‘Mad Men,’ ‘Eastbound & Down,’ and Cultural Estrangement

By  · Published on March 28th, 2012

‘Mad Men,’ ‘Eastbound & Down,’ and Cultural Estrangement

If I were to call The Vampire Diaries stupid, I don’t think that too many people would be outraged or even ask me to explain why I had that opinion. Everyone would probably just assume that I wasn’t in to vampires or diaries or good-looking men with smoldering eyes and leave it at that. The show definitely has its fan base, and it’s a very devoted fan base, but it’s socially acceptable to not like The Vampire Diaries. Now, what if I were to call Mad Men stupid? The kind of inarticulate assessment that it’s perfectly OK to make when talking about The Vampire Diaries probably wouldn’t fly when talking about Matthew Weiner’s acclaimed drama (mainly because the show isn’t stupid and, even if it isn’t your cup of mid-afternoon booze, there are certain things about it that you have to concede – it’s thematically complex, well-written, pretty to look at, etc.). I happen to be a faithful Mad Men viewer but I know that there are people who find it painfully unwatchable and I also know that these people aren’t hillbillies (no offense to hillbillies) or unintelligent. Disliking a popular show is, of course, alienating – even when you’re steadfast in your opinion – but it’s also just incredibly frustrating; there’s a kind of emperor’s new clothes aspect to it where you’re left asking, what is it that I’m missing here?

I don’t like Eastbound & Down but I feel like I’m supposed to. The societal pressure to be a fan of this HBO series about a crass, former professional baseball pitcher isn’t as oppressive as it is with Mad Men, but it still exists. The entertainment magazines and websites that I read and respect and usually agree with all praise this show. If your mom saw an episode and didn’t immediately become a diehard Danny McBride fan, I don’t think anyone would question that or be surprised. But I’m not your mom. I’m a 20-something, relatively unencumbered by responsibility, who isn’t easily offended and actually prefers consciously tactless, sophomoric humor. I should have every season of Eastbound & Down on DVD but the reality is that I find it hard to sit through an entire episode.

I didn’t like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia right away. In fact, I disliked it quite a bit. When I first watched the show, I was working at a video store (so, obviously this was a long time ago because what’s a video store?), all of my co-workers were absolutely fanatical about it plus the show was getting a lot of good press, and I wanted to see what all the hoopla was about. During that initial viewing, Always Sunny just seemed dumb – the kind of thing you had to either be drunk or an 18-year-old boy or maybe a drunk 18-year-old boy to enjoy. This was clearly a really lazy critique but I think I was probably so dismissive because there had been all of this hype and I was expecting something completely different than what I was presented with.

A year later, I gave Always Sunny another chance not because I was in the habit of revisiting dumb shows, but in not watching it, I felt disconnected from my peer group – it was like I was Amish or a homeschooled Christian kid who’d been thrust into public school. Everyone seemed to like this show and I desperately wanted to “get it.” People would talk about the Paddy’s gang as if they knew these characters personally or as if the show’s plotlines were common knowledge – they could call one another masters of karate and friendship and somehow that wasn’t complete nonsense. Even if I didn’t end up enjoying the show, I wanted to at least understand why it was so appealing. I’m glad that I re-watched season one because today Always Sunny is one of my favorites (even if I do think that it’s in decline). There wasn’t some sudden shift in my sense of humor but I was simply more open to what I was seeing.

With this past experience in mind, I recently took a second look at Eastbound & Down and you know what? I still don’t care for it. McBride’s Kenny Powers does the wrong thing in almost every situation. He nonchalantly whips out dildos in front of kids, he doesn’t sweat public sex, he’s racially insensitive. Powers is basically an asshole but also a tragic hero or an anti-hero and I completely get that and have certainly found similar characters amusing in the past, but here it doesn’t work for me. Perhaps Eastbound & Down is too over the top or too blatantly tongue in cheek, regardless, I can’t get into it.

Not liking something that is widely accepted as “good” by critics, the general public, and cool folks (it isn’t often that the three groups agree) is more frustrating when it comes to TV than it is with any other medium. People get indignant about music but for the most part we all just accept that we have different musical tastes. The same is mostly true for film but if you didn’t enjoy, say, The Descendants you only had to hear everyone raving about it for a little while. With TV, you get it weekly and then for however many years the series lasts. You have to deal with the “did you see last night’s episode of ____?” or “I can’t believe you don’t like___.” It can be maddening.

And in TV – unlike film or music or even literature – the popularity of one thing can mean the death of something else. Say you’re a devotee of NBC’s cult favorite Community but can’t understand the appeal of CBS’ ratings champ The Big Bang Theory. Both shows are now airing at the same time so if Community doesn’t consistently perform well against The Big Bang Theory it could be canceled.

You’re not going to enjoy every popular show and you’re not always going to be able to – or even have the desire to – lock down why you’re not into those shows. Duh. You don’t need me to tell you that. But reflecting on Eastbound & Down, a fairly well-liked series that I’ll apparently never be able to wrap my head around, got me thinking about the phenomenon. So, I guess I just want to offer my sympathies to everyone who isn’t a fan of Mad Men or, I don’t know, Game of Thrones, since you’re going to have to contend with a ton or chatter and buzz and hype and what not about these shows in the upcoming weeks. The fifth season premiere of Mad Men aired on Sunday and as I’m writing this “Zou Bisou Bisou” is still being discussed. It’s driving me crazy and I’m in to the show. I don’t even want to imagine what it must feel like if you’re not buying what Mad Men’s selling.

Is there a TV show that you loathe or just don’t get but everyone else around you seems to love?