Mad Men recently completed its eight-season run (I say eight in direct defiance of AMC’s silly two-part seventh season, which is just nonsense since the two parts were shown basically a year apart). Since the day I first started watching Mad Men (shortly after its initial release on DVD), I have been mystified by its pull on me (and its pull on countless millions of others). Mad Men has little suspense or the kind of gripping drama (which even Rectify has) which is typical of compelling television. And yet I’ve always been drawn to watching every episode as soon as possible, usually completing each season within a week of its release on DVD. What is this magic of Mad Men (created by Matthew Weiner)?
Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper, a brilliant advertising executive in New York City in the 1960’s. Don may be one of the best ad men (‘mad men’) out there, but he is a very troubled soul, with a mysterious and dark past and a wide variety of character flaws in the present. Watching Don sell himself as a confident businessperson who has everything while his life falls apart around him is surely one of the appeals of Mad Men, not because we enjoy watching Don fail (we don’t) but because his character is so well-drawn and Hamm’s acting so good that we develop a deep attachment to this flawed man.
While Don is clearly the central character of Mad Men, we also catch regular glimpses of his family and of the lives (at home and at work) of his colleagues in the ad firm (Sterling Cooper), making Mad Men largely an ensemble show featuring an excellent cast, including Elisabeth Moss, John Slattery, Vincent Kartheiser, Christina Hendricks, Robert Morse, January Jones, Jessica Paré and many more.
The acting is superb all around, but Mad Men has it all: great writing, gorgeous cinematography, a good score when needed and an incredible sense of its time (i.e. perfect period detail). The latter is likely a key component of its draw on us, especially for those of us who were alive back in the 60’s: we feel that this is exactly what life was like in New York in the 60’s. Part of this allure is the attention Mad Men focuses on all of the social issues of the period it portrays (e.g. sexism, racism, homophobia, alcoholism, alienation, etc.). Unlike many (most?) of the other great cable TV serials, Mad Men manages to feel real and raw with virtually no bad language, sex or violence, making one question why shows like Game of Thrones (and even the early great The Sopranos) feel it is necessary to take full advantage of the freedom cable offers.
Another example of the very best TV has ever offered, Mad Men gets an easy ****. My mug is up.