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More Mad Men, Sopranos and Sex

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Since we discussed the parallels between “The Benefactor” and The Sopranos yesterday, I want to recommend Andrew Johnston’s outstanding breakdown of the episode, and what Mad Men has learned from Matthew Weiner’s old show, at The House Next Door:

The Sopranos was a highly serialized show from the beginning, and in some ways became more serialized as it went on (for evidence, look no further than the adventures of Vito Spatafore). But with the fifth episode of Season One, “College”, it became clear that David Chase was trying something new–coming up with a self-contained TV episode that would change the protagonist in ways that would be evident for the series’ entire run. Over the course of The Sopranos’s six seasons, Tony, Uncle Jun, Carmela, Dr. Melfi, Bobby Baccalieri and Johnny Sack (in the final season’s superb “Stage Five”) would all receive such episodes. With each one, The Sopranos became less a crime drama and more a portrait of individuals baffled by a changing world–who in turn added up to a community baffled by a changing world. Like light, which can be both particle and wave depending on your viewpoint, The Sopranos was both a serial and a collection of shared-universe vignettes, albeit perhaps one closer to Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology than to Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories or any of Updike’s story cycles…

This has all been a fancy way of saying that Mad Men often feels like a collection of short stories about the characters rather than a conventional TV series…

What he said. (A point underscored by the episode’s reference to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.)

Johnston also brings up Don’s sexually violent encounter with Bobbi, which generated a lot of comment yesterday: “Don sliding his fingers into Bobbi may or may not be a basic cable first, but it’s certainly the most sexually explicit scene Mad Men has offered yet.” Which makes me wonder: is part of the reason the scene was so shocking—besides it being a side of Don we hadn’t seen—that we’ve never seen explicit scenes on Mad Men, period?

How different might Mad Men have looked if HBO did pick it up? In a way, I wonder if the show benefits from its content constraints; not having The Sopranos’ 21st-century swearing-and-screwing freedoms makes it seem more like a work of its time, when even serious movies (much less TV) had to imply instead of show.

I have a hard time even imagining Don Draper getting it on Tony-style. But please, feel free to do so.