Dapper Don Draper of Mad Men has been on everyone’s lips for years now. The hyper-masculine, Madison Avenue hero has smoked and drank his way into the hearts and minds of the nation and the world. Draper is not alone, however. Mad Men is a stand-out in a still-budding renaissance of serial dramas which inhabit cable and the Internet.
Cocktail parties are themed after Mad Men. Everyone talks about how they pine for the next season of Orange is the New Black, how intense Game of Thrones is, or speculate whether or not True Detective can surpass the bar set in season one. The Wire is everyone’s key reference point, as that series was an early example of what modern television is capable of.
When tracking trends such as these, it is hard to know where to say the genesis point was. Perhaps the miniseries of the late 1970’s and into the 1980’s is a good place to start. Shogun, Roots, and The Blue and the Grey, captured the imagination of the nation. These were weekly dramas which had a predetermined beginning, middle and end. They were easy to commit to because it was known that the duration would be short and the payoff would be phenomenal. Rather than slog through novels of over 300 pages, viewers could have a similar experience in the confines of a television show.
After the spate of miniseries, television adopted the aimless, arc-less soap opera formula. Episodes might be linked in some way, but a viewer was in no danger of feeling left out if she had missed last week’s 90210. Brenda, Dylan, and the gang were up to new shenanigans in a self-contained episode in which the only question was how much in or out of love one was with the other. There might have been a social issue or two for good measure. Mad Men unfolds on political, social, gender, and personal themes which is not uncommon in this renaissance of serial dramas.
When television was starting to look as bleary as Don Draper on a hungover Sunday morning, The Sopranos‘ depth and depravity kicked everything into high gear. The HBO series introduced the world to a complicated mobster whose violence and corruption served as a mirror on our own society. The series was less aimless and each season worked as a cohesive whole. With HBO, if you missed last week, the network would frequently rerun shows. Plus, by this time almost everyone had a VHS on which to record the show. If television writers had been sleeping, Tony Soprano’s pistol woke them up to the potential of complex characters, sweeping narrative arcs, and a depth and breadth previously only known in novels.
The world of serial dramas only kicked into high gear when The Wire hit HBO. A masterwork of narrative, character, and social commentary, David Simon’s epic showed America what it was. Simon exposed the phenomenon of ″juking the stats,″ of tearing down social institutions beneath a gauzy haze of shiny statistics.
Now, with the maturation of Netflix, Hulu, On Demand cable services, and the trusty DVD, entire seasons can be devoured in a weekend. We binge on shows the way Don Draper sucks down booze and cigarettes. Mad Men‘s excellence is commonplace in light of this renaissance of serial dramas. The United States and the rest of the technologically-enhanced world is fortunate to have so many rich, wonderful dramas. Their quality and number is unparalleled, but the question is whether the lessons the characters have to impart will produce action and change.
Commentary By Hobie Anthony