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Josh Reviews Season One of Mad Men!

I was excited, last month, to finally sample one of the best-reviewed new shows of the past several years: Mad Men.  No surprise, Steph and I made pretty short work of the 13-episode first season on DVD.

Mad Men depicts the lives of the men and women who work at Sterling Cooper, a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the early 1960’s.  It’s a tough business, but one in which the successful have the opportunity to taste great wealth and privilege.  It’s also a rapidly changing world, as social mores shift and the concepts of traditional “family values” and the strictly defined roles of men and women begin to adjust.  

Mad Men is notable for its sharply-written dialogue and its extraordinary ensemble of actors.  Jom Hamm plays the lead character, Don Draper, a enormous success both as an ad man in the office and with the women in his life, although as the season progresses he finds himself struggling to cope with the secrets of his past and to adjust to the new world of the 60’s.  The aforementioned women in Don’s life include his wife Betty (January Jones), who is devoted to Don but also beginning to chafe at the edges of her housewife life, and Rachel Menken, one of the few Jewish clients of Sterling Cooper to whom Don finds himself immediately attracted.  Much of Mad Men focuses on the hierarchical structure of the Sterling Cooper ad agency.  There are the men on top, like Don and Roger Sterling (the absolutely terrific John Slattery, a real stand-out).  There are the younger executives beneath them, looking to get ahead in any way that they can.  These include Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis), Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Stanton), Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) and the head of the design department, Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt).  Then there are the secretaries.  The show’s pilot takes us through the first day at work of Don’s new secretary Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss, Zoey Bartlet from The West Wing).  One of the first people she meets is the queen bee of the office, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks, a familiar face to fans of Firefly).  The complex interactions between these characters (along with a variety of supporting players and guest stars), each fighting in some way against the confines of his/her job and obligations, each looking for some way to get ahead, and each flawed in his/her own way, make up the meat of the show’s drama.

Of course, along with the talented writers and actors, we must also praise the amazing production team for the great success of the show.  From the sets, to the wardrobe, to the hairstyles and make-up, Mad Men is extraordinary in its ability to capture the unique feel and flavor of this particular time in this particular place.  The attention to detail is astounding, and really helps sell the reality of the show.

It was interesting, as the first season unfolded, to pick up on some of the topics that the writers were interested in exploring.  Certainly, it is clear right from the first moments of the first episode that the show was designed to paint a picture of the changing roles of women and men, both at home and in the office.  But I was also intrigued by other themes that became apparent as the season progressed.  One of these was the idea of repressed homosexuality, which we saw in the character of Salvatore (something that came to the fore during his dinner with a client in “The Hobo Cobe”) as well as Joan’s roomate (in “The Long Weekend”).  It was also interesting to see the way the writers kept bringing Judaism into Don’s world — first through his interactions with Rachel, then through devices such as the arrival of potential new clients from the Israeli Tourism Bureau (in “Babylon”).  Judaism kept sneaking into the show to such a degree that I half expected that we’d find out by the end of the season that one of the deep dark mysteries in Don Draper’s past would be that he was Jewish!  (Spoiler alert: that did not turn out to be the case.)  Nevertheless, it’s always rewarding to watch a show that has serious things to say and interesting issues to explore.

If there is any place that this much-lauded show fell short for me, it is that I found pretty much every single character to be, well, pretty much completely unlikable!  Now, it is certainly not a requirement of good TV that all the characters on a show be heroic and noble.  Quite the opposite, really.  It’s great for characters to have rough edges, to be the types of flawed human beings that all of us really are, no matter what we might prefer to think.  (And the idea of making characters more “likable” has the mark of cowardly network executives — in a recent interview about Observe and Report, Seth Rogen and his interviewer from scoffed at the very notion of being worried about whether or not one’s characters are “likable.”)  But I don’t think that having characters who are terribly flawed, and having characters who are likable for an audience, are two mutually exclusive ideas.  Look at the terrificly flawed,imperfect characters of Battlestar Galactica — or, even better, the many scumbags on The Wire — for great examples of how audiences can fall head-over-heels in love with even the worst of characters.  But with Mad Men, I never felt that affection for any of the characters.  (Well, maybe for Roger Sterling, but that’s pretty much it.)  And I think that hurt the show, ultimately, for me.  It prevented me from really engaging with the stories being told.  

I respect Mad Men as a truly well-made show, and I definitely want to get my hands on the second season.  But beloved, at least by me, this show is not.  Not yet, anyways.

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