Mad Men is a really interesting, addictive, and important show. It may well be one of the best shows on TV. But it is not the best show on TV.
That title goes to Breaking Bad, now that The Wire is over. Mad Men is too self-indulgent, too pleased with itself, too quick to get audiences to look for inside jokes, winks, nods, and allusions. It’s too ambitious and not grounded enough. It seeks to satisfy on too many levels and comes up not fully succeeding at any of them. It tries to make too many points. It is a modern allegory more reminiscent of Pilgrim’s Progress than its creators are willing to admit. Each character is a type. The show works because we haven’t seen many of these types portrayed so well, but their job too often is to represent a Very Important Trend or stand-in for Something Important that is Lost (for good or ill).
Meanwhile, Breaking Bad is a better acted, better plotted (although this last season sagged a little bit in the shows before the final two) show with actual human beings. Morally it is much more compelling because it really only has one point: evil is a seductive cancer. I don’t know if the show’s writers would use the word evil, or describe their point that way at all. They might see it all as a grand allegory about drug use or addiction or some such. But that’s what it’s really about: The seductions of evil. Walter White (the main character) wanders from the straight and narrow for the best possible reasons, and he has become lost. Don Draper is a handsome enigma. Walter White is a mensch at sea.
Agreed 100%. If you haven’t seen it, get it on DVD and enjoy.
Ross Douthat at the NYT agreed in June:
I had early doubts about “Mad Men,” but eventually I gave myself over to its charms, and after three excellent seasons I took it for granted that the saga of Don Draper was the best show on TV — the rightful heir, insofar as one could possibly exist, to “The Sopranos” and “The Wire.” But after working my way through AMC’s other drama, “Breaking Bad,” which had its season finale Sunday night, I find that I’ve changed my mind. And not only because “Breaking Bad” is brilliant — though it is, it is — but because its dramatic strengths expose some of the weaknesses of “Mad Men,” and puncture, ever-so-gently, the mystique that’s built up around Matthew Weiner’s show.