With the final episode of Entourage airing on Sunday, I’ve been treated to the last of what seems like an annual East Coast tradition of snarky comments about “bros being bros” and other riffs on the vacuous nature of the show. I’m not interested in defending Entourage, per se. But I love to call out pretentiousness, and Entourage is remarkably similar to a certain show beloved by “people who don’t watch television”: Mad Men.
I can imagine the pitch session for Mad Men going something like this: “Entourage, but set in the 1960s, so people think it’s classed up.” Both shows create a fantasy world revolving around the media/entertainment industry, with elaborately designed sets and costumes and glamorous characters. Both sets of protagonists jet around the world in expensive clothes. They attend fancy parties and sleep with beautiful people.
This “sleeping with beautiful people” detail brings me to the crux of the argument: Both shows have a Vincent Chase. In Mad Men he’s called Don Draper, but they’re essentially the same character. This character came from nothing to achieve super-stardom and employs a small set of groupies who love him. More importantly, Vincent Chase/Don Draper spends his days drinking, smoking, and seducing every beautiful woman he meets.
I can’t escape the conclusion that the men I know with “high brow” tastes love Mad Men because Don Draper is a vice-indulging playboy. I’m pretty sure most women love the show because it’s now fashionable to wear red lipstick and dresses to work again. Mad Men is about wish-fulfillment and escapism. The same is true of Entourage— Mad Men just puts a more sophisticated gloss on it.
The fantasy world created by these shows is even more appealing to us because they feature male protagonists who, through some combination of charm, good looks, and skill, have achieved nouveau riche superstardom. Experiencing life through the eyes of the rich-but-still-like-us is an American pastime. Entourage revels in this, whereas Mad Men passes its characters off almost as if they’re old-money.
People advance a lot of arguments for the deep cultural significance of Mad Men. Those arguments are mostly about witnessing the pivotal events of the 1960s through the eyes of the characters, allowing those of us born since 1970 a window into the emotional and psychological effects of the time period. But even in this, Mad Men gives us a glossed-over, privileged world. There is not a single recurring black character on the show. The closest we get to the racial tension of the civil rights era is a white, Brooklyn-dwelling, hipster who gets fired in the second season, and a black waitress in an interracial relationship who gets screen time in one (maybe two?) episodes. It took me several minutes to remember the Drapers had a black housekeeper, who is a relatively minor character. Meanwhile, Sal Romano is one of the show’s most emotionally compelling characters as a married man struggling with his sexuality. His storyline is indulged for a few episodes, but then he’s fired, never seen or heard from again.
Mad Men spends far more time addressing the challenges facing women in the 1960s. But in that respect, I often get the sense that the show is a voyeuristic “screw you” to successful women. Every female character who has shown ambition or competence in the workplace has been seduced and cut down by one of the men. Season 2 drives this point home, when Don uses a public sex act to intimidate the opinionated, demanding Bobbie Barrett into submission. Most of the women on Mad Men aren’t portrayed climbing their way through the corporate world for the first time, they’re portrayed having affairs with their male colleagues.
Entourage is no force for social change, either. But it isn’t heralded as such, the way Mad Men often is. It’s exactly the light buddy-dramedy that everyone portrays it to be. And that’s fine by me. I love escapist television as much as Don Draper and Vincent Chase love to drink.