With Mad Men’s series premier last night, it is time to consider the show’s place in TV history. According to social media, the Internet, and my wife, Mad Men was an all-time great TV drama, even though the general consensus is that it had been in decline for the past few years. Since my wife is a fan of the show and we don’t live in a very big house, I have seen bits and pieces of many episodes and was generally aware of the plotline. Though I did find some of the parts I watched interesting and amusing, I never actually watched a full episode.
For me, a show or a movie needs to give me a compelling reason to watch. It needs to introduce the plot. There was no real plot to be introduced with Mad Men. It was a show about advertising executives being advertising executives. After seven seasons, the show ended with one of those advertising executives coming up with a successful ad. Breaking Bad hooked me by introducing the plot right from the very beginning. A high school chemistry teacher was diagnosed with a potentially fatal cancer and embarked on making and selling crystal meth to cover his medical expenses and provide for his family.
Once Breaking Bad introduced its plot, it then continually progressed it until the climax and resolution. It may have gotten progressively more far-fetched as the series went on, but it did progress and kept the audience guessing. Walter White started as a chemistry teacher, became a reluctant drug dealer, and ultimately became a ruthless drug lord, poisoning innocent children and murdering rivals. Don Draper started the show as an advertising executive and ended as an advertising executive. Along the way he had a bit of a mid-life crisis, just like every other middle aged man on the face of the earth does, but he essentially ends the series in the same place he started.
A truly great modern cable TV drama is one where you are anxiously awaiting every new episode to find out what happens. At a macro level, what exactly happens in Mad Men? How could you possibly summarize the plot of the show in a single paragraph? Most great works of fiction have a plot that can be easily summarized. Romeo and Juliet is about a young man and woman from rival families who fall in love with tragic consequences. War and Peace is about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and its effects on Russian society. How can you summarize the plot of Mad Men? The show is about a bunch of advertising executives who start off making ads and seven seasons later are still making ads.
Imagine if Shakespeare wrote a play about King Duncan which started with him as King and ended with him as King. If that were the case we wouldn’t even know who Shakespeare was and nobody would care whether it was him or Christopher Marlowe who wrote those plays. The English language’s greatest writer understood the importance of grabbing the audience’s attention by introducing a plot early and progressing towards a climax and resolution.