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October 17, 2010

Mad Men: From Good to Great

[Note that I’ve removed all the distributed “in my opinion”s from the following, and instead have concentrated them in this introductory paragraph. The following expresses nothing but my opinion:]

Tonight is the season finale of Mad Men, a show that I think has gone from good to great because it has outlived its premise.

Shows that start out with a strong premise often need a couple of seasons to find their way past it. The Sopranos, for example, initially revolved around the cute premise that a mob boss would have mother issues that drove him into analysis. The Sopranos was good from the beginning, but not because of the premise: the acting was amazing, the cast was large, the relationships were complex. It took a season or two for the Sopranos to develop the tragic sense that made its basic comedy so deep. Dexter likewise has gotten better (unevenly) as the starkness of the premise (decent guy except he has to kill people) has been surrounded by less extreme human drama. The same for the Mary Tyler Moore Show (a working girl who is ok with being single) and M*A*S*H (doctors kept sane by humor in an absurd foreign war).

Now, it may well be that what’s really happening is that it takes a couple of seasons for the relationships to develop that deepen a show. If the best of television has gotten more complex over time (as Steven Johnson argues in Everything Bad is Good for You), then the same is true within a series as well as across all series. TV series let us tell (in Steve’s words) 100-hour stories, and the first set of hours are necessarily not as developed as the later sets. During those early sets, the show relies more on its premise.

For me, Mad Men started out as a totally enjoyable series that focused on reminding us through mores and decor what life in the 1950s was really like. That first season was all about the wall art and the martini lunches. You could almost hear the writers’ meetings in which they’d say things like, “Oooh, you know what would be really cool? Let’s have an embarrassingly pretentious ‘bohemian’ ad guy who dates a black woman to make a statement,” or “Let’s make sure that all the offices have bars in them.” Now in its fourth season, there are plenty of period references, but the show is less about them. It’s about an amazing ensemble grappling with timeless issues within the constraints of their era. It’s blown way past its original inspiration. And that is awesome

[SPOILER ALERT for those who have not seen Season One:] My once concern is the series’ continued fascination with Don’s double identity. In the original idea for the show, that might have been the kicker that sold it to the TV executives: “So you have a show set in the 1950s as they really were. But what’s it about? What happens?” The fact that Don stole his identity long ago and is at risk of being discovered might have sounded like a good answer. But by now for me it’s a melodramatic contrivance that’s out of place in the series’ genuine drama.

The identity theft has shown up in this season. I’m afraid that the finale will come back to that as the cliffhanger. If so, it’s too bad. We don’t need it. There are enough cliffs already; this season has been about the humiliation and cleansing of Don Draper, a long night that is not yet over. Don Draper is fascinating enough without the silly dual identity backstory.

BTW, have I mentioned how much I love the acting? Even January Jones (Betty) is having a good year, perhaps because she’s out of the dramatic center and thus doesn’t have to try to round her character out to a full three dimensions. Every one of the rest of the women are phenomenal, expressing so much nuance and life within and through the limited social roles they are allowed to play — which is itself a heartbreakingly true reflection on the times. And I have to say that Don and Betty’s daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) is amazing. I don’t know how tonight’s episode will wrap up the season, but I do know that we will be watching this phenomenally gifted 12 year old for the rest of our lives.