I have an unpopular confession to make: I didn’t really like the Mad Men finale. It had some great moments but… it didn’t really make sense to me. Long going (and going and going) story lines suddenly wrapped up in radical 2 minute scenes. Old characters killed off in a snap. Multiple major life redirections all happening in simultaneous bursts. Don hugging his way to enlightenment, which yields… more of good old Don. Huh?!? It seemed like my long-time girlfriend was leaving me and she wanted to make it easier by insulting me first. It’s not you, it’s me. You know who did like it? All the pundits, professional and amateur (if there’s a difference) who reviewed the show with the vigor of Parisian art critics. Then I realized, “Oh. That’s who they made it for, the critics not the audience.” I felt stupid. Then I thought about it some more. Does that work? Can you create for the critics and end up with something good?
Upon further reflection, I get it. I think. If you read any of the reviews, they talked about the “arc of the characters” and symbolism and zeitgeist. The New Yorker called it “Existentially Brilliant”. Yeah. Ok. Except, well, it was completely unbelievable. Everyone was stumbling along for 10+ years, then they all had grand epiphanies of redirection, all at once. Joan says she’s seriously contemplating marriage then ends the relationship, in one brief conversation. Peggy fell into a worm hole and popped out in a romantic comedy. Pete gives up his perennial a-hole of the year title to become a dedicated family man in one sequence… Right. All the loose ends are tied up. Super tight. Just ask the critics. It all makes sense in the abstract.
Maybe that’s why everybody watched. I know several people who wouldn’t comment until they had read the reviews. Maybe then they knew what the hell just happened and why. Or maybe this is how the show lost its direction years ago, trying to satisfy the commentators rather than commoners.
No doubt creating art, or any unique offering is difficult — maintaining that edge is even tougher. In this case, Mad Men was wildly creative and extremely enjoyable for years. Personally, I think it ran out of steam awhile ago and recycled stories. A few scenes from the last few years will be remembered. The first few were a series of iconic sequences. Where do you go when you run out of the creative energy? Well, fortunately, there are many audiences ready to tell you where to go. You need to listen to some of them and ignore most of them. Many great “makers” are incapable of listening. Most of them have no second act. A very select few deliver something new again and again. We call them geniuses. Many more listen to the wrong group – maybe its the critics – and miss the mark.
Consider a couple of the great innovators: Henry Ford and Steve Jobs. “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” – Ford. Popular quote, often referenced. Here’s another oft-referenced Ford line “They can have any [Model T] colour they want, as long as its black.” Heck of a creator. Controlled up to 50% of the US market for cars at one point. Refused any significant changes to his one and only Model T… and opened the door to a huge wave of competitors, in a rainbow of colors by the way. “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” – Jobs Again, an often quoted line. And often misunderstood. He also said, about 15 years before this became an industry mantra, “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.” All things considered, you have to give the nod to Jobs in this match up.
Tough creative balance, especially after that first act. Tune in. Ommmmmm……