Over the past few years Mad Men has never really risen to the fore of my attention. Other than being vaguely aware that it was a TV show, I was blissfully unaware of what it was. Perhaps student years without a TV had played some part in my ignorance. But, by the time Christmas 2011 came around, I had had enough friends and acquaintances telling me I HAD to see it – usually based on my mild obsession with JFK, Revolutionary Road being one of my favourite novels, or my half-hearted attempts to recreate vintage 60s looks in my wardrobe. So, Santa Claus brought Mad Men on DVD and I got stuck in.
The show follows the lives of the Madison Avenue advertising agency Sterling Cooper, and is centred on creative director Don Draper. Obviously it’s the purpose of any pilot to give a taste of everything a show will have to offer, but it’s unlikely any television series has hit that nail on the head quite as precisely as Mad Men. From the smoking and drinking, to the sexism and antisemitism; to the way a hard day’s doing nothing can remain productive; as soon as a passing remark gives Don the tag line for the product he’s been musing on all day. Episode One will have you hooked, so it’s a good thing I got the complete box set. I set about watching one 45 minute episode each night, or thereabouts.
The idea is to look at the emerging 1960s consumer culture, with the ideals of the American Dream so infused in its promotions, but to see it from the perspectives of the very real, and flawed characters who design it (and thus undermining its actual existence). Clever, right? You have no idea.
Don Draper is the man who has it all. On the surface he’s the perfect American man – he’s handsome, with a great job and a beautiful young family; reflective of the Kennedys themselves. But the reality of the juxtaposition between the smiles on the product covers, and the turmoil underneath is what enlists Draper in the ranks of the American antihero. His frontier? Between consumerism gone wild, the Cold War era, suburban imprisonment and the constant temptation from modern amorality, he’s got his work cut out for him. And there’s the small matter of his assumed identity, which sticks him right up there with Jay Gatsby – music to my literary ears. But I’ll let you get to that by yourselves…
If Don is far from perfect, he’s certainly not alone. If you do manage to develop a favourite character in Mad Men, it won’t be for their likability, for every single character is flawed in themselves. The men are adulterous alcoholics with a ruthless attitude towards everyone they meet; and the women are either superficial city dwellers or moaning desperate housewives. But you could find yourself heartbroken when you get a taste of Pete Campbell’s emasculation, Peggy’s Catholic guilt, or Joan’s desperation to be something more than a sex symbol. Then there’s the question you’ll be asking yourself at the end of every episode – is Don a good man? (Answers on a post card).
Roughly, I watched four seasons in the first four months of 2012, so when season five appeared on Sky Atlantic in May, I couldn’t have been happier. I had finally caught up and could enjoy it in real time with all the other fans. I realise I could write enough on this to fill several blogs – a book perhaps. So consider this a mere sketch of the thoughts I have on the show. If only I’d watched Mad Men years ago, I could definitely have written an awesome dissertation on it. A decidedly low brow English Literature dissertation probably, but awesome nonetheless.