As an insomniac I have a lot of late night hours to kill and if I find a show that grabs me, like The Wire did, I will download and watch the entire series 3 episodes per day until the series is exhausted. Mad Men is one of those shows. I resisted watching at first because I thought it would be another Wonder Years. Not that that was a bad thing… Oh Winnie Cooper. But a period series done badly can be a really bad thing…like The Wonder Years season 4.
The overwhelming critical accolades and the good word of mouth convinced me to give ‘er a go. So I downloaded the first episode and haven’t looked back since. Each character has been brought to life with the loving care of a parent, the scrutinty of an FBI background check and the honesty of my mom in confession.
Don Draper, played subltly by Jon Hamm appears at first glance to be the Every-executive and out of touch dad of the sixties. He is perfectly groomed and rugged in appearance, but just look below the surface and wonder why he drinks and smokes so much. Elisabeth Moss plays Peggy Olsen, Draper’s new “girl friday.” She is cute and demure and is eager, but she is also sad, needy and strong.
A friend of mine told me she wouldn’t watch the show because of how sexist it is. That is true to a point. Under all of the “coffee, tea or me” and 10 feet thick glass ceiling is the reason the sixties had to exist and why they surely had to evolve and end.
The behaviour of these characters is something short of watching a train wreck, they are flawed and funny and all kinds of interesting. You get invested in all of the supporting players too. The struggle to make it in a cut-throat business and the generational influence of the older and younger generations on the middle-aged Draper.
Anyway, this is the kind of show I was desperate for in the mid-90’s and am so glad to have now. It is one of the most well-rounded shows I have had the pleasure to watch and when I am caught up with the most current episodes in season 2, I think I may need to start smoking again, because I am soaking up so much nicotine from the screen.
The bottom line when it comes to producing high quality televison may lay in producing fewer shows with the impact being better results. For example, the average network show produces 22 episodes in a season. the critcally acclaimed cable show Mad Men produces only 13 episodes per season.
Perhaps it is only a coincidence that the shows that pour all of their energy into 13 episodes tend to have a better quality standard. Or perhaps it’s a sign that their producers have more focus and not the marathoners pace of the network guys.
In addition to the quality being condensed into tighter scripts and story arcs, The limited nature of the shooting schedule means that actors who might not normally commit to a 22 episode run, will make time for smaller more curated shows. For example, Dame Judy Dench appeared for 13 seasons in a comedy series called As Time Goes By, while simultaneously doing her best work as a film actress. 67 episodes in 13 years, thats a breeze on a tight schedule. You would never ever expect to see Meryl Streep play a regular character on The New Adventures of Old Christine. It is a good show, but it would never attract her because of the 22 episode commitment.
I am not saying that all of the shows that produce under these conditions are great. I am only saying that if the effort were put into 10 to 12 solid episodes per season, we might have a higher quality product than we are used to.
Another effect would be that different shows could run at different times of year on a revolving basis and we would have time to miss that show while it was in hiatus. Writers would not be forced spread their resources out over 22 episodes or by putting their talents only into the episodes that run during the sweeps rating period. It certainly would not be boring. A Fall and a Spring season might make for a lively and entertaining change of pace.