“Bad people behaving badly,” might be an equally good title for either of these two critically acclaimed cable TV series. “What,” you say, “but they are so different!” I’m not sure that you are right.
True, “Mad Men” is set in the early ’60s and “The Sopranos” more closely approximates our time. True, one show is about a legal business, the ad game, while the other is about the mob. True, in the former show the protagonists wear suits and ties, expensive ones, while the cast of “The Sopranos” is rather more casual.
But, below the surface, there are lots of similarities. Both shows are about the importance of money and power, and the willingness to hurt others to get those things. Even if their methods of hurting others are non-violent, the “Mad Men” do their share of hurting: to competitors in the industry and to spouses and co-workers. The “Mad Men” are better tailored than Tony Soprano and his compatriots, know better table manners, have more formal education, but have learned how to get what they want without leaving marks on their opponents’ bodies, leaving them only on their psyches and in their hearts.
Women are second-class-citizens in both of the worlds depicted. Each world is “a man’s world.” Infidelity is the norm, it seems.
Both shows feature a closeted gay man, one called Sal, the other Vito. Once each one is exposed, trouble awaits. Sal is fired from the ad agency, while Vito is murdered by the mobsters.
Each of the two television-universes exist in the New York City/New Jersey area. But the real location is the jungle, where the jungle’s law prevails: survival of the fittest or, perhaps, the most brutal.
And neither show features particularly likeable people. Nearly every one — men and women and, to some extent children — seem enormously self-serving. Yes, they have their own pain, sometimes to the point of driving them to seek psychotherapy. Yet, whether on or off the therapist’s couch, the players in these mini-dramas appear insensitive to or unaware of the pain of the people closest to them. Witness, Betty Draper, Don’s stay-at-home, Grace Kelly-knockoff wife and her treatment of her children. Or, of course, the mob-wide blindness to the human havoc wrought by corruption and murder in “The Sopranos.” If nothing else, both series let us know that even the most self-involved, narcissistic, and corrupt individuals can be sensitive to their own injuries, regardless of the insensitivity they show to others.
There is emptiness at the core of these lives, too. The men and women are unhappy, think that they know what they are doing, but seem unaware of what really drives their behavior below the surface. They have little self-awareness and don’t reflect on their lives, their direction, or question their values and the contradictions between what they think they are and what they really are.
I keep looking for some redeeming human qualities in the “Mad Men” characters, but the players instead seem to have lost most of those that they had earlier in the series. As for “The Sopranos,” no point in looking for something that was never there.
I must admit that it is getting uncomfortable to watch “Mad Men,” watch the moral degradation of characters I’ve come to know a bit. I’m still hoping for a turn away from “the dark side.”
But I’m not optimistic.
The above photo is of Christina Hendricks, one of the stars of “Mad Men,” by watchwithkristin, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.