New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has concocted an interesting but I’m not sure convincing comparison of AMC’s “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” essentially concluding that the former’s strengths highlight the latter’s weaknesses.
We keep coming back to “Mad Men” in part because we don’t quite understand what makes its protagonists tick. But mystery can be an artistic crutch as well as a virtue, and what’s struck me watching “Breaking Bad” is how much more invested I am in its characters as human beings than I am in any of the leading players on “Mad Men.”
Both shows, I think, excel at thwarting our expectations. But they have entirely different rhythms. On “Mad Men,” series creator Matthew Weiner has internalized his time on “The Sopranos,” where bits of story are doled out on his timetable — often dropping plots for awhile, to later revisit them. The audience is along for the ride, but the terms of engagement are strictly his.
“Breaking Bad,” by contrast, keeps moving convulsively forward — the key being that we can’t possibly anticipate where the twists are going. The protagonist’s journey has fundamentally changed him, and made him less sympathetic, but watching how far he’ll go to resolve each new existential or moral crisis is a reward in and of itself.
It’s also hard to overstate the importance of “Mad Men” being a period piece, which forces us to reexamine what’s transpired in the last half-century through its lens. “Bad,” on the other hand, is a tale of modern desperation, but one so particular to these characters as to exist perfectly in its own little self-contained world.
In short, despite their shared platform and award bona fides, the two shows actually have relatively little in common.
Given Douthat’s references to “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” though — in addition to his obvious passion for these two splendid series — I will say that for a guy who spends much of his time writing about matters of national policy, the dude has excellent taste in TV shows.