“Mad Men” is a triumph in television. Every minute of the show, from its opening credits to its final montage had me totally engulfed in the world of 1960s advertising. Its brilliant writing, consistent tone, and incredible performances are enough to make it stand out amongst its peers, but what really cements it as one of the greatest achievements in television is its attention to detail in the set design, costume design, and props, giving it an authentic feel that is hardly matched in any period production. Its visual style gives it a cinematic quality that cannot be found in any other television series, even in today’s world of big-budget ensembles like “Game of Thrones.” Simply put, there is no other series like “Mad Men.”
The show examines the personal and professional lives of its main characters while also exploring the business of advertising and the historical events that shaped the time period. Much of the brilliance in the writing of “Mad Men” comes from how character arcs coincide directly with real historical events. The series encompasses the entire decade of the 60s, its first episode taking place in March of 1960 and its last episode ending in November of 1970.
The larger theme of “Mad Men” revolves around identity and appearances; how not everything is as it appears. Cultural themes were also incorporated into the show, such as assimilation, societal privilege, consumerism, sexism, racism, and antisemitism. The show’s main protagonist, Don Draper, is a reflection of then-cultural values and embodies perfection in almost every way. He is successful, creatively brilliant, handsome, and respectfully stoic. He does not share personal details about himself (we experience his past through sly flashbacks rather than having him profess it openly) and he has what would be considered the most picture-perfect home life to back up his wholesome image.
“What is happiness? It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you’re doing is ok.” Don Draper’s remark in the pilot illustrates the kind of life that these admen were trying to create and live – a utopia of sorts, satisfying their greatest pleasures and ambitions while walking their path to greater privilege; that is, if they didn’t die prematurely of lung cancer or liver failure. In a way, they strived for the look of their personal lives to reflect their professional strategy – commercialism. And while they may have conveyed pride, stability, and wealth on the outside, on the inside things were very different. Appearances are everything in “Mad Men,” and much of the success of the show comes from its fearlessness of shattering appearances in the interest of exposing greater truth and watching our characters deal with the consequences. Sometimes the truth is glaring and stated, while other times it remains in subtext.
What better world to explore the ideas of falsehood and appearances in than the world of advertising? We sell ourselves to each other every day – a pitch that Don does for a client isn’t so different than a pitch we do in an interview or trying to convince someone on a date that we are worth their time. We are obsessed with selling an image that embodies our best traits or the traits we think we need. The characters of “Mad Men” are always selling themselves, their business, or some product, shaping perception and changing the narrative in their attempts to show what they think are the best versions of themselves. Much of this revolves around the issue of fitting in with society or class, and “Mad Men” tackles that topic well. Achieving the American dream is put into skepticism – the show suggests that without concealing parts of ourselves that don’t fit in with the mainstream, we can’t rise to the top.
What sets the characters back and causes them frustration seems to be their inability (which is often intentional) to embrace the parts of them that make them unique. From seasons one to seven, we get to watch these characters grow into themselves and accept their true identities. Their voyage to greater self-awareness contains some hidden proverbial skeletons and a lot of bumps along the way. There is a lot of drama going on in the personal and business sense, and some scenes are so well shot and acted that they made me feel like I was sitting in the cinema. Episodes typically end with some piece of music that reflects the time period and theme of the episode. Everything in “Mad Men” has a purpose. There’s always some amount of symbolism or depth that pushes us to think about the story, ourselves, and even our nation.
In the wrong hands, it could have easily been a “pitch of the week” show. But thanks to Matthew Weiner, the story of “Mad Men” had such an amount of emotional depth and its world was imagined and conceived so brilliantly that the story feels as though it could have been factual. The cast, unknown at the time, brought everything they had in each episode and provided fantastic color to the black and white pages of Weiner’s scripts. I can’t imagine anyone else playing these characters. The lighting and framing of every scene was meticulously crafted; immaculately composed shots gave us further insight into the truth behind these characters and the world around them. The dialogue was elevated and witty. “Mad Men”, a brilliant exposé of a man and his time, is also the closest thing to art that has ever graced our living room screens.