By: Jonathan Schultz
TV by the Numbers reports Mad Men’s Sunday premiere episode netted 3.37 million viewers.
Based solely on the fact that the show’s sixth season drew the second-highest viewership of any episode in the AMC drama’s history, it’d be easy to assume that the show is still reigning as king of cable dramas. Add the massive amount of media attention that the show gets, and you’d be quick to think that it hasn’t missed a beat.
But then we’re reminded of the shell shock to the show’s fans that was the 64th Primetime Emmy Awards. Prior to that award ceremony, Mad Men had been nominated for 28 Emmys and won seven, including Outstanding Drama Series for a record-four consecutive years. In 2012, the show set another record: most nominations (twelve) without a single success.
The trouble-season that started this losing streak was Season Five… So what happened? What changed in the show’s structure that knocked it off its titanic pedestal? Was it something with the actors, the writing, or the production? No, not quite.
What changed was the narrative style. Consistent through all of AMC’s most highly acclaimed dramas, including Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and Hell on Wheels, is a central male character that undergoes a progressive transformation throughout the course of the show.
“No one in the history of television has pushed this notion further than Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, has done with Walter White,” said Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter on AMC’s other most popular drama. “His proclamation that he wanted to ‘take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface’ has been the most harrowing, ambitious and daring character evolution ever.”
Don Draper, the main character of Mad Men, had seemingly undergone an equally elegant transformation through the first four seasons. We’re introduced to a character that suffers from compulsive infidelity and substance abuse but is provocatively successful at his job as an advertising creative director. These diametrically opposed qualities continued their inverse relationship through a tumultuous few years before he finally imploded in Season Four’s “The Suitcase” and then beautifully pieced himself back together in “The Summer Man.”
That narrative came to a screeching halt in Season Five, during which the episodes became aesthetically pleasing unto themselves but narratively disjointed and had significantly less character development for Don, who simply enjoys his new-found fidelity and near-total disregard for his work.
The problem is not that his problems had flipped, but that it stopped there; the character became static for the first time. Based on the show’s Emmy collection for this season, critics agree that this was a step in the wrong direction.
Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” The premiere of Season Six shows the character kicking over four seasons of development and cheating on his newest wife for the first time. Now it just feels like the show is going in circles in the likeness of a soap opera. As Rachel Ediden of Wired put it, Mad Men has been reduced to superficiality, “a show about sexy people with sexy problems.”
As a fan of the show since its beginning and long before becoming an advertising major myself, I’d love nothing more than to see Don recoil and become the complex character we know and love. Maybe I was just too mesmerized by the Kodak Carousel pitch.