A drama about one of New York's most prestigious ad agencies at the beginning of the 1960s, focusing on one of the firm's most mysterious but extremely talented ad executives, Donald Draper.A drama about one of New York's most prestigious ad agencies at the beginning of the 1960s, focusing on one of the firm's most mysterious but extremely talented ad executives, Donald Draper.A drama about one of New York's most prestigious ad agencies at the beginning of the 1960s, focusing on one of the firm's most mysterious but extremely talented ad executives, Donald Draper.
Then, when you finally make the effort to watch that landmark series and realize it is every bit as good as everyone said it was, you flagellate yourself thinking why you held back for so long.
This Great-TV-Show-Avoidance-Mechanism happened to me in regards to Mad Men. A show about advertising and corporate people did not seem very exciting to me, and I wasn't really a fan of anyone in the cast (save Elizabeth Olson). Having in the past started to watch best-of-all-time TV shows just to drop them along the way - I'm looking at you, The Sopranos - I kept it on the back burner for a very long time. Now, after consuming all of Mad Men in a relatively short amount of time, I think it is the most consistently good TV show I have ever watched.
Out of the 92 episodes in the entire series on IMDb, I have rated only two a 7. All the rest got a rating of either 8 or 9 (I don't believe in perfection, so 9 is as high as I go). The key word here, alongside consistency, is even-handedness. Even though there are standout episodes, usually popping out unpredictably within seasons, rather than near the end like most other shows, Mad Men's episodes are so well balanced in terms of drama, character development and plot advancement that you feel you are witnessing interesting lives go by - extremely well costumed, photographed, written and acted lives, but fictional nonetheless. Compared to most other shows, there is a refreshing under-reliance on plot twists and melodramatic acting scenes, which now seem to me like the bluntest tools in the writer's bag of tricks to keep viewers tuning in every week. Perhaps Mad Men's greatest achievement is just that: through the power of character and acting alone, it manages to capture the viewers' interest while dispensing with more traditional tricks of storytelling. Of course, other facets of the production, such as the attention to period detail, costume design and cinematography are really good too. But what stands out and keeps us watching is the near-perfect marriage between solid writing, first, and solid acting, second - acting here defined in terms of how perfectly the actors inhabit their roles, not the showy, larger-than-life, award-stealing acting scenes you find in Oscar bait films. And I tell you from experience, the binge pull of the series makes it nearly impossible to watch a single episode in a sitting. I have only been able to pull that off once, with the final episode.
The way the plot is handled is simply masterful. For instance, if a character goes on a quest to achieve something, and we spend some time witnessing the build-up to it, it is not guaranteed they will (ever) succeed, or that at least a lesson will be learned at the end of the day. Things may end up just like they are - a lot like real life. The backdrop of US history unfolding is neither overpowering, i.e., stealing attention from the characters or events at hand, or just a side note mentioned without consequence. These historically-inspired scenes excel in revealing interesting takes on people's attitudes (secretaries crying over Marilyn Monroe's death, for instance) while providing startling contrasts to our times. Another striking feature of the show I'd like to mention is that, now and again, there are a few scenes with unimportant characters - like a child doing something they ought not to do, feeling guilty, and trying to hide it afterwards - that seem to be there mostly to make us feel, "yes, I have felt this before, this is familiar to me". Those "snippets of reality," as I call them, serve no narrative purpose whatsoever and don't even advance our understanding of the characters, but they do a great deal to establish the mood and reinforce our connection to the characters, even if indirectly. By including these moments in small amounts and in the right moment, the writers are still able to keep everything on track while disregarding the common writing advice that every scene should either advance the plot or deepen character development (or better yet, both at the same time). By the way, I have rarely seen such "extraneous" scenes elsewhere, and when they do appear, they are due mostly to an editor or writer's incompetence rather than to the command of their craft.
On top of all that, the show is also a wonderfully honest piece of television. It does not promise or deliver anything more than what you see on screen. After a couple of seasons, you are likely to be able to predict to a high degree of accuracy how it is all going to end - Mad Men operates within such a well thought out "narrative system", with clearly defined bounds, that you know exactly what NOT to expect. The way the series finale begins and ends makes you feel like you are watching just another episode and, miraculously, still manages to satisfy.
In closing, I should note that Mad Men does not provide the blockbuster-y thrills of, say, Game Thrones before it became a catastrophic failure, Westworld in its first season, or Breaking Bad during the Gus Fring phase. Above all, it shows that it is entirely possible to make great, often magnificent, television without any sort of sensationalized acting, clichéd dialogue or narrative acrobatics. I have already completely forgotten Game of Thrones and don't plan on rewatching any time soon. I find it unlikely I will ever do the same to Mad Men.
- Jul 22, 2020