The Meandering Self-Importance of Mad Men

“You could trim Mad Men down to a lean five seasons and have what might be the greatest show on television…”

The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men. All shows that are mentioned when discussing the best of television.

I just finished my first viewing of Mad Men and I have to say, I don’t understand what all of the fuss is about. Mad Men to me has a lot of problems— problems that stand very much in the way of it being considered one of television’s best shows. Now of course, this almost goes without saying at this point, this is my opinion. I’m not saying that Mad Men is a bad show, I’m just saying that I found it to be bad. The line of distinction is thin, but it is there.

I have numerous problems with Mad Men, but for the interest of time I’ll narrow it down to three.

  1. Neutered production
  2. Loss of focus
  3. Not playing to strengths

First up on the chopping block is the production of the show. Now I understand that due to restrictions put in place by broadcasting companies Mad Men had to toe the line. The show is quite literally about the worst a person can be. There’s sex, lies, and in the later seasons even videotapes. But becasue of it’s home on AMC, a lot of this stuff had to be omitted. For instance, it was very convenient that every single woman in this show had the ability to know right where the cameras were to hide their nipples. Or that in an environment so ruled by men, which is very overtly discussed in the show mind you, there is no “shop talk”. Sure there are things that get said by one character to another that make you recoil in shock or disgust, but I can only imagine some of the vile shit that was said in the workplace in the 1960’s. Not only toward women, but toward anyone who wasn’t a straight white man raised catholic with a wife and kids at home.

Now I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but the nail in the coffin for me here is the cursing (or lack thereof).This is addressed in the later seasons of the show, but I find it hard to believe that in an environment that is bathed in debauchery and wrongdoings that no one dropped the occasional (who am I kidding?) f-bomb. I guarantee those offices would have sounded like the docks in real life, and that omission kind of bugged me. But what can you do? We got the show that we got, and selling a television show is hard. Everyone wants to be on HBO becasue of the lack of restrictions, but everyone knows that HBO only accepts shows with ‘the’ in the title.

So forgetting about the production limitations, what else do we have? Well Mad Men suffers a lot from a lack of focus in the writers room. It is very clear that a lot of love went into this project, particularly dealing with the accuracy of the show seeing as it is set in the past, but sometimes it felt like the focus was a little too concerned with the accuracies. There were scenes that felt superfluous, like they were just there to show how smart the writers were. Now this problem isn’t as prominent as I had thought when I originally started writing this piece, but I’m too stubborn to go back and think of another thing I hated about this show. And as it so happens, this leads perfectly into my next issue with Mad Men: the fact that it very rarely played to its strengths.

Mad Men was at its best when it focused on one of two things: Advertising, or Don Draper. With the advertising segments it was interesting to see the process. Regardless of the fact that the show is fictionalized, it’s always fun to see a genius at work. Seeing the team work out problems and pitching ideas in meetings, and then finally seeing the work come together; it was magic. It was wonderful to see and the writers knew that. I noticed that these moments really only came about toward the end of the seasons. That was frustrating as well. The writers fell into patterns that they assumed would work. Problem is introduced, 38 minutes of bullshit, eureka moment, credits. It became tiring.

If not for the advertising, you’re watching for Don Draper. Like it or not he is the main character of the show, and the focus of the story (however little of it there may be). Now don’t get me wrong Don Draper is a bad man, maybe the worst I’ve ever seen, but he was Mad Men. Without him the show would be even more dull. But the thing that the writers seemed to forget is that you cannot just show Don Draper, and you absolutely can not show Don Draper get his way. He’s an anti-hero. You’re supposed to root against him becasue he is everything that is wrong with this world. Seeing Draper consistently fail upwards in this show was infuriating. I sat through five seasons waiting for the shoe to drop, and nothing every happened. When bad things eventually did start happening to Don it felt like an afterthought. Like the writers finally decided that they can’t keep up with this same formula for much longer becasue people are starting to wise-up to it. But before that welcome change season five of Mad Men happened.

Season five of Mad Men might be the worst season of television I have ever seen. To understand why I hate it this much, you have to take a brief stroll in my shoes. Imagine everyone building up Mad Men as a brilliant look at the human condition, depression to be more specific, for years. Imagine finally building up the courage to watch the entirety of this show, all seven seasons of it, and waiting. You watch season one and it’s not bad, but it’s not what was promised either. The same goes for seasons two, three, and four. And it’s easy for you to read those words and say “what’s the big deal?” but what you have to understand is that each one of those seasons is roughly ten hours long. I waited, and waited, and waited for the amazing show that was promised; and then season five happened.

For those of you who haven’t seen the show season five is when Mad Men turned into a sitcom. I would love to say that it “briefly” turned into a sitcom, but it lasted AN ENTIRE FUCKING SEASON. This was the point of the process where the writers decided to rely completely on a formula. No characters developed in this season. Nothing happened in this season. It was just a collection of some of the worst Monty Python sketches you have ever seen. They made a character fat just for the hell of it. And then later on when the decided that it did nothing for her character, they just made her skinny again. Just like that. Like it was all a big fucking joke.

And that is my problem with Mad Men as whole. When I think of great television my mind instantly goes to Breaking Bad. It is my favourite show of all time so I might be a little biased when I say I believe it to be the best show of all time. Breaking Bad has no filler. Everything in that show has a purpose, and it is wrapped up in a way that feels complete. Mad Men on the other hand constantly felt like it was treading water. Like it was happy to be on cable, and it didn’t want to give up its spot in line right away. You could trim Mad Men down to a lean five seasons and have what might be the greatest show on television, but instead we got a bloated, self-important mess. And I’m not going to say that the final two seasons, particularly season seven, weren’t great. Although the ending was a little lackluster I thoroughly enjoyed watching the final season of Mad Men. And I remember thinking “why couldn’t it all be this good?”. It was perfect; great dialogue, everything had a purpose, it kept its focus. It was a testament to how good this show could have been.

I don’t give ratings to anything other than movies, but I feel like I owe Mad Men something. Scratch that, I feel like it owes me something. I spent somewhere in the ballpark of sixty hours on this show and I don’t feel fulfilled. Maybe that’s a problem with me, but Mad Men is certainly not blameless. So in true Mad Men fashion I’m going to pitch it to you:

Imagine, if you will, a man. This man works tirelessly to provide for his family. He wakes up at seven in the morning to help his wife with the kids, goes to work at nine, comes home at five for dinner around the table, and then sits down in his favourite easy chair for some much-needed entertainment. He doesn’t have time for movies anymore, what with the kids needing a babysitter and the outrageous prices to go out, so he takes solace in the only thing he has: television. He needs these chunks of time to just relax. Forget about the problems he faces, forget about the problems the world faces. He turns on the television and navigates to his favourite channel: AMC. It would be HBO but as I described this man is working-class, and everyone knows HBO is only for rich fucks. He catches the credits of the show that just ended, and nestles in for something new; Mad Men.

Now not only can this man go to work and provide for his family, but he can pretend that he is still at work while in the comfort of his own home. Aside from a few laughs all this show will give you is the urge to pick up a smoking habit or go out and buy a bottle of Canadian Club. It’s boring, it’s dull, it’s a chore; but every once in a while it’s pretty good. And that’s all he needs.

Mad Men: Six seasons of shit, and one that almost makes it all worth it.

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