I like car chases and guys firing two pistols at once and fistfights that take place on the wing of an airborne plane.
So why do I like AMC’s Mad Men series so much?
I believe I know the answer, but first: This’ll teach me to question the estimable James Lileks, one of my favorite bloggers and my first read each weekday morning. Lileks wrote awhile back that Mad Men was superior to The Sopranos, the gold standard for TV series. At the time, I’d watched a few minutes of MM, been unimpressed (by the dearth of car chases, no doubt), and sagely pronounced: “Meh.”
My take on Lileks’ essay was that he, an admitted sucker for well-executed period pieces (as long as the period’s right, and the early ’60s is), had been seduced by MM’s fantastic set dressing and costumes.
I was wrong. He was and is right. I’ve seen every episode of season two, and I love the show. It is better than the Sopranos. In the essay (or Bleat, to my fellow fans) linked above, Lileks nails plenty of reasons. I’ll add another pair:
- MM is in far better control of its arcs and subplots. Good TV dramas unfold like a novel; no given scene should try to do too much, and it’s okay (better than okay, actually) for an early scene to serve as a setup for a payoff that comes later – even much later. Viewers (like readers) are willing to be patient as long as they trust that the payoff will come eventually, and that it’ll be satisfying. In its later seasons, the Sopranos – perhaps because so many different writers and directors rotated in and out – abused this pact, launching arcs that croaked in the middle of nowhere. So far (I know, it’s only season two), MM’s setup/payoff ratio is exquisite.
- Don Draper is Tony Soprano’s better in virtually every way. “One is a cruel man,” sayeth Lileks. “The other is a man capable of cruelty.” Perfect. I’ll add this: The more I learn about Don Draper, the less I like him. But I root like hell for him. I think he knows there’s something missing in his life, and part of him understands he won’t find it as long as he’s ignoring his kids and chasing skirts. I want badly for him to find it. Maybe he will, maybe he won’t. What, on the other hand, were we supposed to root for in the case of Tony Soprano? The best possible outcome was a noble death, and the writers cheated us out of even that.