A Mad Men retrospective

The Thinker by Rodin

Eight years ago I wrote a retrospective for the TV series The West Wing, which lasted seven years on NBC. I am finishing the last season of Mad Men, which also lasted seven years. Mad Men appeared exclusively on AMC, a cable network, unless you include the many services belatedly streaming the show, including Netflix where I watched it. Netflix doesn’t have the last seven episodes available, however my wife has her ways so I am able to watch them anyhow.

Starting the series some months back I had to admit this was an unlikely choice of a show to hook me. It focuses on Madison Avenue in the 1960s. If you’ve been living under a rock, Madison Avenue is known principally for its advertising agencies. This was certainly true in the 1960s. Mad Men is a deep dive into this unlikely world, centered on Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the creative director for the fictional Sterling Cooper ad agency. Sterling Cooper is filled with creative but deeply flawed people. Some like Draper also have natural good looks as an asset. Draper may be a creative ad guy but he is something of a wreck as a human being. Aside from smoking and drinking too much (typical of those with the means in the 1960s) Draper is also a chronic womanizer, constantly in and out of beds of principally very beautiful women, all while being married.

He is hardly the only one in the office to engage in these peccadillos. Most of his fellow partners are doing the same, and this includes the son of one of the founding partners Roger Sterling (John Slattery) who has a torrid on again, off again relationship with the office manager Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks). It’s a world of directing work from the upper floors of tall Manhattan skyscrapers, suits, frequent dinners with clients and personality dramas. With the exception of Joan and Don’s secretary Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) who becomes a copywriter, women are invariably secretaries. Pretty much every man in the place has one outside his door. The women peck away at their IBM Selectric typewriters and answer the phone while waiting to find the right guy to marry, who is often their boss.

It’s a world of wooing clients, losing clients, making pitches to clients and tenuously trying to maintain clients while dressed in fancy suits, smoking too much and drinking too liberally, mostly from the bars in their offices. These men drink more than most sailors; it’s a wonder they can function at all. And yet producer and creator Matthew Weiner makes this world eminently watchable anyhow, despite the white shirts, shined shoes, and neatly trimmed and parted hair. You want to root for someone in this show but it’s hard, not because everyone is evil but because they are caught in a system that rewards deceit. Peggy Moss is the closest the series comes to such a character. As for Don Draper, he’s pitiable and thus hard to root for until you get his weird but compelling backstory.

What the show has going for it is top notch writing and directing, overseen by its obsessive creator Matt Weiner, as well as standout performances by actors who are frequently required to show their characters’ seamier sides. Equally impressive in this period drama was the attention to detail to the turbulent 1960s. Many events at the ad agency overlap with dramatic news stories, such as John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the moon landing. In a world where image is everything, everyone including the spouses tries hard to model their image while the story and camera takes us into their backstories.

There are lots of good characters to enjoy, but few you can feel sorry for. You can feel sorry for Betty, Don’s first wife played by January Jones until you discover she’s pretty insufferable herself. There’s the eager new exec Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) with his own Stepford wife back at home who, like George W. Bush, has to live up to the family’s expectations. It would take too long to list all of them, particularly when so many of them drop out to be replaced by others. There are crises both personal and business-related, sometimes at the same time. Don himself gets pulled more ways than Silly Putty. There are societal issues that creep into the insular ad agency world, including women’s liberation, racism, drug use, the space program and computers. From the first frame to the last, you really feel like you are living in the 1960s. I lived through these events, although I was a child at the time, so I can say it is eerily authentic. If nothing else, Weiner nails the 1960s and gives the viewer a largely accurate depiction not just of the world of advertising but of one of our most transformative decades. Much of the craziness we are living through in the 2010s has its roots in the 1960s, so the show helps you put today in perspective.

The show is principally centered on Don and Peggy, but more on Don than Peggy. Fortunately both Hamm and Moss prove up to mastering their roles. A closer inspection will find other things to admire. For example, the directing is outstanding throughout, and the transitions between scenes are often inventive and very clever, like the advertising world. I found excellence in places I did not expect. For example, Kiernan Shipka does a terrific job as Don’s daughter Sally across seven years of the series, and grew as an actress in the process. By the last season her role was mature and her acting was so good you could see her model both character’s mother and father mannerisms.

Mostly I was surprised that Weiner could make this sort of show work across seven seasons so consistently and with such uniform excellence. I really wanted to not like this show, as I find advertising reprehensible, but I was suckered in anyhow and kept spellbound for much of the series.

In my retrospective of The West Wing I said it was a classy show rarely seen on network TV at the time. Given that Mad Men was only shown on cable, its excellence and commitment to quality is a delightful surprise. It’s a compelling character drama and worth the investment of time, delight and heartache to watch all seven seasons worth.

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