TV’s Best of the Decade: No. 3 – ‘Mad Men’

12.29.09 8 years ago 18 Comments


Of all of the shows at the top of this list, I know that “Mad Men” is the one that’s most likely to make me look foolish in five or 10 years.
No, nothing is ever going to happen to the show’s first 39 episodes to make them any less satisfying. The carefully plotted arcs of each of three seasons won’t be unravelled. Carefully preserved on Blu-ray discs, the show’s tremendous superficial qualities won’t be impacted no matter what happens to “Mad Men” as it continues its run into the next decade. 
But there’s something to be said for knowing how the full series played out. “Deadwood,” “The Sopranos” and “Arrested Development,” the three shows I placed in a block with “Mad Men,” are set in amber and I’ve rewatched enough of all three shows to know that they aren’t going to look any worse in the near future. 
As for the other active shows in my Top 10, “American Idol” is unlikely to have a twist ending in which we wonder whether or not Bikini Girl whacked Kara DioGuardi (though if that happened, it might be worth a retroactive raise for the FOX competition show). It’s almost built into the “Lost” DNA that the ending is going to be monumentally awesome for some fans and monumentally disappointing for others. And the legacy of “Friday Night Lights” is secure, since the writers have already hit a nadir with Season Two and crawled out of it. Even if Killer Landry strikes again, it probably won’t impact my love for seasons one, three and half-of-four. 
But “Mad Men” is a work-in-progress and anything could happen from here. Sure, it was a bluff when Lionsgate faked in the direction of finding a new showrunner to replace a negotiating Matthew Weiner after Season Two, but maybe next time it won’t be? Or maybe Weiner will take a leap too far next season and seeing Don Draper and Joan navigating the Summer of Love will be less satisfying than we might imagine? Expectations can be a crushing thing and “Mad Men” has completed a three-season run near the top of TV’s drama heap. Who knows?
All I do know is that with “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” Weiner and company ended their third season with an zippy, twist-filled finale that would have marked a satisfying series finale and definitely caps off one of the strongest creative spurts of the decade. 
That’s enough to place AMC’s “Mad Men” at No. 3 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade.
[You know the drill by now… More after the break.]
It’s good that Weiner and “Mad Men” ended their third season with one of the show’s best episodes, because I did my pre-list re-viewing (I’ve been doing pilots, finales and favorite episodes since I finished my “Battlestar Galactica” marathon) on what is probably the show’s worst episode: The pilot. 
Award voters disagree with me here. Weiner won an Emmy for writing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and far be it for me to question the wisdom of said voters. It’s the episode that put “Mad Men” on the map and that made AMC a player in the original scripted drama business.
Personally, I like the idea that a show could start with a pilot which seemed perfectly decent and even, possibly, exceptional at the time and simply outgrow it. That’s what happened with “Mad Men.”
Weiner’s primary previous credit was “The Sopranos,” where he was credited writer on many of the best episodes in the show’s final season. He came off of one show about slovenly murderers in modern times and created another show about impeccably attired murderers in 1960. Yes, the advertising masterminds in “Mad Men” are dressed to kill, but the pilot finds our main characters struggling with the challenge of how to market cigarettes in an environment in which people were finally realizing the health risks associated with the cancer sticks. It turned out that the risk of death was less important than the aesthetic and short-term physiological advantages. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) recognizing that the way people live their lives and the way people say they want to live their lives are often at odd and that, in the end, people just want to be told “You are OK.” The tag line of the show was “Where the truth lies” and those sort of superficial ironies abounded.
Now don’t get me wrong, here. “Mad Men” has always been a show built on ironies contrasting surface and substance, the part of your life where you sell something and pretend to be something else and the part where you have to be who and what you really are. For the better part of 38 episodes, that has been a theme. In the pilot, the ironies are shouted and over-articulated to the rafters. For a series usually so subtle at detonating its various emotional bombs, “Mad Men” got a pilot where little mushroom clouds are flying everywhere. 
In the pilot, you see the broad strokes that got wisely smudged and replaced as the series progressed. Or maybe they weren’t smudged and replaced so much as Weiner decided that, having practically exposed the underbelly in the pilot, he never needed to shout so loudly again. Don Draper’s insecurity at being replaced by a younger version of himself (Vincent Kartheiser’s Pete) was wisely put on the backburner so that Draper’s real insecurity in the first season was being supplanted the former version of himself, Dick Whitman. Joan Holloway’s (Christina Hendricks) tour for new girl Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) is a pilot highlight, but it was so blatant and on-the-nose that Joan didn’t need to make “Find yourself a husband!” and “Show more flesh!” speeches again and could become more ingratiating and awesomely insidious. And poor closeted Sal Romano (Bryan Batt), after objectifying every hunk of man-meat in the pilot like a Tex Avery wolf, was able to return to a point where you could almost imagine his co-workers not knowing he was gay. Weiner had to get these things out up-front so that they could get reburied within the text.
Weiner also had to make sure that you knew this was 1960. The historically driven dramatic irony was the thing I disliked most about the pilot when I first saw it, which I asked about at the show’s very first TCA panel, and which plays the worst now after seeing how well Weiner has subsequently avoided the pitfalls. The “Mad Men” pilot is glutted with lines that are intended to make contemporary viewers chuckle at the quaintness and ignorance of the characters in their practically pre-historic plight. Multi-line phones? Typewriters? No such thing as a Xerox? Dick Nixon? Hilarious! Only not really. What “Mad Men” figured out, almost immediately, was how to live in the 1960s exclusively, rather than living in a 2000s-filtered version of the decade. [The third season fell victim to a minor relapse with the death march to Kennedy’s assassination, but that event felt so formative and unavoidable that I was in a forgiving mood, even if it was a bit like yelling, “Watch out for icebergs,” to a passenger embarking on the Titanic.]
The dumbest thing that pilot does, and non-critics probably don’t even remember this as being an issue, is treating Betty Draper (January Jones) and Don’s children as a shocking twist. We were supposed to be amazed that after 43 minutes of tomcatting around New York City, even proposing marriage to Bohemian Midge, that Don returned to the suburbs to a white picket fence suburbia. Reviewers were actually asked not to reveal the end of the episode, which reduced Don’s domestic life to a cheap punchline, rather than the very real source of drama that they would become.
That doesn’t mean that the “Mad Men” pilot fails to set many of the show’s templates. 
Perhaps in part because it’s the only show in my entire Top 10 that aspires to any kind of cinematic glossiness, “Mad Men” stands uncontested as the decade’s handsomest show, setting a difficult-to-top standard for cinematography (Phil Abraham and Chris Manley primarily), art direction and production design (Christopher Brown and Dan Bishop, plus a vast team), costuming (Katherine Jane Bryant), plus hair and makeup. What “Deadwood” did for frontier grime, “Mad Men” did for 1960s glamour, except that you have magazines claiming that “Mad Men” has helped reshape contemporary fashions, while Consumptive Cowboy Chic never really caught on in Manhattan.
The pilot also established the beloved Don Draper Is Magical moment. As long as viewers get four or five of these moments every season, we’re happy. It’s the moment where the clients are getting anxious and where suddenly Don Draper’s eyes go blank. A little bit of music plays in the background and then Don makes the Greatest Pitch Known To Man, usually snatched from the heavens. In this instance, Don Draper isn’t just The World’s Best Ad Man, he’s also The Most Sincere Man in the World. It’s the “Mad Men” equivalent of the House/Wilson moment where The Good Doctor grabs the impossible diagnosis from a snippet of his best friend’s conversation. Don Draper doesn’t need a Wilson, though, since he has Dick Whitman. 
Really, what the pilot establishes better than anything is Jon Hamm, who prompted a feeling of instant revelatio, sending more than a few of us scurrying off to the IMDB on “Where the heck should I know him from?” missions. Perhaps if I’d watched “The Division” or “Providence,” I might have recognized Hamm, but maybe not. I didn’t exactly remember him from “What About Brian” or “Point Pleasant.” 
Not to put too much pressure on Hamm, but he’s emerged as the central and perhaps lone figure fighting to reclaim American masculinity on television in the Aughts. Hamm is doing on TV what George Clooney is doing in movies, which is holding off the invading foreign hoards with their generic Mid-Atlantic accents. It was a decade in which, more and more, casting directors determined that if you wanted a manly American character, you had to look across the pond, that no matter how sketchy their accents might be, it was better to cast a Simon Baker, Damian Lewis, Kevin McKidd, Jason O’Mara, Stephen Moyer or Jonny Lee Miller than to attempt to find an American capable of providing the same machismo. And those were the more successful examples. Does anybody remember “Viva Laughlin” star Lloyd Owen?  Will anybody remember “Past Life” star Nicholas Bishop in five months? And how quickly can we forget about Joseph Fiennes on “FlashForward”? Casting directors starting looking elsewhere because their needs weren’t being met at home.
It’s a safe bet that Jon Hamm had gone through his career being rejected for parts because his jaw was too square, his smile too broad and because his gift for excessive sincerity came across as inherently insincere. No casting director probably would have articulated it in this way, but he was being rejected for looking too much like a 1950s or 1960s movie star, for being born in the wrong era. Then, thanks to Matt Weiner, Hamm found the perfect vehicle. 
There are many lead male acting performances in the decade that I would say were “better,” from a technical standpoint. I’m thinking Gandolfini, Laurie and McShane (others will surely add Bryan Cranston and Michael Chiklis). But Hamm’s performance as Don Draper is the decade’s definitive star turn, a breakout on par with — here’s that name again — what Clooney did on “E.R.” for a brief period of the ’90s. All Jon Hamm had to do was convince producers that there was value in Jon Hamm and he’s done that in spades. If Weiner has occasionally pushed up against the limits of Hamm’s range, it’s only because Draper has been written as such a tortured and frequently unravelling character. To my mind, every time you think you’ve seen Hamm hit a wall, you get an episode like “The Hobo Code” or “For Those Who Think Young” or “Meditations in an Emergency” or, especially, this past season’s “The Gypsy and the Hobo.”
Although the pilot tried to suggest that “Mad Men” was going to be a one-man show for Hamm, the series became better and better as it expanded on the roles for the supporting characters. 
Looking at the pilot and then the third season finale, the dynamic between Peggy and Don looks like the show’s core relationship. As he begins the show thinking that Pete is the rival he has to fight off, it becomes clearer and clearer that it’s Peggy who has the instincts to be his protege   and Don’s dueling instincts to both encourage and quash her gifts have been fascinating to see play out. Moss stepped out in the show’s second season, as did January Jones. Some dissenters saw Jones’ similarly disaffected hosting stint on “Saturday Night Live” as proof that little she’s doing on “Mad Men” is really an act. For me, I don’t care if boring, chilly and distant are all traits that Jones brings with her to the table, she’s also channeling them into the character, who is as infuriating as she is heartbreaking. The Don-Betty marriage went from punchline in the pilot, to second season focus, but the contrast between this season’s “Souvenir” and “The Gypsy and the Hobo” were the best showcases for Jones and Hamm’s chemistry. 
The show’s third female part, Hendricks’ Joan, is the one many viewers most enjoy, with Hendricks doing her part redefine American femininity in many of the same ways Hamm is restoring American masculinity. The third season finale offered hope that Joan might play a bigger role in the fourth season, since the show suffered in her absence. That didn’t mean that she didn’t make the most of her scenes, particularly the accordion climax to “My Old Kentucky Home” and the vase smashing incident in “The Gypsy and the Hobo.”
With the men, they’re more consistently present, but I’d spotlight the Roger/Don interactions in “Red in the Face” and “Long Weekend” and Pete’s attempts to blackmail Don in “Nixon vs. Kennedy.”
Nods also to Batt, Rich Sommer, Aaron Staton, Michael Gladis, Robert Morse, Mark Moses, Alison Brie, Jared Harris and Joel Murray.
None of the performances or the surface excellence would really amount to much without Weiner, whose has ended up as a credited writer on nearly every episode. If I sounded harsh about the pilot earlier, my intent was really only to show how much more adroit Weiner has become at using his adopted era and our perception of the decade. The disconnections between public and private lives, between surface and substance, remain the core of the story, Weiner just no longer needs to tip his pitches. He can weave historical events into the narrative — the 1960 election and the Cuban Missile Crisis were dramatic high points for the show, while the Kennedy assassination was a clumsy disappointment.
I also admire how Weiner hasn’t shied from putting his characters on the wrong side of progress. Our hero is a brilliant, womanizing drunk, but the characters most likely to be smiled upon by history are Peggy and Pete. The finale of the third season indicated that Don recognizes his own potential obsolescence, but seeing Don and Roger cavort over the years has had the feeling of watching something like “Walking with Dinosaurs.” It’s been a complex, emotional and occasionally hilarious journey.
This has become long and circular, but I hope it has helped to convey at least some of why “Mad Men” stands at No. 3 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade.
Coming up tomorrow? Holy moly. We’re down to #2. If a show can simultaneously make millions of Americans smarter and stupider, it’s this one.

A full explanation of the parameters for this list. 

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