For most hit television shows, premise is everything. Vampire hunting, time travelling, crime solving – the majority of hit series can be described with little more than a noun and a verb. So how to describe Mad Men, AMC’s remarkable period drama, now approaching its third season?
Set in a New York advertising agency at the start of 60s, Mad Men is populated by a disparate collection of executives, secretaries, typists and mothers. But to describe Mad Men‘s setting and protagonists isn’t enough. Its backdrop is merely a springboard for a character-driven (as opposed to story-driven) plot.
Sometimes soapy, frequently funny, and consistently entertaining, Mad Men deals with potentially weighty topics such as fidelity, misogyny, racism and addiction with a deftness and lightness of touch all-too-rare in modern drama.
Mad Men‘s protagonist is Don Draper, an executive at Sterling Cooper, one of Madison Avenue’s leading advertising agencies. The American Dream incarnate, Don appears to have the world at his feet as the first series begins: a beautiful, ex-model wife, the perfect 60s house, and a job that sees him at the height of his creative powers.
In these early episodes, Don’s alpha-male status and apparently unshakeable self-confidence make him a force to be reckoned with in the corporate environment, and in most instances he’s the character responsible for thinking up and selling big ideas to his blue chip clients.
But Don is merely the central point around which at least a dozen other characters revolve, all as interesting and fully rounded as Draper himself. There’s Pete Campbell, the privileged, sulky account executive whose ambition and petulance often results in his undoing. Then there’s Roger Sterling, one of the advertising agency’s senior partners whose taste for alcohol and women often lands him in similarly awkward territory.
It’s Mad Men‘s female characters, however, which provide the drama with much of its soul. While the men of the series are frequently depicted as the braying, hard-drinking, self-congratulatory core of its events, it’s their wives, lovers and secretaries, often left on the periphery, who are the easiest to root for.
Peggy Olson battles against the gender stereotypes of the 60s, ultimately rising from the socially acceptable post of secretary to the rather less usual position of copywriter. Joan Harris is Sterling Cooper’s office manager, whose Marilyn Monroe-esque appearance belies a character of genuine strength and intelligence. Finally, there’s Don Draper’s wife, Betty, whose trophy wife status means her own ambitions and talents are similarly overlooked. It’s not until some twenty episodes in that we discover, almost in passing, that she has a degree in anthropology and can speak fluent Italian.
It’s how these characters exist within the world series creator Matthew Weiner has made for them, meanwhile, that gives Mad Men its vital crackle and fizz.
Identity is a key theme in Mad Men, and nobody is ever quite who they appear to be. Each one is filled with thwarted ambitions and frustrated dreams, none more so than Don Draper himself, whose closet, it’s gradually revealed over seasons one and two, is filled with proverbial skeletons.
Small-scale dramas – bereavements, divorce, affairs – are set against bigger events, such as the death of Marilyn Monroe, the Cuban missile crisis or the assassination of Kennedy, and it’s this sense of period context that gives a greater richness to Mad Men‘s drama. Nothing happens in isolation, and each event is intimately linked, and has a profound effect, upon the next.
Character and context would mean nothing without good acting, of course, and the creators of Mad Men have assembled a faultless cast. The most obvious actor to single out is Jon Hamm, who plays the role of Don Draper like Cary Grant playing poker. By turns reticent and suave, the restraint with which Hamm plays the part makes the occasional flashes of anger all the more shocking, and when Draper shows a rare moment of human frailty towards the end of series two, his reaction is both believable and profoundly moving.
In fact, it’s the restraint shown by the entire cast which makes Mad Men so gripping. Where other dramas, whether they’re soap operas or genre shows, illustrate arguments by having their characters screaming and throwing vases at one another, Mad Men‘s confrontations are quiet and understated, and a display of anger can often be detected in nothing more remarkable than a passing glance or a brief, cutting remark.
That’s not to say that Mad Men is short of moments of surprise or intrigue. Matthew Weiner’s writing is filled with pitch black humour, and a seemingly unstoppable agency takeover by a British company is briefly halted by, of all things, the presence of a ride-on lawnmower in the Sterling Cooper office.
Which brings me on to the biggest star of Mad Men, which is unarguably the writing itself. No matter how apparently inconsequential and mundane the events (though, in the greater scheme of things, every scene has its own vital part to play in the overarching narrative) Mad Men‘s dialogue sparkles throughout.
As a random example, consider the moment in the last episode of season one, in which Don Draper is given the task of re-branding a rotating slide holder, which his client, Kodak, had unimaginatively christened ‘The Wheel’. In the presentation meeting, Draper flips through a series of slides of his family, while delivering the following monologue:
“It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards… it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the Wheel, it’s called the Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels – around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”
It’s a sublimely written and acted moment, and tinged with a hint of melancholy which permeates the entire series.
In an era where television series are increasingly sold on their concepts, Mad Men is a rare example of a show which can’t be easily summed up with two words, or even a sentence. Its premise and largely dialogue-driven plot may make it sound like something far too dry and flat for a geek audience, but the quality of Mad Men‘s writing, production and acting makes it an irresistible draw, despite the absence of the action, explosions or fantasy we’ve perhaps come to expect from American TV.
Mad Men is a series that, most obviously, uses advertising as a metaphor to explore the superficiality of the American dream, an obvious notion, perhaps, but it delves far deeper than that, and reveals something more profound about social expectations, greed and excess.
It shows, perhaps cartoonishly, how antiquated the customs and habits of the 60s now appear – the sexism, racism, the relentless drinking and smoking – but it also holds up a mirror to the way society is now, and how the relentless pursuit of wealth and materialism only lead to dissatisfaction and emptiness.
Most importantly of all, it touches on all these topics with intelligence and humour. One rich hotelier describes his advertising campaign as “bringing America to the world, whether the world wants it or not”, just one example of how potentially bleak subjects are dressed up in a wry humour worthy of Joseph Heller.
So, how do I sum up Mad Men, a drama that encompasses so many original ideas, subtexts and themes, and does so with such verve and literary intelligence? No doubt Don Draper would be able to come up with something more intelligent and cool, but if I had to sum the show up in two words, I’d have to choose ‘perfect television’.