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The real reason people write so much about Mad Men: you keep clicking

Just open up your mind to the possibility that the popularity of Mad Men isn't a media conspiracy, man.
Just open up your mind to the possibility that the popularity of Mad Men isn't a media conspiracy, man.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

One of the most consistent criticisms of Mad Men from those who aren't Mad Men fans is that — sniffs derisively — it's only beloved by the coastal media elite, because it's about rich white people who live glamorous lives and work in advertising.

That strain of criticism became all the more pronounced in the buildup to the AMC drama's series finale, with Vulture launching the latest broadside against the show's popularity as author Michael Idov argued that it wasn't truly popular, just overhyped. (To support his claim, he points, in part, to the show's lack of an audience in Russia.)

To some degree, this is true. Back when the series debuted, the media wrote about Mad Men to a level far exceeding its actual ratings. The first season's viewership numbers dipped below the 1 million mark a few times — a much more perilous event in an age when DVRs and streaming services were less prevalent. But by season two, the awards and critical attention Mad Men garnered ended up boosting those numbers to more comfortable levels, and even if the show was never a smash hit, it had a long, healthy run.

Still, there are a bunch of good, mostly reductive reasons for the media to keep, in Idov's words, shoving Mad Men down readers' throats. Here are five.

1) Readers wanted to read about it

In my pre-Vox life, I was the TV editor of The A.V. Club, a position that gave me unique insight into what sorts of TV content readers wanted to consume. And every time we wrote about Mad Men, those numbers spiked. The show was consistently among the top five series we wrote about in terms of readership, and a well-timed thinkpiece always had the potential to blow up.

This has carried right over to Vox. We write a lot about the show because there's a huge audience out there ready to devour Mad Men content — far beyond any other show I've written about here that's not Game of Thrones. The Mad Men audience overlaps so neatly with the audience of people who read about TV on the internet that the Venn diagram of the two might as well be a single circle.

Yes, the huge explosion of commentary in the days preceding the show's finale was driven by how much many of us in the media liked the show. But it was also driven by the fact that our readers wanted to see this sort of material. Some of that was an accident of timing.

2) Mad Men debuted right after The Sopranos ended and filled the void the show left

When Mad Men began, in the summer of 2007, The Sopranos had ended just a few weeks before. The Wire (never as popular in terms of raw readership numbers, though no slouch itself) would end in early 2008. Lost was the king of the recap roost at the time, but those who wrote about it usually focused more on grand, unified theories of why the show worked, rather than the sorts of symbolic interpretations The Sopranos invited.

Thus, there was a huge opening in the "reading about TV on the internet" marketplace that was beginning to boom in the late 2000s, and Mad Men filled it as surely as it filled the slots vacated by Sopranos at the Golden Globes and the Emmys. The two shows' thematic concerns, use of dreamlike imagery, and storytelling structure were incredibly similar, which only helped matters.

But Mad Men also benefited from the rise of TV recapping in general. Alan Sepinwall began his seminal blog What's Alan Watching in late 2005, and by that final Sopranos season, dozens of publications were dipping their toes into the recap waters. That number would explode in years to come — and Mad Men was a natural fit for publications that wanted to write TV recaps and people who wanted to read them.

3) There just wasn't as much good TV on

When Mad Men started, it was popular to suggest that the end of The Sopranos, the cancellation of HBO's Deadwood, and the impending end of The Wire signaled the end of TV's Golden Age. (Sound familiar?) Instead, Mad Men and later Breaking Bad picked up that ball and ran with it, while FX entered the early stages of a hot streak that continues to this day.

But, really, in that summer of 2007, the established shows worth writing about were few and far between — especially if you didn't want to publish weekly, in-depth reviews of comedies (a later development, largely driven by content-hungry sites like, well, The A.V. Club). They were essentially limited to The Wire, Dexter, Lost, Heroes, 24, Grey's Anatomy, and maybe Veronica Mars (if your readership was especially young). Thus, it was easy to get the "serious TV" audience to tune in to Mad Men, because there weren't a ton of other options.

Contrast that to today, when a show like The Americans can't get the same sort of readership traction as Mad Men (even though it has a loyal, dedicated audience that likes reading about it), simply because there's so much more stuff out there. This most recent season of that FX drama received the kind of acclaim Mad Men did in its heyday — but it's much, much harder for a series to cut through the noise from all those other shows out there. Mad Men suggested every single cable channel should have its own scripted drama in development — and now they pretty much all do.

4) Mad Men was actually pretty popular, when all was said and done

Though it never pulled in Big Bang Theory numbers, AMC told Vulture's Joe Adalian that at the show's height, a total of just under 7 million people watched it. That number's not insignificant, and even a tiny percentage of that audience consistently reading pieces about the show online would be more than enough to drive significant traffic to most websites — especially back in 2007, when the overall online readership was smaller.

5) Never underestimate passion

As my colleague Matthew Yglesias wrote about the popularity of Bernie Sanders' presidential candidacy online, a small but rabidly passionate audience for a particular topic can be lifeblood to a website that craves readers. What holds true for Sanders is also true for Mad Men: there are very few casual Mad Men fans. And those passionate fans tend to seek out everything they can find about the show.

The media is, of course, at least somewhat complicit in this. Early on, we positioned the series as a sort of lifestyle choice — if you were cool, you would watch Mad Men. But TV sites have said that about a lot of shows over the years, and few of them held up, readership-wise, as well as Mad Men did. (Whither Boardwalk Empire?) Yes, the early push might have been a bit much, but Mad Men ended up having the goods — at least for the people who cared about it.

I agree with the theoretical concerns behind the criticisms of media coverage of Mad Men. Those of us who write about television do too often ignore the shows that a majority of Americans are actually watching, shows like The Big Bang Theory and NCIS and even Empire.

But the kinds of people who read our websites are also far more likely to want to take a deep dive into the latest episode of Mad Men than they are to want to read a careful analysis of even several episodes of NCIS. (Believe me. I've tried.) The answer to why the media keeps pushing Mad Men on the people is simple: the people keep pushing it on us.

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