Five Is Enough: The Inevitable Decline of ‘Mad Men’

Many amazing TV series have come and gone over the past 20 years (I realize television has been around much longer, but let’s start the clock for this post around 1990). One rule, though, that I cannot find a single exception for, is this: no series has had its best season after Season 4.

In fact, for most series, quality depreciates considerably in Season 5, with seasons 2-4 marking the high-water mark. Among the best examples of this trend: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (4), The Sopranos (2 or 3), The Wire (4!), The X-Files (2-4), Lost (…terrified of Lost fans), Dexter (2 or 4), Grey’s Anatomy (2?), and The West Wing (1-2).

All of these shows hit their strides at some point during seasons 2-4, lost momentum around season 5, and tailed off (or ended) after that. Other shows that follow that trend? Every show (I can think of).

This phenomenon is not limited to dramatic TV series, though, and also governs comedy: The Cosby Show, Cheers, Seinfeld, Friends, The Office (US), How I Met Your Mother, Weeds. Perhaps it’s inherent in television as a medium that, no matter the quality, no one involved (writers, actors, viewers) can stick with the same concept and characters for more than four seasons at the highest level. I will leave that theorizing for another post.

There are a few minor variations in this rule, such as the “First-Season-Peakers”, where a series has an amazing first season but never regains the momentum and ends before reaching a fifth season (Heroes, Twin Peaks, Veronica Mars) and the “Final Season Over-Achievers”, where a series has an improbable return-to-form in its final frame (The Shield).

As a general rule, the fifth season presents all the elements that we love in a show, oftentimes resolving long-burning sexual tension or culminating long-simmering plotlines, but in a relatively predictable way. What does this mean for season five of Mad Men?

It means that, as we watch it, we will likely gain immense enjoyment from it. Things will happen that we have always wanted to happen. Roger will quip; Joan’s bosom will heave; Don will make self-destructive personal decisions and boldly brilliant professional ones; Peggy will continue to experience the newfound freedoms and opportunities offered to young women, along with their drawbacks. It will all go down very smoothly, like the last drink of the night (or, on Mad Men, of the workday).

But when it’s over, you may wish they had ended the party a little bit earlier. In time we will use these later seasons as a point of comparison for how amazing the earlier seasons were. But, the good news is that, by that time, you will be on the fourth season of Justified, or Downton Abbey, or Walking Dead, or some show that you haven’t even started watching, yet.