#6: “Mad Men.” [TV Aughtrospective]

One of the very best shows on television for the past few years: a gorgeously-shot drama about advertising executives and the women who love them. Its depiction of early-60s life is startling…sexism, racism, hardcore smoking everywhere from the bedroom to the office to the plane, daytime drinking and infidelity. Its flawless art direction, terrific ensemble cast, and engaging scripts have made it a pleasure to watch through three superb seasons.

Although this show definitely seems to be trending upward, based on its body of work so far we dub “Mad Men” the 6th best show of the aughts.

Creator Matthew Weiner was slaving away for the Ted Danson sitcom “Becker” back in 2000. In his spare time, he crafted a spec script for a show called “Mad Men.” Although David Chase read the script and loved it, and brought Weiner aboard to write and produce for “The Sopranos,” most networks deemed the script unfilmable because of the amount of pure vice onscreen. That’s when the glorious spirit of the aughts kicked in. At a time when every basic cable channel started developing its own original shows for prestige and profit, AMC decided to get on board. With so many good shows cluttering the channel guide, they needed a series that would be distinctive, and they found that quality in “Mad Men.”

The series stars the magnetic Jon Hamm as Don Draper, dreamboat creative director for Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency with a dark secret (he’s an identity thief). His colleagues include John Slattery as the womanizing scoundrel Roger Sterling Jr., a man who was born into the advertising business, but maybe not born to do it. Vincent Kartheiser is an ideal annoyance as Pete Campbell, Don’s underling and sometime nemesis. Elisabeth Moss has delivered a breakout performance as Peggy Olson, the secretary-turned-ace copywriter. Most of the office characters (Bert Cooper, Lane Pryce, Sal, Kinsey) are engaging, and provide a great sounding board for the major players to bounce off of. Last but definitely not least, Christina Hendricks may have changed the world with her performance as Joan, the greatest office manager of all time.

Outside the office, “Mad Men” stars January Jones as Don’s wife Peggy Draper, who is a prototypical subject of the Feminine Mystique, and who begins to suspect that her husband is not what he seems. (Not coincidentally, Betty Friedan blamed advertising.) Alison Brie is fantastic as Pete’s wife Trudy…she guides him well on the path of life and rocks tremendous hats. Peyton List turns heads as Jane Siegel, Don’s secretary and then as Jane Sterling, Roger’s wife.

The best thing about this show is the way it looks: the actors are magnificently cast to type and the costumes, sets, props – everything is basically perfect. If you’re the kind of person who goes nuts over set design, you need to check out Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s “The Footnotes of Mad Men” blog.

“Mad Men” features studly dudes…well, one studly dude at least, but he’s studly enough to carry the show…and many intelligent and curvaceous ladies. Add in the fact that they’re ripping through Lucky Strikes like there’s no tomorrow while swigging a drink at 2 PM in an office meeting and it’s both astounding and gorgeous.

Sadly, we can’t embed the following video to strengthen our case for why Mad Men rules because AMC irrationally thinks this will hurt their business, so you’ll have to click through to see it. Don Draper’s pitches are a true highlight of this show, and this Kodak Carousel pitch is a gem.

Even the opening credits of this show are awesome, set to the sweet track “A Beautiful Mine” by RJD2. (Again, you have to click through.)

The show takes us back to the 1960s before “The Sixties” of baby boomer legend, a time when the vestiges of old society still clung on, but with fingernails that were beginning to slip from the windowsill. We see all kinds of foolishness go down — a client flips out because Peter Campbell suggests they sell TVs to black people, the Sterling Cooper crew mocks the soon-to-be iconic Volkswagen Beetle campaign, Sal Romano lives a secret, closeted life out of fear that to do otherwise would cost him his job.  Apparently, this is some kind of ingenious commentary on modern society. According to Weiner’s mentor David Chase, “It was lively and it had something new to say. Here was someone who had written a story about advertising in the 1960s, and was looking at recent American history through that prism.”

Others feel differently, though, and ROTI is somewhat inclined to agree. What does “Mad Men” really tell us about society in 2010, except that “thank god we’re not all racist sexist homophobe smokers anymore!” Especially since we still sort of are, and if THAT is supposed to be the point, that’s weak. Here’s Mark Greif in the London Review of Books:

We watch and know better about male chauvinism, homophobia, anti-semitism, workplace harassment, housewives’ depression, nutrition and smoking. We wait for the show’s advertising men or their secretaries and wives to make another gaffe for us to snigger over. ‘Have we ever hired any Jews?’ – ‘Not on my watch.’ ‘Try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology; it looks complicated, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.’ It’s only a short further wait until a pregnant mother inhales a tumbler of whisky and lights up a Chesterfield; or a heart attack victim complains that he can’t understand what happened: ‘All these years I thought it would be the ulcer. Did everything they told me. Drank the cream, ate the butter. And I get hit by a coronary.’ We’re meant to save a little snort, too, for the ad agency’s closeted gay art director as he dismisses psychological research: ‘We’re supposed to believe that people are living one way, and secretly thinking the exact opposite? . . . Ridiculous!’ – a line delivered with a limp-wristed wave. Mad Men is currently said to be the best and ‘smartest’ show on American TV. We’re doomed.

Although we enjoy Greif’s well-crafted smackdown, Mad Men is definitely one of the best shows going on television right now, and if being doomed means watching sweet TV, then doom our asses.

The elements that Grief identifies are there, of course, and it’s doubtful that they do little more than titillate. Yet his criticism does nothing to dismiss the many great qualities about Mad Men: the actors, the situations, the costumes, the sets, the minute details that they always get right.

AND! The plot twists! (Be warned, this is not for the squeamish when it comes to blood or mild spoilers.)

We’ll give the last word to the excellent TV critic Tim Goodman of the SF Chronicle, who named “Mad Men” the third best show of the 2000s:

The best series still in production (followed closely by AMC stablemate “Breaking Bad”), this drama about the existential angst of an early 1960s ad man, Don Draper, has exemplary writing and acting that is intimate, reflective, funny and shaded, and it boasts the most memorable premise and look in ages.

It carries the torch of greatness into the next decade.

“Mad Men” does not seem to be slowing down as it heads for a fourth season on AMC. The conclusion to the third season was daring, thrilling, and game-changing. “Mad Men” could be setting itself up for an epic run of good television. Stay tuned.

TV Aughtrospective:
Introduction and Runners-Up
#10: “Six Feet Under.”
#9: “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.”
#8: “The Daily Show.”
#7: “South Park.”
#6: “Mad Men.”
#5: “Arrested Development.”
#4: “American Idol.”
#3: “Lost.”
#2: “The Sopranos.”
#1: “The Wire.”

About Alpine McGregor
Just like you, man. I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. All in the game, though, right?

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