Before the season finale of AMC’s award-winning drama Mad Men in late October, the Associated Press ran an article wondering why, in light of its critical success and increasing cultural presence, the show failed to find an audience. There’s no doubt that Mad Men is well crafted; its sympathetic and flawless recreation of Madison Avenue is a graceful counterpoint to the fierce contempt in which it holds its characters. The writing is sharp, the ensemble cast well-chosen and skilled.
Unfortunately, and this might have something to do with its struggle to gain market share, the show is also dull, poorly paced, and manifestly lacking a clear narrative. Identifying its failures points to a trend in television post-Sopranos, and the not unalloyed good impact David Chase’s mobster epic has had on the hourly serial format.
Few would dispute that The Sopranos has been the pivotal television happening of its generation. Beyond its immense popularity, the show brought a sea change in how the cultural elites regarded television, and a corresponding alteration in what broadcast networks offered. Six Feet Under, The Wire, Big Love, none of these new-breed serials would have been possible if 10 million Americans hadn’t tuned in weekly for six years to watch the misadventures of a sadistic mafioso and his grotesque family.
Given the revolutionary nature of The Sopranos, it is understandable that viewers relied on earlier narrative paradigms when interpreting it, coming to see it as essentially as an elongated film — The Godfather, only 80 hours long. But the hourly serial is a fundamentally different beast than a motion picture, with different duties and different obligations to its audience. Watching a film requires a relatively brief commitment of time; a television viewer makes an ongoing decision to come back every week for a much longer narrative in more manageable chunks. It’s not enough to like a show; you have to be interested in the next episode. A film can spend its middle third meandering slightly, because it’s only taking up 30 or 40 minutes of your time. A 12-hour season spaced out over the course of three months cannot afford such a luxury.
It’s unreasonable to expect a television audience to spend four weeks waiting for a critical plotline to develop. By the end of its run, The Sopranos seemed to stray farther and farther from this reality, and Mad Men has stumbled with it as well in this last season, creating a story worthy of contemplation but not immediately fun to watch.
Mad Men tells the story of a high-powered ad agency in the waning 1950s, a time when men were men and women women, when business lunches included the obligatory few fingers of scotch and secretaries knew that a slap on the butt was just another way of saying ‘thanks for a hard day’s work.’ The show’s colorful cast of WASPs engage in the usual rounds of infighting and business chicanery, exacerbated to some extent by the fact that their industry, coming into its own with the explosion of television and mass media, is predicated on deceit and misrepresentation. More broadly, Mad Men explores America’s dawning realization that the unprecedented prosperity of the modern economy would bring with it a disruption of long-established social hierarchies and the comfort these structures provided.
Beyond the general obligation all derivatives owe their influences, Mad Men has a particularly clear thematic debt to The Sopranos. From lead Jon Hamm’s portrayal of uber-Alpha male Don Draper, whose brooding intensity and depravity echo vividly James Gandolfini’s monstrous Tony, to its borderline-voyeuristic fixation with chronicling the ethical decline of its characters, Mad Men is Sopranos for basic cable — most of the wit, none of the frontal nudity.
Like Sopranos, Mad Men is a show with an exceptional ensemble cast that is fundamentally about one distinct narrative, the struggle between the baser instincts and higher aspirations of Don Draper. But, again like Sopranos, the grandeur of this arc tends to get bogged down in the less compelling week-to-week developments.
Halfway through last season I realized that although I was still interested in Don’s ultimate destination, I was less and less interested watching how he actually got there. I began to wish someone would just tell me or, ideally, put together some kind of a highlight reel.
Some might see this refusal to cater to the impatient viewer’s desires as some kind of nobility, but it isn’t. Going back to The Pickwick Papers, the serial has always been low art. It requires the audience’s continued participation in a way neither ordinary novels nor films do, and an artist who refuses to actively maintain it does so at his own peril.
One vivid and infuriating example of Mad Men’s unwillingness to placate the viewer is its staunch refusal to manufacture a cliffhanger every 60 minutes. Episodes end abruptly and without clearly reminding the viewer why he ought to return the next week. You can feel the disappointment and the sense of betrayal coming on a few seconds before the credits roll. The cliffhanger is neither artificial nor unnecessary, any more than rhythm is superfluous to a sonnet. Like it or not, the episodic structure is the core of the hourly format, and it cannot be easily dispensed with. Without a clear sense of timing, the second season of Mad Men went adrift, sacrificing drama to echo recurring motifs.
But then, this is the definitive characteristic of smart television in the wake of David Chase: it insists that every development take place in service of the overarching themes of the show, instead of that it advance the story. Hours may go by in which no meaningful narrative progress takes place, so long as ever-thicker layers of insinuation and metaphor are spun.
This subjugation of plot to theme came to dominate The Sopranos, particularly in its last season, wherein entire episodes were spent detailing the mundane behavior of secondary characters when all anyone really cared about was when the long-promised war between New York and New Jersey was finally going to heat up. I’m not sure why no one called this what it is, a simple example of poor pacing, but Mad Men has lately fallen victim to the same disease. Few secrets were revealed in the second season, and few conflicts resolved.
Mad Men’s broader significance as social commentary may make it valuable, but people don’t watch social commentary for its own sake. Nor are narrative tempo and redeeming social value somehow mutually exclusive. Maintaining the flow during each episode tends to establish a discipline that strengthens a series over the long run. The new breed of hourly drama is its worst when its creators are given free reign to follow their muse, as David Simon’s masturbatory obsession with the death of the American newspaper so clearly illustrated in the fifth season of The Wire.
What’s unfortunate is that when Mad Men does finally get around to delivering on its promise, as it did in its excellent season finale, it is without any question one of the best things on television. But in a sense that’s the exception that proves the rule. A show simply cannot postpone emotional and intellectual gratification for half of its run in anticipation of a later payoff, however strong the payoff may be. It cannot behave as if the story is superfluous, and the interactions of its characters solely a function of the grand themes of the program.
The Sopranos paved the way for smarter television — television that could provide more depth and nuance than we had previously thought possible — but at its best, it carried forward its epic vision with tight plots and engaging hooks. Mad Men would do well to remember this if it hopes to hang on to its audience.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | James Velasquez
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond