For going on two years now, Americans have been besieged through various channels of an imminent “great moment” in our culture’s most pervasive storytelling and art medium. The countdown surpassed “informative” and landed at truly “maddening” sometime this spring.
Yes, we know; “Mad Men” has reached a finale. What relief.
For the story arc’s end? No, for the hype’s terminus.
It’s been eight years since creator Matthew Weiner launched his chief contribution into what has been tagged a new Golden Age for television – not to be confused with the first Golden Age in the 1950s or the second Golden Age of the 1970s.
It was the late 1990s when subscription network HBO ascended into antihero exploration with “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under,” “The Wire” and then “Boardwalk Empire.” As “Sopranos” writer Weiner circulated his own script about a Jet Age advertising executive, HBO was the first of several networks to pass.
Previously known as a home for cinema classics, AMC decided to take a shot on Weiner’s idea. After it grabbed critical and popular acclaim, AMC launched their next ballyhooed series, “Breaking Bad,” followed by “The Walking Dead.”
The television landscape is now littered with similar fare, like “Halt and Catch Fire,” “The Americans” and “True Detective.” There are also Internet series like “Lilyhammer,” “House of Cards” and “Transparent.”
Serial television is finally realizing its potential as a writer’s medium but you still must heed the show biz axiom to leave the audience hungry. Artistic integrity has to trump a well-heeled siren standing over a steed’s corpse with a gilded riding crop. Turn everything to gold, you run the danger of destroying it.
Which brings us back to this most recent Big Moment. For all the things Weiner might have learned on David Chase’s mobster serial, its one flaw seemed to have escaped him.
Perhaps “The Sopranos’” only misstep was not ending soon enough. Indications were the cast and producer would have been happy to wind things up sooner, but HBO threw so much money at them it was hard to refuse.
The same could be said about “Mad Men.” Stories and seasonal arcs grew threadbare, with the soap opera beneath shining through. Lured with hints of John Cheever, we got “Peyton Place” instead.
Touch your finger down at any point in the series and this summary could apply: Don was having a secret affair; Peggy and Joan were battling sexism; the agency was trying to manage a big account; people were drinking all day and times would be a-changin’. And cigarettes.
It was also disheartening to watch characters materially rewarded for their shortcomings. It chafed this viewer to calluses.
The intractability of personality and difficulty of growth were themes that also played prominently in “The Sopranos,” but the characters’ failures were oddly less disappointing since they were sociopaths and psychopaths, after all. James Gandolfini said at the end of his series’ run he didn’t like capo Tony Soprano and paid a psychological price for inhabiting the role.
The stakes on “Mad Men” weren’t quite the same as that parent series either. The costs of “Sopranos” mistakes were federal prison or having your severed head kicked into a storm drain. On “Mad Men,” it’s losing your Central Park penthouse or your kid’s exclusion from a posh private school. Oh, the horror, the horror.
Comparatively, “The Sopranos” was far funnier. Weiner never came close to capturing the same perfection of black comedy or its abundance on his own show. “The Sopranos” felt Shakespearean. “Mad Men” and especially the breathless “shipping” of its online fans made it feel more like “Days of Our Lives.”
What escaped many is how the series ended on one of the most egregiously cynical ads of all time. It equated deeper understanding of shared humanity and spiritual contentment with a cheap and unhealthy soda pop pulled from a machine.
I feel what really set “Mad Men” apart — impeccable production values — is superficial. Costumes, lighting, sets, props, photography, even the actors made it one of the best-looking shows ever on television. Fitting for a series about advertising.
I also opine that’s what girded its popularity. It’s one of the only things that kept me entertained the last few seasons as my better half hungrily drank in Draper and friends.
Well, that and my age. Once the setting moved into what was the earliest portion of my life, it pulled nostalgia’s strings.
You remember nostalgia don’t you? “It’s from the Greek for ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again, to a place where we know we are loved.”
That’s a false door and a trap we shouldn’t need a TV series to highlight. Unless we’re ultimately no deeper than the scene it paints so prettily.
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