TV has come a long way. Long gone are the days of the sickeningly uniform ubiquity of “fast-food TV,” those easily digestible 20 or 30-minute serials and soaps whose laugh tracks and cheap drama relegated TV into being the immature little brother of film. Fast forward 20 odd years and, as hundreds of think pieces espouse, on a regular basis, we are in the “golden age” of TV. While film sometimes gives the impression of falling into an endless cycle of reboots and sequels, TV is filled with innovative, clever, dramatic, Shakespearean works of art. Even Meryl fucking Streep is on HBO. Helping kick-start this revolution was a show, on a floundering network with unknown actors, called “Mad Men.”
Or so I’d been told. Despite being familiar with all the “modern classics” of “The Wire,” “The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad,” etc., I’d hastily dismissed “Mad Men” as being style over substance. I was unable to look beyond the glamorous hair, suits and fancy cocktail orders to see what “Mad Men” truly is: one of the greatest set of character studies in modern TV.
“Mad Men” spans roughly a decade in the 1960s and 1970s, focusing on the offices of Sterling Cooper, a Madison Avenue firm at the height of the advertising craze. It centers on the life of Don Draper (Jon Hamm, “Baby Driver”), a talented creative director at Sterling Cooper with a ridiculous amount of self-assured swagger and an equally mysterious past. The show uses the interactions of Sterling Cooper employees to explore and reflect upon the changing social norms of the turbulent ’60s, drawing on topics from the counterculture movement to the Civil Rights Movement.
Period dramas had been done before and since, but few have the ability of “Mad Men” to fully engross in the world they portray. The attention to detail in every aspect of the show is stunning, but more importantly, the environments the character live in do not feel explicitly like sets. Rather, they are as dynamic and alive as the characters themselves.
While Don Draper’s story is the centerpiece of the show, it is the interactions of the large cast of characters that make the show a masterpiece. The arcs of Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser, “The Most Hated Woman in America”) and Sterling Cooper senior partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery, “Captain America: Civil War”) are some of the show’s most impactful, and, if anything, carry more tenable lessons to draw from. Sal Romano’s (Bryan Batt, “Mississippi Murder”) arc is a poignant exploration of society’s view on homosexuality. Even the minor characters, of which there are hundreds, feel fleshed out and realistic.
In another sense, the true heroes of the show are the women. Peggy Olsen (Elizabeth Moss, “The Handmaid’s Tale”) and Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks, “Zoolander 2”), the show’s two prominent female characters manage to rise above the traditional social structures imposed in a workplace such as the Sterling Cooper agency to gain greater standing. Peggy’s arc in particular is stunning to witness, especially after her introduction as a seemingly naïve, typical secretary school graduate in the pilot.
Another remarkable aspect of the show is that looking back, it never relied on traditional crowd-pleasers such as shoehorned romantic plots or violence. The relationships are (frustratingly) real and complex. All the drama and intrigue is due to social interactions between relatively uninteresting subjects: Corporate executives. In retrospect, my initial assumption of the show prioritizing style over substance was not just incorrect, it was the exact opposite of the true situation. While the flamboyant hair and glamorous, three-martini lunches were irresistible to watch, they weren’t for show, but rather for realism. The skilled writing and production elevate the show from simply being another “Pan Am.”
Each arc of each character in “Mad Men” is dynamic and compelling. The show does not fall prey to flanderization and creates a cast of three-dimensional characters, each with his or her own set of strengths and insecurities. Ultimately, these attributes, in addition to the authenticity of the time period it portrays, make “Mad Men” one of the greatest TV shows of all time.
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” season 1, episode 1
The one that started it all. Pilots are hard, and rightfully so. More often than not, I’ve usually had to give a show the benefit of the doubt and keep on watching despite a lackluster pilot. “Mad Men,” on the other hand, offers a perfect distillation and introduction to its rich, complex world. The first time we are introduced to Don Draper, he’s trying to figure out how to market cigarettes despite growing awareness of their health risks. Peggy is only the bumbling, shy secretary who hasn’t quite learned how to navigate the workplace. Pete Campbell is the most dislikable, nakedly ambitious prick one could be. Looking back after finishing the series, it’s a testament to the quality of the writing that while some of the characters feel like completely different people at the conclusion, their transformations are entirely believable if you look closer at the pilot.
“The Other Woman,” season 5, episode 11
The Sterling Cooper team is working around the clock to secure the Jaguar account. At the same time, Joan wrestles with an extremely humiliating proposal. Hendricks is stunning in this episode, portraying a subtle, complex reaction that isn’t something we’d quite expect from her. The episode conjures a variety of ethical questions regarding business in general, and the juxtaposition of Joan’s decision and the handling of the Jaguar deal as a whole is one of the series’ most compelling.
“Lost Horizon,” season 7, episode 12
This episode features one of my favorite television scenes ever, as Peggy struts down the halls of McCann Erickson with sunglasses, a cigarette hanging out of her mouth and a copy of “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” all with the most satisfying smirk ever seen on television. Prior to this triumphant arrival, her interactions with Roger are heartwarming. Joan’s mixture of hope and disappointment are especially poignant. While Don’s journey is not quite as interesting, it offers a decent amount of character development. It also tiptoes the line of absurd humor and serious social commentary extremely well, as “Mad Men” often does so successfully.