Tuesday, February 3, 2009

It's not TV -- it's AMC

I realize I'm late to the party, but I'm six episodes into the first season of AMC's Mad Men, and I can't help but comment on how good it is. The Sopranos alum Matthew Weiner has created a series that lacks that show's graphic sex and violence (AMC, after all, is just cable, not premium cable) but absolutely possesses the winning combination of juiciness and narrative heft that propelled HBO's best programs (including Sopranos and Six Feet Under) to critical acclaim and a whole lot of Emmys.

The sex is mostly implied rather than depicted in Mad Men, which takes place in the early 1960s; thanks to the Hays Code, that's how it was in films of that time, too. Yet Weiner and his team of writers and directors manage to suffuse every episode with innuendo, suggestion, and titillation. Similarly, the series' violence is almost entirely emotional, moral, and verbal, but most episodes (especially in their final scenes) exude an unsettling feeling of existential despair, danger, and corruption -- not unlike The Sopranos.

Of course, Mad Men accomplishes things The Sopranos didn't. The series about Madison Avenue advertising executives often has a subtler way about it than the Mob show -- as when, in the first scene of an episode, the protagonist, Don Draper, casually examines a funny new magazine ad on the train ride home from work. Just before the scene ends, the ticket taker catches a glimpse of it and laughs to himself. It's a clever way of suggesting to us that whatever Don may think of the ad, the public is going to like it. As it happens, the very same ad snakes its way through the rest of the episode, bedeviling and delighting the men of Sterling Cooper, Don's agency, in equal measure.

Though Mad Men departs in many ways from Weiner's HBO roots, he clearly learned a lot from The Sopranos, whose creators lovingly crafted a protagonist who's neither villain nor hero. Tony Soprano was a bad man, but he was hard to strongly dislike -- which was fortunate, since he generally claimed a large chunk of screen time per episode. Don Draper may not be a murderer, but his flaws are many and varied, and he's certainly not the series' most virtuous character. Who is? That remains to be seen, which to this viewer means that Weiner and company are doing something right. Another HBO show Mad Men reminds me of is Big Love, in which a similarly embattled head of household, Bill Henrickson, leads his family according to outmoded values and can hardly be described as the program's hero.

Across HBO's many series, simplistic notions of heroism break down, and even seeming villains, like Big Love's endlessly scheming Roman Grant, turn out to be human, or at least close enough. Mad Men's characters are sharply drawn and delightfully unwilling to stay in the categories we devise for them: good girl, sycophant, adulterer, desperate housewife. They evolve and grow during each episode -- every time we see them, really. So far there hasn't been any dead air, creatively speaking.

I've known for years that HBO's bold programming choices have had a trickle-down effect on regular cable and the networks, leading to the development of daring series like FX's The Shield and shows that take milder risks, like Lost and The Office. But now cable has finally produced a show that's at least as good as HBO's best output, and a good bit better than some of its lesser fare. Ironically, though not surprisingly, HBO may be losing subscribers to cable shows inspired by the premium channel's own flagship dramas. Call it a case of unfortunate cable karma.

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