What makes shows like ‘Mad Men’ so great?

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in “Mad Men.”
Michael Yarish/AMC
Jon Hamm as Don Draper in “Mad Men.”

“Mad Men” is in our rearview mirror, a hilltop receding into the distance and an earworm — in perfect harmony — that just won’t quit. So now that it’s finished and complete, with a deluxe DVD box set of the whole series inevitably on the way, the legacy conversation can officially begin. Is the AMC show on the exclusive list of Most Prestigious and Analyzable Dramas of the Golden Age of TV? Does it belong in the conversation that includes “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” and, I would argue, “Six Feet Under”?

For me, the inclusion of “Mad Men” with those others is a no-brainer — especially since it ended so satisfyingly and artfully. It deserves mention with the dramas that have become part of the TV canon. But why? What is it about “Mad Men” and the other greats that puts them in a more rarefied group than so many good shows in recent years? “The Americans” is engrossing and fascinating and fun, but still, it’s not an all-timer, is it? “The Good Wife,” same deal. “The Shield,” “Justified,” “Deadwood,” “The West Wing,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” — they’re all maybes, dramas that, with impassioned defenses, might possibly be, but aren’t automatically, on the list.

One X factor: An outstanding, layered script. For a show to rise to the top, the writing has to have dialogue that is jeweled with subtle symbolism, philosophical import, and humor, where certain exchanges can stand on their own as little treasures. It has to have a play-like quality, so it can be watched again and again for added meanings. And, ideally, those meanings have to rhyme with other meanings across the entire series, with allusions forward and backward.


During the recent “Mad Men” marathon leading up to the finale, I dropped in occasionally and always marveled at the craft of individual spoken lines. In season four, Don makes an observation that all at once manages to be about the show, its characters, the viewers, and, it turns out, the series ending: “People tell you who they are, but we ignore it because we want them to be who we want them to be.” Perfect. Isn’t that what we and all the characters did with Don during the run of the show? We hoped, but ultimately, sitting on that hilltop, he was who he was telling us he was, a broken man and a poet of the ad world.

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“Breaking Bad” was also overflowing with memorably faceted lines, notably, “I am the one who knocks.” And Vince Gilligan filled the series with connecting dots from the first season to the last. Over time, for instance, we could see Walt taking on qualities, habits, and even lines of those he killed. At one point, Mike said to Walt, “Do yourself a favor and learn to take yes for an answer.” Later on, after he killed Mike, Walt said to Lydia, “Learn to take yes for an answer.” Such callbacks — David Simon threw plenty of them into the later seasons of “The Wire” — give the series a unity and intentionality that you find in well-plotted novels.

Good acting is critical, of course; without Jon Hamm, or Elisabeth Moss, or almost everyone else in the “Mad Men” cast, the show would have failed. Idris Elba, Michael K. Williams, Dominic West, and Clarke Peters, along with many others, lifted “The Wire” higher. James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, and Michael Imperioli did some of TV’s most powerful work on “The Sopranos.” But still, the script is the bottom line. Without it, the sound and the fury signify nothing. Ideally, the writers are writing for the actors, to some extent, so that, say, heated fights between Walt and Skyler, or Tony and Carmela, were doubly amazing, as if the writers had merged with the performers.

Michael K. Williams in “The Wire.”
Paul Schiraldi/ HBO
Michael K. Williams in “The Wire.”

It doesn’t matter if a show falls into a particular genre, like “The Wire,” which was a police procedural, and “The Sopranos,” which was a mob story; if the writing is there, the origins and categories don’t matter. Likewise action dramas. I sometimes love a show that’s on the move. But I’m still waiting for a full-on action show whose script is less generic than that of “24.” The world view of “24” was black and white, with good guys and bad guys — which can be entertaining, but limited. “Alias” was more elaborately plotted and character-driven, but still, ultimately, simplistic. Dramatic writing that eagerly takes in the uncertainties, vagaries, and disorder of life, that’s willing to fly in the face of happy endings, has more to offer the viewer, more for us to chew on.

Steven Van Zandt, James Gandolfini, and Tony Sirico in “The Sopranos.”
Steven Van Zandt, James Gandolfini, and Tony Sirico in “The Sopranos.”

Indeed, the best-written shows give us characters who can be analyzed as if they’re actually free agents. They’ve been constructed carefully, in detail, with distinct patterns of behavior, and yet fitted with room to change and to be unpredictable. We’ve been given enough of a glimpse into their souls to speculate about their deep motivations. Wisely, the writers don’t spell everything out; they leave space between the lines for ambiguity, which viewers can then dive into. The result is years of debate about characters such as Walter White, as well as epic recaps, books, and college courses (particularly on “The Wire”) that dig into their psychology, their social positioning, their relationships.


The other X factor: All of the storytelling on these shows is united by the vision of one person. Weiner, Gilligan, Simon, Alan Ball, David Chase, they are TV auteurs who rejected the easier franchise McDramas and star-driven vehicles that often flourish on the networks. They are ambitious storytellers who enter the man vs. machine struggle of the TV industry and prevail.

What’s next? Is there another “Mad Men” coming up, to keep us obsessed and thinking and praising for the next few years? I’m looking out, my eye on the digital horizon, and plan to keep you posted.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.