'Mad Men' goes further than 'Road' can travel

THERE ARE OBVIOUS parallels between “Mad Men” — the AMC series that keeps amassing accolades despite what star Jon Hamm aptly referred to during the Screen Actors Guild awards as “dozens” of viewers — and “Revolutionary Road,” the star-driven movie that generated mixed critical response and largely missed out on major Oscar recognition. Yet in the differences resides a clue as to episodic TV’s advantage in tackling character-driven material.

The look and tone of these projects is strikingly similar. At their core, the cable program and the Sam Mendes-directed movie deal with the Drapers and the Wheelers, couples trapped by the social mores and rigid expectations of the Eisenhower/Cold War/pre-Vietnam era — before the free-love, anti-establishment movement reshaped the country in a manner from which the old guard has never fully recovered.

“Mad Men,” however, enjoys greater latitude to explore the fractious, unhappy marriage of Hamm’s ad man Don Draper and his model-pretty wife Betty (January Jones) in an evolving manner. His infidelities and her quiet awakening, his inability to connect emotionally and her chafing against the demands of suburban homemaking/motherhood, have unfolded gradually. Along the way viewers have even seen their young daughter’s dawning realization that all is not perfect in paradise, prompting her to act out like the brat that plenty of us baby boomers/custody footballs became.

Series creator Matthew Weiner cut his teeth on “The Sopranos,” and he clearly internalized that show’s “Have it my way” mentality — that is, we tell the story we want to tell, at the pace we want to tell it. The audience can buy in or not, but as he recently told the Los Angeles Times, Weiner doesn’t feel they’re “owed anything” by the producers, beyond a good show.

ACTUALLY, I LIKED “Revolutionary Road” quite a lot, for many of the reasons I enjoy “Mad Men.” But while the story resonated, it also suffered for trying to convey the dissolution of a relationship in roughly two hours time.

Frank and April Wheeler, the feuding couple played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, are forced to make the turn from loving to venom-spewing at speeds a high-performance car would envy. His office fling comes and goes while leaving that subplot relatively untapped. And amid this marital tumult their young kids virtually disappear, until one begins wondering where the tykes are while mom and dad are going through all this noisy discord.

This comparison is more than just an academic exercise, as the lines (if not the egos) separating movies from TV keep blurring — including the increasingly common (and irritating) habit of building reality shows around movie concepts, from comedies like “Meet the Parents” to horror (see the CW’s “13 — Fear is Real”). Then there are direct transplants, including Fox’s first-rate series based on “The Terminator” (a tad confusing in its time-travel shenanigans, but still fun) and Starz’s “Crash” (sorely in need of a lube job). Finally, there’s regular talk of providing admired TV series that succumbed to cancellation closure as movies, including “Arrested Development” and “Pushing Daisies.”

The reverse, of course — that some ideas play considerably better in one complete gulp — is also true. An interesting pilot like NBC’s “My Own Worst Enemy” — a modern twist on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — couldn’t be satisfyingly sustained as an episodic drama, despite numerous solid cinematic adaptations of that story. Even a six-part BBC production (“Jekyll”) that reinvented the doctor’s strange case eventually collapsed into incoherence.

THESE EXAMPLES underscore the subtle stratification that’s occurred: While mainstream movies have become the understandable vehicle of choice for visualizing comic books and graphic novels, more intricate dramatic storytelling has found a particularly satisfying home in television, capitalizing on the medium’s novelistic latitude to develop characters over extended arcs, whether that’s “The Wire” — really the great American novel in TV form — or programs such as “Big Love” and “Mad Men.”

It’s been a long road (more evolutionary than revolutionary) to this juncture. Yet after years in which TV has suffered from an inferiority complex vis-a-vis movies, at certain key nodes those lines have been erased — so much so that many of this generation’s finest creative moments are, indeed, being televised.

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