The Return of Mad Men and the End of TV’s Golden Age

IAndy Greenwald in Grantland:

[L]ike the Komodo dragon or Kirk Cameron, a few Golden Age shows remain in production even if their evolutionary time has passed. Larry David will keep kvetching as long as there's bile in his body, and the brilliant Breaking Bad has one more batch of crystal to cook. But with three full seasons stretching out before us like the red carpet at the Clios, Mad Men will be the last of the Golden Age shows to grace our flat-screens. With a typically outstanding new episode, the first in 17 months, due to premiere on Sunday, it's worth asking: Is it also the best?

The line of inheritance from first to last is almost too neat: David Chase hired Matt Weiner to the Sopranos off of the cigarette-stained spec of Mad Men, a script originally written by Weiner in an aspirational frenzy while toiling on the Bronze Age Ted Danson sitcom Becker. Weiner's infamous penchant for micromanaging and rewriting was learned at the foot of Chase, and Don Draper is a direct descendent of Tony Soprano; the two share a charismatic corruption, the last of the troubled titans. But this is where the comparisons end. The Sopranos, in all its digressive genius, was a show dedicated to the impossibility of change. Season by season, Chase built a red-sauce-spattered shrine to a lifetime of lessons learned on Dr. Melfi-esque couches: that people are who they are, no matter what. At its core, The Sopranos was Chase's grand F.U. to all the hard-worn stereotypes of Television 1.0, the boring brontosaur he'd finally managed to dump in the Meadowlands. There was no hugging in Tony's New Jersey. No learning or smoothing or straightening. Tony Soprano was Tony Soprano: an amiable monster. In the end, Chase argued with nihilistic aplomb, it doesn't much matter how the Satriale sausage was made, just whether it was spicy or sweet. And when he began to feel revulsion toward his audience's bloodlust, he denied them even that: The finale's fade to black ensured Tony would be stuck with himself for eternity. To Chase it was a fate worse than prison or a slug to the head from a mook in a Member's Only jacket; a karmic feedback loop in the shape of an onion ring.

Mad Men is different. It's less dark and more expansive than its ancestor because, unlike Chase, Weiner isn't asking questions that he's already convinced himself can't be answered. Where The Sopranos was angry, Mad Men is curious. Even at his grief-wracked, whiskey-bloated nadir last season, being Don Draper wasn't a life sentence because Don Draper doesn't exist. He's merely a particularly dapper suit that Dick Whitman is trying on for size. On Mad Men, identity is what's fungible, not nature.