Five Is Enough: The Inevitable Decline of 'Mad Men'

I am as excited as a person could possibly be for the beginning of the fifth season of Mad Men, but I worry that the season won’t be as good as we want it to be.

Mad Men

Airtime: Sundays, 9pm
Cast: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery
Subtitle: Season 5
Network: AMC
Air date: 2012-03-25

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.





GOD's 'God IV - Revelation' Is a Towering Feat of Theologically-Tinged Prog Metal (album stream)

GOD's God IV - Revelation is beautiful and brutal in equal measure. It's a masterful series of compositions. Hear it in full today before tomorrow's release.


Country Westerns Bask in an Unparalleled Sound and Energy on Their Debut

Country Westerns are intent on rejecting assumptions about a band from Nashville while basking in an unparalleled sound and energy.

Featured: Top of Home Page

Rediscovering Japanese Director Tomu Uchida

A world-class filmmaker of diverse styles, we take a look at Tomu Uchida's very different Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji and The Mad Fox.


The Charlatans' 'Between 10th and 11th' Gets a Deluxe Edition

Not even a "deluxe" version of Between 10th and 11th from the Charlatans can quite set the record straight about the maligned-but-brilliant 1992 sophomore album.


'High Cotton' Is Culturally Astute and Progressive

Kristie Robin Johnson's collection of essays in High Cotton dismantle linear thinking with shrewdness and empathy.


Lianne La Havas Is Reborn After a Long Layoff

British soul artist Lianne La Havas rediscovers herself on her self-titled new album. It's a mesmerizing mix of spirituality and sensuality.


PC Nackt Deconstructs the Classics with 'Plunderphonia'

PC Nackt kicks off a unique series of recordings dedicated to creating new music by "plundering" unexpected historical sources such as classical piano pieces or chamber orchestra music.


Counterbalance 24: The Doors - 'The Doors'

Before you slip into unconsciousness, Counterbalance has put together a few thoughts on the Doors' 1967 debut album. It's number 24 on the Big List.

Reading Pandemics

Parable Pandemics: Octavia E. Butler and Racialized Labor

Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, informed by a deep understanding of the intersectionality of dying ecologies, disease, and structural racism, exposes the ways capitalism's insatiable hunger for profit eclipses humanitarian responses to pandemics.


'Tiger King' and the Post-Truth Culture War

Tiger King -- released during and dominating the streaming-in-lockdown era -- exemplifies in real-time the feedback loop between entertainment and ideology.


Ivy Mix's 'Spirits of Latin America' Evokes the Ancestors

A common thread unites Ivy Mix's engaging Spirits of Latin America; "the chaotic intermixture between indigenous and European traditions" is still an inextricable facet of life for everyone who inhabits the "New World".


Contemporary Urbanity and Blackness in 'New Jack City'

Hood films are a jarring eviction notice for traditional Civil Rights rhetoric and, possibly, leadership -- in other words, "What has the Civil Rights movement done for me lately?"

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.