I first started watching Mad Men when a good friend who had worked in advertising urged me to. Although his professional experience had been Canadian, he swore that the show’s depiction of the ad business was beyond authentic – not just the clothes and the furniture but the attitudes and the social conventions. Even though these were great hooks, it was the characters and the story lines that transformed me into a fan. And not even the interminable hiatuses between seasons put me off.
Popular culture pundits of all kinds are declaring that television is now in a golden age. Of course junk TV abounds but there is also plenty of brilliant cable and streamed TV (wherever you stream it to) to leave one literarily satisfied.
Mad Men is part of that golden age. The characters are complex, the dialogue fresh and quotable and the plots unpredictable. Just the way I like it – the opposite of comfort television. Of course there are soap-opera elements to the series. Unmarried women get pregnant and give up their babies, married men and women have many, many, many affairs and, occasionally, people commit suicide. But the context is the social and political turmoil of the 60s and the characters allude to Dante, Emerson, Wordsworth and Poe – and that’s just in a few episodes. That’s not to say it’s pretentious because the references are subtly embedded in the plot, the scenery and the ads created by the ‘mad men’.
If you’re a fan, I need say no more. If you’re planning to watch the back episodes, I envy your first time. You’ve probably heard a lot about the show and the exhaustive analysis that it has generated. Who or what does Don represent? What does the show say about that early 60s culture that led into the upheavals of the late 60s and radical changes in attitudes? Are the ‘mad women’ depicted accurately or are they mannequins for the exquisite vintage clothing? The answer is both!
The look of Mad Men is compelling because for many of us because it depicts what ‘grown ups’ looked like when we were children. My mother had outfits like Joan’s – although not her curves – and I remember coveting the pencil skirts, fitted dresses and pointy stilettos. So now that we’re the grown ups, we’re getting a glimpse of what our parents’ lives might have been like – or at least their environment and the things that influenced them. Of course we also see that things that younger people rebelled against – the pervasive reactionary views about women, minorities and the world in general.
Still, with all these elements permeating every aspect of the series, “the play’s the thing.” Because without a compelling plot line we would soon tire of looking at the perfect sets and impeccable costumes. The story moves, the characters grow (for better or worse) and we want to know what will happen next. So now I await the next and final season. Like a great book whose ending I don’t want to reach, I almost don’t want the last season to start. But once it’s done, I’ll look back gratified.
– Miria Ioannou