May 18, 2015

TV Retrospective: "Mad Men"

Quality aside, it is impossible to fully appreciate Mad Men in the modern era. For starters, competing networks have worked tirelessly to find period piece dramas to compete with AMC's first big show. It has run the gamut with shows ranging from Masters of Sex to Halt and Catch Fire. Even then, the TV landscape of 2007 is different from today. For starters, the golden age of TV moniker was used for shows ending their run around the time including The Wire and The Sopranos; consistently considered the two best dramas. Also, the expectations were widely different, skewering towards younger audiences with the action-packed, youth oriented shows like Lost and 24. With the premiere "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," Mad Men introduced itself as the unlikely next step for TV drama. It was time to go adult and have plots that moved not with action set pieces, but with intimate character moments and countless old songs. It was the start of something new. All that had to be done was to go back to the 60's.
To consider the impact that Mad Men made, one has to consider that it isn't right to compare it to The Sopranos (where creator Matthew Weiner was a writer). No, Mad Men is closer to the HBO series Oz; a show the paved the way. In every sense of the word, Mad Men is a more successful show than Oz, but their trailblazing authenticity for their specified networks is something that doesn't get credited enough. In an era where AMC was simply playing old films, the network took a gamble and won for back-to-back Best Drama Series Emmys. It wasn't a fluke, or even an act of needless favoritism. It was a revolution the likes of which hadn't been seen outside of HBO and Showtime. 
AMC could have programmed anything, but instead challenged prestige programming with something that walked and talked like an era long forgotten. In the process, it defined period piece TV dramas. Weiner's notorious attention to detail has resulted in some of the finest cinematography and set designs in TV programming. Its budget may not be on par with that of Rome or Game of Thrones, but its minimal settings and appropriate attire went a long way for selling the series as something new. We would learn to care about Don Draper (Jon Hamm) because every last detail was scrutinized on the show. His back story would play out in appropriate intervals; only getting to the crucial origin story six seasons in. It was a challenging story that didn't do much actively. Whatever it did was through characters giving glances or connotations that were a little peculiar. It could be enjoyed on a base level, but the scholar could find rich material within it.
It was a show with countless layers to it. At its surface, it was about advertising men trying to sell happiness to the world. They would drink and harass women all day without any initial repercussions. That was at the start of the series, at the beginning of the 1960's. By the end, the world would change. If there's anything admirable about the series, it's that Mad Men accepted change, even if it was only in minimal doses. While subjects like racism and homophobia prevailed, there became a backlash within the office setting where new writers would take on more complex core beliefs. Some were eccentric and others were despicable. As a whole, they created a universe that felt real. These were miserable people trying to be successful.
If there was a point in which the show went from fluke to potentially great, it was in "The Wheel" in which Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the wunderkind of Sterling Cooper, gives the pitch of his career focusing on nostalgia. It is a way that Weiner directly addressed the audience while summarizing the show as a projection of happy faces appeared on an office wall. It was a promise for something euphoric and desirable. However, it was immediately met with the reality that Don, who had spent season one living his flirtatious, negligent lifestyle had made him isolated from his family; who at that point served no deeper purpose to the plot. It was in the seasons ahead when he would become more complicated and more human.
If the series had one trick up its sleeve, it was the realistic catharsis. In cases like Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray) - an alcoholic who was put on leave for negligent behavior - there was growth and wisdom in their failures. The show knew how to humble its characters, even forcing Don's alcoholism to never be cured, but constantly seen as problematic. In some cases, it felt gratuitous. It began to feel like an advertisement being analyzed with a magnifying glass. Every last detail was explored until the sick origin story was discovered. It wasn't happy, nor was the show in its later years as the hippie culture rose and Don became a mediocre employee on a good day. His refuge in California wasn't enough to accept that he was running away from his problems and his family. He was in a world in which there wasn't an ad to fulfill his deepest need: acceptance.
The supporting cast was also exceptional, including Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss), who rose up the ranks and eventually usurped Don. Starting off almost shrewish, she was the audience's entry point into a world where you could be idealized, but never lead. It was a time when change was gradual and the problems were shoved aside until they made a noticeable pile. There was office conflict and even the ongoing world crises from the John F. Kennedy campaign to Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination and the moon landing informed the employees. It was a story about the times that at times may have seemed forced, but created something authentic. It addressed the world and made change as the 60's happened. It wasn't a rewrite of history (though some could debate the ending of the series as being so), but a celebration of accuracy. It set a bar so high that few shows have gotten as much recognition.
Most of all, Weiner seemed to possess a loving relationship with the audience. As the series began to build buzz and form its own hype about potential plots, he began to make jokes regarding this; most notably in the finale when a character blurts out that Don Draper doesn't die - a theory that gets passed around thanks to the excellently done animated opening credits sequence of a man falling past ads only to return to a refined manner in his office. It may have not been co-opted as Breaking Bad was, but it definitely had slight nods that may get lost to future generations discovering this show. However, the fact that they aren't distracting only makes them more clever.
Mad Men was an embodiment from beginning to end of 60's culture and the grasp for a better future. Its characters may have been miserable, but they finished their runs their way. Whoever wanted a happy ending got one and the ambiguity of the final moments promise to help the series remain in conversation for time to come. The show may now be a great show in a pool of great shows, but it is a veteran; a grandfather to the rise of Netflix and Sundance Channel programming. While some could argue that the show was laborious or slow, it was one that went against the grain and altered our perception of TV in the process. Even if it is only remembered for giving rise to AMC and it's manic siblings Breaking Bad and Hell on Wheels, it isn't the worst legacy to have. Still, with the conclusion of the show comes the reality that an era is over. Prestige program is starting to wane in favor of action again with Game of Thrones sweeping up ratings. There's those that are still trying, but even AMC is having trouble finding something as good to replace it. Mad Men was in some ways a fluke.
It is fascinating to know that Mad Men is considered one of the great TV dramas because of how simple it seemed to be. It was about family, identity, culture and the 60's in general. It doesn't have the greatest of hooks, yet the actors created a universe where small moments became the show's best. It would be impossible to summarize all of the reasons this show changed the face of TV or why its lack of momentum in season five didn't matter. It was a show about life and the moments that make us who we are. Sometimes, it's not for the best. Others are really funny in their tragedy. Mad Men encapsulated an era in ways that a layman could understand but a scholar could chew over for hours. It brought history to life, which is really saying something.
Should we care where everyone ends up? Should the end of "Person to Person" really be an affront to Don's potential progression? No. As controversial as that Coke ad will become, it was more of a mission statement for the series. It was what Don was trying to do this entire time. He wanted to make us happy, even if his own mixed up life was a mess. He lived to sell products, and very few were indicative of an era as Coke's jingle. As the camera fades from his face, it is the handing off of the conservative 60's to the new generation who sought to be closer. As it sung about singing in harmony and building homes, it embodied what Don really wants. Did he write it? Who cares. It's a thesis for a show that shamelessly is about advertising. If you expected it to go out any other way, then maybe you're wanting another show. Mad Men was true to itself until the very last moment and for that, it deserves its place among the great TV drama series.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

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