Mad Men tv show review

 
Mad Men premiered on AMC in 2007 at a time when the network was looking for original programming that they could be proud of and which would make an impact. Mad Men achieved all of that and the show is now going to be airing the final part of it’s 7th and final season in 2015.
 
The show is set in the world of 1960s advertising and focuses on an ensemble cast of ad men and women. We follow their personal stories which are set amongst the backdrop of political and social change that took place during the 60s.
 
That time period in history is an interesting one; when we look back on that decade the civil rights movement, gender politics in the workplace, free love, the moon landings and so much more come to mind and Mad Men incorporates all of this history in an intelligent and sophisticated way. 
 
As the show’s main actors are by comparison to most, part of the privileged classes, they aren’t at the forefront of social change however they do move with the times and we see via actions and conversations the changing values of society being reflected through them. 
 
I think this is a very clever way to do this as it’s true to life. Significant social change and movement occurs for the masses in a way that never feels too dramatic and the programme reflects that. 
 
 
At the heart of the show is the character of Don Draper. The most gifted ad man, the most sophisticated ad man and the one who seems to have all of the answers. He seems to be the embodiment of the perfect man of that time period - clever, handsome, assured, a womanizer, hard drinking and hard working. In fact, his characterization puts me in mind of James Bond, he just seems to be superior to all of those around him. 
 
But Don Draper is not perfect and the viewers are invited to see him struggle with his identity - this is a recurring theme for Draper and is his weakness.
 
Mad Men has a lot of strong characters but for me Don Draper remains the central figure and my favourite. He is arguably one of the most charismatic characters created for television and is played brilliantly by John Hamm. 
 
Hamm had a fair amount of struggles as an actor. He is undeniably handsome but the modern desire is that and actor look more youthful and to a certain extent more feminine and that meant Hamm did not always find it easy to get roles. 
 
However his looks seem made for playing the part of Don Draper. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Hamm playing Draper, he is perfect for the role. In fact, I have seen Hamm in a number of films and although I’ve liked him I have to say that in my opinion nothing has suited him as much as the character of Don Draper and I think this it’s safe to say that this is the role of a lifetime and the one that he will always be remembered for. 
 
I want to talk a little bit about the other characters in this show.
 
Let’s start with Peggy Olson. She starts out as Don  Draper’s secretary but is promoted to a copy writer. She evolves into a career woman. Her gender does cause issues and often provides obstacles however she’s well respected amongst her immediate colleagues and her ability is  recognized.
 
 
Peggy predicts the modern career woman who we see every day all around us and I did like the character a lot in earlier seasons. However as the series has progressed my opinion has slightly changed, she’s become more confident and assured but she’s also made choices that I can’t always agree with and as a result I like her less.
 
And that is one of the things about Mad Men, I can’t say that any of the characters are wholly likeable. The show is smart and as such it doesn’t flinch from showing us sides of people which we may not like. And again, this is true to life - no one can be likeable all of the time and also people do change and develop over the years and it’s not surprising that Peggy is not the same fresh faced girl that she started off as by the time the final season rolls around.
 
Another strong female character in the show is Joan. She’s not only the office siren but also arguably the most intelligent character in the show. She’s observant and has a way of managing things to suit her ends. She’s very pragmatic and is always cool, calm and collected.
 
 
Joan is played by Christina Hendricks and in fact her role was initially meant to be a guest role however show creator Matthew Weiner was so impressed by Hendricks that he promoted her to series regular.
 
Hendricks’ look has caused quite a stir as she more voluptuous than the actresses we are used to seeing on screen. I have to say that I really admire the way Hendricks handles all of the attention as from a distance it seems quite overwhelming to have to discuss your body type continually. 
 
When you are slightly atypical in Hollywood you by default become a spokesperson for the underrepresented section of society you are deemed to come from - so for Hendricks she has suddenly become the face of the curvier woman. 
 
It is the same for say a successful female director, since she is female and a director she will get asked questions about her gender and will automatically become a role model for aspiring female directors. Now I’m not saying that that is a bad thing, but it is a lot of pressure for individuals who may never have thought of themselves as a role model to find that all of a sudden they are expected to represent and I really do admire the way Hendrick’s has dealt with the attention from the press and the public. 
 
Although Mad Men is littered with examples of blatent sexim toward Peggy and Joan and all the females in general the show is anything but sexist in the fact that they have created so many interesting female characters. In fact, bar Don Draper I do think that the female characters have been more artfully developed in comparison to the males as the the series has progressed. I suspect that is not intentional but a result of the fact that females had more more challenges to overcome in the 60s as it was undeniably still a man’s world. 
 
An interesting fact, seven of the nine writers for the show are women, something which is unusual in tv however I don’t think the show has a gender bias. It definitely feels very objective toward both sexes and the intention feels as if they want to show the 1960s as it was rather than trying to push an agenda. In this modern day and age most intelligent people will agree that sexism in the workplace is wrong, Mad Men doesn’t need to fly this flag and allows the audience to see the past through our modern sensibilities and make our own conclusions. 
 
 
Draper’s first wife Betty is played by actress January Jones. Jones initially auditioned for the role of Peggy but seeing her as Betty makes it difficult to imagine her playing anyone else. I know that Betty is not very popular but I do really enjoy seeing her on screen. She is an unusually cold character who has a strained relationship with her children and to see such a non maternal woman live this traditional life is very interesting. I feel quite sorry for her, she’s very alone and does seem aware of her inability to connect but she doesn’t seem to be able to do anything about that. 
 
 
It’s interesting how her daughter Sally seems to have inherited so much of her mother’s character. The mother daughter interaction between the pair has created some of the best scenes in Mad Men. In fact Sally Draper, like her parents, has become complex and intriguing in her own right; it’s a shame this show is coming to an end as we won’t get a chance to see her grow up.
 
 
Draper’s second wife Megan is played by Jessica Pare. Megan in an interesting one, initially she appears to be nothing more than another one of Draper’s vapid conquests but she’s highly intelligent, passionate but also actually rather immature. Megan brought to a lot of energy and vitality into Mad Men when it seemed to need it but she can be wearing at times. 
 
 
I mentioned Sally, and regretting that we won’t get to see her develop as Mad Men finishes next year and another character who I’ll regret not seeing developed further is Draper’s secretary Dawn Chambers. She is one of the few African-American characters in the show and from the little we have seen of her she seems lovely. I would really have liked to have seen more of her experiences and how she reacts to them. 
 
As I’ve spent so much time talking about the female characters I do want to discuss a couple of the male advertising executives who I found particularly interesting.
 
Peter Campbell is one of them. He’s highly ambitious and slightly slimy but as the years have gone on he has become more mature and as a result much more likeable. I liked his progression very much because that is a typical journey. 
 
 
There is a tendency in youthfulness to feel that you know everything however one of the best things about experience, and the reason why experience is valued so highly is because it mellows people down and allows them the time to become more familiar with themselves and their strengths and when that happens people naturally become more secure and valuable. 
 
There will be a world of difference between a 23 year old guy fresh out of University and a 43 year old man, who has completed two decades in the workplace and that is the journey that Peter Campbell is on. He has matured, his life experiences has made him more intelligent and sympathetic and my opinion of this character has really changed from the first time I met him.
 
 
One of the few people who remain arguably the least changed of all of the characters is Roger Sterling. I would say that we know him the least of everyone in Mad Men, including Don Draper. Sterling is invariably charming and nothing seems to penetrate too deeply. He’s easy going and definitely good fun to be around. Sterling is played by John Slattery who actually initially auditioned for the role of Don Draper. 
 
One of the frequent observations made about the show is the sheer amount of smoking and alcohol consumption that takes place, reminding us how little we knew about the health issues associated with both. There are actually plenty of examples of advertising where tobacco companies in the early 60s claim that cigarettes were actually good for health and back in the day alcoholism wasn’t recognized as the illness that it is. 
 
In the show the actors don’t actually smoke tobacco cigarettes but herbal cigarettes however one google check and you’ll see that herbal cigarettes are also plenty harmful. The reason for the use of herbal cigarettes are threefold, (i) California has banned smoking on movie sets since they're indoor commercial property, (ii), the herbal cigarettes produce a denser smoke that shows up better on film and (iii) show creator Weiner felt that if the actors smoked so many tobacco cigarettes at a time during filming they would become agitated and nervous, compromising the shoots. 
 
It’s clear that Mad Men has gone to a lot of effort to ensure they get the details of the period correct. Commentators have frequently noted the accuracy of the details when it comes to the sets, the clothes and the cars. The show is an expensive one to produce costing between 2 to 2.5 million dollars per episode.
 
Mad Men has intentionally created it’s own signature visual style - being influenced by cinema, photography, graphic design and architecture from that period. Scenes have been shot purposefully lower than eye level to include ceilings which reflects the references used and dolly work has been favoured over steadicam in order to recreate the aesthetic of the past.
 
Mad Men also boasts a famous title sequence that takes inspiration from two Hitchcock masterpieces, Vertigo and North By Northwest. The sequences uses the idea of the falling man from the Vertigo poster and the writing on the skyscrapers from the opening titles of North by Northwest. All of this is set to an evocative piece of instrumental music.
 
There is no doubt that Mad Men is a highly ambitious and high quality tv show however it does have it’s problems - one of them being the pacing of storylines. I do enjoy it when shows have the confidence to take time over stories but sometimes Mad Men can drag and other times things come to an end too abruptly to be satisfying. If I’m completely honest I haven’t entirely liked the direction the characters have gone in season 6 and 7. 
 
It’s still a brilliant show but knowing that there are only 7 episodes left and feeling as if there are so many characters who are in the middle of their journeys, I just can’t imagine how the show will be wrapped up in a way that is satisfactory. Given how slowly things move in Mad Men and the integrity of the show I don’t believe the creators will rush to resolve everything neatly however if nothing is resolved or if no character lives a life that even makes a stab at contentment then it will be a sad way to see the show to end. 
 
Life is obviously full of loose ends and I admire Mad Men for ruthlessly ensuring that it observes that, however sometimes in life there are resolutions. Also the complete absence of happiness or contentment does not make for greater realism - this is something that bothers me about tv shows in general, I don’t think there is enough attempt to balance dark with light.
 
There have also been complaints that the show does nothing more than look at the past and congratulate the present in the knowledge that we have come such a long way and we know so much better now. 
 
I don’t believe that that is all that Mad Men does - the fact is, we have come a long way and it is inevitable that any show that alludes to the politics of the past will make the present look better. But I think Mad Men wants to do more than that, it invites us to look at our present and think of how we will be viewed in 40 to 50 years time. Hopefully true gender equality, true colour blindness and the acceptance of homosexuality will have be achieved and much more. I don’t think Mad Men is blind to the current issues we face and I don’t think it’s intention is to pretend we live in some sort of utopia. 
 
Mad Men is one of those shows that will be mentioned in the same breath as The Sopranos and The West Wing. I’ve enjoyed knowing these characters and becoming familiar with their politically incorrect and cut throat world - it’s a world I would never want to inhabit but it makes for fascinating viewing.

 

 
Mad MenSeason 7 – part 1 is available on Blu-ray and DVD from 3rd November, 2014, courtesy of Lionsgate Home Entertainment
 

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