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Three's Company (A Mad Men Spoiler-Fest)

NOTE: If you haven't watched Mad Men and would prefer to leave it to yourself to watch it, you can probably skip this post. It's chock full-o spoilers on last night's season two finale, "Meditations on an Emergency". Consider yourself Draperized.

Season two of Mad Men ended last night, which clearly means one thing -- it's done being an outstanding show. It's true! Can anybody name a show that didn't take at least a slight step backwards in its third season? I for one would love it if some of my favorite serialized dramas would give themselves a three-season time limit. Drew over at The Apple Capital Rumble pointed out a startling point, that the new season of television has been a little lackluster. The new third season of Dexter has started out slowly, and I fear that when Summer 2009 comes around, greedy TV execs will be trying to stretch the show's original premise as far as it can run. And that's just a bad idea.

Season three brought lameness to some of my favorite shows. Tommy Dolan raped his ex-wife on Rescue Me and the moment was so unsettling that I never ended up picking up the rest of the season, or the series. Another F/X Network drama Nip/Tuck went from beautiful to cartoonish in its third season with the Carver plotline. When Nancy Marchand / Livia Soprano passed away in season three of The Sopranos, the show, while still retaining most of its greatness through the rest of its series, lost the original premise that made the first two seasons so compelling. Season three of Six Feet Under was gutsy in shifting the main characters' lives drastically, but again, the writers at times had to strain to keep the show fresh while still essentially replaying the characters' central neuroses over and over again. And, while last night's episode of Dexter showed some seriously intriguing progression in the season, one can sense that the central premise of the show can only go so long before needing some major shaking up. Of course, the only recent "favorite" show of mine that managed to avoid the third season curse was The Wire, and that's mainly because the scope of the show was so broad.

For a show like Mad Men that relies on a central character and the people in his universe, I fear that there's only so far that we can go before we will need some serious closure. Season two of Mad Men revealed itself to be a step up from season one in many ways (notably, the women became stronger characters, the mysteries of Don Draper revealed themselves to be an even bigger mindfreak than we thought, etc.) but, many plotlines that were dangling tension-builders were tied up at the end of last night's episode. Now, we know that Pete knows about his secret baby with Peggy (and, while I appreciated the dark mood of the
scene, I couldn't help but be a little let down by one of the penultimate scenes of the season being essentially a "I had your secret baby" conversation); Don and Betty are back together and pretty much back to normal despite their coming baby; Sterling Cooper is now officially set up with a bad guy president (Duck Phillips) and goofball douchebag running accounts (Pete) while Don will ostensibly set up a new firm to compete against them.

But, what plotlines can be continued in the third season that could possibly continue to build on the greatness of season two? The baby plotline with Don and Betty is a bit standard operating procedure for any dramatic show. The inner dynamics of the world of advertising have now become a lot less grey and a lot more black and white; clearly we as viewers are going to root for Draper's creative style over Duck Phillips and Pete Cooper's by-the-books advertising firm that sells advertising based on television ratings. Approximately 45% of the show's intrigue comes from the workplace dynamics that, to me, can't possibly return to where they started at this point. I admire a show that refuses to overstay its welcome on certain plot developments, but when it does so and turns its dynamic into something more simplistic, it hurts the show. Things like this make me think that it's going to be hard for this show to avoid the third season curse.

I loved how this episode focused so strongly on our central characters, and how the backdrop of the Cuban Missle Crisis brought an impending sense of dread that was enhanced by the beautiful shadowy, Gordon Willis-like cinematography. But, I worry that the finale painted itself into a corner, one that when the new season begins next summer, it will have a difficult time getting itself out of.

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  1. Anonymous Anna | 7:59 AM |  

    I would argue that the X-Files' season three was one of its most amazing seasons, and that it continued to be awesome for three more seasons after that. But otherwise, I agree. The third season of Veronica Mars, for instance, was merely a shell of its former self.

  2. Blogger qualler | 8:10 AM |  

    That's probably accurate -- I haven't seen The X-Files much, but I think a show like that has an advantage by not being a completely serialized plot. The serialized dramas have to focus on the central characters, and it seems out of whack when they start bringing in other characters, but shows like The X-Files are dealing with something different every week.

  3. Blogger Brigitte | 12:12 PM |  

    Gilmore Girls. I liked the third season--Rory's senior year. Senior year!!!

  4. Anonymous lq | 3:51 PM |  

    24 had five awesome years. Apparently the fifth season was the best because that's when everyone started watching, and it's when it won an Emmy. But all 5 of the first 5 seasons were solid.

  5. Blogger qualler | 3:57 PM |  

    I think 24 is somewhat excluded, though, because every season there is a new central crisis. Sure, some characters may reappear, but Jack Bauer's central story arc is pretty flimsy (has a wife and daughter, really cares about them for like a few minutes every 24 hours, but mostly kills people.) Gilmore Girls may be a success -- anybody care to agree / disagree?

    Another example I forgot to include is The OC. Great show for season one, ridiculous but still entertaining in season two, and practically unwatchable by season three.

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