Written by: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
What made me want to spend an hour watching AMC’s new television show Mad Men? In watching the pilot episode (and subsequently rewatching the promos) it made me realize that this show is somehow both typical AND something special (if that makes any sense). My logic is this: if this show was on during the normal television schedule, i.e. fall or winter, it would be overlooked and deemed merely “average.” The show is simply about ad executives and their problems after all, something that doesn’t exactly scream original. But the masterstroke here is that AMC put this show on in the dog days of summer, filled with reality television and reruns of far better fare, and when viewers desperate for compelling content will turn toward anything with promise.
That’s where Mad Men fills the void. It’s takes a typical premise and gives it a little something to make your summer days special. The first episode is by no means brilliant, but it does give you that delicious night-time soap opera that you need until Lost or Grey’s Anatomy comes back on. Let’s deconstruct the first hour to see what worked, and what didn't, with the boys of Madison Avenue.
The focus of Mad Men is the on the staff of the successful advertising firm of Sterling Cooper in New York. In fact, the series discusses in the beginning that the term “Mad Men” was invented by the ad execs of this time. It’s the beginning of the 1960s and times, as they say, are a-changing. The main character is Don Draper, as played by Jon Hamm. Draper is one of the most convincing and charming of the men, but is constantly plagued by wondering if someone younger and better is going to take his job. The first episode predominantly focuses on how Draper is going to convince the tobacco companies to make ads that address the health concerns of their product (a topic that was just being discovered in the 60s).
Next, we also meet Peter Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), a sleazy ad man who is soon to be married. He’s intent on getting Draper’s job, and of course sleeping with every secretary in the firm. This leads us to one of the show's main female characters, secretary Peggy (Elizabeth Moss). Peggy is a classic woman of the 60s, trying to balance a career while society tells her she has to be married.
Here, in no particular order, are some aspects of this show that jumped out at me:
For all intents and purposes, Mad Men seems to be a pretty straightforward show. The entire first episode revolves around the firm and their accounts, while dealing with the personal problems of the characters secondarily. The transition between these two subjects is incredibly fluid and blends together nicely. I enjoyed seeing both sides of the coin and never felt like the show was getting bogged down in too many needless details and subplots.
Playing Up the Night-time Soap-Gotta Love the Razzle Dazzle
One aspect that AMC hypes up in their promotion is the glitz and sophistication of the show. On first glance I would have sworn this show was set in the 1950s. It gives off Mafia meets June Cleaver air, with the women all looking like Marilyn Monroe wannabes and the men like Frank Sinatra's right hand men. Having the show set in the 60s however shows a whole new side that surprised me. The 50s have ended and the country is entering uncharted territory. The newness of the era combined with the newness of the show makes you feel like you never understand what is coming.
The glitz, glamour and sex vibe is also heavily prevalent in the show and furthers that “night-time soap” deal I was talking about. The good thing is, unlike shows on HBO and Showtime, the sex is implied and the nudity is just risqué enough to pass on AMC. While I’m not one to knock on shows on those two channels, Mad Men leaves something to the imagination.
Not Afraid to Tell It Like It Was
I do have to commend Mad Men for not shying away from the stereotypes of the day. There’s a scene in the beginning where Draper is talking to a black waiter, only to have the white waiter ask if Draper is being bothered. The ad execs also have no problem making generalizations about Jewish people as well. It doesn’t come off as derogatory so much as simply an honest portrayal of the times.
The role of Peggy shows another part of the darkness of the program. Every man hits on this poor girl, while the women constantly give Peggy tips on how to highlight her attributes for the men in the office. A great scene that encompasses the female feeling in the show is when Peggy goes to a doctor to obtain birth control. The doctor flat out tells her if she becomes promiscuous then he’s taking her off it, feeling she should be married instead of trying to sleep around. Her motives for having it are entirely pure, yet she’s still questioned on whether she’s “that type of girl.”
Like The Sopranos-Without the Shitty Ending
Many critics and the like are all comparing this show to the recently departed Sopranos. Sadly, I cannot discuss the similarities because I’ve never watched an episode of The Sopranos in my life (please don’t send me hate mail). Based on the general idea of that HBO show (that I gleaned from various television recaps), I do seem a very thin comparison between that latter show and Mad Men. AMC’s drama has a very distinct core to it, that one can only see at the end, that of friends and family. Don Draper doesn’t come off as a man who screams “wife and white picket fence” until the end. Hell, even the lecherous Peter screams “sleaze ball” but has a tight group of friends, and a fiancée. Where Sopranos did deal with family and all that, I can see Mad Men following in those footsteps.
Adding one more comparison to the Sopranos is the idea of gangsters and joining their ranks. The characters on Mad Men come off as corporate gangsters if you will. They have that undertone of danger and sophistication. Don Draper is incredibly suave, but you get that feeling like he could be dangerous or duplicitous. The genius of Mad Men is that you want to be invited to their party; you want to live that life. Not only to be involved in the simpler times of the 60’s but to be in that secret group where nothing is as it seems. In talking to certain people who used to watch The Sopranos that same feeling can be shared for both shows.
But Wait-It Has a Flaw
The only issue I had in the entire hour I spent watching the debut episode is that it’s a tad slow to pick up. The first half is mostly exposition, getting to know the characters and having them deal with their big tobacco meeting. After you’ve learned about the group they start to ease into their roles and take it easy, allowing you to just sit back and enjoy the ride.
I will definitely be tuning into the remaining episodes of Mad Men. It's got me hooked, so much so that as of now, I'd watch them OVER the soon-to-premiere fall shows we all know are just around the corner. So if, like me, summer drives you mad, then you might as well head on over to AMC. Hell, it beats The Singing Bee.
Author: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
Kristen Lopez is the editor-in-chief of CC2K and a freelance pop culture essayist. Her work has appeared on Roger Ebert, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Daily Beast. When she’s not burning down Film Twitter she runs two podcasts, the female-centric film show Citizen Dame, and the classic film-themed Ticklish Business.