Mad Men is a show about advertising executives in the 1960s. In addition to being my current pop-culture obsession, it’s up for 16 Emmy Awards tonight. To me, Mad Men is like a combination of the best parts of The Wonder Years, The Office, and The Sopranos all rolled into one.
Even if you don’t generally like “critically acclaimed dramas” I highly recommend you give Mad Men a shot. Here’s why:
It’s visually stunning
The lighting, the costumes, the hair and the make-up are all just gorgeous. It really brings back a much more glamorous and put-together kind of world.
The nostalgia factor
The show provides an interesting glimpse into everyday life in the 60s. People smoke constantly on the show—at home, at work, even in the doctor’s office (!). They also drink heavily (sometimes while driving), and work at desks… without computers! It’s amazing to think of the kinds of work they did back then without any of the technology we take for granted.
I’m also really intrigued by the advertising stuff. The clients range from Lucky Strike to Kodak to American Airlines. Here’s an especially moving moment from one of the ad pitches:
Historical time period
Mad Men is peppered with all kinds of historical details—from big things like the Kennedy-Nixon debates to little things like kids riding in the car without their seat belts.
But, more importantly, the timing of the series gives us a unique perspective on a pivotal time in American history. Season 1 takes place in 1960 and Season 2 is set two years later. This is the beginning of the 60s… before the Kennedy assassination, before Woodstock, before the escalation of the Vietnam War. In the Mad Men world, life is good…hardworking men score big accounts, have trophy wives and liquid lunches, drive Cadillacs and sleep with their secretaries.
We know that there are huge cultural shifts underfoot and can see some foreshadowing of change, but the characters of Mad Men are, for the most part, oblivious to all of this.
I’ve read that the creators of the show hope to continue the show through 1972, so it will be interesting to watch these admittedly “old school” characters as they learn to cope during one of the most tumultuous times in our history.
Great Writing, Storytelling, and Characters
Although the time period is fascinating, the writing, acting, and storyline are what keep Mad Men from becoming just another kitschy novelty show (a la Swingtown, which is just horrible!).
The characters are complex and well-written. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is the suave creative director who has the “magic touch” when it comes to wowing clients. He has a lovely wife, a house in the suburbs, two adorable kids, a bunch of mistresses—and a secret past. Even though he does some deplorable things, you can’t really hate him. Creator Matthew Weiner used to be the head writer for The Sopranos, so comparisons to Tony Soprano are plentiful.
The supporting characters at the Sterling-Cooper ad agency are also interesting in their own right. There’s the closeted gay guy, the ruthless up-and-comer, the literary poet, and a couple of guys that seem to be there just for laughs.
But, what really impresses me is the complexity of the female characters. On a show set in the 60s called Mad Men, it would be easy to write the women as merely supporting characters—wives, secretaries, hookers. And, in some respects, they are. But the writers have given these women great roles to work with.
There’s Don’s wife Betty, who looks like Grace Kelly and plays the part of the perfect suburban housewife. But underneath, she’s jealous, manipulative, and sometimes cruel.
At the agency, there’s Joan, the knockout office manager who has the men in the office wrapped around her finger. Then there’s Peggy, a frumpy girl from the secretarial pool who landed a job as a copywriter. It’s interesting to watch the two of them as they use their sexuality and intelligence to navigate office politics in a *very* male-dominated environment.
All in all, it’s just a fantastic show and I look forward to watching it every week. Unfortunately, there is no new episode this week, due to the Emmys. Guess I’ll just have to watch those!
Mad Men airs Sundays at 9:00 CST on AMC.