Here's why fans come back for more 'Mad Men'

Runway blues, dance despair, Heroes hobble

More mystifying than the unexpected successes — like ABC's Modern Family becoming the funniest new show on TV and the best rated — have been this TV season's failures.

Here's a quick list:

Project Runway, 10 p.m. Thursdays, Lifetime: According to Media Life magazine, ratings have plunged 20 percent since its highly rated premiere. Taped in Los Angeles, the current show has seen longtime judges Nina Garcia and Michael Kors missing for long stretches and a particularly uninspired lineup of contestants. Looks like the fashion designing contestants aren't the only ones who need to make it work.

m Dancing With the Stars, 8 p.m. Mondays, 9 p.m. Tuesdays, WFTS-Ch. 28: Ratings are firming up, but there's little doubt the show has less buzz now than previous seasons, especially after former U.S. Rep. Tom Delay, above, dropped out. Starting with a record number of celebrities, it also fielded a record number of mediocrities, extending the show's awkward period when so-so-dancers make way for the real competition.

Heroes, 8 p.m. Mondays, WFLA-Ch. 8: A lackluster, confusing new plot and tendency to strand the strongest characters in the weakest stories — except for Zachary Quinto's villain Sylar, who always shines — has hobbled a former fan favorite. Just ask William Shatner; turning off geeky comic book fanboys is tough when you're trying.

As readers of the Feed's blog version already know, I have been jonesing seriously on some Mad Men this season.

Jonesing to the point of publishing overlong deconstructions of each episode online Monday mornings (could you imagine writing 20 paragraphs to dissect a CSI or ripped-off-from-the-headlines Law & Order episode?). Jonesing bad enough to huddle with my fellow Mad Men junkies in the office, puzzling out the meaning of closeted Sal's firing and brittle housewife Betty's infidelity with more energy than I spent picking out my parents' Christmas gifts last year.

Who knew a meticulously crafted exploration of the admen's world in the early '60s — centered on Madison Avenue superman Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and his wholly invented, now crumbling life — could be so addictive?

And now it's all about to end.

AMC draws the curtain on the year's spate of Mad Men episodes at 10 p.m. tonight with a season finale (dubbed "Shut the Door, Have a Seat") that's so hush hush, there's no preview episodes circulated online; no critic's DVD doled out to favored boosters in advance. There's nothing beyond a cryptic episode synopsis noting star adman Don Draper will have a pivotal meeting with mogul Connie Hilton, his wife Betty (January Jones) gets some advice and recently demoted creepy rich boy Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) talks to his clients.

Why is Mad Men the most deeply written, best-acted, least-clarified television drama on the tube?

Let me count the ways:

1. It explains almost nothing. Viewers are left to figure why Betty Draper keeps reaching out to the politico she had a steamy fling with last season. Or why Don Draper begins an affair with a teacher when both of them know it will end in tears. After seeing these characters tell volumes with long silences and painful glances (an unfortunate reason why they may never win an acting Emmy), lesser series' tendency to make characters explain everything in windy speeches feels like a bitter, needless condescension.

2. It avoids TV clichEs with fierce consistency. Creator Matthew Weiner takes a page from his earlier writing gig on The Sopranos, refusing to give viewers easy resolution or explanation. Don Draper resumes his womanizing despite nearly atomizing his marriage with a previous fling; though he seemed to accept gay art director Sal's sexual orientation, Draper fires him after his rebuff of a closeted client threatens a longtime account; Betty never resolves her acidly touchy relationship with her father before he dies. You want neat resolutions and uplifting conclusions? Go watch Three Rivers.

3. It gives an intensely personal look at a pivotal American moment. Watching Mad Men's world rocked by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy — a tragedy that forever changed America but hit characters like a death in the family last week — you saw folks steeped in '50s mores peering over the abyss of a new, unpredictable world. How will that glimpse of the chaos to come affect them in tonight's season finale?

4. It allows endless speculation among geeky fans. Last time we saw Hilton with Don Draper, he was accusing the man of letting him down like a bungee jump off a cliff. How will their final meeting go down? Now that Betty has admitted she doesn't love Don anymore, where can their marriage go? Draper's protege Peggy Olson is sleeping with an executive who got pushed out of the Sterling Cooper advertising firm. Exactly how will this end in tears, as it surely must?

We Mad Men geeks will sit waiting tonight, Twitter feeds at the ready, hoping for a resolution we know will never come.

m TiVo

Lopez Tonight, 11 p.m. Monday, TBS: Critics haven't seen the show yet, but George Lopez has already marshaled a Facebook page, Twitter feed and collection of backstage videos touting what he's calling late night's biggest party. Held in a studio lit like a nightclub and big enough to hold more than 400 people (Michael Jackson's music director from This Is It leads the band), Lopez's talk show will be a prime opportunity for this veteran comic to tackle the one area of television he hasn't tried yet. That he'll be bringing diversity as a Latino comic who isn't afraid to talk about his heritage may just be icing on a compelling cake.

TiVo

Glee, 9 p.m. Wednesday, WTVT-Ch. 13: I'll have a larger story Monday detailing why TV geeks have fallen for this show. But I'll take this space to marvel at how this look at a new school glee club keeps getting better every week. Returning to new episodes after a World Series-inspired break, the series features a Busby Berkeley-style music number performed from wheelchairs — in honor of guitar-playing paraplegic Artie — and a highly anticipated "diva-off" between out-and-proud Kurt and drama geek Rachel that has unintended consequences.

Here's why fans come back for more 'Mad Men' 11/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 7, 2009 5:54pm]

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