I got hooked on the television series Mad Men a couple of years ago after buying DVD sets of the first two seasons. (I'd walk a mile to avoid a TV commercial.) I later bought the third season, and await the fourth, due March 29.
So I eagerly read a review of the series about advertising men in the early 1960s by Daniel Mendelsohn, an essayist and teacher at Bard. Yikes. His New York Review article, going against most critics, trashes the series as a mere "soap opera" rather than a thoughtful drama that attempts to say something about the human condition.
But, confesses Mendelsohn, he's hooked on Mad Men, too. How can that be, he wonders.
I like his answer. The basic attraction of Mad Men, he says, is not the period accuracy or the titillation of bygone mores, but the quiet bewilderment of the kids on the show. That makes a soap opera - not a drama that explores the adult characters' actions - just what these children are seeing and trying to understand as they grow up. And the kids of the early 1960s are none other than the 40- and 50-year-olds who watch the show with such fascination today.
I would only add that kids' puzzlement is not limited to one generation. Sometime in 2050 or so, a similar show might well air, attracting people who were growing up around 2011. They, like the children of Don Draper in the 60s, also are growing up trying to make sense out of a senseless soap opera.