Mad Men, the period show on the ‘Mad’ison Ave. advertising industry during its heyday, returns for one last hurrah this Sunday. Many are getting into the act, suggesting episodes you should see, preparing fans for the withdrawals and diving into interviews with actors reflecting on “the end of an era” which is the show’s promo. Following the example of Breaking Bad, AMC decided to stretch the final season into two halves and amp up the publicity for one of TVs best loved shows in history. Yet the ratings for Mad Men have never even come close to HBO’s exclusive “The Sopranos” or even fellow AMC show “The Walking Dead”. Why is that?
In my humble opinion, Mad Men, created, written and produced by Matt Weiner, is smart television that may be too smart for most audiences, yet succeeds in delivering the trend-setting standards for all programs… in short: Mad Men is the Show of Shows of its time, delivering quality programming that breaks the mold and will be remembered long after it leaves the air.
The first few seasons of Mad Men are perhaps the best, even if they lean a little too hard on the feminist gas pedal, it is justified as 1960 is the apex of male chauvinism that was so abhorrent, it caused the backlash that is soon to follow. The show doesn’t pull any punches in the true horrors of the life of women, even if it largely fails to show that many women did not agree with this narrative. The facade of corporate America, that many strive to be a part of, is also on display, with the likes of star Don Draper (Jon Hamm), while others feel entitled like the far lesser man Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), while showing the plight of the women who fight to rise to the top, like secretary turned Ad-man Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) and exploited and exploiter office manager Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) all while documenting the lives of the everyday housewife, seen through the eyes of Betty Draper (January Jones) and the spoiled rich elites like Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse), who run the circus. It features a cast of strong supporting characters, as well, that are interesting, often die in the show or leave the ad agency(s). So for the sake of spoilers for those who haven’t seen it, even though I do not plan to make any big reveals, consider yourself warned.
What truly makes Mad Men stand out though, isn’t the constant period-accurate details nor the vice dependency that is often used in the ads for the show (sex, booze, drugs, cigarettes and music), nor the now-offensive look at the poor treatment of women, homosexuals, Blacks, Jews, the impoverished and minorities of any kind, it’s that Mad Men is realistic in portraying it! Again, I don’t mean that the books on the shelves are so close to accuracy that in the shows history, it’s been called out only once or twice by fans that were so obsessed they spent their time looking for things the show might have gotten wrong only to find a book on the shelf that wasn’t released for another month or so (Matt Weiner was even apologetic about it), I mean that the events and relationships are so realistic that you could see it happening to your best friend, or recall it happening to yourself. It’s that good!
Yes, Mad Men is one of the few shows that portrays actual reality on the Small Screen and it does it with Silver Screen mentality. This goes beyond anything in the history of TV in terms of success both critical and financial. It is also perhaps why we won’t see it again anytime soon, so for longtime fans, get used to that feeling you had in between the year long hiatus periods of Mad Men, for nothing like this is even far down the pipeline.
When you look at what makes a show work, it’s the relationships between the characters that are always at the very core. How many shows have you seen based around a couple hooking up that have been ruined by the characters actually hooking up? From Moonlighting to Fraser to Mike and Molly shows are often ruined when writers and producers make bad judgements about characters.
Mad Men does not fall into this trap and when two characters hook up, it’s not the end of the show, in fact, it’s the beginning of something new. Don Draper sleeps around so much he could accurately be described as a serial adulterer. He is the stuff rap songs are made of, though Don is also a square, literally working for “The Man” and runs to women to escape the demons of his childhood. You like Don but you can’t stand him at the same time. His moves often have you cringe and his sexual exploits always cause problems for him.
The AV Club recently did a story that Mad Men is even the most “unsexy show on television” because nothing good ever comes from sex (no pun intended). Perhaps they do lay it on a little thick (again no pun intended), though in real life, sex rarely makes relationships better.
I think Matt Weiner and his team really touched on one of the most realistic portrayals of sex, which is a sad reality of life. Lust is fleeting, love does not come from lust, though it doesn’t have to stand in the way, it often does. Sex can be awkward, even with great experience in both or more participants. The human ego can be damaged by bad chemistry and people can turn vindictive when the promise of love turns sour.
Mad Men captures the essence of life, perhaps, too well. As reflected by it’s high critical praise and generally non-stellar ratings. People want to see ‘splosions and sex criminals brought to justice. They want to see the bad guy get shot because he’s a bad guy, and they prefer it in exotic locations that allow them to escape for an hour, or, well, 43 minutes plus commercials and bumpers.
Mad Men is a great show because it comes from a genuine place and a genuine vision, which from interviews of Mr. Weiner seems to be a mission to show that past generations were every bit as racy as the current one. No generation invents drugs and sexual exploits, it’s as old as time itself. The vision also seems to include a cross-generational understanding, that if we could only put aside our age prejudice looking up and down, we could find a common understanding.
However, very realistically, buried in that common understanding are all the underpinnings that tragically make it impossible, as life itself is a contradiction that cannot be reconciled. We undermine our own positions with our own misguided and unproductive feelings, yet it is the feelings that make us feel alive and ultimately make us human.
That is why passionate sex is so fleeting, why love often lasts just as long and our long-lasting relationships are ultimately non-sexual. Family, good friends, ex-lovers, co-workers and loves not realized often produce the longest friendships. While there are always exceptions, this seems to be generally true in the human experience.
Yet most people, including myself, often escape into poorly written romantic notions in media. These are every bit as realistic as the courtroom drama in any cop or legal show. Real life court is procedural, boring, long, tedious and features no epic moments in drama. “If the Glove don’t fit, you must acquit” is epic in the real world, while on TV, people have been breaking down and confessing on the stand since Perry Mason first graced the small screen.
The truth is, real life is generally bad entertainment and the reason we turn to an escape. It takes great writing and provocative thinkers with a vision to lead the charge against stale entertainment.
David Chase wrote many episodes of procedural Hollywood, including the very underrated “The Rockford Files”, he learned that you can sneak in reality to the tired formula of television escapism. When he created the Sopranos, he never intended to take it to the next level but circumstance allowed him to. By doing so he started a revolution in entertainment that also led to the later seasons hiring of Matt Weiner.
Weiner took it in a different direction and started a bit of a revolution of his own in the basic cable market.
That is why Mad Men is so good. While it is subject to the same issues of any show, it generally is rich in realistic and complex inter-human relationships that drive any show, only it does it from an intelligent and realistic stance.
In the end, it is just an escape, just another 43 minutes to kill. Though Mad Men manages to teach us a bit about ourselves in that time. It thrusts the mythical sexual mystiques of women and the toughness of men into question, bring us closer to being better people. It shows any generation the error of it’s relationship focused ways, that is often piped in from other TV shows to begin with. It reaches to show the inequality of the world and how most people sit idly by and go with the flow.
More, but by no means all entertainment should be held to this standard, though to believe it could would be as unrealistic as an episode of Law and Order: SVU.