Mad Men Season 4 final episode, Tomorrowland: Don Draper engaged to Megan Calvet

As Maureen Ryan wrote yesterday at TV Squad, Mad Men Season 5 is now postponed until 2012. Difficult negotiations are reportedly in progress over product placement, cast cuts, and trimming two minutes of each Mad Men episode’s length.

I give up. This news is a reminder that “soap” comes before “opera,” and that for four seasons, Mad Men has been a frustrating and elusive waste of time, rich in style but bankrupt in substance.

Yes, Mad Men has cool theme music for its cool title sequence. In the lead role as Don Draper, Jon Hamm is as cool as a guy can get. The 1960s clothing is cool, the mid-century sets are cool. That’s all cool.

What’s not cool is the way Mad Men plots continuously begin in brilliant bold strokes, only to waver and grow faint until they’re finally crumpled and tossed in the wastebasket with all the other false leads.

Just think about all of the weird tangents Mad Men has gone off on over its four seasons.

Remember Peggy’s relationship with Pete? She actually gave birth to his child, but since then the whole matter may as well have happened in somebody else’s high school yearbook.

Similarly with Pete’s sexual assault of a German au pair. It seemed like an important incident at the time, but has since gone absolutely nowhere.

As Don’s wife Betty, January Jones once had an intriguing role. There was chemistry with a young man at the riding stables and deep emotional conflict with Glen, a peculiar young neighborhood boy. Now Betty is an ornery, detached cartoon of herself who mostly smokes. Oh, and she married some guy. Whatever.

Remember Bryan Batt as art director Sal Romano? There was intense buildup over a number of episodes to the possibility that he might be gay. As it turned out, he was gay. And then his character completely disappeared from the show.

Don Draper himself has gone off in so many bizarre trajectories it’s impossible to keep track. The whole backstory of his assumed identity drove Mad Men through countless episodes, then fizzled into nothingness. At any given time, Don Draper may opt to smoke pot with artistic bohemians, or else be Conrad Hilton’s guest at an exotic international hotel. Or Don may suddenly fly to California to start a side plot with the wife of the man whose identity he stole, only to have her later die of cancer (unbeknownst to herself!) when that plot goes nowhere. But at least she has a niece, so some future plot can also go nowhere.

Mad Men Season 4’s final episode, “Tomorrowland,” saw Mr. Cool himself, Don Draper, gushing and crying like a girl and getting suddenly engaged to his secretary Megan. This is sure to enrage the other colleague he had been sleeping with — if anyone remembers either of these characters or plot lines when the show finally returns in 2012.

I won’t be in front of my TV to find out. I know a little about soap operas, having made a living following All My Children every day in the early 1980s. At the time, AMC was a great soap opera. Mad Men is a bad one.

Unless he’s, say, Charlie Kaufman, a dramatist generally doesn’t want his audience to sense that his characters are puppets controlled by some capricious and reckless outside force. When characters stop resembling real humans and start contorting themselves to accommodate plot rebuilds, drama turns into melodrama — or comedy.

One thoughtful theory about Mad Men‘s idiosyncrasies can be found at the The New York Review of Books. In his February 24 piece, “The Mad Men Account,” Daniel Mendelsohn makes an interesting case for the show’s viewpoint being that of a child growing up in the period. He takes special note of that odd child Glen — who is played by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s own son — as a clue that the show is Weiner’s child’s-eye perspective on parental behavior in that era.

I’m not convinced. To me, Mad Men is a mix of nostalgic ingredients tossed into a blender. Just grab a handful of period clothes and set decorations, add a reference to Nixon/Kennedy or Ali/Liston or Marilyn Monroe or Medgar Evars (your choice), sprinkle with advertising aphorisms and anecdotes, and pour in plenty of booze and cigarette smoke. The demographic will lap it up.

Beyond referencing the 1969 moon landing, I don’t believe that Mad Men has any idea where it intends to take viewers, despite AMC’s “Story Matters Here” tagline. The delay in presenting a new season and the squabbling over ad revenue only sour things further.

This is a pity. Mad Men had a lot of things going for it — especially the actors in its mostly superb cast.

Ah, well. There are other cable shows. AMC’s Breaking Bad seemed to falter, then grew even stronger. FX has Justified, featuring some strong writing and great characters for a fairly standard cop drama, and Season One of Louie was some outstanding comedy, with Season Two scheduled for June.