“What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.”
First season replay: Sundays at midnight ET on AMC, starting January 20th. Created by Matthew Weiner. Starring Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks & John Slattery.
“Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.”
Mad Men is more than the best television show of 2007, and the best new television show since “The Wire”, it is also an exploration of the darker side of the human psyche and the causes of immorality in otherwise decent people. Created by former Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner, Mad Men is brilliantly conceived and written, an example of television at its finest.
The show takes place in 1960, with most of the action occurring at the Madison Avenue offices of Sterling-Cooper where drinking at work is encouraged, sexual harassment and anti-Semitism is the norm, and everyone smokes like chimneys. Everything, from the mannerisms and vocabulary of the characters, to the fashion, production and set design, makes the show feel authentic, as if we’re seeing what an ad firm was really like back then. Sure, they may take some liberties, but because I wasn’t around back then, it doesn’t matter if it is authentic, as long as it feels that way.
The show focuses on the mysterious Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who has carved out a successful career as the creative director for the ad firm and whose stock is rising throughout Madison Avenue. Draper has a strong relationship with his boss, partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and his men and his clients almost universally respect and admire him. The thorn in his side is junior account executive Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), a young, weasely, ambitious kiss-ass who is not above anything to get ahead.
The world is standing on the precipice of change, but it, and these men, are not quite ready for it. While Kennedy is not yet president, and the civil rights and feminist movements are in their infancy, Draper and his colleagues are forced to consider for the first time questions such as, “What do women want?” (“Everything” according to one character). It’s a world that seems so foreign on one hand, and yet so close to home on another. It makes us wonder whether people have actually become less racist, sexist and anti-Semetic in the last 50 years, or whether people have just gotten better at hiding it.
The show features standout turns by Vincent Kartheiser, brilliant as Campbell, and January Jones, as Draper’s wife, Betty, whose mental health is slowly unraveling. Elisabeth Moss is often heartbreaking as Draper’s naive new secretary Peggy, with one standout scene about halfway through the season that makes you want to cry. Slattery is solid as the womanizing, boozy Sterling, and Christina Hendricks as Joan, the head secretary is underutilized until the second half of the season. The rest of the supporting cast is a bit underdeveloped but each offers hints of storylines for seasons to come.
But ultimately, the show belongs to Hamm, who recently won a Golden Globe for his performance as Draper, probably the best performance I’ve ever seen on television and certainly one of the better characters. Hamm is Don Draper. He inhabits him completely — I don’t see how I will ever be able to see him in any other role. He makes you understand why Draper is so good at his job, and why everyone is so in awe of him, but he takes this larger-than life persona and makes him real. The central conceit of his character is brilliant — ultimately, Draper is advertising — what the show is saying is that, in a way, we’re all advertising. We are who we present ourselves to the world as being.
Mad Men is not a show that will offer immediate visceral pleasure, nor does everything get neatly wrapped up. It is a show for adults — the protagonist is often unlikable, it tackles complicated issues, it takes its time in telling its stories, and it is often bleak. Give it a chance, the story may start slow, but it is subtle and nuanced and culminates with the two strongest episodes of the season to close it. I cannot wait for season two, but I look forward to re-watching season one.