Don Draper: it’s time to buck your ideas up

In the battle of the quality American shows this spring, it’s Game of Thrones wearing the crown over Mad Men.

David Bowden

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You wouldn’t know it from watching our main broadcasters, but there’s an intriguing tussle being played out on our screens at the moment: a spring offensive of high-quality US drama.

In the one corner we have a genuine, bona fide big-hitter with a rich pedigree: Game of Thrones, the bruising adaptation of a successful book, from the garlanded stable of HBO. In the other we have the sleek, urbane nous of Mad Men: the plucky perennial famous for punching above its weight, but perhaps in danger of fatigue after over-achieving for so long. If you’re somehow keeping up with my mixed metaphors so far, the big question as the two shows enter the end-game of their respective seasons is: how are they shaping up?

Well, it’s neither a strict judgement nor cop-out to observe that it’s not really a competition. In more uncomplicated times, the two big Sunday evening dramas from major US broadcasters (whose new seasons debuted within a week of each other) would invite comparison and provoke a flurry of interest over what the success of each show said about today’s world. Yet those looking for a glossy, big-budget Yankee take on the British Eastenders v Corrie or Blur/Oasis gang wars of the Nineties and Noughties have come to the wrong place in today’s world of digital fragmentation.

In pure ratings terms, however, there is simply no contest: Game of Thrones beats Mad Men by roughly four to one (million) when screened in the US, although both are dwarfed by The Walking Dead (which, ahem, weighs in at 12million). Yet Game of Thrones has the more telling accolade of being the most pirated TV show during 2012 and is odds-on to claim that title in 2013, a fact which has led to the good people of Australia getting ticked off by the US ambassador, but which HBO is apparently relaxed about behind the scenes.

Outside of the industry ramifications, however, Game of Thrones is undoubtedly an extremely good programme, which goes from strength to strength. Tapping into the increasing respectability of the fantasy genre post Lord of the Rings, the show is built on strong source material: George RR Martin’s A Song Of Ice and Fire books, which brilliantly re-imagines the War of the Roses in an imaginary world where magic (including, famously, dragons) spasmodically appears and which inventively plays around with the clichés of the genre (most notably in its depictions of women, sexuality and disability).

More important, perhaps, is that the show is a daring adaptation of books which were partly written by Martin (a screenwriter himself) to be too sprawling and epic to be properly translated onto screen. In collaboration with Martin, producers David Benioff and DB Weiss have made brash decisions with the scripts, ensuring that the show holds a tension and fascination even for long-time book readers. Aided by liberal dashes of nudity and violence and a quality cast, it remains one of this century’s premier achievements of compulsive, escapist entertainment.

Mad Men, however, remains something of an enigma, albeit one with diminishing returns. From the outset, its combination of high cultural impact and extremely low, niche viewing figures has always left it vulnerable to accusations that it was merely a middle-class soap opera. Rather unfortunately, since it genuinely started to break through to the mainstream after its fourth series, it actually has started to resemble a soap opera, albeit still a fun one.

In its early days its innate thrill lay, like that of Game of Thrones, in creating a pre-modern world with some very subtle differences (instead of dragons we have modern, liberal values) where the cast were, consequently, impossible to predict. It promised to ask some challenging questions about the individual and history: would the dinosaurs of Madison Avenue get swept away by the forces of social change or somehow keep themselves above water?

Sadly, ever since it brilliantly answered its own original question over how Don Draper could manage his secret life with his boss’ deadpan ‘Who cares?’, Mad Men has been rather struggling to inject itself with dramatic life. As Draper floats from one tormented affair to another, it has become increasingly difficult to care about him as a character, and the show-makers haven’t been brave enough to sideline their star. In Game of Thrones, there is the thrilling prospect of chaos and turmoil around the next corner and the certain knowledge that any character could die at any time. In Mad Men, we are faced with the inevitable thought that the hard-living dynamism of its central characters will give way to decline, disillusion and a vague notion that the modern workplace has become slightly more fair and a helluva lot more boring.

Still, other shows (such as Six Feet Under) have recovered from similar mid-series blips before, and hopefully Mad Men will recover as it builds towards an eventual conclusion. Yet the real lesson from comparing the two contenders this week is the reminder that even below-par American TV drama is still the undisputed champion of the world.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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