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Alison Brie and Vincent Kartheiser as Trudy and Pete Campbell in Mad Men. (Frank Ockenfels/AMC)
Alison Brie and Vincent Kartheiser as Trudy and Pete Campbell in Mad Men. (Frank Ockenfels/AMC)

John Doyle

Why Mad Men has been maddening for its fans, so far Add to ...

First, take note that one of the great contemporary public rituals will unfold on Sunday. Oprah Winfrey will speak with NBA player Jason Collins and his family for their first interview since Collins’s public announcement that he is gay, with which he became the first openly gay, active professional athlete in a major American sport. Yep, it’s all on Oprah’s Next Chapter (Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET on OWN Canada). In advance, OWN says, “Collins hopes his story will further the conversation around equality.”

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Now, then, from the present to the past and issues of equality.

Mad Men (Sunday, AMC, 10 p.m.) has become more talked about than usual. And a good deal of the talk is expressions of frustration and disappointment with this season and how the storylines are developing. The gist is this – Mad Men: So far, so what? That’s the consensus of some, but it raises loads of interesting questions. First, is it fair to dismiss it yet?

At the beginning of this season, I annoyed devotees of Mad Men by suggesting that its greatness was, in a way, dangerous. The show’s emphasis on characters who are on a journey to a better version of themselves is banal. The obsession with 1960s style means that it is less substantial than it seems.

So far this season, I think the point is proven. Last week’s episode, focusing on reaction to the assassination of Martin Luther King, is a case in point. The awkwardness in the characters’ dealings with the issue of race was matched by the show’s own awkward handling of the matter.

At the same time, it seems unfair to be dismissive of Mad Men based on a few hours of this season. Perhaps what we’re getting is a lesson in creating the texture and nuance of multi-part cable-TV drama. A hint here, a nudge there, placed in one particular hour, can be developed subtly again and again until the entire canvas is filled. What’s happening too is a demonstration of how characters in multi-part cable dramas are not intended to be stable, likeable figures who always fulfill our expectations – as characters do in weekly network dramas.

A good deal of Mad Men so far this season has contained utterly repulsive behaviour. Don Draper’s self-destructiveness is rampant. This apparently thoughtful, intelligent but troubled man is on a selfish slide of binge-drinking, philandering and viciousness. The arc of his actions is like a retort to those who found the Don Draper of earlier seasons charismatic – that suave, cool guy who could seduce women and clients, and apparently survive intact no matter how soul-destroying his actions. It’s not so much that a comeuppance is in the cards now. It’s more that the character who was compelling is revealed to be odious.

The fact is, Mad Men is maddening. Right now, a reasonable person can only have mixed opinions about it. While we trust that the writers are really trying to depict life, love and issues of race and gender equality in a realistic way, we are obliged to recognize that multi-season cable drama is complex and challenging, both for the writers and the viewers. The fact that we debate Mad Men at all is a good thing.

Also airing this weekend

My Thai Bride (Saturday CBC NN, 10 p.m.) is a wonderful documentary and a winner at last year’s Hot Docs Festival. It asks the question, “Is it possible to find love in Thailand?” but the story told is not what you might expect. It’s the story of Ted Rees, a middle-aged British salesman. Like many men, he went to Thailand to enjoy the company of women, spending money to do so. But in Ted’s case, he ended up married and living in Thailand. As director/produced by David Tucker has said, “Ted’s story was one of exploitation where the tables had been turned.”

The Mentalist (Sunday, CBS, CTV, 10 p.m.) reaches its season finale with yet another attempt by our hero Patrick Jane (Simon Baker) to find the serial killer Red John, who has tortured his life for so long. The show has done the dangling-conclusion thing so many times now that it can become ridiculous. And these days, The Mentalist is for people who find the similarly themed The Following too bloody and too hard to follow.

All times ET. Check local listings.

 

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