We know you’ve been wondering about what makes a show great. So have we, for obvious reasons, not the least of which is so we can create and maintain a great series of our own. TVWriter™ found this article from the Boston Globe very helpful. Here’s hoping y’all will too:
What Makes MAD MEN Great?
by Matthew Gilbert
“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.
“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.