It is important to preface this post by saying that when it comes to TV shows, I take spoilers very seriously. Some believe that once an episode is broadcast on the air, people should be able to talk about it freely regardless of if others haven’t had a chance to see it. I think that rule was valid in an era before DVR, DVD box sets, Netflix and Hulu, but those rules should no longer apply. Therefore, as I discuss the upcoming season of Mad Men, I will try to remain as vague as possible so those not yet caught up can freely read.
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As I type this article, we are a little more than 24 hours away from the return of AMC’s brilliant drama, Mad Men, and I can safely say that my anticipation for any series’ season debut has never been this amped. My experiences with The Wire and Breaking Bad (the other two series in my holy triumvirate of TV dramas) were quite different. I did not become hip to The Wire until after its run had ended so I watched them at my convenience via the DVD box sets. Breaking Bad was experienced in a few mad dash marathon sessions so I could quickly catch up to its most recent season. However, with Mad Men I got the pleasure to enjoy Season 4 on a week-by-week basis (like in olden days), but that has made its 17-month hiatus painfully long.
Like I stated, it has been 17 months since we last had new Mad Men. And while I own the DVDs for all four seasons, I had not watched any episodes since last season's finale in October 2010. I needed to refresh my memory before retuning to the mid-Sixties’ advertising world on March 25. With all 52 episodes staring at me from my DVD case, I decided to get ambitious (relatively speaking, though I still managed to work full-time and have a normal social life too) and revisit the WHOLE series. I first got hooked on Mad Men in my junior year of college, and rampaged my way through its first three seasons during that spring semester almost two years ago. Beginning that next summer, Sunday nights at 8 (central time) soon became something I eagerly anticipated every week. Clearly, I was a fan from the get-go but during the second viewings in my recent Mad Men month of March, my appreciation of the show has increased considerably.
The term “Mad Men” refers to the advertising executives on New York’s Madison Avenue, and the show Mad Men transports viewers right into the middle of that world throughout the 1960s. Don Draper is the creative genius at Sterling Cooper, one of those advertising firms populating Madison Avenue. He is chain-smoking, cocktail drinking, womanizing family man with more talent than anyone in his field but also with more demons than anyone else too. The Mad Men story revolves around Don’s mysterious past catching up to his successful but ever so complicated current existence. I believe that fiction’s most memorable characters find a way to captivate an audience while balancing both their angels and demons. Don is one of those memorable characters as you find yourself horrified by his less than admirable actions yet fascinated and endeared by his good qualities.
While Don Draper is the show's main pillar, Mad Men’s writing is so strong that these complicated and interesting storylines apply to each of its more ancillary characters. Secretary extraordinaire Joan Holloway, ladder climbing account executive Pete Campbell, closeted homosexual art director Salvatore Romano, aging advertising stalwarts watching the times pass them by Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper, and Don’s lonely and issue-filled housewife Betty Draper are just a handful of characters interesting enough to support their own dramas. Yet as an ensemble (much larger than I have intimated here), Mad Men becomes one of the greatest dramas ever created. Each character is given enough screen time to be developed deeply which is something often missing with other large scale casts.
The show is also much more than a study of great characters. The 1960s were a turbulent time that saw optimism over the election of a new kind of President and depression over his assassination, the rise of the Civil Rights movement transforming the nation, and the slow decline into a mistake of a war in Vietnam. Mad Men touches upon so many of these landmark moments in American history with its characters representing some of what the whole nation was going through.
My favorite of these instances where Mad Men fuses social movements with its plotlines has always been watching Peggy Olson (Don’s secretary turned Sterling Cooper copywriter) begin to liberate herself like many women of that time. After Don, Peggy is probably the show’s next most integral character; the series even begins on her first day of work. Upon first glance, Peggy is a naive and innocent young girl destined to be a secretary until she finds a husband and has kids (which was the only viable option for so many back then). Slowly, however, it becomes clear that Peggy is one of the show's most progressive thinkers as she takes control of her body, her relationships, and her career. Though always fighting an uphill battle, Peggy continues to gain confidence and display her immense talents to show that a woman can be every bit as strong and independent as any man. I cannot wait to see her stay so forward thinking, because I have a feeling that the rise of counterculture and further liberation conflicting with her responsibility to promote the myths of commercialism (through advertising) will produce some amazing drama.
It feels as if I could devote an entire blog to Mad Men (as well as The Wire or Breaking Bad), and continue to sell it short. Every note is hit so perfectly in this show from its music choices and cinematography to its set direction and costumes. Add in a multitude of complex characters and writing so strong that there is rarely a predictable beat to be found, and you have an artistic achievement beyond most things found on either the small screen or the silver screen. I cannot wait to see what paths show creator Matthew Weiner takes these characters down as Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce enters 1966-67 in Season 5. I know I will be in store for hour long time capsules that provide its viewers with heightened drama and moments of great comedy. Many nights of this past March have been spent revisiting what these characters have gone through during the decade, and I now get to look forward to seeing where they continue to head every Sunday night. It is definitely going to be exciting.
If I were to “Mark” television, Mad Men would be undeniably marked a 10.