Here are five reasons why Mad Men is more than Jon Hamm smoking cigarettes and delivering primped soap-opera monologues.
Consignment to posterity is definitive. But when it comes to new art, everything is up for debate and the debate should be enjoyed. I was infuriated, listening to a solipsistic TV critic dismissing Game of Thrones as ‘swords and sorcery’, shorthand for a dolt’s adventure tale, but it made for great radio, hearing him cross-examined by a GoT fan.
We’ve all made a similar pronouncement for effect. I dismissed Mad Men because I thought Jon Hamm was just a face, smoking cigarettes and delivering primped soap-opera monologues. It wasn’t until recently, when I read an article describing the show as one of the four pillars of American TV drama (alongside The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad) that I decided to sit down and watch it properly. I’ve finished season seven (the final season) and my eyes have widened at the sheer cumulative brilliance of the cast and writing. Hamm has finally won his Emmy, too.
I thought it would be a good time to pitch Mad Men to those Methods Unsound readers who haven’t watched it yet. The solipsism I describe means that most people reading articles about golden-age TV will be those that have already watched it. But what the hey, hopefully I can say something novel.
The office creates a stage play
Ad agencies on Madison Avenue host the majority of the action in Mad Men. With scenes generally taking place in meeting rooms and offices, the show feels very much like a stage play. Characters enter and exit the action regularly, asides are frequent, absences are pronounced. This fantastic setting, in which almost all of the ensemble cast may feature at any time, becomes the viewers’ home, too. The drama is implicit, it is in any workplace (a Machiavellian clusterfuck) but the viewer feels safe here, familiar with surroundings and able to soak in the dialogue, characterisation and schadenfreude.
The script has nowhere to hide
The script resonates between these partition walls. There’s little ‘action’ (honourable mention for one incident with a ride-on lawnmower after Ken Cosgrove wins John Deere) apart from sex and drinking. Everything must come from the dialogue and it does.
Witty dialogue is never over-egged
The badinage is fantastic. Woody-Allen-standard wit is delivered without signpost or metaphysics. Non-sequiturs are in character. Jokes are delivered by characters that have a sense of humour and others laugh or smirk just like the viewer does. Nothing is delivered in the stylised fashion of The West Wing. Bathos is outlawed. Although Roger Stirling in particular has mastered the one-liner, it is entirely in keeping with his character and with an account man that has inherited an ad agency.
It’s a lonely history lesson
The show doesn’t dwell on the Cold War, the Kennedy assassinations, Vietnam, ’68, Luther King, civil rights and women’s lib but these parts of history certainly colour the action, providing moments of respite where characters in crisis take a moment to pull up their bootstraps or to sink further into their mire. The feeling of capitalism and consumerism riding waves of civil unrest is palpable. The intransigence of the media echoes the intransigence of our main characters, continually proving that the boy becomes the man.
‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’
The obvious exploration of Don’s infidelity and disloyalty as a product of his upbringing is the main thread that unravels over the seven seasons. But this theme of mum, dad and death continues throughout. Pete and his parents. Pete and his in-laws. Roger’s lack of a dynasty. Betty’s relationship with her children and her parents. Peggy’s fitful attempts at a family and her own religious parents. It goes on and on. It’s unremitting, like a marathon Christmas Carol with multiple Scrooges. Sadly, eventually, the viewer has to lean out of the window and ask ‘what day is today?’