Stop here if you don't want to have Mad Men, Firefly, Two Days, One Night, and Black Books spoiled for you.
I recently finished Mad Men and after pondering on the last moments of the show I found this article by Ashley Lee in which Matthew Weiner explains a few things about the show and in particular the ending. What struck me the most was the following quote:
"The actors on Mad Men behave like real people, and it has not been in style. I'm not saying this because they haven't won awards. I just see when I sit through these clips — the big screaming, bulging vein through the forehead, burst into tears, big speechifying, 'I can barely' hoarse voice — actors are voting on it! I'm confused by it. But I believe in a more naturalistic style of behavior, and it's not that showy because I never wanted people to be pulled out of the show."
I'm inclined to agree with him on that front and it's probably why I don't enjoy the majority of popular television shows. It has become rare these days to find characters on television shows or in movies with strong writing that provides true character growth and change. In Mad Men from start to finish I believed that those characters were who they said they were. I can't think of a moment where I thought "that's so out of character for so and so". The attention to detail in the writing had to have been an actor's dream come true. For example:
The Peggy you meet in Season 1 is not the Peggy you meet in Season 7.
However it isn't just her hair style and wardrobe that change, it is her entire character. She has been forever shaped and changed by the events in prior seasons, yet she is still Peggy. The change in her was not forced or pushed by insane larger than life events-- her entire family was not murdered by Mexican drug lords while she was marooned on a island run by vampires and a vigilante serial killer. For me the best parts of this show are how the characters act like regular people and (for the most part) regular life events impact their development.
Maybe that makes me boring, but to me the most interesting shows and movies are about characters and their relationships with other characters not wild and confusing plots. A good example in recent film is the movie "Two Days, One Night" starring Marion Cotillard as Sandra. The plot of the movie is very simple: a woman loses her job and has one weekend to convince her co-workers to give up their bonuses to let her stay. As the film progressed we saw Sandra visit and interact with her co-workers one by one, which then lead to the resolution and ending of the movie. That's it. There were a few small instances other than that, but for the most part the movie was driven by that. It was absolutely riveting to see so many different characters interact with Sandra and what a direct impact they had on her life and in turn the effect she had on theirs. A plot didn't need to be written, it came to life naturally as the characters communicated.
This brings me to my next observation about modern television & movies: people talk to goddamn much. In Mad Men there were often times where characters existed together in silence. They exchanged no dialogue, yet what was happening said so much. Christina Hendricks (as Joan Harris) could say more with one look than most people can say in an entire movie. Another great example of this is in the Firely episode "Heart of Gold": from 36:06-36:33 it is pure non-dialogue gold. Morena Baccarin and Nathan Fillion have an entire conversation in that 30 second scene using only their facial expressions and body language. They say nothing, yet as an audience member you know exactly what they are saying in this incredibly powerful moment. When characters and relationships are strongly developed they don't need to constantly and incessantly be talking to communicate with each other and with viewers. It's kind of like how when I'm on the subway with my sister and a bunch of 20-something giggling girls get on-- we don't have to say anything, we just know.
To be fair though, sometimes we do add "Coke's off...coke's off" to our pointed looks (Thank you Dylan Moran & Black Books).
From movies to television to the stage our entertainment these days seems to feature plots and characters that are loud, flashy, bloody, and kind of insane. For me as an actor it's refreshing to experience a show like Mad Men that instead focuses on subtle character development and growth. While there were a few instances of "bulging veins and big speechifying"-- the difference was that when it happened on Mad Men you sat up and paid attention because it wasn't the norm. By the series finale I didn't feel that I had watched a show, instead I felt like I had gotten to know a lot of different people and that those people had invited me to take an intimate look at their lives.
The team of actors, writers, producers, etc that worked on Mad Men won a total of 8 Emmy Awards over the course of eight years with four going to the show as a whole and only one awarded to a specific actor. I think in the case of Mad Men's powerful and subtle acting this quote (from the Futurama episode "Godfellas" written by Ken Keeler) sums it up the best:
"When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all."