There’s a lot of TV out there, and some of it is critically acclaimed way more than The Walking Dead.
To that end, let’s talk about Mad Men.
What’s the premise?
It’s the 1960s, and the series follows the day-to-day lives of the employees of an advertising agency through the turbulent decade. Most of the focus goes to Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm, a man who stole an identity to reinvent himself as a top adman in the creative end of advertising. Much of the show’s drama comes from individual characters moving through the decade, beginning with the very buttoned-down 1960 on through to 1970, skipping a few years here and there.
What’s the appeal?
Well, if you get on its wavelength, it will work well for you as the show is often beautifully constructed, well-acted, well-written, and with good period detail. Some early episodes may be a little heavy-handed in terms of things like the rampant sexism in the office and how things we would rightfully freak out about were rather common back then, like seatbelt-less cars, nonstop smoking and drinking at work, pregnant women smoking and drinking, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other things we generally recognize as wrong now but weren’t necessarily seen as wrong then.
The show has many fans, and many people tune in for different reasons. My in-laws, for example, watch in part because it reminds them of their childhood. Others can’t really believe what Draper will do and maybe get away with every week. As a character study, which it often is, the show is dynamite.
Anything stand out?
For starters, the show is more episodic than serial. In fact, the show has been described as how each episode is more like a free-standing short story than a chapter in a longer narrative like its onetime AMC partner Breaking Bad. There may be an overarching plot for a season, but it doesn’t much matter and will only come into focus, if at all, at the end of a given season. Once the mystery of who Don Draper really was was resolved, there wasn’t much else to do in terms of serial storytelling. Each individual episode tends to focus mostly on one character while giving one or two others a noteworthy subplot. There may be some humor in episodes, but the show isn’t really funny. Its mostly about how material things don’t really make the characters happy, and they work in advertising trying to trick people into believing just that. Its a show full of silences and meaningful looks that say more than dialogue does, where sex is rarely sexy and often makes people more lonely and miserable, and the characters are often quiet and unassuming.
Given the time frame, it is worth noting that the two most forward-thinking people on the show, with the most progressive views towards race and gender or technology are also the office’s biggest jerks. That was deliberate, making the least likeable guys in the office the ones with the most 21st century mindsets. The most well-adjusted guy in the firm, the one who’s been consistently faithful to his wife, seems to be able to separate work from home, and find some measure of fulfillment writing science fiction stories on the side, is also the guy who probably has had the least amount of episodes devoted to him.
The setting, it should be noted, seems to be more something happening in the background. Big events of the day rarely play out all that much, with a few noteworthy exceptions, like the JFK assassination. These aren’t people who are suddenly realizing Jim Crow is wrong. The topic comes up, but not in the way TV viewers are generally used to seeing. The 60s here is more of a setting, nothing more, not a commentary on the times then. The Vietnam War seems to play out more symbolically than literally.
If anything described above doesn’t appeal to you, Mad Men is not for you. It took my wife and I a few episodes to get into the series’ rhythm. It may be well-done, but it also isn’t for everybody.