Monday, November 16, 2009

What's Missing From "Mad Men": Silvio Dante and the Ducks

Is Mad Men the new Sopranos?

The shows have a lot in common: a changing world, a fraught nuclear family – ambitious, dissatisfied wife, cheating husband, stunted kids. A powerful charismatic patriarch involved with morally questionable business, surrounded by dubious cronies; plenty of drinking and smoking; characters who ‘disappear’ when their usefulness ends or they become a threat. You can even play a sort of colorforms game, putting the heads from one show on the bodies of the other.

A few obvious examples come to mind --

Tony Soprano is Don Draper of course.

Carmela.is Betty.

The kids are the kids.

Christopher Molisanto? Ken Cosgrove

Bobby Bacciolini? Harry Crane

Paulie Walnuts? Roger Sterling.

Junior Soprano? Burt Cooper.

Richie Aprile? Jimmy Barrett.

Dr Melfi? Peggy Olson?

Adriana? Joan Holloway?



Yes, you sensed it, the comparisons start to break down a little as we go down the lost. The real gap is Silvio Dante. Mad Men has no Silvio. Don Draper has no Consiglieri. This goes to the heart of the differences between the two shows. Tony Soprano was an honest man. He grew up in the mob, lamented the good old days of organized crime, lived like a king and died like a thug (yes, he died in that last episode). Carmela knew him inside out. She even knew where the money and guns were hidden. His kids had no illusions (Meadow figured out on that memorable college visiting trip). Betty is confused an unfocussed, a not overly bright sorority girl who supposed went to a college for the best and brightest, where they don’t even have sororities; an equestrienne who can’t really ride; a mother who dislikes her kids. Carmela feels so solid by comparison: affectionate, forgiving, but utterly ruthless at the same time, more than a match for her blustering husband.

Livia is missing also. Tony’s monstrous mother, the ruling, tyrannizing spirit of the first few of The Sopranos , the woman who plotted her son’s murder when she found out he was seeing a psychiatrist, has no parallel on Mad Men. Don’s mother died in childbirth. He fled his step mother – and the rest of his family -- as soon as he could. Nd he only looks back – as in the “Hobo and Gypsy”episode -- when he has no choice.

By contrast, Tony Soprano was a family man, and the extended family of his friends and colleagues had been with him all his life. Don couldn’t be more different. He has no close friends. Could Pete Campbell be his Silvio? The kid who tried to blackmail Don, who wants his job? The craven little spoiled rich kid? I wouldn’t trust him to pick up a pack of cigarettes, much less kill my nephew’s stool-pigeon girlfriend. The junior ad men look all like a boy scout troop in Don’s shadow, and he likes it that way. The accumulated weight of lies and secrets squeezes the life out of Don’s relationships. He pays a price for being an enigma, and the audience winds up paying, too.

Tony Soprano was a full-bodied, passionate, open-hearted sociopath you could love as well as hate. He pulled you into that meaty embrace. You could almost smell the garlic. Don Draper keeps you at a distance. And that distance is the precise surveyor’s measurement of the troubled territory between an excellent show and a great one. Don started to come clean last week, and Mad Men pushed itself farther than it has ever gone before. I hope they keep it up, across that last difficult acre and across the border and into a country few shows have ever approached. It’s like Conrad Hilton told Don in that crushing final meeting: when we ask for the moon, we want the moon. Or perhaps just the ducks in the swimming pool.

Nothing less, no matter how quick and clever, will do.

12 comments:

Joe Iriarte said...

Howdy. I've never seen Mad Men--or The Sopranos, for that matter--but I just stumbled across your blog using the "Next Blog" feature and wanted to tell you that I wasted half a morning reading your posts. You're really a fantastic writer. The vignette about the husband and wife at the marriage boot camp was so vivid, and the dialogue so crisp, I was just blown away--and the reveal made me grin, even though it felt like you were kind of cheating with the facts. (The downside of all this is your writing makes me feel like I'm not really a writer myself and never will be, but hopefully that feeling will pass.)

Anyway, I don't have anything else to say, but I figured you might want to know someone was enjoying your blog this morning.

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