And this time it’s about Mad Men.
The pilot began with a title card:
“MAD MEN: A term coined in the late 1950’s to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue.They coined it.”
I don’t know what it is about this show. Most of the characters aren’t very likeable and the pacing is maddeningly (no pun intended) slow. But there’s something about it that sucks you in.
I actually hesitate to write too much about it because I don’t want to give a lot away. I caught the first season on On Demand, and I accidentally found out about one of the major plot twists of the first season before I saw it. But here are the basics: it’s set in New York in the 1960s and is about the lives and careers of advertising executives. If it’s accurate, advertising execs of that era were always drunk. And smoking. And, quite often, very sexist. And adhering to the sleeping-with-the-secretary cliché.
But while details like that are often heavy-handed, there are a lot of more subtle things going on. The first season ended at Thanksgiving of 1960, and the second season picked up on Valentine’s Day of 1962. At first, it seemed like not much had changed in a little over a year. But then, without giving too much away, I started picking up on little differences in the ways the characters interacted with each other—ways that symbolize the changes of the country as a whole during the 60s. The times, they are a-changin.
The protagonist, Don Draper, is a handsome thirty-something played extraordinarily well by Jon Hamm, and it’s a credit to both him and the writers that I find the character so interesting. To put it bluntly, he’s kind of an ass—he cheats on his wife, lies without batting an eye, and protects his own interests to the point of occasional cruelty. But somehow, I’m still rooting for him and waiting to learn more about him as his mysterious backstory unfolds. (I can hear how vague I sound, but seriously, I don’t want to give anything away.)
The most interesting characters, though, are the women. Betty, Don’s wife, is a beautiful former model who’s become a lonely housewife, unable to show warmth to her children and resentful of her unfaithful, inattentive husband. But while in Season 1 she was at times timid, in the second season she’s developed a steely glare and a firm tone of voice, and I’m interested to see what will happen with her character in Season 3. Joan Holloway, the office manager, uses wisely the power she has over the secretarial pool—and the different kind of power she has over the office men. In a different life and time, she could be one of the men she works for. But although she did well at one opportunity to fill in for a male colleague, her work went unnoticed, and sadly, her future is probably bound to her degrading relationship with her fiancé. On the other hand, Peggy Olson, the earnest secretary-turned-copywriter, is a woman who’s finding success in a man’s job. It’s been fascinating to watch her try to figure out how to succeed. Should she try to be one of the guys, or embrace her femininity? Should she treat the men as her superiors or as equals? Should she stay true to her kind nature or look out her own interests at the expense of her colleagues? The influence that Don, her boss, has over her is intriguing—particularly when he urges her to hide a secret she’s keeping, much like Don hides his own past. As the show continues, I wonder if she’ll continue to become more like Don.
There was a great article in the Globe recently that brought up some good points about the relevance these characters have in today’s world. Really, there could be a million more articles like that on all kinds of topics. I feel like I could write a paper, or several, on Mad Men. There’s nothing else like it on TV right now—and it’s also becoming clearer that the writers have a vision for this show, and that it could be headed for some very interesting storylines in the next season (which, sadly, won’t start until next summer).