Mad Men : An Introduction

Mad Men:

A term coined in the late 1950s to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue.

They coined it.

If you only watch one fictionalised American 1960s period piece make it Mad Men, no other TV show i’ve seen gets under the skin of the period and the American Dream quite like. From a distance the American Dream has always seemed like some of a enigma, a contradiction. It’s roots in the desire to be free, independent and (financially) self sustaining are hard to argue with, but from the outside looking in it can also look like greed, naked ambition and consumerism wrapped up in patriotism to mask its true meaning.

Is the American Dream achievable? Or is it a mirage? Does achieving it bring happiness or is it all a front, a cover to sell soap flakes? These are all the questions you’ll likely be contemplating whilst watching Mad Men. That Mad Men is able to have all of these questions bubbly just below the surface without it being obvious, or preachy or sounding like a history lecture it what makes the show so remarkable.

Throwing all these hard questions into sharp relief are a large amount of contradictions around at the time, on display in the show is a rather large amount of explicit sexism and smaller amount of more implicit racism. There are a lot of things said in the offices of Sterling Cooper which would probably receive a verbal warning in most offices today, and yet the list of taboos adhered to as part of the “rules of polite society” which seem absurd to us today.

Contradictions and enigmas are what makes Mad Men, and at it’s core is it’s biggest, Donald Draper. A Korean war veteran, advertising man, writer, happily married man, serial adulterer, a man who has quite severe personal creative standards but who is deeply cynical about the business he’s in and what he does.

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It’s a shame to focus on just the central character when like most great shows it really is a ensemble piece, however the character of Don and the performance of Jon Hamm sums up so simply what I love about the show. An effortlessly cool and confident exterior accompanied by some interesting small talk which are pleasant enough company, but when you go deeper you find a lot of contradictions and insecurities.

The show is effectively format less, it’s not procedural, it’s not serialised arcs, their isn’t some big mystery that Don needs to get to the bottom of. The plot is simply the characters living their lives, being happy, being sad, trying to be happy, trying to figure out if they should be happy with where they are, or should they be on the next rung up the ladder by now?

If there is a mystery to be solved, it’s up to you to do the solving, to figure out exactly who these characters are, and you may never figure them out but you’ll likely have a lot of fun in their company while you try.

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