Mad Men: A term coined in the late 1950s to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue. They coined it.
And here with this very term, “Mad Men” begins. With this very definition, you are about to descend into a new, unimaginable world.
The first shot of “Mad Men” looks like a shot taken right out of “Goodfellas.” It is of a crowded, smoke-filled Manhattan bar in the early 1960s. Era classics play in the background. Slowly, the camera pans to the back of a man’s head. The man sits diligently writing notes. He wears a fancy gray business suit, his hair is slicked back, he smokes a cigarette.
These are minor details one doesn’t necessarily need to know. But this is “Mad Men” and in “Mad Men,” every minor detail counts whether that be a person’s attitude or a man’s tie.
The man being described above is at first shrouded in mystery. He is Don Draper. Draper, played by Jon Hamm, is an ad man, working for the successful Sterling Cooper advertising agency. He can sell products no man you’ll ever see can. In his graceful speeches, he has the ability to turn mere objects into reflections of life, moving people through his words by convincing them that something as stupid as a type of lipstick is the second coming. Basically, he’s a whiter version of Barack Obama.
Although Don is the show’s front and center, “Mad Men” is not merely about him. Instead, the show uses him as a reflection of the change in American culture in the early 1960s. But creator Matthew Weiner uses the world beyond Don as well.
“Mad Men” paints two portraits of the 1960s: office life and suburban life. In the office, Don is surrounded by a multitude of strange and fascinating co-workers. Some include his boss Roger Sterling (John Slattery), who is more or less another version of Don’s chain smoking, womanizing self, Don’s secretary Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), who at first seems like a pre-feminist stereotype, but is truly bursting with energy, and accountant Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), a WASP who is trying to chose his own path even though his path has already been carved from the beginning.
Moving on from cubicle life, “Mad Men” explores the dawn of American suburbia. The difference between New York City and suburban home for Don is like night and day. In the city, he’s an unfaithful, partying womanizer. In the suburbs, he is a loyal husband with a typical white picket fence home as well as a wife and two children. His wife, Betty (January Jones), seems like a normal housewife, cooking and cleaning while carpooling for her kids all day long. But she is much more than that. As the show progresses, she yearns to break free from her dull life.
“Mad Men” is about a significant moment in American culture. It balances so many different emotions and yet never manages to be too extreme. At times, it’s dramatic but never over them top. It can be sad but never corny. It’s often sweet but never sappy. The costumes, set design, music, and cinematography so amazingly show off every little detail of the era with stunning perfection, yet, the show is never style over substance. In fact, the substance often lies within the show’s style.
The little details, such as a smoky room or an old time automobile, fully engulf the show into the era. Further dragging the audience into the 1960s are all of the pop culture references. One gets to watch how events such as JFK’s election and Marilyn Monroe’s death effected people.
Beyond the sets, costumes, and memorabilia, “Mad Men” boasts one of the best ensembles currently on television. Jones, Slattery, and Christina Hendricks give fine supporting performances but none can match the performance of Jon Hamm as Don Draper. I know I often say that an actor becomes the character, but here, Hamm really does become Draper. Even though Draper is so unfaithful, we often feel sympathy for him. Hamm shows that even though he does horrible things, he’s still a human with a beating heart who still loves his kids andwants to make his family happy. And that, is the essence of great acting.
As mentioned previously, “Mad Men” is a look at two sides of life in the 60s: city and suburban. Perhaps the suburban side is the more interesting side. This is a place where “Mad Men” succeeds where many have failed: to offer a nightmarish, yet realistic view of suburbia. Maybe it’s the for the reason that “Mad Men” is a TV show and can therefore go into much more depth on the issue. While “Revolutionary Road” only had two hours, “Mad Men” has two seasons. The essential question in “Mad Men” isn’t so much about escaping a troubled marriage, but rather trying to make it work. Furthermore, how do you know when your marriage is troubled? And can you fix it, or was it never meant to be?
“Mad Men” is everything you could ask for in a TV show and more. It’s about a generation long ago that isn’t too different from our own. It embraces the spirit of consumerism yet spits in its face at the same time. So indulge, in the most audacious drama your television set currently has to offer. Brought to you by Lucky Strike