Which way is the window?
Mad Men, 2007-2012
The Good Wife, 2009-2013Christina Hendricks
By Peter Hulm
Six seasons after the breathtaking start of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner's hymn to the psychotic 1960s, it is definitely duller, even though it is more sharply written and confidently filmed.
You could put it down to a certain realism about people: Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is as self-detached as ever. Peter Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) remains as creepy and commercially successful. Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) is still ambivalent about her position in a macho male society. Joan (), six years on, has not figured out that she is not much more than a courtesan in the 1960s business world despite all her management abilities.
Some people just move forward without our seeing any change in them no matter what happens.
Others develop in ways that are sad to see. Betty (January Jones) gets fat and vindictive, the most depressing but convincing predictable turn of character in the series.
Roger Sterling (John Slattery), by contrast, has lifted off into a realm of his own. Even more hilariously misogynistic in his dialogue with women (and tender-hearted) as the series progresses, his actions have become regularly bizarre (divorcing after taking LSD, stretching out Christlike and naked before the window in view of New York).
He seems the only person who survives the ad business without scars, protected by his all-embracing cynicism.
The sexy non-starter
And of course the advertisements are uniformly bad. The last part of the fifth season was all about trying come up with a way to sell the idea of the Jaguar XE as a mistress without mentioning the word or openly speaking of its unreliability.
Nor has anyone gone out of the window yet, despite the long-standing credit sequence, as stylish as anything we see in the Godard-bright sets.
Perhaps the creators are saving that for Season Six.
Living in the material world
Though hordes of business folk in this series smoke, drink all day and play around, no-one has so far paid the real price of such habits. For example, heart attacks, though Slattery had a two-fer in season one without any visible effects. But as anyone who remembers 1960s office life will remember, there were also cancers, descents into alcoholism (not among the main characters) – we do not even see a coarsening of the skin, and no sexual diseases.
Perhaps part of the decline in our interest in the men of Madison Avenue comes from the male characters' failure to realize that they are living in a world of pure bliss and boredom: sleeping in the office during the day, pouring expensive drinks for each other at every opportunity, doing almost nothing while creative drones work tirelessly around them. Was any body of men paid so much for so little? Don Draper, the legendary advertising copywriter, seems to have little to do with any of the campaigns he manages these days.
As a result, in line with soap opera rules, the only interesting developments we see are in the characters who enter from outside and can also vanish (Lane Pryce: Jared Harris, Megan Calvet: Jessica Paré.
For the rest of the time we are stuck with people we like less and less the more we see of them. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?
It's easy to overlook the excellence of the acting throughout. The callowness of the agency men is beautifully caught, while the host of goof spotters out there on the other side of the screen have rarely been able to fault Matthew Weiner and his production crew. imdb's watchers caught only three or four bloopers.
In fact, Mad Men became a soap opera early on, despite its pretensions to paint the picture of a milieu. The back story, of Don Draper taking over another man's identity, is melodramatic and undermotivated (except in its echoes of Antonioni's The Passenger, where the lack of motivation had a point). In Mad Men it bears no relation to the advertising story. But soap opera thrives on the outlandish and dramatically irrelevant to keep viewers' interest.
The fights over office space and creative credit in series five have more credibility but inevitably less punch. Peggy's departure from the agency can't help but seem a dud. She is the only person who feels any loyalty to the place.
The good wife does not wrangle
It's like those interminable wrangles over partnerships at the lawyers' office in The Good Wife. They are the stuff of our office experiences, but you have to be Jane Austen to make them psychologically interesting. I've never understood the critics' debating over whether it was really shocking or not to stage a rather louche play in Mansfield Park. The issue has so many parallels in modern bureaucratic life: look at those office parties.
Mad Men, so good in other ways, shows how hard it is to do, even for clever writers and directors, to keep a series going.
The Good Wife, too, is heading the same way. The latest episode I saw in April 2013 featured the hacking group Anonymous and the revolt against tough-guy prosecutors in the wake of Aaron Schwartz's suicide. You can't help wondering how a heavyweight series can turn the ship around so nimbly in response to the winds of fashion and the storms of scandal.
But the emphasis in the episode was all on a partners' and juniors' revolt against the two senior partners while Alicia (Julianna Margulies) was dreamily thinking of her missed opportunities with her ex-lover. Get with the real program, guys!