I was shocked to discover that Mad Men started almost ten years ago, back in 2007. We’re only starting it now, but I remember when it began and it seems like yesterday. Damn.
Mad Men is a drama about the advertising business, specifically Madison Avenue, the famous centre of advertising in Manhattan. The main character is the notoriously slick, handsome and charming advertising executive, Don Draper. In its heyday around 2009 the show was talked about as the epitome of cool and style, and there is a definite appeal to its early 60s aesthetic. It doesn’t hurt when your main characters are played by people like Joe Hamm, Christina Hendricks and January Jones, either. The cast is definitely one of the programme’s strong points and helps to sustain interest which might otherwise start to wane.
There’s no denying that a show about the advertising industry has less intrinsic appeal to me than most of the other kinds of dramas I watch. Particularly in the first few episodes there isn’t a great deal of plot and story to get your teeth into, although by the end of the season the level of human drama improves. The main characters all have big holes in their lives (these are advertising people after all) and their emotional pain starts to have serious consequences.
Several episodes have interesting sections where Don Draper goes into a sort of trance and gives an inspirational speech about whatever product his company, Sterling Cooper, is hawking. While these segments can be thought-provoking, Don’s transcendental delivery will surely prove ripe for parody if over-used, so I hope they don’t rely too heavily on this in future seasons. The odd, quasi-mystical air of the first season is also contributed to by Don’s boss, Bertram Cooper. Cooper is “quirky” and has embraced Eastern philosophy as seen by the Japanese art in his office and the fact he makes people take off their shoes before entering. He’s also a major fan of Ayn Rand, and keeps referencing her as the season goes on. As I mentioned in my review of Bioshock: Infinite, I resent Rand’s shallow, cynical, anti-social philosophy, and it’s tiresome to me to see it wheeled out here as something visionary. That said, it’s just the sort of ideology that would suit a senior advertising executive, so fair enough I suppose.
Mad Men depicts the sexism of the early 60s office environment in such an unflinching way that it can be difficult to watch, and I found the first episodes excruciating at times. Some of the worst elements of the rampant misogyny of the time are thankfully toned down after a while but gender roles and expectations are a major theme throughout the series. Sexism is almost as prominent in Mad Men as smoking. This can partly be excused due to the time period, but scarcely a scene goes by without at least one character lighting up. For anyone trying not to smoke (surely most people watching), it can become something of an ordeal. There’s also a massive amount of drinking on display here, and generally any kind of self-destructive, impulsive behaviour you can imagine.
So, Mad Men’s first season is a reasonably entertaining and engrossing experience, helped by a terrific cast who get the most out of some pretty thin material. But it doesn’t really live up to the hype. Moreover, as befits a show about advertising, it doesn’t feel that wholesome, and like smoking a packet of cigarettes or eating a bag of doughnuts, I’m not really sure that watching it is worth what it might cost you.