Some say that if you were to carve a Mount Rushmore out of great TV characters, it would have to include Walter White, Tony Soprano, and Don Draper. Like United States Presidents, the three fit together so nicely. They are all anti-heroes from critically acclaimed television series; they all won Emmys, and they are all referenced in popular culture ad nauseam.
My favorite TV show of all time is The Wire, with Breaking Bad and The Sopranos close behind. Nothing else compares. I can say with reasonable certainty that I have never had a more satisfying experience as a consumer of television as when I was watching these three shows.
However, to get a complete education in great TV shows I decided to watch Mad Men, because from what I have heard, it is a great TV show. Now I am in the middle of the second season and so far my viewing experience has been less than satisfying.
BUT, I think I am finally starting to understand Mad Men, which could go a long way in helping me enjoy it.
I went into the first season with pretty high expectations and I was let down. What surprised me was how very little actually happend. The biggest conflict of the whole season was the Don Draper – Dick Whitman dilemma, and that was quashed with relatively little drama.
All the characters are detestable on some level (except Rodger Sterling, he is my guy). Don Draper is an ungrateful a-hole who cheats on his wife. Pete Campbell and all the young guns at the office are insecure, chauvinistic, and cut throat all at once. All Betty Draper knows how to do is whine about her problems and be passive-aggressive. And besides Peggy (who can be 9 months pregnant and not even realize it) and Joan, all the other woman on the show are sheep who cow tow to any demand from men, up to and including sex (which you don’t even see because it is AMC).
The production value and attention to detail are great and the acting performances are strong, but for the first 13 episodes, I failed to see why people were so interested in these Mad Men.
My parents are Mad Men diehards, so I decided to bring them my dissatisfaction in hopes that they could restore some of my faith in Draper and Co. Like many other baby boomers, my father told me the reason he found the show so interesting is because Don Draper reminded him of his father and how things were growing up.
When I thought about that, the show started to make more sense.
The message of Mad Men isn’t in the plot, it’s in the time period. An ad agency and ad men are just a vehicle used to explore the complicated social fabric of our country during a particularly interesting time in our history. The economy was booming and America was still basking in post-WW2 glow when the show begins in 1960. It was a time when men felt invincible, hence the excessive drinking, smoking, and womanizing. The social structure was rigid, but showed signs of cracking, as is exemplified with the character of Peggy Olsen.
Selling ads for some of America’s largest corporations is just an excuse to allow the characters in the show to put a magnifying glass on sixties America. What did we want at the time? What did we want to be told? How did we want to feel? What was important to us? These are topics that the main characters talk about covertly through their ad campaigns.
There is also the added wrinkle of important historical events running concurrently with the plot of the show Forrest Gump style. Season 1 covered the presidential race between Nixon and Kennedy and Season 2 kicks off with the crash of an American Airlines flight in Queens in 1962 that killed 87 people.
In Season 2 the characters are also starting to gain more depth. None are particularly good people, but all are becoming more interesting.
Of course, like most great TV shows, I’m sure Mad Men holds up better upon a second viewing. I didn’t appreciate The Wire in full until I watched it the second time. Mad Men seems like one of those shows where a lot of the important tidbits are below the surface, and it takes an attentive viewer to catch and appreciate them.
Second viewings are annoying unless you love the show, which so far I do not. But I do want to finish the first six and a half seasons before the show has its 7 episode series finale in April, which is ambitious.
Now that I know what I am watching for though, Netflix binges might come a little easier.
And I have a gut feeling I’m probably going to love it.