The Curse of Season Four

Vegas must have taken a beating… the over/under on the number of Mad Men Season Four articles that P.C.H.A. would post was 6. However, two days before the season finale, this is the first. Both The Dilemma and I are huge fans of the show, and each of us have seen the entire season (he on cable, me on Pirate’s Bay). And yet… nothing but silence.

And it isn’t just the blog… even over beers at our local tavern, the show has barely been mentioned. Sure, there have been a few comments here and there, but during past seasons we had long Lost-esque discussions about the characters, the plot lines, the women, etc. Given that we also love to complain about things we have an objection to (shocker), the lack of conversation means that it hasn’t been a disaster . This season of Mad Men has evoked a few plaudits and a few complaints, but very little passion. It’s been watchable, but not particularly memorable… i.e. no moments like this:

Like many other great television dramas, it seems that Mad Men has started to run out of steam in Season Four.

This season of Mad Men hasn’t been bad by any measure, except in comparison to past seasons. There have been some great moments. Peggy Olsen continues to be one of the most compelling overlooked characters on television. She’s kind of like a dramatic Lisa Simpson… she’s the heart of the show by being both the most normal and the most exceptional of the characters. At the same time, the show has hit the women’s lib angle a bit awkwardly… not that it isn’t an important subject, but it’s been dealt with using a sledgehammer. The return of old-school Roger Sterling is more than welcome… but, what happened to the new trophy wife? Lane has had some great moments… the drinking binge with Don was hilarious, and the confrontation with his father was disturbing. Sally Draper may be the best child performance in the history of television and is a great reason to continue watching… it should be interesting to watch her grow into an inevitably rebellious teenager. Don’s new girlfriend Faye is a great fit for Don, which leads to tension in wondering whether he can handle a good thing.

And Don… well, that’s more of a mixed bag. The season started with him completely unhinged, getting beaten by hookers and blowing meetings. Then, he took a trip to California and found out that Anna, his mother figure, was dying. It seemed that everything was set up for a full-scale breakdown. So what happened? He had a crying fit in front of Peggy when Anna died and then healed himself through journaling. After an episode of unbearable internal voice-over, everything was fine. Matthew Weiner obviously had a crisis of nerve… could he really turn his meal ticket into a mess?

Don isn’t the only major character who’s been a disappointment. Pete Campbell has always been my favorite… not as Don-esque hero but as a multi-layered character. He’s the rare television figure where you don’t know what he’ll do from moment-to-moment. He was great in the episode where he found out that his wife was pregnant… otherwise, he’s been kind of blank. The idea that he’s just happy to be a salesman for Don feels false to me… at least, it’s less layered than the character previously was.

And Betty Draper. Oh, Betty Draper. I don’t know where to start. The end of Season Three was great, but left her character in limbo. She’s turned from a confused and immature beauty into a semi-evil monster of a mother. The scenes with her seem forced, as if they only exist because January Jones is still under contract. And her husband Henry is such an uninspiring figure that I dread his appearance.

The biggest sign of staleness is the unending parade of returning characters. I love that Joan Harris is back in the picture (although her husband-going-to-Vietnam storyline is a hackneyed way to bring that story into the show). But Freddie Rumsen, Ken Cosgrove, Duck Phillips, Midge (in a horrible rise-of-the-drug-culture turn)… none of these had a compelling reason to return. Even worse, aside from Faye there have been no interesting characters introduced. There’s been some attempts with the junior creative staff, but mostly they’ve served as dickhead foils to illustrate how hard it is to be Peggy. That I can’t remember any of their names shows how effective they’ve been.

At the end of last season, I was looking forward to essentially a reboot of the series. I figured that Matthew Weiner had learned the lessons of the past, that most great television dramas start off strong right away (unlike comedies, which take a season or two to find the right chemistry), but start to run out of ideas in the fourth season. We headed into Season Four with a core of characters moving into a believable new universe (unlike, say, Laverne and Shirley moving to California). That Don and Peggy began the season trying out new roles was encouraging. But then… Weiner wussed out. Everything settled back into place, the new firm fell into a series of boring storylines that exposed it as a poorer version of the old firm, old characters appeared, new characters flopped, and appointment viewing turned into enjoyable viewing.

This isn’t the first time this happened. Let’s look at some of the other dramas that we named as Best Of The Aughts:

The Sopranos: While the decline may have started in the middle of Season Three (the introduction of Ralph, Gloria the psycho, the death of Jackie Jr.), it was much more obvious in Season Four. Janice and Ralphie began dating, which was an exact repeat of the Richie relationship; Adrianna moved to the forefront as an FBI informant; Furio and Carmela’s non-relationship leads to separation with Tony; Christopher goes to rehab. And worst of all was the episode when Silvio gets into it with Native Americans protesting Columbus Day. There were some great moments (Tony killing Ralphie for instance), but it was never the same.

The West Wing: First of all, I only consider the first four seasons for The West Wing… up to that point, every episode was written by Aaron Sorkin… after he left it was just a regular network drama. But his forced exit was probably for the best. The storylines started to show the self-seriousness that would later destroy Studio 60. The characters started to either repeat themselves or make unbelievable leaps. The loss of Rob Lowe was a huge blow, and somewhat awkwardly set-up. And the end of the season (the quick resignation of a great V.P. character, followed by the kidnapping of the President’s daughter (played by Peggy Olsen), followed by a reactionary Republican becoming acting President) was a snotty blowing up of the universe by a bitter Sorkin.

The Wire: The howls from The Dilemma (and the Musky Canadian and many others) are noted. But for me, the series was never the same after the Stringer Bell/Avon Barksdale arc ended. The social issues became much more ham-handed. While there were moments of great poignance, I didn’t find the school storyline as original as many others did (although it was much better than the media storyline of Season Five). And the lack of McNulty was a deal-breaker for me.

Lost: While it was actually a rebound from the meanderings of Season Three, Season Four of Lost was the first to feature flashforwards instead of flashbacks… the time-travelling and loyalty to the back-and-forth episode structure eventually became a double-edged sword at best.

Of course to even fall victim of this curse, you have to be a pretty damn good show to begin with. Plenty of great shows (Freaks and Geeks, Rome, Friday Night Lights, The O.C., 24) aren’t even in the discussion, either because they didn’t last four seasons or because their primes didn’t last that long. As Marlo Stansfield would say “That’s what you call one of those good problems.” At the same time, Mad Men’s name is its name, and it’s sad to know that it’s closer to the end than to the beginning.

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4 Comments

Filed under David Simon Cowell, Television Has AIDS

4 responses to “The Curse of Season Four

  1. Pingback: 2 Idiots Debate: Mad Men Season Five | Pop Culture Has AIDS

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  4. Pingback: Counterpoint! Mad Men Season 4 « Pop Culture Has AIDS

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