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Ranking the Shows I Watch – 3: Mad Men

22 Nov

Mad Men was victim to a phenomenon that happens sometimes when shows are in between seasons, especially when the off season is long.  After the third season, I somehow got the notion in my head that maybe Mad Men wasn’t as good as I remembered it being.  I talked with some people who were down on the show, and though I was still eager to catch the fourth season as it began, I had convinced myself that it was a fine show, but nothing to be inducted into the television hall of fame.  The fourth season began, though, and I was immediately pulled back in and wondered why I had ever doubted the show.  Impressively, the show, which was excellent right out of the box, made the fourth season its best yet.

Boardwalk Empire bears a lot of similarities to The Sopranos, but if The Sopranos was to have a successor, Mad Men would be the most logical choice.  (Of course, it’s unfair to compare everything to The Sopranos – but with Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire creators Matthew Weiner and Terrence Winter having worked on The Sopranos previously it’s hard not to.)  Don Draper deals with the same battles at home and at work as Soprano did (well, different businesses but some similar battles), serially cheating on his wife.


Unlike in The Sopranos, the Drapers actually do get divorced and Don’s choice of women becomes a major plot point in the fourth season, as he engages in romantic entanglements with both the career oriented market research consultant Faye and secretary Megan.  While it seemed temporarily like Don was ready for a relationship with an equal, he goes off to California with his young secretary, and after she gets along well with his kids, proposes to her, in the final episode of the season.


The fourth season has a number of outstanding individual episodes, including “Waldorf Stories” in which we deal with  multiple compelling storylines.  Don is forced to hire Roger’s wife’s cousin Danny after inadvertantly stealing a tagline from him (Danny is portrayed by Danny Strong, best known as Jonathan from Buffy), and then embarks upon a lost weekend celebrating his Clio award win, while Roger remembers meeting Don Draper for the first time.  Peggy works with the new art director and tries to fight her image as uptight.  The episode showcases the strengths of Mad Men.  The acting is as good and the characters are as well developed as any on TV.

My only serious issue with Mad Men is that the portrayal of Betty Draper which by the end of the fourth season is just absolutely over the top.  While most of the other more ridiculous characters have become more reasonable over the years (see: Pete Campbell), Betty has become an insane monster.  She moves from a character with whom I had much sympathy, being cheated on all those years, to one who acts like an overgrown child.  I understand Betty may have never been the most mature character, but the last couple of seasons take it too far.

Why it’s this high:  When it’s on, it’s TV at its best, and it’s on more often than not.  The writing and characters are about as good as it gets.

Why it’s not higher:  It’s hardly an insult to put it third – if push comes to shove, I find the two shows above here slightly more compelling at the current time.

Best episode of the most recent season:  Another show with a clear winner – “The Suitcase,” which almost exclusively involves Don Draper and Peggy Olson, and was the type of episode that had people declaring it an all-time classic television episode right after it aired.  Maybe it’s the obvious choice, but it’s the obvious choice for a reason; it really was that good.  After Peggy and Don had been so close earlier, they’d drifted apart and this episode gives them a chance to really spend some quality time together.  Jon Hamm and Elizabeth Moss are both outstanding.