04/14/2011 02:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mad About Mad Men : Will It Equal West Wing 's Mark?

Is it possible to be happy and angry at the same time? It must be, because I am. Happy that Mad Men is renewed for not one, but two more seasons, with another likely on tap. And angry that it won't be back for nearly a year. March 2012 is a long time off. And unfortunately the terrific cast has been left in the lurch, not to mention all the other talented people who create Mad Men's very distinctive world.

The only good thing about this is that there is plenty of time to watch and savor the Season 4 package, out at the end of March on disc. And to consider the show's prospects for a record-tying fourth straight Emmy win as television's best dramatic series. As usual, there may be some spoilers if you're still catching up.

Incidentally, you can see all my Mad Men pieces, from 2009 and 2010, here in The Mad Men File.

I haven't seen the Season 4 package, which ordinarily I would write about not long before the start of the new season, yet. I wrote at great length last year about each episode, and they're still fresh in my mind, so I can wait for awhile. The extras do look interesting, though, especially the features on marketing the "new" Ford Mustang, the 1964 presidential race, and the Don Draper school of business. The audio commentaries, also, are generally very interesting, though some cast members are a bit more engaging than others.

The essential milieu of Mad Men is not especially admirable.

So what was going on with Mad Men?

And how is it stacking up, at least at the moment, in its quest to match The West Wing by winning a record-tying fourth straight Emmy Award as best drama? Hill Street Blues also won the award four straight years, in the early 1980s.

First to the cause for our present dismay. There were reportedly demands for more product placement, a two-minute cut in time per episode, and the elimination of two regular characters, per season. And creator Matthew Weiner was negotiating for a big deal for his brainchild. Which he got, at a reported $10 million per season for three seasons, which would bring us to a full seven seasons.. The cast, however, is not under contract for a seventh season, but assuming that the show goes well for the next two seasons it's hard to believe that the seventh won't happen. These are wonderful actors in fabulous roles, and the fact that most of them were not well-known prior to Mad Men points up the vast pool of talent that exists in screen acting.

As to the other matters, the product placement will reportedly not be ramped up further, the cast won't be cut for economy reasons, but the show will be shorter, dropping from 47 minutes to 45 minutes per episode for all but the season premiere and finale. Yet Weiner and company will be able to produce 47-minute versions available the following week and, of course, on disc.

All these hassles are tedious but, I suppose, not a surprise. Something not unlike this happened with The Sopranos, which, after increasingly long gaps, went nearly two years between Seasons 5 and 6.

What I found most objectionable about this was the move to cut the cast. The suits didn't seem to understand that this is a classic novel for television. They shouldn't seek short-term economies in an ongoing work that can last for a very long time.

A character may not seem important, and certainly may not be a lead, but over time provides crucial texture and depth in a way that a short-term fill-in would not.

There are a few characters, I won't name them, who don't make me perk up every time I see them. But then they turn out to play either a critical role, or influence events just enough to make a difference. And each provides tremendous texture.

While I haven't had time to watch Mad Men Season 4 again, since the November election I have watched the first few seasons of The West Wing. The first three seasons, in specific, but not yet the fourth season which so controversially won a fourth straight Emmy as television's best dramatic series.

Mad Men star John Slattery plays a mysterious string-puller (in Mad Men-style garb) in the current hit movie The Adjustment Bureau, a Philip K. Dick story which stars Matt Damon.

I love West Wing, even though it's something of a busman's holiday for me. It has great warmth, especially compared to Mad Men, and a lot of dynamics, also especially compared to Mad Men.

Both shows have terrific dialogue and mostly exceptional acting, not to mention very high design and production values.

West Wing, though, I think is less realistic, being essentially a very sophisticated fantasy view of politics, albeit a fantasy view with a high degree of verisimilitude.

For one thing, people in politics don't really talk like the West Wing characters. For another, the core dumps of expository dialogue become quite glaring viewing episodes back to back. (And this is the first time I've watched West Wing on dvd.) Aaron Sorkin did an amazing job with the show for the four seasons in which he ran it, which coincides with the four straight Emmy wins. But it is definitely a preachy, even sometimes pedantic show. But not so liberal a show as I'd remembered it being.

Which show is better? Which do I like best? Can Mad Men match West Wing's record Emmy streak in September?

Over the weekend, I watched the Season 3 finales of each show back to back. In a sense, these episodes were more than a little uncharacteristic for each show. But in another sense, they were very representative.

Mad Men's Season 3 finale, "Shut the Door and Have A Seat," is, as you may recall, an unusually upbeat and action-packed episode. Well, upbeat by Mad Men standards, or if you just ignore the sad and ugly final break-up of Don and Betty Draper.

X-Men: First Class, which co-stars Mad Men star January Jones as a powerful telepath as it takes the franchise to the Cuban Missile Crisis of the Mad Men period early 1960s, looks to be a summer blockbuster.

West Wing's Season 3 finale, "Posse Comitatus," is darker than usual for the show. Airing in May 2002, it marked the end of a season that began in the absolute immediate wake of 9/11, something with which the show struggled for years. This, after the rather innocent first two seasons of the show, which remind how different the country felt before 9/11.

If you're a Mad Men fan, you probably remember the Season 3 finale, which was a real high point for the show. In addition to the Draper marriage, doomed at last by the existential dread triggered by the JFK assassination in the brilliant penultimate episode, finally ending, it was also the end of Sterling Cooper, as most of our intrepid band used the pre-Christmas trauma of parting ways with Conrad Hilton and being sold by their British overlords to strike out excitingly on their own, learning much about themselves along the way.

Putting aside the ugly end of the Draper marriage, the last 17 minutes of the episode are as close to pure joy as we're likely to find in the frequently cynical and ever bittersweet universe of Mad Men.The corporados get their very amusing and satisfying come-uppance, the oft-missing Joan returns (with one of the great Hollywood entrances) to save the day in the nick of time just as the guys' Ocean's 11-ish caper is about to crash, and Peggy -- played by the always excellent Elisabeth Moss, who is also President Bartlet's daughter Zoey in West Wing world -- forces Don to treat her like a very valued person and colleague rather than a mere appendage.

Incidentally, the reason why I never buy into the idea that Peggy is about to take over the agency, which many predict at the slightest pretext, is that she is 26 and this is 1965. And Mad Men is not science fiction.

For all the relative brightness of the Mad Men Season 3 finale, West Wing's matching episode, "Posse Comitatus" (which refers to the legal restriction against use of the military in a law enforcement capacity within the U.S.) is unusually dark for a show that, unlike Mad Men, is seldom bleak.

Jed Bartlet, played by the wonderful Martin Sheen, has learned that a seeming ally in the struggle against jihadist terrorists -- the defense minister of fictional Qumar, which sounds like real-life Qatar but plays more like Saudi Arabia -- is actually a Mr. Big of terrorism. What to do? Especially what to do for Bartlet, a staunch opponent of capital punishment who was never in the military. (This is all set up in the two preceding episodes.)

January Jones has become the muse of Versace.

That's the A story, and there are two (or three) big B (or B, C, and D) stories that would be A stories in the Mad Men universe.

Bartlet, who hid the fact that he had MS when he got himself elected the first time (oops, just plumb forgot to mention it) is running for re-election against an intellectually incurious Sun Belt conservative governor who might as well be George W. Bush but for the fact that James Brolin is a lot taller than Bush.

Press secretary (and future White House chief of staff) C.J. Cregg, played by the brilliant Allison Janney, who is along with the late great John Spencer's chief of staff/VP nominee Leo McGarry my favorite character -- and my favorites changed with later viewings, which is another interesting matter -- is about to fall in love with a Secret Service agent assigned to protect her after she began receiving some very uncanny and unnerving threats.

That agent, not incidentally, is played by Mark Harmon, who not at all incidentally plays a remarkably similar character in the most popular scripted show on television, the critically under-rated NCIS.

And Bartlet's love him or hate him chief political operative Josh Lyman (the very fine Brad Whitford) is battling his girlfriend, powerhouse feminist lobbyist Amy Gardner (the always terrific Mary Louise Parker) over compromises made in the welfare bill.

Virtually all these actors, incidentally -- Marty Sheen, Allison Janney, John Spencer, Mark Harmon, Brad Whitford, Mary Louise Parker -- and several more earned Emmy nominations or Emmy awards for their work in this season.

Zoey Bartlet, played by future Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss, is rescued from terrorist kidnappers in The West Wing.

Each of these storylines is terrific, and I enjoyed them all, a couple of them immensely, yet each has logical flaws that I don't see in the Mad Men episode.

Bartlet, like the good liberal he is, wants to bring the treacherous Qumari defense minister Shareef to trial. But much of the intel is "fruit of the poisonous tree," obtained from a Chechen tortured by Russian interrogators. Is it accurate? Let's assume it is, because torture, loathsome though it is, sometimes works, there is supportive intelligence, and, best reason of all, we want to keep the story going. Faced with this, Bartlet decides to give up on the whole thing. But his chief of staff (Spencer, in a great performance) is insistent. Shareef must be assassinated. Bartlet is highly resistant because of his ethical and moral objections.

There is no little irony in having Martin Sheen, who starred in Apocalypse Now as the assassin Willard, play a character who is squeamish, at least initially, about the "wet work."

Well, I'm resistant, too, but not because I'm against assassination. (Readers of my political pieces know that I favor strikes against jihadists. But I fear we're going overboard now, which is a separate question. Point being my objection is not moral.)

Is killing Shareef the only smart non-peacenik option? He's too high-profile a politician, in a nominally allied country, to capture and interrogate. But knowing that you have him zeroed in, why not use him, feed him disinformation, read his mail, trace out the concentric circles of his associates, manipulate him to confound and disrupt the network he heads?

Maybe because that's too complicated for a show with a lot of plots spinning in the air. And maybe because Sorkin intended the show to go down a line examining the consequences of what's been called executive action. Not that inaction does not have its own consequences.

Three of the four plotlines, incidentally, culminate around a wonderfully staged performance of a Shakespearean compendium play, a pageant of Plantagenets called The War of the Roses staged as a Catholic charity event in New York, attended by Bartlet and his W-ish Republican opponent.

Those two, after a lot of machinations, have a wonderful encounter at the theater. But Brolin's Governor Rob Ritchie is a bit too much the Bushian caricature of liberal lampoonings, though he gets in some good digs at Bartlet. (I'd forgotten, or maybe not noticed, the first time around that Bartlet is not infrequently an absolutely insufferable elitist know-it-all.)

Lyman's girlfriend problems -- Josh, maybe you shouldn't have told Amy, who while super-smart and charming is a staunch ideologue, that you had to throw the right an obnoxious bone (potentially coercive incentives for marriage) to get the welfare bill both augmented and passed -- resolve themselves painfully. She mobilizes her group's political machinery to go after the bill and he ends up having to cut a deal to make Amy's boss chair of the platform committee at the Democratic national convention. Which, since Amy spent a lot of PAC money in a losing cause, also costs her job.

Allison Janney's C.J. Cregg and Mark Harmon's Agent Simon Donovan birthed an engaging but flawed plot and, inadvertently, a hit TV series.

The logical problem here? Uh, duh, Josh telling Amy something he has to know will cause big trouble. Not that he should have lied to her, mind you, he should merely have told the truth more slowly.

The plot with Janney's wonderful C.J. Cregg and Harmon's Agent Simon Donovan has much more weight on the male/female front, if it does drag in a bit of a cliche of the strong woman needing to be saved by the strong man. The two actors have great chemistry together, the audience is pulling for C.J., whose had little opportunity for romance, to catch a break with the nice West Pointer, and, unlike Josh and Amy, the obnoxious factor with these two is almost non-existent.

Yet it's not to be, cherie. After insisting on accompanying her to New York, ratcheting the sexual tension higher, Harmon's agent learns that C.J.'s stalker has been caught. Now that he's no longer protecting her, they can have a drink together. So I suppose it's because he was distracted and too relaxed that he wandered into the middle of a liquor store hold-up and assumed there was only the one robber.

I have to call BS here. This is a character who has heard the phrase, "When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me," every day since he first strapped on the pads in Pop Warner football. No matter how relaxed/distracted/what have you, he would not simply assume that he had caught the only robber in the store, especially when the proprietor was still so obviously nervous.

So, tragically dead agent, very sad C.J., and ... star of a new hit TV show. (On another network.) Harmon's Simon Donovan is a slightly more urbane version of Harmon's Leroy Gibbs, the protagonist of NCIS. (Which is not as important as either of these shows, but has an audience seven times that of Mad Men and is an extremely well-done, intelligent, enjoyable, and sometimes provocative example of the procedural, a genre I'm generally very tired of.)

I have no doubt that the producers of JAG, the hit show that produced NCIS as a spin-off less than a year after this West Wing episode aired, saw Mark Harmon in this role and said, that's the guy.

President Jed Bartlet encounters George W. Bush, er, Florida Governor Rob Ritchie, in the Season 3 finale of The West Wing.

Back to the A story. Having satisfyingly dusted off G.W. Bush, er, Governor Rob Richie, cadging a contraband smoke in the process, Jed Bartlet goes back upstairs to indulge his love of Shakespeare and be forced by McGarry into making a decision about the assassination of Shareef.

The lead-up to all this, the discussions with the advisors in the Situation Room, McGarry conferring with John Amos's wonderfully droll Admiral Fitzwallace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the luring of Shareef to Washington, the meeting in the Oval Office and exchange of gifts, and Bartlet's mixture of unease and disdain, the plot to make it look like an aircraft accident, is all very effectively done. Now Bartlet, in a tuxedo at a benefit Shakespearean musical pageant in a Manhattan theater, with Shareef's Gulfstream having made an "emergency" landing at an isolated airstrip on Bermuda, must at last decide. He does.

"And victorious in war shall be made glorious in peace," sing the young heralds on stage below. Perhaps. And the season ends.

Which of these very important episodes of these shows was better? Well, I don't see logical flaws in the Mad Men episode. As you can tell, I see some very big flaws in the West Wing episode. If I didn't, this would be a heck of a lot shorter.

I recall the flaws getting bigger on The West Wing in Season 4. Yet it won the Emmy as best dramatic series for a record-tying fourth-straight time.

The "England Arise" musical sequence from the end of The West Wing's Season 3 finale.

Of course, many of you would say that flaws emerged on Mad Men in Season 4, especially in the season finale with Don Draper's surprise engagement to "Miss Calvet." "Who?!," said Roger Sterling, speaking for fans across the world. But I actually found that very logical.

The eagle-eyed reader will notice that I haven't said which show I think is better. I'm not sure, and go back and forth, though at the moment would give the nod to Mad Men. And West Wing is not as fascinating to me as Mad Men, as it's a very familiar world.

Is it more enjoyable? I can recall some episodes of West Wing, even in its halcyon days, that had me going: "WTF?" But it may be that I do find West Wing more enjoyable, despite Mad Men's generally greater lapidary qualities.

For one thing, there are more likable characters. I enjoy our protagonist Don Draper quite a lot, and defend some of what he does, but he is no hero, whereas several of the West Wing characters are quite heroic, even when they're wrong.

For another, much more happens. You know how long my recaps/analyses of Mad Men episodes are. I can only imagine how long my West Wing pieces would have been, especially since I've only scratched the surface of this episode.

For a third, the West Wing world is warmer and more inviting. The characters are, by and large, people you would like to know. They're trying to make the world a better place, however compromised and sometimes wrong-headed they may be. They're not trying to sell cigarettes and a bunch of other crap people don't really need.

Matthew Weiner signaled what Mad Men was all about in the brilliant pilot episode, "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes." Don's great creative conundrum is figuring out how to advertise cigarettes now that they can no longer pretend that the things don't kill people. "It's toasted," indeed. And never forget the wicked early tell when Roger Sterling, discussing how the agency can make a difference in the 1960 presidential race, says that he sees no reason why America can't come to love a good-looking Navy hero like... Dick Nixon. (As everyone who remembered the history waited to hear John F. Kennedy's name. Not that Nixon wasn't in the Navy, too. He was a supply officer.)

But even though The West Wing was just ending its seven-season run five years ago, it's undoubtedly too romantic a show for today.

After all, Barack Obama, for all his flaws (and in my view they mostly revolve around his distressing lack of omnipotence, though his big moves in Afghanistan make no sense to me, and not because I'm a peacenik) is as likely a Jed Bartlet-like president as we are going to have in the real world. The atmosphere of today is too downbeat and cynical.

A very big audience embraced The West Wing in its heyday because it presented a better version of what they hoped they would get with President Bill Clinton. Not that the results weren't mostly good with Clinton, though the whole deregulationist thing has continued to reverberate. But the millennial audience mostly didn't know that yet. It was more the atmospherics that were disappointing.

No, Mad Men matches these times much better than does West Wing, 2008's Bartlet-like politics of hope notwithstanding. It's just too bad that the mass audience eludes it.

Yo, Matt Weiner, order up some assassinations, whydoncha? It's not like you folks didn't do that on The Sopranos. And Don in another marriage? And another domestic drama? I'm a fan of January Jones and Kiernan Shipka, but do we need more?

So, I've avoided the big question. Can Mad Men's Season 4, which I recall being better than West Wing's Season 4 having been, match the record Emmy streak?

A lot of you felt that this past season of Mad Men was a touch below previous seasons. But that dynamic didn't stop West Wing.

Here's something that might stop the Mad Men streak. Unlike the past three years, it won't be on while they're voting on the Emmy Awards.

I've noticed that out of sight, out of mind usually doesn't work in politics. It may not work in this field, either. And that may be the biggest foul-up of these fouled-up negotiations.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...