The key to a truly great TV drama is the effective management of sprawl.
This theory occurred to me as I was catching up with the latest (half-)season of Mad Men. Bit of background here: I love Mad Men. Still. Seven years on, the show can no longer stand on the singularity of its being that one great show that isn’t on HBO—those are a dime a dozen now—but even among the recent crop of acclaimed TV dramas, it’s still completely unique. There’s a subtlety and allusiveness to the show that just isn’t there on Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, or Orange is the New Black (to name a few): what those shows do (or did) so well with plot and story and characterization, Mad Men accomplishes with symbol, and motif, and subtext. It’s not exactly right to say that the show is different because it’s like great literature—all the dramas I mentioned are working on the level of great literature. It might be more accurate to say that while almost everything else on TV is Charles Dickens, Mad Men is James Joyce’s Ulysses, abandoning the comforts of traditional narrative for an examination of those things that shape our individual stories just under the surface of our ability to perceive them: psychology, family, politics, media. (And lest we forget: Leopold Bloom was an ad man.) Every time I watch Mad Men, it strikes me as a miracle: a deep and subtle and complex work of art that just keeps getting made, even as flashier entertainments keep pulling our attention elsewhere.
And yet. There’s something keeping Mad Men from real greatness as it moves into its final chapters. There’s a…kludginess (I believe that’s the accepted critical term) that’s crept into its narrative, even as the direction and writing and acting—everything, really—has gotten more assured. The problem is pretty basic, really: too many characters. Too much sprawl.
The problem’s been brewing for a while, probably, but it really came to the fore in the last two seasons, when the agency where Don Draper worked doubled in size and gained an LA office in addition to a Manhattan one. As a result, the number of characters and plotlines to follow nearly doubled in size—and even if the audience can keep them all straight, it seems that Matthew Weiner and company can’t. New characters that need to have depth and body to ground their actions, like Ted Chaogh and Jim Cutler, don’t; reliable secondary players from seasons past like Harry Crane, Ken Cosgrove, and (most tragically) Joan Harris collect dust on the shelf. On the family side, Sally’s still interesting, as is Betty, even post-divorce—but Henry may as well be credited as “Husband #2”; there’s really no reason for the writers to waste any ink on him. Bob Benson is an interesting study, as is Ginsberg, but there’s no time to really delve into what makes them tick. Storylines that need more room to breathe don’t get it, squeezed out by threads that feel like nothing but filler.
Sprawl is a problem for all long-running TV shows to a certain extent. It’s endemic to the form, a natural outgrowth of the contingencies of its creation: indeterminate length and narrative improvisation being the primary two. Nobody knows how long a TV show will run, so to fill all that time writers spin out more plots, more characters—more, more, more. That’s not to say that the limitations of TV will prevent it from ever being truly great, or some other such elitist nonsense—rather, I’d argue that TV’s sprawl problem is a problem of the kind that all artistic mediums have, the solving of which becomes the difference between greatness and near-greatness.
Mad Men isn’t great at managing sprawl—but other shows are. The Wire, still the show that I’d name as “greatest ever,” sprawled but managed that sprawl magnificently, expanding outward like a fractal as it extended its critique of the institutions that shaped and misshaped the city of Baltimore. Orange is the New Black is a show that sprawls without seeming to, examining the backstories of its cast of female prison inmates and portraying them each as fully-realized human beings without ever overwhelming the audience. Game of Thrones is probably best-in-show when it comes to sprawl—its continents-spanning narrative occasionally frustrates with its glacial pacing, but for the most part David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have expertly handled the sprawl of the source material, opening up new storylines as they shut down old ones with impeccable timing.
Related to the problem of sprawl is the issue of unity—an ideal for works of narrative art to strive for ever since Aristotle identified his three unities of time, place, and action. Though the classical unities have always been bullshit on some level, a critical fiction that never really corresponded to reality, the notion of unity itself does seem to represent something that audiences want: for their stories to be stories, complete and self-contained. This is an especially difficult feat for TV to manage, since a TV series has to manage unity at three levels: the episode, the season, and the series. There’s a whole cottage industry called “recapping” dedicated to analyzing individual episodes as experiences that must satisfy in and of themselves; those episodes must also combine into seasons that present an action that is in some sense complete; and those seasons must ultimately serve as broader movements in a single, coherent story.
Concerns about sprawl aside, Mad Men absolutely kills it at the first two levels of unity. I can think of no show that has provided so many masterpieces at the level of the episode. At the season level, Matthew Weiner has said that every season finale could be the end of the series, which indicates that he might think of each season as a self-contained unit. But as a series reaches its end, people step back from individual episodes and seasons and start looking for unities of character, story, and meaning at the series level. What is there that unifies it all, from Don’s first struggle with a pitch for Lucky Strike to now? What is the common thread that brings it all together?
It’s an unfair question, perhaps—but unfair or not, critics and audiences will be asking. They already are.
That’s the nature of the challenge facing Matthew Weiner and company as they produce their last seven episodes.