Mad Men, The Best Series on TV?
By Bert Ehrmann
July 18, 2008
I have to admit that when I first heard about the AMC TV series Mad Men last year I was a bit skeptical. How exactly could a show on AMC, which up until that point had been known as a cheep knock-off to TMC, turn out ANYTHING of quality? Surly if a show like Mad Men were any good, it would have premiered on a “real” network like HBO or FX. Right? WRONG! AMC did the impossible last season in producing the best series of the year on a channel other than HBO.
Mad Men is set in early 1960s when a white man in this country could get away with just about anything. In an era that most generally assume was the last bastion of idealized countrywide traditional “family values,” the main conceit of Mad Men is that the America of that time was a world of bad habits where people smoked and drank too much and men cheated on their wives with impunity and generally ran things for their own benefit.
John Hamm, whom I assume every casting director in Hollywood is now pining for, plays Don Draper, a man leading a double life in the series. By all outward appearances, Don is the hard charging creative director of the fictional Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency but in reality Don’s life is more complex. He’s married to the young and beautiful Betty (January Jones), has two cute kids and a nice house in the suburbs. But somehow, this version of the American Dream is too much for Don to stomach.
Don drinks and smokes at astounding levels and has no qualms about cheating on his wife with several different women. He’s so consumed with inner angst that he sometimes doesn’t come home for days and at one point abandons his daughter’s birthday party when the sight of a passing train dredges up some bad memories.
Betty, and in fact most women in the series, seem positively childlike to the men of that era. She’s so naive that when a neighbor friend realizes her husband is having an affair after seeing some suspicious numbers on a phone bill, Betty reassuringly tells her, “Maybe she’s a cater, maybe he’s throwing you a surprise party?” It’s almost as if Betty is incapable of realizing that a man might do something to hurt his wife.
But Betty isn’t much better off than Don. She seems to be trapped in her life, unable to find a way to maintain her role as a homemaker while at the same time fulfilling a few of her life ambitions. Betty suffers from anxiety attacks as she fears for her future wondering if she’ll end up like her mother alone in a large house with nothing to occupy herself but time.
Draper’s newly hired secretary on the other hand (she’s definitely a disposable secretary, I’m not sure the term “personal assistant” had been invented yet) Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) inexplicably finds herself on career path that’s meant for the opposite gender when she stumbles into a copywriting position. But even Peggy who spends most of the first season fighting off advances from male coworkers and falling in love with recently married junior executive Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) has a terrible choice to make when she quite unexpectedly gives birth to a son and seemingly chooses a career over motherhood.
And that’s only a handful of the morally ambiguous characters in Mad Men, there’s also Don’s boss Roger Sterling who’s facing his mortality and the deliciously vampy Joan Holloway who isn’t afraid of using her natural assets to get ahead in life to name a few. I used to say that the best TV series ever was The Sopranos or Battlestar Galactica. But recently Mad Men has given me pause when I consider that question.
The second season of Mad Men premiers at 10 p.m. Sunday, July 27 on AMC. Last year Mad Men won Golden Globes as the best TV drama as well for John Hamm as actor in a drama. The series has also been announced as a finalist in voting for this year’s Emmy Awards. The first season of Mad Men is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital download via iTunes.