2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, TV

Mad Men (2007)

I watched Mad Men over an even longer period than most of you, so my memory of the individual episodes is not perfect. I know there were some weaker ones in there, and there even parts of seasons – perhaps even whole seasons – that I didn’t enjoy on the level of the best parts of the show. But I want to talk about the show as a whole, and not dwell on its occasional missteps or the fact that it ran on too long – like most other American TV shows…

English-language cinema, particularly American cinema, has been singularly plot-obsessed for most of its existence. You might not think that this is a weird thing as cinema is (normally) engaged in storytelling. But literature had abandoned the obsession with plot above everything else before narrative cinema even came into existence. And it was only American cinema really that was so singularly plot-focused in the early days of Motion Pictures. (Even British cinema had films that broke away from the obsession with plot plot plot.)

It was only in the 1960s, with both the collapse of the Production Code and the accessibility of foreign films through new distribution that one might say US cinema (sort of) grew up. (Of course, you can also point to the rise of the Blockbuster and say there was a counterrevolution, but that’s another story.) From the late ’60s through to the late ’70s or early ’80s, there was a renaissance in US cinema, that largely eschewed traditional American cinema narratives (or mocked them openly). And even though maybe it’s harder to make those kinds of films in the US any more, there’s still a lot of great stuff coming out of the US, much of which bucks the kinds of narrative conventions that were just about mandatory prior to the American Renaissance.

What the hell does all of this have to do with Mad Men?

Well, the same thing didn’t happen in the world of American television. American television was famously dumb. Even the famous (second? third?) Golden Age of Television didn’t occur (or get named) until the 21st century, over 30 years after the American Film Renaissance began. (Whether or not we’re still living in that Golden Age is a debate for another time.)

It took a long time for TV to catch up. But even when it did catch up with the sophistication of movies, US TV was still obsessed with plot. Even the Greatest TV Show of All Time*, The Wire (*fictional, dramatic), needed significant plotting to get its message across. But Mad Men has changed all that.

You might say that Mad Men is the first European (successful) TV show to be made in the United States. Like numerous foreign films before it – and the odd American film – Mad Men is first and foremost concerned with characters, then with period and mood, then, and only then, with narrative devices. The show’s central mystery has mostly been on the back-burner for the show’s run. And the rest of the show has basically been character development draped in impeccably designed sets and clothes. Yes, there’s the social comment, too, which is an important part of the show, but the show’s central allegory relies more on the central character’s of the show – and Don’s failure to fully attain the American Dream – than it does on the mystery of Don’s past, or what name is currently on the door.

I can only think of one other show that aired before Mad Men that dared go down this road and that show (Six Feet Under) had its share of conventional plotting (including a murder mystery!). Though I haven’t watched Six Feet Under in years, I still feel like Mad Men has gone many places that show never did. Mad Men broke down one of the last few barriers still existing in US television, though it’s unlikely too many shows will follow now that the door is open.

Sure, there were episodes that didn’t work. I didn’t particularly like Season 5 (or was it 4?). But all of this is sort of irrelevant in the face of the fact that someone was able to create an American serial drama where character development always trumped plot contrivance. There was never anything like it in the history of US television.

Mad Men is still not in my absolute top tier of TV shows – it ran too long and too inconsistently for that – but it is a landmark and one of the must-watch shows of the Golden Age of Television. (As if you needed me to tell you that…)


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