But both shows hold up mirrors to their times. Both of them have persuaded me that I would not have been happy as a young woman in either the early 1900s or 60 years later. You might be angry, you might have trouble wrapping your mind around the limitations, but Abbey and Mad Men make you grateful for what you do have, and make you admire the women who would never have the opportunities, and those who ultimately fought to have them.
It's not too late to tune into Season 2 of Downton Abbey on your local PBS station. If you missed the first four episodes, they are available for viewing online. You can catch up with Season 1 of Downton Abbey on DVD or Blu-ray.
Call it a miniseries, as the Hollywood Foreign Press was wont to do in bestowing a Golden Globe a few weeks ago; or call it a limited series or series. Doesn't matter. How many dramas come along where you fall in love with every single character that lives upstairs and downstairs at Downton, the sprawling estate that's home to the Crawley family, headed by the Earl of Grantham?
It's a period potboiler, a costume drama genre that PBS has perfected, and it's an addiction. The heroes are many -- especially Carson the butler, as inhabited by Jim Carter, and Brendan Coyle's Bates, Lord Grantham's friend and valet -- but it is the villains who are exceptional: Thomas (Rob James-Collier), the footman with aspirations, who is unscrupulous, calculating, manipulative, poisonous and narcissistic in only the best way; and his sinister counterpart O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran), Lady Grantham's snake of a lady's maid, who is simultaneously devoted to the woman she serves and inexplicably committed to hurting her, as well as almost everyone else who crosses her path. James-Collier and Finneran inhabit these characters with steely brilliance, and Finneran in particular can turn on a dime. One minute, you want to see her get her comeuppance; the next, she breaks your heart. The way she coils is stunning, the dialogue she mutters, diabolical, but it's the shadows that chase across her face that will haunt you. Who is this O'Brien, and who made her the hard and complicated woman she has become?
The maids who want more, the cook who wants only to keep her place in the kitchen, the Countess and her daughters, all share one trait that has little to do with their position in the household. The women of this era are not expected to have opinions, choose their own futures, have real jobs, or aspire. The Dowager Countess, as illuminated by Dame Maggie Smith, is holding on to the comfort of what she knows best with as much tenacity as others embrace change. Their diverse struggles simply to be who they are elevate Downton Abbey. There's enough soap to satisfy, and enough heart to capture yours.
Which brings me to Mad Men. I confess, I was a late bloomer. At the time Mad Men arrived on the TV scene, I was still primarily a viewer, not a critic, and I wasn't drawn by a drama where the men had the big thumbs, with the women squashed under them. It was a personal thing, and I took a pass, but somehow knew I was making a judgment and a mistake. Fifteen Emmys later, and accompanying accolades over four seasons, with the long-awaited Season 5 poised to return this March, I decided it was time for me to see what I had missed.
The only thing that comes close to the luxury of watching four seasons of a great TV show back-to-back is finding an author you have never read, falling in love, and then discovering they've written 20 other books. That's my definition of heaven, and now, thanks to full seasons on DVD, I get to do that with TV as well.
So I haven't slept much the last few weeks. Haven't wanted to. All I wanted to do once I started with Mad Men's first DVD was to keep watching, episode after episode, season after season. The good news as I am finishing the fourth season is that Season 5 is not that far off (it starts on AMC March 25).
Because I'm going to need a fix. Mad Men is addictive. It is seductive. It is about small moments, not big plot points. It's about holding your breath, hating the amorality, and wincing at the cruelty. It is so carefully crafted that it is impossible to forget the carefully chosen music that runs over almost all of the end credits, leaving you feeling like you've been hit by a truck. That's effective storytelling.
It is not a series for the faint of heart. It's a series that dares to turn on the lives of many characters you will not like. Isn't there some rule of TV that says we will walk away from that kind of cast? These are characters spiraling in a world filled with heartache, disappointment, betrayal and ambition. But they move in a universe of beautifully written words, stunningly acted, and mesmerizing in its authenticity.
There is not a misstep among the cast. They nail it. Looking back over the seasons I watched, I think the smartest thing Jon Hamm did was to break out of ad man Don Draper's straightjacket to host Saturday Night Live. Here is a classic tall, dark and handsome leading man who needed to show his goofy, human side in a hurry, because his Draper is so taut and spare and broken a character, Hamm knew he had to remind viewers that he's acting.
As far as the women are concerned, their 1960s world seems as claustrophobic as the 1860s. The ad men have their own demons, no question, but here are women in the workplace who are not only pinned under the aforementioned thumbs, but might as well be nailed to their desks or the copy machines. There is little freedom at home, little freedom at the office, and no room to grow in either place. Elisabeth Moss's copywriter Peggy is smart enough to want, and eventually, smart enough to go after what she wants. But it is Christina Hendricks's office manager Joan who will reduce you to a nub. If you Google Hendricks, most of the hits are about her generous, womanly, un-Hollywood figure. Ironic that this would be the lead in 2012, rather than the layered performance she is giving.
Season to season, Peggy grows as we expect and hope she would. Season to season, Joan unfolds in ways we could not have expected. She may know where the bodies are buried at Sterling Cooper, and she may even have buried some of them, but Hendricks shows how Joan's strength may have weakened her. The actress unfurls the most human moments at the most unexpected times. Joan can be lush and spare in the same scene. Just when you think you have Joan figured out, turns out, you know nothing.