentially “soapy”.

    For me, slip-sliding distance into melodrama depends on how realistic a situation is within our characters’ design boundaries. Pregnancy is fine if shown in context of 1960’s advertising, as is blowing a presentation or winning an award. However, if a MM scene can be dropped into a show about an unrelated occupation – say medicine – and finds a perfect fit, I say run another rinse cycle.

  24. When a hot, smart guy like Don Draper pulls a “Megan”… you know your are up to your ears in “soap.”

  25. Bechdel-passing Oscar Best Pictures from the present to 1960: Million Dollar Baby (Hillary Swank encounters her family; it barely squeaks by but it passes), Chicago, American Beauty, Titanic, Terms of Endearment, Ordinary People (again, just barely), Annie Hall, The Sound of Music, West Side Story.

    I never saw Crash, The English Patient, or Kramer vs. Kramer, someone will have to tell me if they qualify.

    That’s somewhere between 9-12 movies in which women interact with one another, out of a potential 49.

  26. Mad Men will become a soap when the children get SORAS (Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome). Soaps replace three year olds with seven year olds and then teenagers and then adults all in about two seasons, though the adults age at a more normal rate. We haven’t seen this phenomenon yet with Mad Men–maybe due to the notice in particular to the young actress who plays Sally. But she’s so good, and Matt Weiner’s son so precocious, that they could be aged a couple years. But soap operas usually replace the kids wholesale with newer, much older actors. Watch what happens to the kids, and that’s what will ultimately turn Mad Men into a soap.

  27. #26:

    I think that both “The English Patient” and “Kramer vs. Kramer” might pass. Juliette Binoche is a waheardr-time nurse who has scenes with other nurses. I think her first scene might qualify. I was young when I saw “Kramer vs. Kramer”, but there were several female characters who interacted with each other.

    Notably, I have seen “American Beauty”, “Titanic” and “Terms of Endearment” all described as “soap opera”. I think that you are on to something …

  28. Donny Brook – You wrote: “(And I agree with whoever said above that following soaps is the same as following sports. As a rabid Giants fan, I can tell you, it is. GO GIANTS!)”

    That was me – Also a Giants fan – If anything is soap opera its the 2010 San Francisco Giants – Can’t wait till Wednesday – Go Giants!

  29. #29 Woo hoo!!!! Exquisite torture. All you MM fans, tune in if you like your melodrama mixed with athletic achievement and testosterone.

  30. Started watching soap operas with my grandmother after school when I was still in single digits agewise. On a sick day, I still check in with the old favorites now and then. Plenty of primetime dramas qualify as soaps — Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest, Melrose Place, etc. — but not “Mad Men.” I think that the faux-reality show “Extreme Home Makeover” is a soap opera.

  31. >>>Dramas get called soaps, though, not when their situations are “stock,” but when their situations are female.

    Wow. You NAILED it. Thank you!

  32. Bechdel Test Movie List

    The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies (video introduction to the subject)

    Today I listened to an ABC (Australian Broadcasting) podcast with Matthew Weiner that was recorded just after the show won its second series Emmy. He said that after he joined the staff of “The Sopranos” — David Chase hired him after reading Weiner’s ‘Mad Men’ pilot script — he was known as the show’s first female writer.

  33. Corrected link for The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies (video introduction to the subject)

  34. # 7 SFCaramia Says: Perhaps viewers are confusing “stock situations” which define classic soap operas with “plot devices”? In this last season of MM, especially in the latter episodes, there seem to be many more instances of deus ex machina which seem jarring against the normally careful story telling I associate with MM. This development frankly worries me because I think it leads itself to accusations of “soap opera.”

    Thanks for saying what I was thinking, but so much better! There were several moments this past season where I was screaming at my TV or covering my eyes because the characters and situations were becoming cliched and trite, not what I’ve come to expect from Mad Men.
    *Don hooks up with yet another secretary for an office quickie and goes home to a completely unsuspecting Faye (who wouldn’t smell another woman on her boyfriend?)
    *Betty becomes a one-note total bitch
    *Roger and Joan do the nasty in a nasty alley after being mugged (WTF?!) and of course she’s pregnant – so now we’ll have babydaddy drama next season!
    *Then we end the season with Don proposing to Megan with Anna’s ring (WTF?) just because he couldn’t find anyone else to babysit his kids and she didn’t have a hissy fit about a spilled milkshake?

  35. #29 I was watching the playoffs, too, last week while thinking about the soap talk on this site. I find regular entertainment too predictable at this point in my life, and the structure of baseball is brilliant and perfect in its unpredictability. Re: Giants vs. Phillies -you can’t make up these characters – the Beards (1 and 2), the Hair, Kung Fu Panda, etc. – could anything match that last out on Saturday?

    I must say, Mad Men’s final episode last year, and the “Why I’m Quitting Tobacco” this year seemed to do it. However, overall, it’s getting hard for scripted entertainment to reach the “agony and ecstasy” levels of sports.

    #15 I agree with the list. I actually thought Roger was kidding around with his mentions of Burt’s Balls and Ida. It got ridiculous with the book – I mean, did Jane not proofread and edit it? What if those mentions were published?

    More to say, but I’m too tired. Go, Giants!

  36. If I was a betting person, I would venture to say that a lot of those who dubbed MM a soap did not start watching the show from the beginning with Season 1. There is no way that any of the seasons *except, perhaps this one – in a SLIVER of dramatic device* could ever be construed in that vein.

  37. @26

    Wait—what’s the Bechdel-qualifying scene in Annie Hall? There aren’t any real female characters besides Annie, and she never talks to any of them—OK, maybe her mom, for a second, but then they wind up talking abt. Alvy anyway.

    Seriously: where is it?

  38. A thought provoking piece, and disquieting question.

    Mad Men presented us with a fresh look at a familiar world, far enough in the past for the passions of the moment to have passed, close enough to our experience for everything to be both expected and “alien”.

    Well written, acted and produced with fantastic attention to detail. Had the series ended at “The Wheel”, we would have been left with remarkable characters, only partially revealed. Their failures, possibilities and fates unknowable.

    Now, after four seasons, the serial portion of the narrative is ever more obvious.

    How many pregnancies, abortions, jilted lovers, heart attacks and executive marriages to secretaries can we see and still be surprised?

  39. Is “MAD MEN” a soap opera? Yes. Of course it is. I believe it’s pretty obvious. Is there anything wrong with a drama being a soap opera? Of course not. I don’t see why it should be.

  40. There is a built in problem in the serial form: we get used to the characters, and their interactions are bound to repeat themselves, or to look unlikely. Savvy show-runners are aware of this potential issue, and try to preempt it.

    Sometimes it backfires. I believe that it is what happened this season with the Don-Faye-Megan triangle, and its resolution: the Don-Megan hook-up was way over-foreshadowed (the colors, the “sun” vs the “wind”, Megan framed between Don and Faye, etc.), but it was very much under-plotted: in the end, there was enough story between Don and Megan to make most viewers believe that their earlier sleeping together (to put it politely) would lead them to do the same in California; but there just was not enough story between them to make most viewers believe that the characters could get engaged, and commit to spend the rest of their lives together. I believe it is a case of the writers being too smart for their own good, and most importantly, for the viewers’ satisfaction.

    I don’t know if these problems have to do with MM being too soap-operatic, and I know even less if they have to do with sexism. But I can see that the serial form is inherently problematic after a while. I empathize with the writers. Theirs is not an easy task.

  41. Re: Pregnancy

    I think the issue people have with pregnancy and “soap opera cliches” is that Peggy, Joan, and Betty have all gotten pregnant from, let’s call them, one-off sexual experiences. Peggy sleeps for the first time with Peter and whammo–she’s pregnant. Joan has sex with Roger in an alleyway years after their affair ended–and winds up pregnant. Betty hasn’t slept with Don for months after throwing him out of the house, sleeps with him in a moment of extreme emotional duress and–guess what!–winds up pregnant. Three strikes, you’re out–of a good deal of your credibility.

    There is a difference between melodrama (which originally refers to drama with music, though not necessarily songs: Now Voyager is a melodrama; Meet Me in St. Louis is a musical) and melodramatic. The problem is that the noun and the adjective usually get conflated. Classic melodrama may skirt the border of the melodramatic without actually crossing over (which is the case, I believe, with MM). And newer melodramas such as Far From Heaven (a wonderful movie) can play with the conventions of classic melodrama without necessarily

    In either case, melodrama is a highly stylized genre (with often highly stylized acting–which is why so many of the melodramas of the Golden Age of Hollywood strike as now as unintentionally funny or even camp). Mad Men, however, comes at the same subject matter from a slightly different genre: “realism.” Or, to be more precise, it cross-pollinates genres: classic melodrama, drama, crime caper, romance, serial, “problem” or “issue” film (think Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or Victim, a terrific film about homosexuality in mid-20th century England), roman a clef, bildingsroman. It can be a very difficult balancing act to maintain, particularly when you’re talking about a series with only 13 episodes per season rather than the usual 24 or so.

    That may be the other problem. If Megan and Don’s romance had evolved over the course of several episodes rather than in a single burst of one, if our ladies had gotten pregnant during ongoing affairs rather than one-off (and yes, the pun is deliberate) experiences, then perhaps there would be far fewer cries of “soap opera!” and “melodramatic!”

    As for me, I was both disappointed in the final episode (it felt more like a mid-season episode than a finale–which raises whole other issues about Audience Expectations and the like) and completely convinced by Don’s impulsive engagement (it is what addicts do–and Don is such the addictive personality).

    By the way Deborah, I COMPLETELY agree with you, re: melodrama and feminism. I was a history/lit major in college, and social history got the same treatment–primarily because it wasn’t about White Males aAnd What Happened To Them. But things are changing. Slowly, but inexorably.

  42. Oh I meant to add this about pregnancy: at the rate we’re going, I fully expect Don to have a one night stand sometime next season and, whammo!, wind up pregnant…

  43. Tom #41: “As for me, I was both disappointed in the final episode (it felt more like a mid-season episode than a finale–which raises whole other issues about Audience Expectations and the like) and completely convinced by Don’s impulsive engagement (it is what addicts do–and Don is such the addictive personality).”

    Don’s impulsive (and compulsive) engagement – OK, I’ll grant that. But Megan’s? Is she an addictive personality too? Or is she so desperate for a marriage that at 25 she would accept to marry a guy she barely knows? And if so, would it be because he is her boss, she is a woman, a secretary in 1965, a subordinate in many senses? Maybe a case could be made: but to do so, you need story and plot, at least on Megan’s side, because we don’t know Megan, Megan has not been established as a compulsive, impulsive, or (grasping at last straws) gold-digging character.

    And would not ignoring the reality of those characteristics, and their social underpinnings, and simply intoning : “oh, she was in love” – wouldn’t it be on the part of the show, the real soap operatic aspect of it? Would it not be a way of sentimentally ignoring the power relations embedded in romantic relations between unequals?

    Sentimentality without taking into account the real social pressures on individuals – is it not that what makes some works soap operatic? Jane Austen knew that you could not separate social pressure and power relations (and the fundamental unbalance between the men and women of her time) from what people believed and expressed they felt, without escaping into fairytale. That is what makes her works true classics, that is what makes her stories real, and impossible to confuse with melodrama (and its offspring, the soap opera). Her eyes were wide open on the realities of societal norms and pressures.

    As of now, the Don-Megan engagement does look to me too sentimental, with not enough back-story to make it believable on its own terms. I am willing to give MM the benefit of the doubt, and wait until next season to conclude that this final hook-up was not a soap operatic escapist plot, but a story that could have unfold in a more realistic frame, and that I coud believe without needing a lobotomy.

  44. I never saw Crash, The English Patient, or Kramer vs. Kramer, someone will have to tell me if they qualify.

    KvK had one scene where Jane Alexander, on the witness stand in the pivotal Hoffman/Streep custody case, turns to Streep sitting in the courtroom and gives her an aside about how good her ex is with their son. I guess that’s a “barely passes,” since Hoffman is an ex and Streep doesn’t want him back or vice versa. (I assume “man” in Bechdel terms refers in particular to a current love/sex interest, not a boss, ex-who’s-permanently-ex-on-both-ends, son, brother, father, grandfather, uncle, coworker, etc., who happens to be male.)

    I saw The English Patient, but I’m damned if I can remember anything except Juliette Binoche cutting her own hair and Ralph Fiennes lying on the ground.

    Usually if it’s a movie about women in show business or sports, it’s an automatic pass, since they’re bound to talk about the show, the group, the game, etc. I guess advertising is show business, in a way.

    Interesting points, Deb, about “soapy” being a dogwhistle for “girly stuff.” But TV drama wasn’t always all serials, all the time. There have been a lot of TV dramas with self-contained story lines. I guess, for me, a lot of what verged on “soapy” wasn’t the domestic or pregnancy dramas so much as how they were handled. Is she or isn’t she? Will they or won’t they? Tune in next week…or next year!

    And while contrivance is a part of all fiction, I felt like the wires were a little too visible in that last episode. We have to get Don married to Megan — let’s make Carla and Betty do things way out of character, and make Megan tabula rasa that could have anything at all written on it! The fans want Joan to have Roger’s baby — let’s give them Joan and Roger’s baby, even if Joan has to break character to do it!

    Although I do acknowledge, as a Humorless Feminist (TM), that a lot of people are going to think anything having to do with women’s private lives, especially in serial drama, is “soapy.”

  45. There are a few women talking scenes in Annie Hall, albeit brief. Annie talks to her female shrink. Annie and her mother discuss ham.

    Meowser, I don’t assume Bechdel only meant romantic men, because why is it always men who are bosses, etc.?

  46. I definitely agree that there’s a ton of sexism in the “soap opera” criticism.

    In this thread, sudden developments have been called soapy. Romances without sufficient build up. Pregnancies following single encounters. (Of course, those who know Where Babies Come From realize that that It Only Takes Once; but it’s a statistical thing.) Bitchy Betty. (That’s sudden?)

    However, soap operas avoid sudden developments. For every Shocking Revelation, we have weeks of conversations fraught with hidden meaning, pregnant (heh) glances, threatening portents & rehashing of What Happened & Who Knows. Time slows down in soaps, with 5 shows a week examining personal lives in excruciating detail.

    Mad Men skips weeks between episodes & months between seasons. There are tons of non-soap plot points involving the Ad Biz–serious Man Stuff! We didn’t see weeks of Megan & Don working together following That Couch Encounter; in a soap, we would have seen every smile or thoughtful glance. Perhaps the details of their coming together were sketched in to set up next season–but I find a Don & Megan marriage quite believable. Betty said “of course.” Joan & Peggy agreed it was The Old Story. Even Faye will be thunderstruck that she missed it. She predicted he would remarry & we don’t even know that she saw herself as the blushing bride; she probably assumed they could just continue with dinner dates, good sex & counseling–while maintaining their separate lives.

    (But–are we sure that Megan does not have an evil twin? She certainly looked different the night she Did Don.)

  47. Deb, that’s a good question, and you might be right — after reading some stuff from Peggy Joan’s link at 34, it probably does mean “any male person,” not just a love interest. (BTW, lots of great stuff at that link, including an article about how film school students are specifically told NOT to pass Bechdel, because they think male viewers automatically parse any conversation between women that doesn’t mention the hero’s name to be about “nail polish and shoes,” even if it’s two women who are as un-femme as you can get.)

    Of course, passing doesn’t mean a film is feminist. Mildred Pierce passes, after all.

  48. # 43 bling Says: Don’s impulsive (and compulsive) engagement – OK, I’ll grant that. But Megan’s? Is she an addictive personality too? Or is she so desperate for a marriage that at 25 she would accept to marry a guy she barely knows?… Maybe a case could be made: but to do so, you need story and plot, at least on Megan’s side, because we don’t know Megan, Megan has not been established as a compulsive, impulsive, or (grasping at last straws) gold-digging character.

    Well said! From the little we know of Megan – she’s assertive, appears not to be sexually “clingy” and she says she wants to have a “career” – why would a woman with these attributes agree to marry a man she’s spent little time (at least on screen) with, who she knows is in a relationship with another woman (Faye)? It felt like a push for some kind of Disney fairy tale ending – she finds her “prince”, Don finds the “good” stepmother”. It felt forced and awkward.

    (edited by moderator to fix tags)

  49. Megan had been spending 40 hours a week with Don. For several months. No, we didn’t see all that time together–because Mad Men is not a soap.

    She knew he was “in a relationship” with Faye? Well, she may have suspected they had something going while Faye worked at SCDP; that period included The Couch Encounter. Is a clandestine, suspected relationship a sign to keep “hands off”? After Don’s Ciggy Letter, they went on dinner dates; as “his girl” Megan made reservations. She made no more advances to Don but accepted his advances in California. He was neither married nor engaged to Faye. Not even shacked up; they were having an affair. After getting serious with Megan he gave Faye that call & ended it. In a true soap, he would have strung the two of them along for a while. A long while. (With burning glances & dramatic music.)

    I’m quite eager for the next season. While I don’t see the Don/Megan match as trouble-free, I’m hoping his emotional life is not the show’s main focus–at least for a season. There are ads to be written & a company to build. And plenty of other characters to have adventures the small-minded might think “soapy.”

  50. Amen. Good analysis of soaps and gender expectations.

  51. I can’t help wondering (and this is probably because we really do know so little about Megan) whether she’s sincere in her career ambitions, or whether she thinks that’s what Don wants to hear.

  52. #15 Lady K listed some good examples of Season 4 moments that didn’t quite work. Some of them were entertaining but as she said, I did find myself thinking, “would it really happen like that?”

    I still felt it was a great season. But like Lady K, some of those moments (listed above in #15) seemed a bit “off” to me.

  53. “The key to a soap opera is that nothing ever changes. You can pick up 6 months from where you left off and you will still recognize not only most of the characters, but most of the storylines as well. “

    That’s what I was thinking, too. The stories contain high-drama plot elements, but rarely do the characters ever have long-term effects from them (except for the rare instance in which the trauma is used as an excuse to completely rewrite a character from the ground up in order to retain a popular but bored actor).

    Not only do we have Don with his secret identity, we get to see how it affects his day-to-day life years down the road. Peggy’s unexpected pregnancy still gives her pause now and again, and Baby Gene didn’t get packed off to an offscreen boarding school so that we’d forget the long-term results of Betty’s.

  54. […] Is Mad Men a “Soap Opera”? Dramas get called soaps, though, not when their situations are “stock,” but when their situations are female. Losing a big client, blowing it in a presentation, or winning a coveted award are just as melodramatic as unwanted pregnancy, unexpected proposals, or backing out of an abortion, but only the latter group gets called soapy, because only the latter group is about women’s lives. Workplace drama doesn’t get called soapy. Army flashbacks don’t get called soapy. The fact is, we still consider the day-to-day drama of men’s lives more meaningful or important or worthy of dramatic consideration than the day-to-day drama of women’s lives. (tags: tv gender) […]

  55. #44 bling:

    Oh I completely agree with you (and I’m an even bigger fan of Jane Austen than I am even of MM, but mum’s the word on here, m’kay?). I should have qualified what I said, instead of the shorthand I used. I completely agree with your assessment that the finale was both over-foreshadowed and under-plotted (very elegant turn of phrase there). One might also add that, in the case of Megan, we have a very undeveloped character. Who knows why she agreed to marry Don? If we had been given SOME kind of rationale (for example, if we were told that her decision to move to the States was impulsive) it might not be quite the giant question mark, but what we’ve seen of her character so far would indicate that impulsive decision making is not the norm for Miss Calvet.

  56. #44 bling said “As of now, the Don-Megan engagement does look to me too sentimental, with not enough back-story to make it believable on its own terms.”

    I am not entirely sure that the show’s writers buy into the sentimentality.

    When a sugary-sweet ending is slapped on to a movie or show AND THE WRITERS EXPECT US TO BELIEVE IT I think it becomes overly sentimental.

    But I’m not convinced that MW and his fellow writers want us to believe that this is happy ever after.

    If this were the final episode of the final season, I’d be reall mad. But we have more seasons to come.

    Because MM has repeatedly shown that relationships are harder than people think they are going to be when they first fall in love (Don/Betty, Don/Faye, Pete/Trudy, Roger/Jane, Joan/Greg) I guess I am not convinced that the writers believe in all the sentimentality that Don and Megan seem caught up in.

    My suspicion is that MW had a character arc for Don that was going to end in a proposal to a girl.

    In the mean time, we were going to see Don struggle. Also, I think it will be important for the future that DON CHOSE THIS GIRL, it didn’t just “happen to him.” It wasn’t just expected of him.

    Don had other options: He could have stayed single longer. He could have continued things with Faye. He possibly could have initiated with Peggy. He could have explored Allison. He could have reached out to Anna more. At the end of the season, he had his mojo back–he could have dated more. He could have tried to rekindle with Midge. Bethany was around. Strange women sought him out after the Clios.

    Or he could have chosen a long engagement with Megan to get to know her better.

    But whatever happens, Don chose this. For good or for ill.

    I think that Megan is largely a blank slate because MW was writing season 4 and not season 5. Maybe he already knows where season 5 is going, but by keeping Megan a bit vague he has a lot more “room to play with” as he is preparing for season 5.

  57. # 57 Lady K Says: But whatever happens, Don chose this. For good or for ill…I think that Megan is largely a blank slate because MW was writing season 4 and not season 5.

    I guess where I’m having a problem is given what we (and she) know about Don, it’s difficult to understand why Megan would choose this. We’ll have to wait until next season to find out.

  58. But I’m not convinced that MW and his fellow writers want us to believe that this is happy ever after.

    If they did, I don’t think we’d have that scene between Peggy and Joan. Roger, of all people, approved of his behavior. Surely that’s a sign you’re Doing It Wrong.

  59. Lady K: “Also, I think it will be important for the future that DON CHOSE THIS GIRL, it didn’t just “happen to him.” It wasn’t just expected of him.”

    I have wondered about that. There are a couple of points that in my mind make this issue more complex than it appears. Don seems to only notice Megan after his lawyer mentioned her attractiveness to him (in contrast with Faye, to whom he was immediately attracted without needing any prompting, and whom he pursued for months).

    Then, in the last episode, the lawyer basically tells him he needs to get married (the steak on the table). The role of the lawyer this season seems to have been to voice societal expectations (you should want this woman, you should get married). For me it is still unresolved whether Don by proposing to Megan was not subconsciously doing what was expected of him (by people like Roger, say).

    I agree that the sentimentality is probably not meant to be taken at face-value, since it is not (one hopes) the series finale. To be continued…

  60. # 60. Good point, bling, about the lawyer encouraging Don. Also–you are right that Don was attracted to Faye very early on –and he pursued her several times, got rejected, and pursued her again. Megan was “right there” all along, yet she only seemed to capture his notice very late in the season –after the lawyer pointed her out. She basically had to make all the moves on him in his office.

    I still don’t think that anybody “made him do it.” But he did seem to do something that society expected a man in his position would do.

    “What I want versus what is expected of me.”

    But I still think it’s relevant that he had other possibilities if he really wanted to explore them.
    Nothing forced his hand.

    I agree, we do not have much background on Megan. Why is Megan doing this? Perhaps the writers have known for a long time what Megan’s motives are. Perhaps they are simple (she’s just a young girl who is head-over-heels) or perhaps they are far more complicated.

    Perhaps the writers know all the things hidden from us–perhaps they already know what will happen in Season 5.

    But by not revealing too much about Megan (yet) MW has left a lot of his options open.

  61. After a wasted year of watching All My Children (about 4 years ago) I can safely believe that MM is not a soap opera. I can understand how elements of it (triangles, jealousies) could be construed as soap, but there is so much more to it than that.
    Soaps are often so contrived as to have their characters constantly in danger, there is never a complete happy ending (until the series ends) because you just know that there will always be a kidnapping, murder, or “shocking” revelation. And of course, characters hardly ever “die” for real, there’s always a mistaken identity, or they come back as a spirit. Not on MM. Adam is Dead. Gene is Dead. Ida is Dead. And that is that.
    MW and the writers make MM magnificent because you see characters react to situations far more realistically than any (fictional) dashing daytime doctor or horny housewife. MM characters are way more fleshed out than soapers. As the series has evolved, we have see both good and bad sides of most of the characters, and for the most part, these transitions have been realistic. I really don’t think Joan ‘broke character’ to keep her baby. As a woman in her 30’s she realized that with Greg away in Vietnam, her chances of conceiving with him were slimmer by the day, and Joan is doing what she wants for a change, not what is expected of her, which has been the theme of the whole season.
    As for Megan? Yeah, I found it a little too fast, but perhaps likely since we have seen Don briefly admire her in the past. Sure, the writers know what will bring you back for more, but it’s way less contrived than any afternoon soap.

  62. Of course it is the very nature of a soap that there is no resolution; there is only cancellation.

  63. Didn’t Don’s accountant say “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

  64. Great post.

    Well, I, personally, think some people (whoever they are) are so jealous of MM’s “three years in a row success” at Emmy’s and all the recognition it is getting that they just have an unstoppable urge to trash it but cannot find anything wrong with the series, so they just try to cheaply attack it from a very baseless angle. I don’t know who first used the term “soap opera” to define MM but suddenly a lot of people are just jumping at the chance and forums are full of “its a soap” comments. There’s nothing soapy about MM. When I think of soap opera, I think of “Young and the Restless”, “Bold and the Beautiful”, “All My Children” . Not MM. MM is one of the most realistic shows I’ve ever seen on tv. And noone can convince me it is a soap, because it isn’t. And frankly, people who claim this, they just don’t know what they are saying. Sorry, if I sounded harsh. But that’s how I feel.

  65. […] established (to my own satisfaction at least) that Mad Men is not a soap opera, I’m ready to tackle the question of what Mad Men is. By that, I don’t mean, “is […]

  66. #61 and #62

    I agree with both of you about the lawyer speaking society’s expectations into Don’s ear directly. Previous suggestions from the lawyer fell on deaf ears (namely, kicking Betty and Henry out of the house instead of waiting for them to acquiesce), and other encounters with him involved unique demands (making provisions for his kids if The Man came after him).

    After his stunt with cutting SCDP from Big Tobacco completely, Don may have internalized some fear of stepping too far outside of expectations. Marriage for Don was and is a security blanket — even if he’s drowning professionally or internally (lots of symbolism in the swimming in this series), he at least has the outward presentation of a happy family as a life preserver.

    Whether the audience likes it or not, the kind and young Megan can improve that illusion by caring for Sally and Bobby in a gentler fashion. With two young kids in the picture, Megan is not a trophy wife like in the Roger/Jane situation; she’s more of a trophy mom. Roger sought Jane because he made Margaret “another man’s problem” by marrying her off and he was ready to settle down with someone else (ideally Joan, but yeah, we know what happened there).

  67. The only daytime soap opera I ever watched was Dark Shadows, but I was very young.

    It’s pretty clear Mad Men is like a soap in some ways, just like The Sopranos was, or shows I haven’t watched probably are, if they have strongly drawn characters the audience comes to care about, and tune in to see what happens in their lives.

    Good ongoing dramas should be engaging in that way. I assume real soap operas could aspire to be good drama, too, and break the bounds of a narrow definition. Or maybe not.

    I think a lot of the complaints of a show from viewers who say, “This is turning into a soap opera!” are just that they don’t like the plot turns the show has taken, and were hoping for a different soap.

  68. The “Soap Opera” question… answered. A NY Times critique re-opens the discussion and provides erudite assessment.

    I see “The Wheel” in a different light than Mr. Mendelsohn, but his points are well made.

  69. I have a head rein but I haven’t used it in years. The female dog I put it on was really disappointed about it to the point of becoming hysterical, I could not distract him with foodstuffs, so I took it off. I assume some would tell I gave in, and I would do it once more. The coming day he was very painful and had difficulty eating. Afterwards I observed an obedience class being presented by a big chain pet supply store. A youthful German Shepherd bitch wearing a head halti was frenetically tossing herself around on the floor fighting the halti and whining. The trainer overlooked her behavior, I told them to end, that she would get hurt. I was asked to go away. I know that there are numerous dogs that calmly accept these halters. But they need to use it with caution and there should be counselings of the possibility of wound both rational and physical.

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