Two of the most critically (and popularly) acclaimed shows on TV run back-to-back on different networks on Sunday nights right now. The first half of the 7th (and final) season of Mad Men airs are 10 ET right after the 4th season of HBO’s Game of Thrones airs at 9 ET. For whatever reason Mad Men has been taking some heat this season for being “boring”, but this is almost exclusively by people who have just come from watching Game of Thrones. This is wrong on so many levels.
First and foremost, a Hollywood Tell All show hosted by totally naked celebrities would seem boring after Game of Thrones. It is impossible to stack up against in the same way the latter seasons of Breaking Bad were hard to follow. Game of Thrones will always seem less boring because action is a central part of the story.
The age of these shows also plays a crucial role in this discussion. Most TV shows peak around seasons 3–5. After that point the show has either painted itself into a corner, or must make their characters either extremes of themselves or someone totally new to keep flowing, and this is not always fun. This is a far larger problem in sitcoms but longer running dramas tend to suffer a similar problem. Mad Men is in the home stretch and is trying to build to an endpoint. Game of Thrones is really just hitting it’s stride and is probably at it’s peak for most people.
Then there are the structural differences. Mad Men focuses mostly on one character, Don Draper, while Game of Thrones doesn’t truly have a “main character” and instead bounces betweens many story lines each week (some not even every week). What made shows like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos a degree of difficulty harder than a show like The Wire was that they focused so closely on a essentially one character. The large world of Game of Thrones keeps the audience from getting too bored with one character1.
Then of course, is the source material. Although some would make an argument that going off existing material like Game of Thrones does makes it harder, in the long run it’s an easier proposition. In the beginning there are challenges, like casting the right people. Replacing Roger on Mad Men early on with a totally different character is potentially doable. Replacing someone like Tyrion Lannister would have required a straight actor change2, which is far trickier. But in the long run the major arcs of Game of Thrones are written. Notes and feedback from studios and audiences can only impact smaller things as opposed to larger story lines. Mad Men is adjusting as they go and likely only had a few stakes in the ground for the future when it was first getting going.
As far as writing goes, Mad Men will be a much greater accomplishment when it’s all said and done. While the scripts of Game of Thrones still have to be written, and the right information scraped from the source material, there are critical TV-making decisions that don’t come up.
None of this is meant to take away from Game of Thrones, which is simply an amazing show, with tremendous production quality and superb directing. But Mad Men was put together somewhat from scratch in a simple amazing way. As good as Breaking Bad was, it had a natural hook. Mad Men is an astonishingly period-accurate piece of work that has done things that almost no show before it has pulled off. As “boring” as these first 6 episodes have felt, it’s ridiculous to do anything but praise this masterpiece.