It’s very common to begin a show with a fixed point of entry: the roll call on “Hill Street Blues”, the listening kids on “How I Met Your Mother”, even the recurring image of the opening eye on “Lost”. I’ve only managed to come up with two exceptions, albeit major ones: this and “The Simpsons”.
In this case, it speaks to the show’s malleability: episodes can cover one night or several months, have different lead characters, totally ignore other characters, occur entirely inside or outside the office, etc. This is all very risky. Almost every episode of “Hill Street Blues” took place within one day, so the writers could get into the habit of creating stories of that length, and always be sure that each subplot would line up to all the others. On “Mad Men”, with everything shifting, only certain subplots will fit together, which makes beautifully interwoven episodes like the one mentioned here all the more remarkable.
The pilot short-shrifts several members of the ensemble:
This is most obvious with Betty, who is only introduced in the final moments of the show as a shock reveal, but Harry, Paul, and Ken also get little chance to differentiate themselves despite getting a fair amount of screentime in the pilot. This is indicative of another big risk: the secondary characters can remain undefined for now because the primary drama on this show will be created by the hero’s internal conflicts, rather than by his interactions with others. (This was also true of “The Sopranos”, whose pilot also short-shrifted many characters.)
This is inherently an anti-dramatic choice (ever moreso here than in “The Sopranos”, where Tony at least had a psychologist to discuss his inner conflict with). Simply put, it requires a genius level of writing to pull off: there is not one easy way to dramatize internal struggles, so the show deftly uses every trick in the book at different times. It’s a tightrope walk, and it has been for all six seasons, but so far it’s pulled it off beautifully.
Next we’ll look at some rules this pilot exemplified...