I know there is no reason to trust my judgement in predicting TV shows after my last two blunders. But this time is different, and on the basis of a season and a half of episodes, I have to say: Mad Men is better than The Sopranos in all the ways that it counts. Mad Men isn’t as groundbreaking as Lost or as richly complex as The Wire, but neither was The Sopranos, and that show got oodles of accolades. Mad Men, however, is the superior show.
Everyone seems to forget that The Sopranos was a wildly uneven show in tone, character development, and plot. Lots of plot happened that seemed disconnected to reality–even the reality set up by the show itself. Whole plotlines and characters were started and dropped, never to be seen again. Some of the character development made little sense and seemed gimmicky, like AJ’s suicide attempt or Uncle Junior’s dementia. You’d have a wacky episode with Christopher and Paulie getting stuck in the woods, then another with the graphic rape of Dr. Melfi. The show’s apologists (and there are legions) will say, well, that’s how life is. But this is a scripted drama, not life. I want storytelling and narrative arcs that lead somewhere, not just to a final blackout.
Compare this to Mad Men. Mad Men, like another great show Deadwood, has a consistent tone and is pitch perfect. Characters are well-drawn and nuanced. Plots lead to revelations: both moving the story forward and by revealing character. And, let’s not forget, doing so partially in the space/difference between the era of the 1960s to our own. This is no easy feat. If you don’t think this can be done badly, you didn’t see Swingtown.
The Sopranos had to use violence for shock and punctuation. Mad Men uses words. Tension in Mad Men comes from character, not necessarily situation.
The Sopranos, at its heart, was a family soap opera. It didn’t really care overmuch about how Tony and Crew worked, except in the broadest way. Which is why a lot of the intrigue with the other Families felt muddled and/or flat. Mad Men though is a workplace drama, like Hill Street Blues or Homicide: Life on the Street. It reveals character by how people behave doing their work. Which, in a cruder way, The Sopranos did as well, but the extremeness of the situation (whacking people) warping the situation so that all subtly was rubbed out.
Mad Men cares about the context the drama lives in. The characters aren’t modern day types dropped into spiffy suits. We can see how their characters are shaped by the time and visa versa. We barely even knew what decade it was with The Sopranos, aside from some 9/11 references.
In any case, Mad Men now deserves your attention and your post-Sopranos praise.