Hey, remember this? I have no explanation as to why it has taken me a month and a half to finish off my list of TV’s best, but here we are. Having previously listed my Honorable Mentions, Standout Performances, Episodes, and Moments, as well as spots #10-#3 on my list, it’s time to finish the whole thing off and reveal my top two shows from the 2011-12 TV season, each of which will get an entry. Today:
2. Mad Men
Probably not much of surprise if you have been reading along (or have been unlucky enough to hear me blather on about TV in real life). As I’ve mentioned previously, Mad Men exists very much outside the standard format for American TV. The early TV networks, NBC and CBS, were direct off-shoots of older radio programs, and so their early programs were essentially carbon-copies of radio shows. The radio format, and in turn, the TV format, was based on formula and repetition. The concept of a show was set from the beginning, and each episode worked within those parameters. If we look back at some of the earliest hits in both comedy and drama, they adhered to this style. I Love Lucy was about the easily-bored wife of a big band performer who was constantly trying to do something other than sit at home all day. Every episode then, revolved around Lucy’s acting out, whether it was to join Ricky’s act, get her own job, or meddling in the Mertz’s affairs. Similarly, Dragnet was a police procedural that centered on Sgt. Joe Friday’s efforts to keep the peace and bring criminals to justice. Much like its descendents, such as Law & Order or CSI, each episode was a self-contained story in which the police investigate and eventually solve a case. This was repeated ad nauseum, with little focus on the characters as anything but policemen.
This format has remained more or less in place since then, guiding the expectations of the audience through familiarity. It was only when cable networks, most notably HBO and its flagship series The Sopranos, began to dive into serious-minded creative programming that the rules began to change. Over the 12 years since that seminal series about New Jersey gangsters debuted, TV has enjoyed an unprecedented creative renaissance. Shows like Deadwood, The Wire, Arrested Development, and Breaking Bad have stood the old-episodic format on its head. Their casts number in the dozens, narratives span multiple seasons, and only sometimes do individual episodes have a self-contained narrative that begins and ends in one program. Mad Men embraces this newfound creative freedom wholeheartedly, and in doing so has positioned itself among the best series in the medium’s history.
The four-time Emmy winner for Best Drama Series, Mad Men occupies a place in the popular culture that vastly outweighs its relatively tiny viewership. Set in the New York advertising world of the 1960s, it centers on Don Draper (Jon Hamm), a creative executive whose professional acumen hides a wealth of secrets in his personal life. In this past season, Don has just married his former secretary who is decades younger than him, just as the firm he helped found is beginning to grow into a robust player on Madison Avenue. Don’s success and apparent happiness contrast strongly with his both past, which is full of stolen identities, countless infidelities, and devastating emotional losses, but the situation of his co-workers. Around the office, his fellow partners are grappling with a crumbling marriage (Roger Sterling), a financial crisis (Lane Pryce), and an increasing feeling of frustration and malaise (Pete Campbell). The women in the office are in similar slumps. Creative whiz Peggy Olson is finding herself limited by forces she can’t control in both her love life and career, leaving her feeling thwarted and ignored. Across the hall, office manager Joan Harris is facing down the consequences of her absence from the office on maternity leave and the absence of her asshole husband, who has volunteered for another tour in Vietnam without consulting her. Even Don’s new wife, Megan, is struggling as she tries to balance the competing demands of being the sacrosanct wife of the boss with the need for camaraderie with her co-workers.
Showrunner Matthew Weiner seemed to use all of these plotline to winnow in on a very specific question in season five: what are we willing to do in order to be happy? As my friend, Todd VanDerWerff often pointed out in his episode reviews on The A.V. Club, this is an inherently selfish and first-world sort of question to be asking. For most of humanity, happiness is not a consideration. Life is a process of surviving from one day to the next through endless toil, and the closest thing to happiness is the stability of peace and family. Such is not the case for many Americans though, especially not those in the rarified airs of Madison Avenue. Since the post-war boom years of the 50’s, much of American life has seemed to center on the quest for one’s personal happiness. The characters on Mad Men are an intrinsic part of that quest, since the function of modern advertising is to create a need for product that can only be satisfied by purchasing it. These men and women have devoted their lives to creating an endless cycle of want and satisfaction, so that millions of American consumers will continue to buy the products that pay their salaries. They have first-hand knowledge of the Sisyphean effort that is the quest for personal fulfillment in the modern world. Despite this, Don Draper and company endlessly exert themselves trying to change their situation on the hope that more success and more money will finally lead to bliss.
Obviously, this is not the sort of material that can be addressed with a formulaic episode structure of most American TV. So Weiner and his team have turned Mad Men into a show of groundbreaking formal daring. Each season is essentially a short story collection, united by theme, characters, and setting, but shorn of over-arching plotlines and episodic narrative expectations. This means that each episode of Mad Men has the potential to be completely unlike any other. The best example from this past season, which I have written about in earlier installments of this endeavor, was “Far Away Places,” which seemingly aped the temporal repetitions of Groundhog Day in order to illuminate the strange ways that a single day can unfold for the characters. Other standouts, such as the use of startling symbolism in “Lady Lazarus” or tricky editing in “The Other Woman” illuminated the season’s themes in ways that a more traditional drama could never even aspire to. Indeed, it was only when Mad Men seemingly stacked the deck against a character in order to ensure his demise towards the end of the season that fans or critics seemed thrown off. It was too predictable for the show to set up audience expectations and then follow through on them with a minimum of surprise or fuss. That’s probably the best way to illustrate how daring and successful a series Mad Men is, actually. When the harshest criticism stems from the show drifting anywhere near predictability, then the overall quality is nearly peerless.
I say nearly for a reason. As innovative and outstanding as Mad Men was this past season, it did not top the sheer audacity, conviction, and execution of the number one show. More about that next time…