Mad Men has become a bit of a phenomenon in quality TV circles since it's launch four years ago. It's won "Outstanding Drama Series" at the Emmys every year its been on, which makes you wonder why any other shows bother putting themselves forward. Its become a darling of the critics, and a breakout show for it's network, AMC, allowing it to position itself as a competitor for "quality" television viewers against HBO and Showtime in the US. Thats a lot for one show. And until this month I'd never got around to watching it.
Mad Men is very much a show of it's era; by which I mean the early 21st Century. It's a cleverly written, decompressed show with a large ensemble cast, the enjoyment of which is largely based on gradually unfolding its characters and subplots over the course of a series. Whereas shows like Justified feature a strong "...of the week" element, Mad Men is more akin to predecessors like The Sopranos or The Wire in somuch that individual episodes tend to have strong thematic elements but are really only fragments of a larger whole. It's made for Box Set viewing.
Mad Men is very much a show of it's era; by which I mean 1960s New York. Homophobia, casual sexism, endemic racism, are all rooted in the shows characters, and rather than this being a story about those things, they're just sat there, much like the ever-present cigarette smoke, reminding the audience that whilst this is in so many ways familiar, its also a world that (hopefully) has been changed appreciably for the better. It's quite a subtle thing; you don't see characters railing against all these horrors, but there are characters that represent these blights on the culture of the era, away slightly from the main plot but never away. Its a show that loves it's dramatic irony - a good example is that one of Sterling Coopers art guys is clearly, gloriously, gay but the rest of the cast is totally oblivious to it, a wonderfully funny situation tempered by the later revealed deep sadness of a man living a lie.
This is also a show that is heavily layered with meaning. If Mad Men has an overall theme, I would say that it is about the faces you show to the world; and that it's no co-incidence that it is based around an advertising agency. Everything is artifice, every character is projecting themselves at odds with who they are, everyone is, to a greater or lesser extent, at odds with the person they are and the person that they want to be. For all the show is a broad ensemble, it's centre is Don Draper, a man with a heavily compartmentalised life, seemingly living the American Dream, and show ruthlessly deconstructs this throughout the season, set against a backdrop a country starting to move on from the rigid certainties of the 50s into the turbulent changes of the 1960s.
Structurally, all this gives the show a slightly slow start - its always well scripted, directed and acted but it's as alien a world as anything shot on a spaceship with strange-foreheaded extraterrestials, and the first few episodes feel a little hard to get into. But as you get into episode four or five, the arcs slowly begin to form, the interchangeable jerks that make up much of the cast start to nuance themselves apart, and slowly, but surely it becomes compelling television. By the final episode, with it's big emotional moments and slowly unfolding disasters, I ready to roll straight into series two...