Robotham - Mad About Mad Men

The Mad Men Television Series Is Highly Acclaimed

Mad About Mad Men

The best show on television is about to return for a new season. But for many viewers, it's far more than good entertainment

By Tom Robotham

When Mad Men premiered in July 2007, my friend Alexis sent me an email asking if I’d seen it. “It’s absolutely brilliant,” she said.

Two years later, I started watching reruns with my girlfriend at the time, and before we knew it we were hooked. We decided to rent the whole series in installments from Naro Expanded Video in Ghent and watch it from start to finish. Often we’d watch three or four episodes in a row, then talk about them afterward.

Now, after a long production delay, the fifth season is about to begin on March 25. If you're already among the legions of Mad Men fans, you probably already know this. If you’re not, I recommend renting the DVDs and catching up. To my mind, it’s far and away the best show on television today—and arguably, the best drama in television history.

I say “arguably” because there are a lot of contenders in the entire history of the medium: HBO’s The Wire and The Sopranos; the 1980s hospital drama St. Elsewhere—and All in the Family, which, in spite of its comic veneer, was a brilliant piece of social commentary and had some gut-wrenching episodes, like the one in which Edith is raped.

But there are many folks who share my belief that Mad Men is an important show. Among them is Gary Edgerton, chair of the communications department at Old Dominion University, where I teach as well.

Late last year, Edgerton edited a collection of scholarly essays about Mad Men in a book by the same title. (It’s published by I.B. Tauris.) Tim Anderson, another of my colleagues at ODU, has also contributed to the book with a piece on the show’s musical soundtrack.

“Every few years a new television program comes along to capture and express the zeitgeist,” Edgerton writes in the introduction.

After running down the list of awards the show has won—four Golden Globes, 13 Emmys and the George Foster Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting—he goes on to explore the phenomenon, noting that the program has inspired a host of television commercials, print advertisements, magazine covers, designer fashions, department store displays and other merchandise. He also offers a nice, succinct orientation to the setting of the show, for viewers who may not be familiar with it. It’s set in the early 1960s, when American culture was standing on the very threshold of change that the decade would soon heap upon us. But on balance, those first years of the decade had more in common with the 1950s than the ’60s.

The storylines revolve around the men and women who work in an advertising agency in New York. (The term “Mad Men,” is short for Madison Avenue men.) Various family members and friends not directly associated with the firm round out the cast.

The question is, why does the show resonate?

My guess is that the answer differs depending on the perspective of the individual viewer. For me and my demographic cohorts—Baby Boomers who were children in the early ’60s—the program represents the dark, “realistic” side of shows that were popular during that period— shows like Dick Van Dyke and Father Knows Best. In those programs, no one ever had serious arguments, wholesomeness prevailed, and as far as we could tell, no one ever had sex. On rare occasions when the main characters’ bedrooms were shown, we’d see them sleeping in separate twin beds. In Mad Men, everyone has sex, everyone smokes cigarettes and drinks heavily, and most of the characters—especially the lead, Don Draper—carries deep, dark secrets.

Mad Men also explores social problems that later came to the fore, as we Baby Boomers were growing up: sexism, racism, environmental concerns, the Vietnam War, the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and a host of others.

One of the most interesting essays in Edgerton’s book, to my mind, is a piece by Mimi White, a professor at Northwestern, about the women of Mad Men. There’s the beautiful Betty Draper, who embodies the traditional housewife of the era but is plagued by dissatisfactions she cannot fully understand; Peggy Olson, a young woman who chafes against the sexist attitudes that blocked aspiring “career gals” from fully achieving their dreams; the buxom Joan Holloway, whose traditional appearance and dripping sexuality masks an intelligence that exceeds most of the men in the office and a host of extras—secretaries who take it for granted that it’s part of their job to keep their bosses liquor cabinets full and sleep with them if necessary.

For serious-minded younger viewers— Gen-Xers and others—this is part of the appeal as well. But I don’t want to give the impression that this is some solemn study in sociology or the cultural history of the mid-20th century.

It is also smart entertainment. Its quality lies in the details that capture the spirit of the times: the fashions, the carefree attitude toward smoking and drinking hard liquor, the background music and the sets. I think that sense of style is also part of the appeal, particularly for certain younger viewers who are tired of their own generation’s hipster anti-fashion statements and realize that today’s posture of anti-conformity is just as much about uniforms as business suits and dresses were back then.

The striking authenticity can also be found in many telling scenes that reflect attitudes of the times. In one scene, Betty yells at her daughter Sally for having a dry-cleaning bag over her head. The modern viewer naturally thinks she’s going to tell Sally that it’s dangerous.

As it turns out, she’s just mad that Sally might have dumped the clothes on the floor. She quickly sends her off to play again with the bag still over her head. In another seen, the Drapers are having a picnic. When they’re ready to go, Don tosses his empty beer can on the lawn, and Betty shakes the trash off the blanket with no thought to littering. (This, bear in mind, was well before that “crying Indian” commercial. Those of you of a certain age will know what I mean.)

But let me end on another serious note.

Don Draper has a secret. I won’t reveal it, in case you want to watch the series from the start. Let’s just say it’s a big one. He is a self-invented man, no less so than The Great Gatsby. As such, he embodies an important part of the American Dream—not just the notion that if you work hard you can have a beautiful family, a nice house in the suburbs and an exciting high-paying job, but the idea that in this country it is possible to entirely reinvent yourself. The downside of that, for Draper, Gatsby and other such fictional characters, is that if you take this far enough you will find that you’ve built a house of cards that can collapse at any moment.

Mad Men, in short, is more than mere popular entertainment. It is a work of art, in the sense that great art reveals great truths about the human condition. With that in mind, I can’t wait till the new season begins to unfold. I don’t suppose office workers still have water cooler conversations anymore. But rest assured, it will be a topic of Facebook conversation this spring.