Darlings, believe it or not, there are things that catch our eye on television that not only don’t appear on the Bravo network, but also aren’t reality television competitions. Foremost among them is AMC’s brilliant Mad Men. We have single-handedly turned over a dozen people onto this show and now we’re going to berate you into watching it.
Put simply, it is, by far, the most adult, most stylish, best written show on television at the moment. And we say “adult” in the sense that it’s subtle and complex, not in the “there’s a lot of sex” sense (although there’s plenty of sex).
Set in early ’60s Manhattan (and surrounding environs), the show is centered around ad agency Sterling Cooper, the men who run it, and the women behind the men. That’s what it’s “about,” but what it’s really about is social change; the things that lead up to it, the people who are going to be affected by it, and the way it sneaks up on you without you realizing it. It’s the only show we’ve ever seen that makes us want to go out and pick up a copy of The Feminine Mystique. Not that the show’s about feminism, but the spectre of its arrival looms large over everything. But let’s put that aside for a moment and discuss other things.
The look of the show – if you’re a fan of mid-century modern design – is like a series of eye orgasms. Everything and everybody looks fantastic. And not just fantastic, but dead on for the period. Not that everyone walks around in magazine-cover clothing or lives in magazine-cover homes. The art director made a very wise choice and one that’s rooted in the real world: real people have clothing that’s more than a couple months old and furnishings that can be as much as a couple decades old. In fact, that’s of a piece with the show’s theme: these people are still living in the ’50s and don’t realize it. Enormous social change is coming and they not only don’t know it, they’re all (well, most of them) particularly ill-suited to deal with it.
And setting the show in an ad agency is brilliant, not only because being an ad man on Madison Avenue was one of the most glamorous jobs you could have at the time (think Darrin Stevens), but it’s perfectly suited for discussing social change. Like it or not, advertisements are powerful indicators of who we are and what we consider important.
Breaking it down to its basics, it’s a soap opera, with the usual soap opera subplots of secret pregnancies, hidden pasts, adultery, and backstabbing business dealings. But the sum is so much greater than its parts. The style of the show and the way it tells its stories is so low-key that at first glance it might come across boring, but again, that’s of a piece with what the show’s trying to say. Events sneak up on people and they don’t always have easily read reactions. When we first started watching season 1, our initial reaction was “Nothing happens.” When we got to about episode 5 we looked back and realized that a lot had happened. It’s just that the writing and the directing was so subtle – and so not the normal television method of spelling everything out for the viewer – that it took a while for things to register.
If the writing and directing can be characterized as subtle, the acting is almost…non-existent. That’s probably a strange way to put it, but there’s very little in the way of emoting. Some might find that frustrating but once again, it’s part of the show’s theme. Coming out of the ’50s, these people were living in a time where repression and conformity were the name of the game and the ticket to survival in a harsh and confusing world. It’s almost impossible to tell what the characters are thinking as events unfold but then again, we don’t go through life knowing instantly what people think about things either. We have only their actions as a way of judging people and much like the real world, the characters on Mad Men act in confusing and contradictory ways. It’s up to the viewer to decide who’s the villain and who’s the hero in any situation. The show isn’t going to tell you because the show assumes you’re smart enough to come to your own conclusions.
The main character of the show is Don Draper as portrayed by the so-handsome-it-hurts Jon Hamm. If there’s anyone who can bring back smoking, drinking and cheating on your wife as glamorous, it’s him. The man is the very image of the late ’50s/early ’60s business man, with a profile that deserves to be carved into a mountainside and the ability to make a cigarette look like a sexual aide. Don routinely does terrible things to the people around him but inexplicably, you’re going to root for him. Not in the love-to-hate manner of a J.R. Ewing, but in the want-to-make-it-all-better-for-him manner of a truly complex character. He does something to a woman in the last episode that by any measure would be considered shocking and a bit disgusting but the two gal pals we were watching the show with both gasped and then said “That’s so hot.” Intellectually, you know he’s morally bankrupt, but he’s so stylish, so good-looking, and underneath it all, such a sympathetic character that you’re willing to forgive him almost anything. Don has done everything he could to have the perfect life, only to find out that the life he sought is empty and cold. He’s tortured and he has secrets. Boy, does he have secrets.
And while it’s Don and the other men in the cast who drive the main action, the women in the cast shine as they chafe under the restrictions society puts on them. If we ever took the feminist movement for granted, we can’t now. The way women were treated less than half a century ago is utterly appalling and the show pulls no punches depicting it. Ass-slapping and “sweetheart” rule the day. Being dehumanized was just another day for them and most of them smiled and shrugged it off but it’s the smart ones who realize that this is no way to live. When one male character asks what it is that women want, another one responds with an airy “Who cares?”
January Jones is a revelation as Don’s wife Betty (and can we just say we love the names of these characters? Betty, Don, Peggy, Roger, Trudy, Francine, Midge – they just don’t make names like that anymore). Pretty and delicate, you could easily be fooled into thinking that she’s just a paper doll, there only for set dressing, but she’s one hell of an actress too. She appears to be descending slowly into housewife madness but, as with everything in the show, there’s so much more to her than that.
And Christina Hendricks as Sterling Cooper office manager Joan Holloway is FABULOUS. With a body straight out of a pinup calendar and the ability to deliver a bitchy line that would make Bette Davis jealous (“You’re the new girl and you’re not much, so you might as well enjoy it.”), she is drop-dead gorgeous, fascinating and MUCH smarter than the people around her realize. To be honest, she’s probably our favorite character. Beautiful, stylish and bitchy. How could we not love her?
Rounding out the mother, maiden, crone triad is Elizabeth Moss as Peggy Olsen. She comes across as the quintessential “good girl” character, but as time goes on, you realize she’s got a spine of steel and a desire for more than what’s been set in front of her. At the end of last season, Peggy’s story suddenly got a LOT more complicated and those events, more than any other, are what keep us coming back each week, dying to find out more. Of all the characters in the show, it’s Peggy who stands to benefit the most from the social changes just around the bend and we can’t wait to see how they’re going to affect her. She and Joan are at odds with each other, but that makes perfect sense. Joan, as smart as she is, is a throwback to a time when women used their sex appeal to get what they want and she’s threatened by Peggy, who isn’t as pretty as she is but somehow manages to get more out of life than she does.
It’s that constant tension between the old and the new that drives every story and every character. We could literally spend hours talking about this show. One of the things that really sucks about working at home is the lack of water-cooler conversation. We suppose we could stand around in front of our Brita filter and talk about it, but it just doesn’t have the same effect. This is why we blog and this is why you’re probably going to see more posts about this show. We HAVE to talk about it and if you want to join in on the conversation, go out and rent Season 1 and catch up on Season 2 on Sunday nights on AMC.
Oh, and if you’re trying to quit smoking, stock up on gum and carrot sticks ahead of time.
[Photos: Courtesy of amctv.com]