Sunday, August 29, 2010

Top 10 T.V. Shows: 4. Mad Men

Who is Don Draper?

This question is, quite possibly, the best thing to happen to television in the last ten years. I would find it hard to argue that Don Draper isn't the most compelling protagonist of any television series. You'd be hard-pressed to find any one character I've found more consistently intriguing, fascinating, and frustrating. His decline from suave, sophisticated charmer to drunk lech in the beginning of season four has been one of the most intensely disappointing experiences I've ever been through. Well, within the realm of fictional entertainment, at least.

But enough about Draper. The writing on Mad Men is in a league all its own. There is no other ongoing series on television with writing this good, full stop. Most shows with predetermined ends and a limited run don't manage to stay as focused and on-the-ball as Mad Men has over three perfect seasons, and a fourth off to an auspicious start. No ongoing character is left unexplored. We have an idea of the personal lives of all the individuals. Some, of course, are more developed than others, but Mad Men never takes anyone for granted.

I became aware of shows introducing characters for plot purposes when I started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A character would be introduced, and the next episode would see them either be, or be subject to, a demon. Many dramatic shows follow this format, as it's a good way to keep things moving. It's nice, but it feels artificial. Mad Men introduces new characters in a similar way, but it takes its time. Like The Wire before it, Mad Men offers the promise that every character will have an important part to play, at some point or another. No one is simply there.

It's also a gob-smackingly pretty show. The best arguments for High-Definition cable I've seen are The World Cup and Mad Men. The cinematography, and the retro look, are so rich and detailed, you get the same satisfaction from looking at an episode as you'd get from biting into a juicy apple. It's really that great.

A large part of the appeal of the show is its attention to detail for the early 1960's. Sexism is absolutely everywhere. With an entirely white cast of characters, as befits a 1960's marketing firm in Manhattan, Martin Luther King, Jr. dies without practically any mention, while JFK's assassination all but debilitates most of them. You watch the sexism and realize that hasn't gone away, it's just become quieter. You watch the racism and realize the same. Perhaps Mad Men's greatest feat is in showing us just how little we've changed since a time most of us think of as being the stone age.

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