I did watch all of “The Sopranos.” I didn’t have cable during most of its run, so I bought the boxed sets at the end of every season. I was always in a big hurry to get them, so I paid full price, sometimes up to 80 bucks a box. It’s my favorite show of all time, and the only one I’ve watched in the last two decades, so it was worth the money. Steph and I went through the entire run of the series together. Took us about six months. I’ve seen every episode at least three times.
Worst moment of the whole show. Nancy Marchand, who played Tony’s mother, died between the second and third seasons. The people in charge made an ill-advised attempt to create one more scene between her and Tony, using a body double and footage from earlier episodes. It was incredibly hokey. It pulls me right out of the narrative every time I see it. They should have let her character die offscreen and been done with it.
Best moment of the whole show. At the end of the fifth season, Tony meets Johnny Sack at his house. They are standing outdoors, talking business. It’s winter, there is snow on the ground. Without a word, Tony runs out of the yard at full-speed. He drops his gun into a snow bank. Cut to a crapload of New Jersey police, descending on Johnny’s house. Tony gets away, Johnny doesn’t. I’m not sure why I like that scene so much. The normally composed Tony Soprano being reduced to acting like a criminal, perhaps?
And then there was The Ending. David Chase swears he was just doing his best to tell the end of the story, there was no attempt to cause drama or anything, but that’s not how it looks to me. I think it was out of character for the show and I didn’t like it.
I’ve heard various people say that this or that season was The Poor One, where it got boring or not very much happened or whatever. I never agreed with that. I thought every single episode was enjoyable.
That was all an intro to what I really intended to write about: “Mad Men”. I was intrigued due to the fact that about 60 percent of its writers, directors, and crew members were veterans of “The Sopranos.” There have been many mentions on the web, none of which dissuaded me from thinking it might be pretty good. The first season box set contains the same amount of material as a season of “The Sopranos” -- 13 episodes of about 48 minutes each -- yet costs only 20 bucks. I spend more than that on a single trip to a restaurant. I just finished watching the first season.
The parallels between the two shows are hard to miss. The protagonist is a powerful, charismatic, self-made man who is doing well in his chosen profession, but he’s not yet at the top. He’s married, he has kids. He has lots of secrets and many mistresses. The people he works with cause him considerable angst. He struggles mightily to vanquish his foes and keep rising through the ranks. His wife wants things from him that he’s not quite prepared to give. His past is retold in numerous flashbacks.
The thing I liked best about “The Sopranos” is that it never resorts to cheap clichés. There is no swelling music to tell us how to feel about things. There are a million little shortcuts that TV writers use that make that medium depressing and inane, none of which David Chase and friends ever stooped to.
Sadly, “Mad Men” only usually avoids those clichés. Most of the musical score is bland, uninspiring, and pushy, nearly indistinguishable from any other TV score. The show would be better off with no incidental music at all. The writers occasionally attempt to manufacture drama where there isn’t any. In one scene, Don Draper is staring into a drawer, and we’re not allowed to see the contents. The subtext is loud and clear: “Could he be looking at A GUN? Oh my GOD, would Don resort to using A GUN to settle a situation like this?” Bleh. One of Don’s mistresses is surrounded by a gaggle of lame, flat, beat-poet wannabes that Don wouldn’t waste five minutes with, if he were behaving in character. The flashbacks involving Don’s childhood are sentimental fluff, more often than not, populated with one-note two-dee characters.
There’s one area where “Mad Men” is clearly superior, in my opinion. David Chase has a thing for “classic rock.” Almost all of the featured songs in “The Sopranos” fit that mold. He chose the best that genre has to offer, but, well, that’s still not very good, is it. The best thing I can say about “classic rock” is that it’s moribund, almost by definition. Featured songs in “Mad Men” are usually jazz standards. Despite being decades older, the featured jazz tracks seem much more fresh to me.
All things considered, I guess I’m willing to give “Mad Men” the benefit of the doubt. This is the first time Matthew Weiner has had a show of his own. Maybe it turned out to be harder than he thought, and he had to cut corners here and there. And he wrote for “The Sopranos,” which has to count for something. As a matter of fact, it was his “Mad Men” pilot that convinced David Chase to hire him. I have ordered the second season DVD box, which also costs only 20 bucks.
UPDATE: I have now finished watching the second season. My qualms have almost entirely been laid to rest. Don stopped hanging around with the hippie girl, so all her beatnik friends disappeared with her. There have been no further childhood flashbacks. The musical score is still largely tinkly wistful nothings, but there is thankfully very little of it. They’ve started looking outside jazz for featured music, and they are exhibiting good taste.
When looking for motivations for why things happened in the first season, the answer I came up with far too often was “Well, it makes Don appear even more dark and mysterious and conflicted, doesn’t it.” The second season is more plot-driven, so there’s less time for Don to stare into his own navel.
My early reactions were often some variation of “Why can’t this show be more like ‘The Sopranos.’” Now I can think of an objection that’s the other way around. In “The Sopranos,” there is scarcely a single character that isn’t a sociopath. Even people who are ostensibly on the same side will sell each other out for lunch money, or less. Most of the “Mad Men” characters are actual, functional human beings. You can genuinely root for them to succeed, and not just ironically. Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) is my favorite of the bunch. She started at Sterling-Cooper as a secretary, got some part-time copywriter work, then became a full-time copywriter, then got her own office and her own secretary. I can feel good about her progress without feeling slimy about it.
So that’s it, this show has fully captivated me now. I’m trying hard to avoid buying the third season on iTunes, because I know I’ll also buy the DVDs when they come out. And I guess I’m back to paying full price.
UPDATE AGAIN: I couldn’t resist, I bought season three on iTunes. BEST SEASON EVER. It’s going to be a long wait until season four.