But then I heard about Don Draper's dirty little secret—which is slowly revealed over the course of the first season, so I won't spoil it—and I had a good hook. Let's just say he has a skeleton in his closet.
Mad Men focuses on Sterling Cooper, a boutique advertising agency on Madison Avenue. While it centers on Don Draper, the strength of Mad Men lies in its ensemble cast.
Don Draper is a complicated man, a man who loves his wife and family but still requires a mistress (it's the swingin' sixties!), as if he's not quite sure how to find happiness despite already living the American Dream. He's also a creative genius with a penchant for impressing clients with his brilliant off-the-cuff ideas for hawking their goods, often in overly personal monologues laden with subtext. A domineering personality, he clashes with Pete Campbell, a young upstart in accounts who begins as a whiny little shit but unexpectedly grows into one of the best and most interesting characters on the show. Pete is conniving and entitled as all get-out, but as we see more of him, we understand his perspective more. And speaking of entitled, meet Roger Sterling, whose name is on the door...but it's his father's name. Roger oozes suaveness and swagger, drinking like a fish and chasing tail like a dog. The other man with his name on the door is Bert Cooper, an elder statesman with an eclectic art collection who keeps a calm head in time of conflict but sometimes thinks he's too old for this shit. I quite enjoy the supporting characters: pretentious Paul Kinsey, nerdy Harry Crane, debonair Salvatore Romano, and, of course, Ken Cosgrove, Accounts. Finally, let us not forget Bobby Draper...or, in fact, let us, because he's been recast three times and is basically a talking prop.
And yet for such a manly show about men being men and doing manly things like drinking, smoking, and cheating on their spouses, I have to agree with those who laud the complexity of the female characters.
Betty Draper is a polarizing character, seemingly nothing more than a shrewish, repressed housewife, but she also carries a lot of inner conflict; sadly, unlike pretty much every other character, she actually gets worse as the series progresses, devolving into a comically awful terrible mother. And yet, she does have her fans. Joan Holloway was the character I'd heard the most about, but she begins the series as a bitchy queen bee, head of the administrative staff, to whom she condescends on every occasion. But she grows into something much more than a stereotype, a woman who feels fulfilled by her job because she is good at it. She does, however, face the constant sexism (it's the sexist sixties!) that plagues Peggy Olson, my favorite character, who begins the series as Don's dowdy secretary but is far too ambitious to remain at that post forever. Don becomes her mentor, and their relationship is a highlight of the series, especially because Don clearly respects her not only as a woman but as a professional, and he just happens to show that respect by constantly berating her...and sometimes saying nice things for a change. Sometimes. Peggy is sort of this little bastion of feminism in the office, always fighting for her rights as a woman, while sometimes taking advantage of her womanhood to get ahead...but not like that. In fact, Peggy's sexuality is very refreshing; she likes having sex, whatever, that is totally cool. Right, right, there are other female characters, but Peggy is the best. Finally, let us not forget Sally Draper, who may be the best child character I've seen on television. With parents like the largely absent Don and the cold, uncaring Betty, it's hard not to want to hug Sally all the time, but later seasons make her an interesting character in her own right, a girl trying to grow up in a volatile environment.
Mad Men is a period drama, and while it does have its share of "Hey hey, it's the sixties!" jokes and references, it doesn't rely too heavily on them; its best moments making use of the time period come when the show allows the characters to react to major historical events or social movements. We know the history, and it's happening all around them; it's their present. While I found the interplay with history clever and sometimes affecting, I didn't think it had much to say about today. And while I must admit that my first impression of the show was that it was reveling in its ability to portray the sexism, racism, and homophobia of the time period, I found that it really was more interested in commenting on it critically and sometimes subverting it; here the show did seem to be holding up a mirror to the present and asking how far we'd come (Peggy would still be fighting to earn as much as a man in her position today).
It was late in the first season when I realized how brilliant it was to set the show in an advertising agency. Not only does advertising allow for a glimpse into societal and cultural trends and how people thought at the time, but it also perfectly fits the theme of the show: lies. Basically everyone on the show is lying about something, and Don sits on a throne of lies. And it's not simply a matter of lying to people about things you did or didn't do but the lies you tell yourself. Characters lie to get what they want. They lie because they can't face the truth. They lie to avoid being caught. They lie to save face. They lie because you can't face the truth. They are trying to build themselves into who they want to be, but circumstances may not always be on their side. It's this perfect, slick metaphor that all the characters are living in.
Things happen on Mad Men, sometimes even exciting things, but, mostly, it is incredibly character-focused. It's one of the more contemplative shows I've seen, content to watch a character go about his or her business performing some mundane task that, in actuality, is incredibly telling. Sometimes, I was impressed with the cleverness of the visual shorthand or floored by how unfair it was that it could create such powerful images. Other times, the show seemed to be reaching for profundity.
Overall, Mad Men is a very well crafted series, but as much as I love it, I do feel that it's slightly overrated, that it's not nearly as deep and complex as critics make it out to be. That could be a matter of its being overhyped, and it could also be a matter of my heart belonging to Breaking Bad, a very different show that engages me far more strongly. But Mad Men does transport me to a shiny foreign land with characters whose lives I am invested in, whom I can root for, laugh with and at, hate, feel bad for, and other verb-preposition combinations. Finally, I am a part of the cultural zeitgeist!