Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Back to "Mad Men"

We watched the season opener of Mad Men last night, via iTunes and without commercials, which I heard were relentless on Sunday night. (If you're craving a thorough recap of those 92 non-commercial minutes, go here.)

It felt great to be back at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, with its snarky hallway humor and the nonstop ringing phones. But I couldn't help comparing everything with Downton Abbey.

Both shows are exactly what I like best: well-researched, multi-episode, period dramas with complex plots, sophisticated dialogue, and excellent performances. Both have spectacular sets and would be worth watching for the costumes alone, with the sound off.* But I think the similarities end there. Mad Men is loads of fun, but Downton is the more satisfying show.

Dowton's characters are rocked by major historical events — the sinking of the Titanic, World War I, Spanish influenza. These events aren't merely discussed around the dinner table; they have a direct, stunning impact on the characters, dramatically changing the course of lives and sometimes ending them. Mad Men's characters rarely take such a serious hit from major news events; instead, they read about them in the Times or watch on TV, as we do. Civil Rights protests — and retaliatory water-bag dousing — are happening, but only from a distance — on the sidewalk beneath a rival agency's high-rise. Joan's husband is serving in Vietnam, but who really cares? Surely not Joan; that's Roger's baby. No one is setting up a hospital in the lobby of SCDP.

This is not to say that the quality of a show correlates to its connectedness with big historical events. What I admire about Downton is how natural it all seems. While there are certainly plot contrivances, killing off characters with the Spanish flu wasn't one of them. Instead, we get to experience real world events within the context of a familiar home and family, which makes for wonderful, believable, big drama. It would be delicious if Mad Men's characters are allowed some closer brushes with history. Surely Megan will drag Don to Woodstock if their marriage lasts that long.

Megan and Don

The other significant difference between the two shows is the quality of the characters. Well-rounded characters are based in good writing and directing, but the emotional investment of the actors themselves makes all the difference. In both of these shows, most characters strike us as having vivid, complete personalities because skilled actors have fleshed them out beyond what is written in the script. Good actors achieve this through careful preparation, emotional commitment, and artistry — the countless tiny, careful choices of facial expression, emphasis, gesture, inflection, tone. Characters develop further through interactions — ensemble acting, which is also often brilliant in both shows.

It's always a pleasure to watch all this on both shows, but it's better on Downton Abbey. Last night, Megan hit the nail on the head when she complained about how cynical everyone is at SCDP. In Mad Men, every person is out for himself, seeking some kind of power and/or material gain. There have been long stretches when the only only office character we can stand to root for is Peggy, while only Sally usually gets our complete sympathy on the domestic side. Mad Men's characters almost never appear "heroic" in the dramatic sense of the word. They may be believable, quirky, fascinating creations, but we can seldom embrace their totality because they almost never deeply move us. Perhaps I'm just cynical myself, but I don't care about whatever horrors may descend upon Don this season. I know it will be riveting to watch (as, say, Megan eats him alive and spits out his bones), but I can't care about him as a character. (Which is strange... because I never stopped rooting for Tony Soprano, a true monster.)

On the other hand, the characters of Downton Abbey were continually rising and falling in our estimations as they evolved and more facets of their natures were shown to us. And this mattered. We've rooted for all of them at one time or another. Thomas and O'Brien may have initially seemed like predictable villains as the "evil" servants, always plotting some enemy's downfall. But both grew into more complicated personalities as they experienced guilt, love, and loss along with personal and historical calamities. O'Brien grew a guilty conscience after Cora loses the baby. And no one expected to weep with Thomas when his friend, the gas-blind lieutenant, committed suicide. The arc of Lady Mary's character was among the most satisfying as we watched her broken heart and ruined "honor" teach her self-awareness, compassion, and humility. There was nothing better than watching Mary struggle to keep her polite smile steady as Matthew extinguished her hopes yet again. We hated Edith and then we loved Edith; we were rarely indifferent to her.

Matthew and Mary

Downton Abbey's characters command our attention and earn our sympathy, while Mad Men's cast is strictly out for themselves; it seems they can take or leave the audience, too. They amuse and intrigue us, and provide plenty of discussion topics around the water cooler. But ultimately they don't win our hearts because they don't seem to have any themselves.

*That's the only way I made it through James Cameron's Titanic a second time. Gorgeous, mesmerizing sets and costumes, but a terrible script. I covered my ears and had a better time.

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