What is it that sets apart Mad Men, Matthew Weiner’s AMC series about an advertising agency in the 1960s, from other dramas on TV? Is it the captivating ensemble of nuanced characters, who’ve grown and withered, loved and experienced every kind of loss in the show’s seven years? Is it the merciless scrutiny under which it dissects well-worn 60s tropes? The incredible wardrobe? (That doesn’t contradict my last point, the colours were fabulous…).
The truth is, our current television landscape blesses us with an abundance of these qualities – such high standards in characterisation, social commentary and production design are not so rare in what has frequently been dubbed a new Golden Age of Television. From the time of HBO’s emergence as an environment fostering high quality, censorship-free drama in the late 90s, there’s been an onslaught of intelligent, adult cable series, and with new players like Rectify, Fargo and The Leftovers all still in their early seasons, it’s clear that there’s no shortage of torchbearers for the post-Mad Men era (the show is currently airing its final batch of episodes).
So how can Mad Men stand out in this sea of quality? Its true trump card is this: Matthew Weiner understands how people interact, and he is unrivalled in his gift for bringing this authenticity to the screen. If that sounds like vague nonsense, allow me to be more specific. In reality, conversation can be a clumsy thing – we’re not working from a script, we rarely have the perfect response, and we often prepare our next lines as other parties speak and simply wait our turn. Weiner’s keen observation of this principle, and his ability to translate it into a medium where people are reading a script (in fact, he has an infamously low tolerance of even the slightest script deviations) are the keys to the show’s success, and position Weiner as the antidote to Aaron Sorkin and his ilk – I don’t mean disrespect to his often brilliantly witty scripts, but Sorkin is the ultimate example of a writer whose characters could only exist within the confines of TV-land.
It may seem false of me to highlight this quality in a show about rich, successful salesmen, the smoothest of smooth talkers. Yes, Mad Men is nominally about creative thinkers and/or slick pitchers, but more importantly the show explores the personal cost of a life spent selling an image of success, of family, of happiness. In their own lives, most of the characters are alone and unfulfilled. Glib tongues will not bring them happiness, and cannot prepare them for life’s everyday uncertainty and unpredictability; at all times, the script is rooted in this honest imperfection.
Much of Mad Men’s humour (and it’s a hilarious show) also stems from the winning combination of the script’s little absurdities and non-sequiturs, and each actor’s total inhabitation of their role. Characters constantly misinterpret one another, ignore each other’s references, and become delightfully incoherent as they get flustered or frustrated. Petty home or office arguments are a joy to behold, frequently ending in personal attacks or hopeless retorts (‘I’m tired of everyone telling me to shut up. I’m not stupid, I speak Italian’, fumes one character after being berated by her husband).
I’ve gone on for too long without mentioning the man at the centre of the show: Don Draper, man of mystery. In him, Matt Weiner and actor Jon Hamm have crafted one of the most iconic of modern TV’s array of antiheroes, a man who perfectly distils Mad Men’s themes. Impossibly handsome, and with legendary powers of persuasion and aptitude for creative work, Draper seems to have been drawn directly from the old ‘Men want to be him, women want to be with him’ line, but the falsity of his image quickly becomes apparent – Don is a lousy husband and father, and a pathological womaniser with a serious drinking problem.
At this point it’s important to talk about Mad Men’s ancestry. Modern TV history can be broken up into pre- and post-Sopranos; it was this show, with its rare combination of auteurial vision and huge ratings, which paved the way for the new pedigree of cable drama we’ve seen in the last fifteen years, and its influence can be seen wherever you choose to look (not least in the now-verging-on-ridiculous antihero vogue).
Of all the series which emerged from The Sopranos’ fertile loins, however, it is Mad Men which I consider to be its most direct descendant. Matt Weiner served as a producer and writer on the show for its final seasons, and the experience clearly left an indelible mark on him. Don, like Tony Soprano before him, struggles to balance his family, work and extramarital affairs. Both men are examined in many lights, as husbands, lovers, mentors and fathers.
The two shows are also linked by the thematic concerns at their cores. Characters are overcome by the uncertainty of their futures, and many respond by sinking into existential despair. There is a sense that Tony and Don are men of bygone eras, pining for their pasts and struggling to adapt to the challenges of the present. The shows are fascinated by the question of change; can a man truly change his fate? Can he change himself? Character progression is always honest and genuine, with both series understanding that personal growth is far from a linear path. Over the many seasons, we see countless setbacks, regressions and characters falling back on old vices. It can be frustrating to watch, but in the end this verisimilitude is what enables us to become so emotionally invested.
And the naturalistic dialogue that I was going on about? That’s another debt which Weiner owes the men and women of The Sopranos, with their confused logic, fallacious analogies and of course Tony’s infamous malapropisms (‘Revenge is like serving cold cuts!’), but here we also see a major way in which Mad Men steps out from the shadow of its predecessor. One of The Sopranos’ weaknesses was its tendency to view its own characters with great contempt, and if the show couldn’t take them seriously, then how could we expect to? Some of the cast mainstays spent six seasons serving as little more than comic relief, and numerous supporting characters never developed beyond a single dimension.
Matt Weiner, on the other hand, endeavours to bring each of his characters to life with a depth and richness that was reserved for the central five or six in Sopranos. Even one-time roles feel fleshed out, and we’re rarely presented with caricatures or ideological stand-ins. It’s this commitment to realism which gives Mad Men its dramatic power and lasting impact. The show’s surface is glamorous and sexy but its world is not, and in its details it simultaneously captures the regularity, but also the improbability of everyday life. Mad Men distinguishes itself from its competition by virtue of its flawless cast and uniquely observant writing, and it’s with a heavy heart that I’ll be bidding these characters farewell in two weeks’ time, and waiting to see if anything can fill the hole it leaves.