Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Checking in on MAD MEN


I found the key to enjoying MAD MEN this year!

The first few seasons I was blown away by it. The last couple of seasons were hit-and-miss. Mostly miss. And now I watch it because I’ve invested this much time into the series that I might as well see it through to the end. But I find I’m enjoying it more this season. So why? Are the storylines more compelling than in recent years? No. Are there surprising turns? No. It’s all pretty much more of the same. Don can't find happiness.  Pete is a dick.  Peggy's searching for her place in a man's world. Roger goes through life pickled.   Beenthere/donethat, beenthere/donethat, beenthere/donethat, beenthere/donethat. 

But here’s the big difference: my mindset. And if you’re disillusioned with MAD MEN too, I invite you to try this as well. Are you ready? Here we go:

Just think of MAD MEN as another show.

Simple as that. Don’t expect to be watching the most amazing drama you’ve ever seen. Don’t study each tiny moment and analyze each line for its hidden significance and major import. Don’t think you’re holding a mirror up to society. Don’t fret that the themes aren’t resonating and staying with you for days. Don’t feel guilty that your DVR is filling up with unseen episodes.

Just enjoy it. Just let the episodes unfold. It’s made a world of difference for me. Some storylines I find less interesting than others. So what? Last Sunday’s was not particularly spectacular. But it held my interest. I actually got a few laughs out of it.  Forty minutes well spent (I zap through the endless commercials).   Peggy is turning into a bitch, and I know steps are being painstakingly taken to explain why and how it’s the job and societal pressure on women, yada yada. Would I prefer the old Peggy? Should I examine my stance on workplace politics?  Whatever.  The new Peggy is adding conflict and that holds my interest. Good enough.

I doubt if I’ll be having many discussions around the water cooler this year. There is hidden meaning in almost every line that now goes cheerfully right over my head. I’m fine with that. I like most of the characters, I love the time period, the dialogue is always snappy, I appreciate the intelligence, there are some good tunes on the radio, and every so often we get a killer scene.

And I don’t need MAD MEN to be a great show. I have THE GOOD WIFE for that. I had HOUSE OF CARDS. I had TRUE DETECTIVES. ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK returns very soon. I’m getting my superb television fix.

And now that I approach MAD MEN with this new mindset, it is once again a show I look forward to watching. Give it a try.  The scene in the season premiere where New York native/gentile Pete was raving to Don about how amazing the Jewish delis are in Los Angeles was a riot!  You don't get that on NCIS: LOS ANGELES. 

31 comments:

Jeremiah Avery said...

Ken, that mindset actually is very helpful to me, thank you. I've been finding it lackluster and was mainly watching for some spark of the past greatness and also see how things come to their conclusion. The show was slowly becoming something to have on as background noise as I check e-mail or do just about anything else but focus on the show.

Treating it as "just another show" will probably be a much better mindset and I can hopefully enjoy the show for what it is, not what people say it should be.

Jim S said...

Ken,

You nailed it. Stop expecting each episode to be a masterpiece and you'll be fine. No show at the end of its run hits it out of the park every time. The one exception might be "Breaking Bad." But people complained that the last episode wasn't as good as the last two before it, so you can't win.

I feel the same way about "Justified." Season 2 was just so strong that season 3 looked weak in comparison. People are complaining about this last season, but the show still had the great dialogue, great characters and strong plots. Was it "weak?" No. If it were network TV, people would be saying how great it was. It's still a good show, but not as good as its been in the past. Is it still entertaining to watch? Absolutely. And the producers are smart enough to know that they can't ride the train forever. They are also putting an end date on the story. Just like "Mad Men" just like "Breaking Bad."

We are spoiled when we are complaining that shows aren't hitting home runs every time. These are still good shows that have elevated the quality of television to heights of our culture. They put movies and books to shame.

Karen said...

Ken, Excellent post! As much is in life, it is our perspective that skews our experience. Really, I think that the bar has perhaps been set so high and there is so much great storytelling happening on television that we, the audience, have become spoiled, jaded, indifferent. I think Mad Men, by intent, has become more subtle and more muddled. I think it is starting out this way on pupose this season and i am giving Mr. Weiner a long runway to tell his excellent story. I, for one, am not skipping the ending.

Carol said...

I just finished watching the British Life On Mars (again) as I was showing it to a friend, and this post you made had me about a completely different show got me wondering if you'd ever seen LoM, and if so, what did you think of it. (For the record, I thought it was brilliant, and one of the best show endings in ever.)

The creators of the show decided to end it when they did because basically the story was finished and to stretch it too thin would break it. I don't know that American shows are allowed to do that. (I'm looking at you, How I Met Your Mother)

As a creator of television yourself, especially one who was involved in not one but THREE long-lived shows, what is your take on creativity vs. ratings? Is it a thing like I think it is? How do you walk that line? Can it actually be done ever?

John said...

I had the same feeling 30 years ago as the final few seasons of "Hill Street Blues" played out on NBC -- the early years were so groundbreaking for the time, you couldn't help but be a little disappointed when they missed the mark after that. But if you lowered your expectations, you could still enjoy the things the show did get right.

The other analogy I'd make the comparison of the winding down of "Mad Men" to is Derek Jeter. Baseball fans are turning out in droves this year to get their last chance to see Jeter, not because he's the same at 40 as he was at 25, but because of all the things he's done over the past 20 years. If you expect to see the Derek Jeter of 1999 in 2014, you're likely to be disappointed; if you take him for what he is today and what he gave you (or denied you) in the past, the experience will be much better.

Jeff P said...

Thanks to Ken for breaking the ice....
I've seen every one...and I have invested a lot of time, too.
I guess I miss the continuity in-and-of the show.
Each scene, to me, shouts out, "Hey, we're doing a scene for Mad Men."
But, I'm not feeling a whole lot of interest in a show that is visually incredible...has many good actors...and has become what passes, as some of the best television out there these days.
I have read other web sites...and the discourse on each scene goes deeper then Freud, Nietzsche, and Moe Howard...that fine.
But, I'm just one person...not in the industry, who enjoys the visuals, and the gist of Mad Men.
It will rank as one of the greatest shows of all time, and I will hang 'til the end, but it is trying my patience.

Scoeter Schectman said...

I first tuned into Mad Men because of the praise it got from sources I'll call "ideological" The early sixties were nostalgia porn for them ( the hemlines! the smoking!). Now that's it's set in Evil Hippie End Times those disgruntled viewers are grumbling that it's all leading up to Jimmy Carter. Yes, the ride's over and they can go back to Peggy Noonan's Reagan fan-fic.

Johnny Walker said...

Lol. Brilliant! Very stinging, but from what I hear, very fair.

Speaking of Matt Weiner, has anyone heard him being interviewed, or even in the show's commentaries? The guy says some VERY odd/disturbing things.

Terrence Moss said...

I do not understand all the "Mad Men" hatred of late. I really don't. It's the same show doing the same thing it's always been doing in the same way it's always been doing it, but the expectations are higher -- and almost unreasonably so.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ken,

What a timely post- as a Mad Men fanatic I've been catching some heat lately for defending the show. I'll admit, I've been a little disappointed in the later seasons. The first 2 were fantastic. I really liked the season that covered 1967 (Don & Harry Crane smoking a joint in the basement of MSG while the Rolling Stones were playing? GOLD!) I was expecting big, big, big things for 1968 and felt let down. Major let down. So much history to draw from and we get Abe killing a rat in Peggy's apt & Don watching Nixon commercials. We'll see what this year brings.

PS- I HATE the spilt season approach AMC is using for the final season. 7 now, wait 10 months, 7 more- totally ruins the flow & pace of the show.
--LL

Ricardo Whitman said...

"Orange is the New Black"? "True Detective"? Swell shows, but other than novelty (they're brand new), they're not as good as late period "Mad Men." I know we TV viewers have gotten spoiled for options, but come now.

Dixon said...

Never seen Mad Men, but I do remember being underwhelmed by Titanic, deciding to go in to the Star Wars prequels with a "just enjoy it" mindset, and enjoying them, so I can totally relate.

blinky said...

Talk about a fun show to watch: Orphan Black! The Canadians know how to shoot film. Plus just trying to figure out how Tatiana Maslany fights with herself playing 8 parts is a blast.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

Funny, I actually thought season 6 was the show's best, by far. This is the season where New York became a hellhole to live in. The season where hippie and youth counterculture became promiment. Also the season where Don fell apart psychologically. The season where Peggy went WAY downhill thanks to Ted Chaough.

A season of conflict, rock-bottom and change. I only hope season 7 lives up to season 6. So far, I'm enjoying it.

Paul Duca said...

Still...I'll take my analysis of L.A. delis from Los Angeles native/Jew Ken Levine.

Paul Duca said...

Still...I'll take my analysis of L.A. delis from Los Angeles native/Jew Ken Levine.

Dennis Rice said...

My name is Dennis Rice. My friend, Dave Hackel, put me onto your blog. Coincidently, I posted this today on my blog..thought I'd share it. I am enjoying your writing. Good wishes, d.

http://drice.us/?p=436

D. McEwan said...

Along with the other good shows you listed I have to say that I thought the premiere of the TV series version of Fargo was pretty darn good, doncha know. You betcha.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Sometimes, it's not that I lower my expectations, it's that I think the following: "The current episodes of this show are not as good as the earlier episodes, but they're still more entertaining than most other things I could be watching." Honestly, I don't know how any show can maintain quality over a long period of time -- those that do are rare.

VincentS said...

That's sort of what happened to me after Aaron Sorkin left THE WEST WING. I was afraid that the show would go downhill but I noticed that the episodes were still good. Just the same, there was something about the show that now bothered me that I couldn't put my finger on. Finally, I figured it out: It was still a good show, but now it was a DIFFERENT one. As soon as I figured that out (it took me two post-Sorkin seasons) I stopped watching it.

VP81955 said...

If you expect to see the Derek Jeter of 1999 in 2014, you're likely to be disappointed; if you take him for what he is today and what he gave you (or denied you) in the past, the experience will be much better.

I felt the same way watching Anita O'Day perform live a few years before her death. Her voice was nothing like it used to be (and she probably knew it, too, though Lord knows she tried to put over a lyric), but those who were there came to say "thank you" for her prime performances and what she meant to jazz...plus I got a chance to chat with Anita for a few minutes after her show. Great lady, and if you've ever read her autobio "High Times Hard Times," it was amazing she lasted that long.

jbryant said...

To some extent, I've always looked at MAD MEN the way you describe. Basically, just an excellent show that, like all shows, will vary in quality over the years. The worst MAD MEN episode will still look better and have better dialogue and acting than the best episode of most other shows. The ratio of excellence to mediocrity may have shifted a bit the last two seasons, but the new episodes seem back on track to me.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Congrats for writing a review that's as understand and forgiving as it is searing and scathing. "Alice, I know your mother makes me mad, but I understand that. She doesn't mean to be mean. She was just born that way. She's a BLAAAA-BER-MOUTH!!"

When we signed in to watching MAD MEN, we signed into a stylish show about an era long neglected in TV drama. Now it's just another late '60s thing about the same things we always hear about when drama takes on the late '60s. Countless movies and TV shows have done it, though many without the quality writing and acting of MAD MEN.

But when I go to Outback and order a bloomin' onion, I don't want a cheese salad or duck surprise. That's why I went to Outback in the first place.

MAD MEN hasn't so much been on TV too long as it has moved too quickly through the era. We could have savored more about the characters in that formative period of our culture. Now we just get a lot of moaning and grimacing (not that we didn't get that before, it was just accompanied by style and more humor).

Breaking Bad had a compelling, magnetic knack for keeping us watching. The villains were more and more interesting, more and more formidable. You couldn't out-think the show. Predictable it was not.

On MAD MEN, Don sits and stares. Roger has gone from being impossibly likable to impossible to like. People beam down on Earth for no other reason than to be mean to Peggy.

These are all great actors who deserve better, now it's become like BEWITCHED, with weekly lovely ladies for Don instead of weekly cranky clients for Darrin.

Here's a thing to consider: the recent DVD set of Season Six had NO COMMENTARIES. The bonus features on all the previous DVD sets were plentiful, with one or two commentaries on EVERY episode. They would even get the actors to do the commentaries in more than one city at once. Now, Nothing. Something's gone amiss.

I'll still watch it to the end, and maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised because I really love this show.

We should have known this would happen when Ted McGinley showed up.

Mark Jordan Legan said...

I was late to MAD MEN and then during a recent hiatus, I began to binge watch and devoured it - Seasons 1-6. So damn good - great writing and a perfect cast. It is very sad though and can see why it wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea. But I feel like it totally captures that 60's suburban angst that Updike & Cheever wrote about. People need to give shows a break. It is extremely hard to turn out strong episodes week after week so of course there are always going to be peaks and valleys. (I actually LOVED Season 6). So far Season 7 seems so-so, but I remain a fan.

marie said...

I agree Blinky, I've told Ken at least a couple times on here to watch the show, including this past Friday. someday when he and everyone is watching this show we will be able to say 'I told you so'. unfortunately until they watch it I come across as a crazy fan..... : )

September Smith said...

You picked a real bad week to spring this entry, Ken-- Sunday's episode was a multilayered gem that touched on previous storylines, expanded existing characters, and had plenty of evocative symmetry. If this is what a series on cruise control looks like, sign me up for that cruise.

Marco said...

I was thrilled with season 6 as much as I was with season 1 for my part I have to say. Season 7 won't start until fall this year (usually FOX premieres it in germany around September) but can't await is as much as I could not await any other season before since I hooked up with it (I binged seasons 1-3 and then joined the regular broadcast of it)

So - have to make sure I miss all spoilers until August or September and am looking forward to my still-favourite show since many years.

Mike McCann said...

Is there a pool underway as to how this (half-) season ends? I see clues that might hint at something. But then again, I don't want to let the cat out of the bag too early. Remember the year, 1969. And the location(s).

chuckcd said...

I always looked at Mad Men as just another show.

Kaleberg said...

We enjoyed the first few seasons, even if they were a bit repetitive. Then, we started to notice that nothing new was happening, so we stopped watching. We tried your "just watch it" approach two or three seasons back. It helped, but only a little. Who cares now?

kevmat86 said...

I love every single episode of Mad Men. I know some people seem to think that it's not as good as before, but I don't see it. I actually think it keeps getting better. I prefer the last three seasons to the first three seasons, and season 7 so far is perfect. Mad Men is still the best show on TV.