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REVIEW: Mad Men (Season 1, 2007) April 22, 2017

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Television Reviews.
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So many critics agree that we are all living in the Golden Age of Television. Just like with most of other great historical eras, there is a disagreement over when such Golden Age began. The author of this review likes to think that a precise moment could be found in Summer of 2007. That was the time when AMC began to bust HBO monopoly over quality cable television with Mad Men. Seemingly unattractive period drama covering 1960s New York advertising industry slowly built reputation not only as one of the best US television shows of its age, but also became a popular icon of its own and its title became quick reference for one of the most fascinating periods of American history.

The first season of Mad Men is set in year 1960. This is point of time where Mad Men as a universe is presented in its youngest and purest form, which is frighteningly familiar and fascinatingly alien to contemporary audience. Sterling Cooper, fictional ad agency where protagonist, creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm) works for a living, does exactly the same thing ad agencies do today. Yet, what goes on in its offices and homes of their employees seem very different; the only people who enjoy wealth, power and respect are rich heterosexual white men; everybody smokes and drinks; racist and sexist attitudes are rampant, even with some antisemitism thrown for good measure. Women fare especially bad in that world; they are usually reduced to secretaries who occasionally provide sexual services to their bosses, like new employee Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), with their only hope of social advancement through marriage, after which they end like Draper’s spouse Betty (January Jones), trapped and unhappy in a role of perfect housewife and parent.

Although Matthew Weiner had written the script for pilot episode years before, only in mid 2000s show like Mad Men became truly possible. Until that time 1960s were portrayed either by Dan Draper’s generation or by Baby Boomers, alternating between rose-coloured nostalgia of American Graffiti and smug progressive triumphalism of Pleasantville. Weiner, by belonging to Generation X, was separate from his subjects and this separation armed him with extra layers of objectivity. Unlike most other period dramas that recreate the past merely through bits of soundtracks, sets, costumes and props, Mad Men was a product of long, through and painstaking research. The audience was introduced not only to the fashion of the past, but the social mores and general worldviews. And it is done in a subtle yet effective ways; the show works best when audience discovers seemingly banal but very telling ways in which America in 1960 differs from America at the beginning of 21st Century.

This subtlety and the need to introduce characters and the world they inhabit are the reasons why Season 1 uses very slow tempo. There is actually very little plot and it mostly serves as an excuse for fascinating character studies and opportunities for previously unknown actors to shine. One such opportunity was provided to Jon Hamm in the role of a complex and multilayered protagonist. Don Draper is introduced as an apotheosis of America at the height of its power, which is, naturally, quite masculine. Draper is, just like James Bond, someone every woman wants and every other wants man to be; an attractive alpha male able both to charm cynical clients and bring women to bed; successful self-made man who reached upper rungs of corporate ladder out of nothing while completing American Dream with a luxurious home at the suburbs, glamourous perfect wife and adorable children. The show, however, quickly portrays all that as an illusion. Draper is far from perfect husband, with infidelities in form of “crazy” beatnik girlfriend Midge (played by Rosemarie DeWitt) and rare female client Rachel Menken (played by Maggie Siff) being the most obvious and most expected; his entire career is based on a lie, and Draper is actually a coward, unable and unwilling to face the ghosts of his traumatic past, while his cowardice and willingness to escape responsibility create devastating havoc around people around him. The genius of Mad Men is in such antihero actually being the perfect protagonist for the show about 1960s ad industry; just as Draper’s new life is based on lies, so is the industry in which he works. The first season uses this theme near its end in one of the most brilliant plot twists in the history of television.

Another brilliant aspect of Mad Men is its villain, or, to be more precise, the best equivalent of villain this show might have. Pete Campbell, played by Vincent Karthesier, is not evil per se; moral parameters of his behaviour are, more or less, the same as any other character. His greatest flaw is in desire to become Don Draper, a desire that is bound to be unfulfilled because of the obvious lack of talent. Campbell throughout the season is becoming aware of this, while the audience has opportunity to find parallels between Campbell and Draper. They are both frauds in their own way, but, Campbell is unsuccessful fraud who only managed to delude himself; his position within company is based on family connections instead of a talent; his wife Trudy (played by Alison Brie) and her rich parents dominate the household and of the entire potential harem of office secretaries he is able to bed only the least attractive. When Campbell slowly realises that he would never match his idol, his anger reflects in petty and childish office intrigues.

World of Mad Men, despite being male-dominated, has more than fair share of strong and impressive female characters. There are three women, each dealing with it in their own way. Joan Holloway (played by Christina Hendricks), an experienced secretary who seems to be both most aware and most comfortable with moral and professional confines of Steling Cooper, as well as most adept in exploiting it through office romances. Betty Draper is, on the other hand, increasingly frustrated with confines of her Stepford-like existence and that reflects in subconscious and seemingly irrational acts of rebellion, mistaken by her husband for neurosis that could be cured through fruitless and ultimately counterproductive psychoanalysis sessions. Finally, Peggy Olson is there as woman who has both of those avenues blocked due to her lack of physical appeal; she is forced to fulfill her dreams the hard way, by challenging expectations and actually pursuing career of a copywriter.

While the show portrays one of the most “interesting” periods of American history, marked by deep cultural and political transformations, the first season, by its nature, doesn’t show such transformations. It only drops hints of future events and leaves blanks to fill by viewers more familiar with history. Some of those hints could be found in scenes where Draper encounters first seeds of counterculture among beatniks or in a scene where The Exodus by Leon Uris is described as “America’s love affair with Israel” (thus reminding audience that the American descent into Middle Eastern quicksand had origins many decades ago). But the most interesting is way the show sets his historical benchmark around the most important event of 1960 – presidential race between Nixon and Kennedy, two persons that symbolised the struggle between Old and New that is supposed to be the major issue in future episodes. Weiner, belonging to new generations, less affected by JFK mythology is among those authors that presents history closer to actual facts. The race was actually quite close and, furthermore, many people, including protagonists until the last minute believed (and had good reasons to believe) that Nixon would ultimately prevail. The episode near the end of season, where the election is watched during office all-night party, is brilliant, and even more so in 2017 than 2007. When we watch dedicated and experienced professionals being genuinely surprised and completely baffled by actual result it is very easy to imagine similar scenes in New York offices during 2016 election. Perhaps the world haven’t changed that much. If it didn’t, we should hope that what comes next is less “interesting” that some of the events that come in later seasons of Mad Men.