(warning: contains some spoilers)
When I first heard of the TV series ‘Mad Men’, it didn’t much interest me despite the critical acclaim and hype it was getting. Its subject matter – corporate culture of the 1960s – and its targets (hypocrisy, sexism, double-standards of the era and culture) seemed rather obvious and done to death beforehand.
However, I obtained a copy of the first series a couple of years ago and eventually got around to watching it. A few months later, I’ve watched all four series and 52 episodes of the series and am totally hooked on the series and a major fan.
The series centres on a successful advertising agency in early 1960s New York. The central character is Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the creative director and rising star of the organisation who is never short on brilliant ideas. He is charismatic, intelligent and successful and has a seemingly idyllic home life with a beautiful wife and is a good father to his two children. But inevitably, from the opening episode we see there are many contradictions in his life. Not only is he a serial philanderer, but there are numerous questions about his past that will be answered over the course of the series.
Looking back on the show, what makes it work is that it manages to juggle different styles and modes of characterisation and story-telling so well. On one hand it is often remarkably subtle in its characterisation and done with great patience. Characterisations develop over multiple series, and changes in relationships between characters aren’t signposted; viewers expected to work out for themselves how they’ve evolved.
On the other hand, the show doesn’t shy away from using melodramatic events (often piled on top of each other) for impact and as major defining events in the series. For example, in a Series 4 show Don Draper’s young daughter runs away from home and turns up at his office, while his aged secretary dies of a heart attack at the same time! At times like this, the narrative feels like it wouldn’t be out of place in a soap opera as opposed to a usually restrained drama.
Despite these seemingly uneasy elements, MM works remarkably well. The secret to its success is how substantial and intelligently it treats the characters and issues of the era. It did have a slow start on this aspect. After watching all four series I looked back at the opening episode and it did seem rather clunky and heavy-handed in demonstrating the rampant workplace sexism of the day. But as the series progressed the writers became more confident in the concept and the way it conveys the culture of the era and major news events have just the right touch. The subtle way the Kennedy assassination is learned by the central characters and people in the workplace is particularly convincing and impressively done. You really feel like this is how it actually was in this time period, a tough thing to achieve.
Apart from Draper, probably the most interesting character on the show is Peggy (Elisabeth Moss). The reason is that whereas most of the other characters are pretty much set in what section of the socio-economic ladder they occupy, it’s clear from early on that her status within the company and general life is much more fluid and unpredictable. She also is a fascinating persona, at times admirable for refusing to accept her lot in life and utilise her talents, at other times self-absorbed and ruthless towards others in her pursuit of success
The show has a plethora of interesting and varied characters, but MM lives or dies on the basis of its central character Don Draper, excellently played by Hamm. He was particularly vital in the opening series as his mysterious past helped drive the drama when the knowledge of supporting characters was only superficial. It was interesting to look back at the pilot episode and notice how Hamm seemed not particularly assured at how to play the character and giving a rather varied performance. But within a couple of episodes Hamm got settled and soon the character seemed to fit him like a glove. Draper is never less than a compelling character to follow.
The greatest tribute one can give to MM is that as a character study virtually all of the main characters grow more interesting and layered as the series progresses. It’s clear that series creator Matthew Weiner has thought deeply about the development of these characters and developments and new knowledge about them are rarely tacked on. As a result, when a main character (like the closeted homosexual Sal) disappears during the show, his presence is greatly missed and you wonder what occurred to his character afterwards.
The show isn’t perfect – I thought the first couple of seasons started rather slowly as there was a lack of narrative drive that strong characterisation could only partially compensate. The writers seemed to be aware of this and the last two series have begun with major events (English management taking over the ad agency, Don Draper and other key personnel leaving to start own ad agency) to create interest at the start.
Also, the usually excellent balance between melodrama and characterisation can feel rather uneasy. Don Draper’s seemingly perfect record with getting women he chases after seems rather a stretch. Also his convoluted and shady past where he transformed himself from a poor farm boy to a slick, successful ad man somewhat strains credibility. In these aspects the show crosses the line from drama to melodrama and soap opera.
But overall, I have very few complaints of this extremely well-made and acted series. It’s certainly more substantial than any cinema release I’ve seen over the last few years. Until watching MM, I haven’t caught up with any of the highly regarded recent TV series that are acclaimed as being part of a golden age of that medium. On the basis of MM, I should spend more time watching these shows and less time at the cinema.