The hits series Mad Men has a lot of things going for it. The element of surprise seems to be one of them. A little series that snuck up on us, creeping along in its Sunday night time slot on a cable channel that was best known for airing classic films all day long. What could be viewed an as odd choice for a network that specializes in movies, almost along the lines of ‘the older, the better’; Mad Men has found its niche. And in it AMC has found a star.
Set in the fictional ad agency of Sterling Cooper during the early 1960s (season one takes place in 1960, season two in 1962), it demonstrates how changing times and the new pop culture affect the men (and women) who work behind the scenes. While it is primarily an ensemble drama, the central character is Don Draper whose charisma and mystery drive the show and a lot of the other characters. What seems as a premise that could dry up pretty fast (it is a show about a workplace and no one dies in it) draws the viewer in, creating an elaborate, dark and realistic world. It paints a portrait of what life was like back then without sugar coating; if you’re looking for a nostalgic romp, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.
The attention to detail is positively staggering. With sets, hairstyles and costumes that seem to have stepped right out of the decade without a blink of the eye (or perhaps with the aid of a TARDIS). The use of radio recordings and television clips help to set the scene, giving a sense of time and pacing rather than allowing the show to appear static in a particular period. The times are changing and by keeping the movement going it emphasizes this without getting preachy.
My fascination with this show comes from a variety of places. The fashion (men in suits, women in slinky dresses and clam diggers and so many other things) calls out to my inner desire to want to be Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and a hundred other classic heroines. Combine that with the fact that this is the word that my parents were born into, that my grandparents lived in (there are photos of my grandmother in which she is the spitting image of January Jone’s Betty Draper) causes me to want to know more about this world that not even questions to could give me insist. Oh yeah, a lot of this is the historian in me, but I’m not saying that everyone has to be wandering around wearing an “I know who shot JFK” shirt to love this show. It has something for everyone and it shows.
It isn’t for the feint of heart. While it does have its lighter moments, this show is primarily a drama, set in a time where race, class, health and moral issues were bubbling under the surface. Someone I know said that this show “wasn’t PC” and while in a sense that is true, at the same time it isn’t; politically correct just didn’t exist back then. There is one scene that I remember vividly of Betty and her neighbor and confident Francine (who is pregnant) sitting and drinking and discussing what is wrong with the fact that their new neighbor appears to be a divorcée. It seems almost ironic that a show about advertising features people doing the very thing that many warning labels on advertisements tell you not to do. It’s making a statement, it’s telling you “this is how it was, and while we think our lives are big and full of change, imagine living through that”.
With each character having their own heartbreak and joys from Don’s plucky secretary turned copywriter Peggy Olsen (played by Elisabeth Moss of The West Wing) to the somewhat jerky account executive Pete Campbell (played by Angel’s Vincent Kartheiser) there is no lack of storylines and motivations behinds the interactions. The show is heavy but it doesn’t get bogged down in trying to deliver too much information to the viewer (while even the minor characters have back stories and are fleshed out, the show doesn’t stop to include them). This is a rich subculture, full of life and misery that at times is like watching a train wreck, but stopping is just not in the cards.
This story isn’t over and with season two having left us with even more questions than season one, I encourage everyone to sit down and watch it if you haven’t. Both seasons are available on DVD and at a modest thirteen episodes each it won’t clog up a huge chunk of time. The new season (season three) starts Sunday (August 16) at 10pm EST (9pm CST) on AMC and find out why this show is worth every single one of those Emmys.