Monday, April 14, 2014

Masters, Mad Men, and Passive Entertainment

What these men do might have more in common than you'd think.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

The 78th Masters Golf Tournament ended on the same night that the 7th and final season of Mad Men premiered. Is this a coincidence? Yes, it is, actually. The Masters always ends on a Sunday (just like every other major golf tournament), and Mad Men has aired on Sunday nights ever since its second season in 2008.

The Finale of Breaking Bad, AMC’s other tent-pole program over the last half-decade, ended on a Sunday night last September, preceded by several hours of football. This is also merely a coincidence. Football is played on Sundays, and Breaking Bad aired on Sunday nights throughout its entire broadcast run.

But these coincidences provoke thought. No, there’s no subliminal message behind Mad Men airing on the same night as a golf tournament and Breaking bad airing on the same night as football, but there are connections to be drawn. Breaking Bad airing after 10 hours of fast-paced blood sports, with Mad Men airing after slow-paced peaceful recreation is too interesting to ignore.

In many ways, Mad Men has seemed tame in the modern era of television. Compared to Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, and Dexter (among others), there is startlingly less violence. The only major character that has died did so at his own hand. There’s no concern that a white supremacist group will barge into the offices of Sterling Cooper and gun down Don Draper in cold blood. It’s the only truly transcendent drama of the last 10 years or so that hasn’t depicted a murder.

The appeal of Mad Men has always been in the art direction, the set decoration, the writing, the acting, and the great attention to detail required to transport the viewer into the 1950s (or 60s, or 70s…). It is the golf of modern television. Ignorant people will scoff and brush if off as boring, failing to grasp the intricacies that make it so great.

Golf isn’t the most exciting sport; much like Mad Men has never really been the most exciting show on television. But the Masters is one golf event on the calendar that I always feel obligated to watch. Augusta National isn’t so much a golf course as a national park. If you ask a layperson on the street, with no knowledge of Augusta, to imagine the most picturesque golf course their brain can conjure up, it will probably look something like Augusta. And I say this as someone who doesn’t even particularly *like* golf, much in the same way that I don’t particularly *like* slow-paced period pieces on television. But I *love* the Masters. And I *love* Mad Men.

Breaking Bad was a show that kept you on your toes. Lurking around every corner was a potential disaster. The leverage on every decision was immense. Like the NFL, one false step is the difference between life and death. (Okay, well, maybe not life and death in the NFL – but one false step can tear someone’s ACL and be the difference between an 11-5 division crown and a 4-12 disappointment.) One play can change more than just a game; it can change an entire season, just like one scene can completely change the course of the entire series, kind of like this one.

But Mad Men isn’t like that, and neither is golf. If Breaking Bad was chemistry, Mad Men is geology. It takes several episodes, sometimes even a full season, before a storyline is completed. And you can’t win a golf tournament with a single swing. Bubba Watson took home the green jacket with a slow surge – four birdies on the last six holes of the front nine, taking over the lead that he never relinquished. He strolled through the masterpiece of green space, seemingly without a care in the world. It wasn’t boring, it was peaceful. As someone who spends his days surrounded by a hundred screaming middle schoolers, that sounds like a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Season 7 of Mad Men picked up pretty much where we left off at the end of Season 6. Don Draper is still a man without a country. His employer is pushing him out the door. His wife is gone. His kids are absent. Even his drinking and philandering have subsided. He used to be a man with a changed identity, now it seems like he has no identity. Peggy Olson is still getting walked over by all the men in her life. Roger Sterling is still the funniest character on any TV drama. The only unexpected appearance was from Freddy Rumsen, a welcome call-back to a happier time in Don Draper’s life. In terms of story, nothing of true substance happened. It seemed to just be laying the groundwork for the next six episodes. But every little tid-pit piqued my interest. I want to know a little bit more, about everything. That’s what makes the show so great. It’s not ONE big event that leaves you floored, like Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones (which apparently had another one of *those* episodes Sunday night – I wouldn’t know because I never got past Episode 4 of Season 1). It was just an hour of nibbling around the edges, but you have to come back to see what the middle of the pie looks like.

Mad Men is a simple show. It’s centered around a mysterious man living in a tumultuous time period. It doesn’t make your brain hurt like LOST. It doesn’t sensationalize a world you never knew about like The Sopranos or The Wire. It doesn’t leave you consistently blown away like Breaking Bad. It’s like a movie told in 79 parts (and counting), everything building towards a finish that may or may not be groundbreaking and hyper-dramatic. But that doesn’t matter, because the journey is more important than the destination. Just like in golf where the 18th hole isn’t worth any more than the first, and the satisfaction comes from the enjoyment of the afternoon, not the completion of the course.

Neither golf nor Mad Men will blow you away while you watch them on your television set. But neither is boring. They simply appeal to a different type of viewer, one who doesn’t need a lot of bells and whistles thrown in to be satisfied. The contentedness can come from the minute details, and the happy pursuit of perfection.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

I just don't understand why we needed 79 episodes. We found out in, like, Episode 1 who The Mother was.