Even considering the outsized place of Mad Men in American entertainment, it can be easy to forget just how influential the show has been on the culture that surrounds it. Mad Men sparked a run of fetishistic period-pieces, a renewed fascination with advertising, and the loftiest heights of auteur worship. And most of all, the show gave us Don Draper, the Everyman Antihero. Unlike Walter White, Tony Soprano, and Vic Mackey, Draper never became a villain in the classical sense, a killer or a kingpin. For the most part, his sins were relatable, but Matthew Weiner played them like Shakespeare.
In 2015, Mad Men will air its final episode. It's hard to say whether that in and of itself is more significant than, say, the finale of Breaking Bad, or the last, hotly debated episode of The Sopranos, or The Wire's exit for McNulty, or Deadwood only getting three seasons. But what the end of Mad Men also represents is the closing of an the era that Brett Martin wrote about in his book Difficult Men. The "difficult men" of his title were protagonists like Draper, Walter White, and Tony Soprano, and they were difficult because they were both heroes and villains, family men and philanderers, beloved and loathsome. These characters became vehicles for the changing of television into what is now, in the eyes of many, America's highest art form. But in the post-Mad Men future, the landscape looks different — based on the rising stars and major shows that look to define 2015, the difficult men have given way to a far wider and less consensus variety of protagonist and storytelling.
"I think on the one hand, the 'difficult men' era was uniquely suited to the turn of the century, and particularly the Bush years," Martin told me. "You had a generation of creators who had lived through major tumult in masculinity and what masculinity meant, and in the air were questions of — particularly after 9/11 and the ramping up of the Bush years — what it meant to have male power in the world, and what was good about it, and what was scary about it. That stuff was in the air, and it resonated."
THE REASON THE 'DIFFICULT MEN' SHOWS WERE SO IMPORTANT WAS BECAUSE THEY TOOK UP SUCH A LARGE PORTION OF THE CULTURAL PIE.
Martin called the earliest shows of this transition Trojan horses — in the form of genre conventions like gangster, cop, and Western, showrunners were able to shoehorn issues of cultural relevance and high drama into television. The result was a series of increasingly thoughtful and complex sagas that all, for similar reasons, tended to cluster around one bad dude at their core.
"Once you get beyond the gimmick of the antihero, what we're talking about are characters who are granted complicated psychologies, who are both good and bad," Martin said. "That describes well-written characters, and that describes what literature has always done, which is to provide recognizable human beings instead of cartoons."
As these shows completed their lifespans, the newer series that rose to replace them didn't exactly replace them. AMC's Low Winter Sun, an almost comically dark-hued antihero vehicle, got plenty of guff for being the nadir of executives chasing their own tails, but it wasn't alone in marking a sort of tipping point for the industry. Showtime's Ray Donovan, a generically marketed Liev Schreiber vehicle, basically traded on the idea that it could fill the Sopranos-sized hole in your life. TV critics essentially began to tap out of the game.
MAD MEN ISN'T TV'S MOST-WATCHED SHOW, AND IT ISN'T ITS MOST INFLUENTIAL. BUT IT MIGHT BE ITS MOST IMPORTANT.
Indeed, after 2007 (when Mad Men first aired), our most popular shows have become altogether different. We have Game of Thrones, an unabashedly melodramatic fantasy extravaganza that couldn't look less like The Wire if it were happening in outer space. We have The Good Wife on CBS and ShondaLand on ABC, which are both headlining the feminist-focused counter-swing to all of the difficult men. (Homeland's Carrie Mathieson, herself a difficult woman, is a bit more complicated to parse, but she also doesn't occupy nearly the cultural market-share that Alicia Florrick or Olivia Pope do.) And we have True Detective, which, in its first season, marked some continuation of the antihero trope, but with its esoteric Lovecraft-ian subplot, ended up looking more like Game of Thrones than Breaking Bad.
The variety of newer shows represents both the opportunity and opportunity cost of TV's future. Part of the reason the Difficult Men shows were so important was because they took up such a large portion of the cultural pie. With so many more options to choose from now — thanks to streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon and basic cable's deep-dive into scripted series — it's harder to do that. Game of Thrones does, and True Detective did, and Shonda Rhimes' shows do, but these three things have very little in common with each other. It's a more diffuse landscape, and that's either a good or bad thing, depending on how much you enjoy watching middle-aged men scowl.
No matter how many options there are to choose from, though, there are still the Big Four. In the new television, NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox occupy a bizarre place — they're the arbiters of pilot season and the presumed top of the mountain, but they're also losing Tina Fey projects to Netflix and struggling to mint any new hit comedies. (That Tina Fey show, Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt, is still a Universal production, so it isn't a complete loss. But the two-season commitment Netflix could give echoes what Falk was saying.) And the true, non-Game of Thrones giant in TV, The Walking Dead, is even beating Sunday Night Football on a regular basis. Meanwhile, the spread of anthologies and miniseries is changing how these stories are told; it was a built-in guarantee that we'd never see True Detective's particular pair of difficult men again.
"WE'RE GOING IN A LOT OF WEIRD DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS," SAYS FXX's STEPHEN FALK,"IT'S BORN, AT THE SAME TIME, BY A LOT OF NETWORK FEAR, AND A LOT OF STREAMING AND CABLE DICK–SWINGING."
"I think in the network space, there's a deep fear of comedy and yet a deep hunger for a big, syndicatable show like The Big Bang Theory or Modern Family," Stephen Falk, creator and showrunner of FXX's You're the Worst, told me. "It's really kind of a wild west out there, with networks running scared and watching their viewership erode to nearly nothing," he says. "There's a big swath of writers who exist making $150,000 to $200,000 a year to write a pilot, and I think those people will start to find themselves forced to become a little more creative or go back to the drawing board and take some more risks."
Mad Men isn't TV's most-watched show, and it isn't its most influential. But it might be its most important. As far as we've had a cultural center on television — or at least, in the people who write about and make television, which is hardly representative of the general population — Mad Men has been it. And its conclusion means that we're fully stepping into a new, polarized landscape, a world with Adult Swim and Too Many Cooks on one end, CBS and The Big Bang Theory on the other, and, in the middle, a mess of anthologies like American Horror Story, foreign imports like Top of the Lake, upstarts like Rectify, streaming experiments like Transparent, director-driven projects like The Knick. The number of shows I haven't mentioned in this story that you could pinpoint as the future of television outweigh the ones I have. But for every Black Mirror, Nathan For You, and Outlander, there's a Mulaney, a show trying to resurrect the successes of the past.
"We're going in a lot of weird different directions," Falk said. "And it's born, at the same time, by a lot of network fear, and a lot of streaming and cable dick–swinging."
The difficult men did their job — they changed the way we watch and think of television. And now, in a landscape where our heroes (or anti-heroes) include the women of Broad City, Eric Andre, Dr. John Thackery, and Daenerys Targaryen, they can now get off their pedestal and assume their place as one type among a whole spectrum of characters.