Mad Men is excellent entertainment. It's third season, which just concluded, was uniformly satisfying. The final episode was especially good.
But I shake my head in disbelief when I hear it—or, more commonly, see it—compared to The Wire.
The Wire (aside from its final season, which was disappointing) is an American masterpiece. In my view it's the greatest show in the history of television.
Its superiority to Mad Men begins with a generic difference: Unlike Mad Men (and unlike Mad Men's artistic and spiritual precursor, The Sopranos), The Wire is epic. Mad Men and The Sopranos, on the other hand, are works of satire.
As an epic, The Wire is rigorously unreassuring. It absolutely refuses to condescend to either its characters or its audience. It never imagines its characters to be stupider than itself. Its ethos is not evaluative but comprehensive and loving (of the world, of existence). There's no hierarchy of truth in The Wire—a truth, for instance, to which we're privy but the characters are not, or a truth to which the world is privy but the show is not. The Wire strives for totality of vision—in this regard it carries on the artistic tradition of the epic. It's morality, to paraphrase an observation that Milan Kundera makes about the novel, is to be amoral. Aside from its final season, it's not didactic or self-congratulatory; instead, it asks questions of the world; its lens is curious and unblinking.
In short, The Wire isn't interested in judgment but in understanding. It says: "So this is the world"; and then it does its absolute damnedest to see clearly, to give freely; and its achievement is formidable, as near as American art has come to Tolstoy.
None of those observations apply to Mad Men.
Unlike The Wire, Mad Men is a work of satire. It's condescending toward its characters and patronizing of its audience. Its characters are stupider than we are and we are meant to take delight in our relative enlightenment. Its artistic vision is hierarchical, with Mad Men's makers above everyone and the show's audience above the characters. Mad Men makes no attempt at total truth but operates by selection, distillation, and suggestion. It's profoundly moral; it's didactic and self-congratulatory. It is—god save us—insightful and sophisticated and clever.
Given their generic difference—what's really a difference of essence—The Wire and Mad Men are not comparable artistic achievements and shouldn't be spoken of as if they are.
The Wire makes the best case in recent popular art for the artistic superiority of the epic over all other artistic forms. It's essential art, great art, because like all epics worthy of the name it is timeless.
The fact that it got made and that its artistic sensibility survived for four complete seasons defy explanation. Like all permanent works of art, it now glows with the light of the miraculous.
It's true that Mad Men—a well-argued, well-made history lesson—is great fun to look at. The sets are thrilling. The women are gorgeous catastrophes, except for Joan Harris, played by Christina Hendricks, who is a human being and is genuinely riveting. The men are stupid, elegant monsters, with the exception of Roger Sterling, played by John Slattery, who—along with Hendricks—offers a glimpse into what the show could be if it stopped concerning itself with teaching us about the world and instead tried to learn from it.
For a while I thought that Mad Men wanted to give us an updated take on The Great Gatsby, which contemplates fundamental American insecurities as profoundly as any work of art in our canon.
It's now clear that Mad Men has no such ambition. Instead, it has joined the parade of self-certain ideologues typical of this moment in American life and who occupy our attention at every turn, telling us who we are, how we think, and how we ought to think.
In this regard Mad Men is great television. Along with The Sopranos, it captures the spirit of our time—a time when the artist has rejected the role of the poet (who knows nothing) for the role of the saint (who knows everything) and has set out on a mission to save us from ourselves.