This is not Deadwood, with its grubby optimism about society’s and the individual’s potential for change. It’s not The Wire or Treme, with their humanistic empathy for citizens let down by governments and institutions.
It’s not the black-comically pessimistic Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Sopranos, on which characters crow about improving themselves, then revert to type with a vengeance. It’s more elusive, archetypal, and intimate. Mad Men’s characters are more true to life than any others on TV because they’re so random, inscrutable, and mysterious, and because there’s no propulsive generic master narrative (the building of a gangster coalition, the completion of a stretch of railroad track, the creation of an innovative drug carteqel) on which to string their decisions, revelations, and misfortunes. People do things and have things done to them while history rolls invisibly forward.