As most people who watch television award shows and subscribe to cable know, Mad Men is a AMC original series about the Manhattan advertising world of the early 60’s.
Created by Matthew Weiner (with writer credits for some 26 episodes), Mad Men is an exceptionally constructed, high quality show. You can’t find too many of those on the telly these days. We have a growing number of channels, but most of those selections seem pretty empty if you stick to one long enough to absorb what’s going on (it usually takes under a second to get the jest). When I sit down to watch T.V, I don’t like the feeling that I am wasting my life away throughout the program time. All I’m asking for in a televised event is that it evoke some sort of emotion or provoke thought. If nothing else, gaining an emotional experience or discovery from staring at a fake window, justifies me doing so …in my own mind anyway.
Therefore, it isn’t often I come across a series that I truly become absorbed in. From my viewing experience, Mad Men is a terrific, subtle, seductive and intriguing episodic worth the time in front of your television set.
I think there are several reasons why this show works so well right now. It’s a well scripted show, full of meaningful subtext in dialogue and action. Each character is multi-layered and slowly revealed, building excellent mystery and tension, but it’s more than the terrific writers, directors and actors.
Mad Men’s time period is set in a period of history that in some ways, parallels what our current climate. In the early 60’s, America experienced uncertainty and fear, combined with the excitement of a new era. The United States was ready for change and voted a hip Democratic president into office with a gorgeous first lady. The old school Republican, Richard Nixon, lost to a handsome young candidate, by the name of John F. Kennedy. America was on the verge of the future. New technologies, new looks in fashion and design replaced a more traditional esthetic. The Cuban missile crisis was in the air and people were frightened of the unknown. Would they see tomorrow? Sound familiar? Yes, history does repeat itself, and that’s part of the reason why I think this series resonates.
But political parallels, and a talented production team doesn’t necessarily do the trick. Style, however, goes a long way and style is something Mad Men isn’t short on.
It helps that mid-century design and fashion have seen a resurgence in recent years. The sets and costumes are retro, but have a distinctly modern feel since this era’s look has made a come back. You can find vintage inspired shift dresses at JCrew that are remarkably similar to those snuggly fitted garments the agency women wear on the show. Is Sterling Cooper’s interior full of unique vintage Eames and Knoll furnishing, or did the set designer hit Design within Reach? (I'm inclined to think it’s a bit of both)
The costuming (Janie Bryant), along with the cast are incredibly sexy. Each character’s dress (as it should be) expresses their story as much as the dialogue and action do. Same with the sets. There's a great video with set designer Amy Wells and Production Designer, Dan Bishop on the AMC official website that discusses some of their choices and reason for them.
I have to mention the editing too. This is a paced show. Edits are done to move the viewer into the next scene seamlessly. Trendy, flashy cuts are absent here and for good reason. Tension builds at the speed of the period. That’s not to say the episodes are slow moving. They’re not. It’s just that the edits are clever and timed appropriately to the mood of the production. The editors are in tune with the story, it’s direction and the esthetic of the production.
The implied lifestyle of the Madison Avenue advertising world of yesteryear is certainly romanticized to its full advantage in Mad Men. The ad men drink and gamble, fool around with the secretaries or have affairs with clients. They go to strip joints and poker games with their co-workers and entertain perspective business associates with complementary hookers. They have handy little mini-bars in the office and smoke at their desks. Ah, the good old days. It seems laughable when we think about politically correct office conduct now, but no doubt the portrayal isn’t all that off from the reality of it’s day. In this way, there are few parallels. Today those things might go on, but it doesn’t often take place overtly or celebrated in the open. In any case, the atmosphere at Sterling Cooper and the lives of those outside the office only aids the drama.
Although Mad Men can definitely boast an ensemble cast, the main character is undoubtedly Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm. Don Draper is the ultimate ad man because he invents and reinvents each products into something beautiful and desirable, right down to his own life. For Don Draper, nothing is as it seems. It’s not just the Donald Draper character that has dept and mystic though. Each personality (take a look at the cast & characters) has their own developed backstory and human complexities. They aren’t formulaic either. The women may experience sexism (as a woman there are some scenes where I can't help but note how far and how little we've come) and the men may be sexist (ditto), as was the way of the time, but individual’s actions result from real motivation under fairly plausible circumstances. This isn’t a Desperate Housewives soap opera.
In closing, if you haven’t seen Mad Men as of yet, and you’re looking for a good show, with beautifully subtle writing, direction and editing, you can download episodes off iTunes or add to your Netflix to catch up on the first two seasons. From what I hear, season three is a go, so check your local listings.