New York, 1960. On Madison Avenue, advertising agency Sterling Cooper is a hive of sexist, chauvinistic, alcoholic and chain-smoking behaviour, while the country is in the throes of social, cultural and political change. At the centre is talented ad executive Don Draper (Hamm), who seems to have the perfect life – beautiful wife (Jones) and kids, swanky well-paid job, nice home, on the verge of partnership – but is haunted by crippling dissatisfaction and a dark, mysterious past…
In a day and age where the majority of television is frustratingly geared towards impatient audiences and the lowest common denominator, a show like Mad Men is a refreshing experience. Certainly, its unhurried pace and complex, un-rushed approach to subtle storytelling won’t be for everyone, but those who appreciate smart, layered and intricately-plotted television will soon find themselves sold. Of course, this should come as no surprise, given that creator Matthew Weiner is a veteran writer and co-producer of The Sopranos. Boasting the same class, meticulous writing and immaculate attention to detail you’d expect from someone of this stature, Mad Men found its way to a host of awards and oodles of critical adoration – despite being buried away on late night BBC 2.
Stylish and pulsing with retro atmosphere, one of the first things you’ll notice is how damn good the whole thing looks. Brought to life with flawless production values, the sharp-suited, slick-haired alpha males womanise, booze and chain-smoke while appearing unfeasibly cool. Inevitably, looking at this recent-past presents us with plenty of knowing historical ironies (an ongoing thread concerns the election race between Nixon and Kennedy), whilst the style extends to the niftiest title sequence this side of Saul Bass.
As noted, the pace is undoubtedly unhurried and perhaps a little dry at times, but while this will put off those who get bored easily, it’s also strangely part of the show’s charm. Glacial and very deliberate, the precisely-measured tempo takes some time for your mind to adjust to, yet it still casts a hypnotic spell. Often, it may seem to the untrained eye that little-to-nothing is happening, but underneath the conversational pauses, unspoken moments and meaningful glances there’s always a deeper meaning lurking under the surface. Restrained and understated, it captures the simmering undercurrent of superficial-perfection that pervaded past generations to a tee.
And this is where the show reveals its depth, as unlike the outwardly-content characters, there’s plenty of substance to go with the style. Yes, the fashions, impeccable period detail and advertising backdrop are all crucial ingredients, but the key element here is existentialism. Exploring a pre-Vietnam America amidst sexual, social and political changes, we travel back to a time where enlightened individuals were starting to realise that having everything didn’t guarantee life fulfilment or satisfaction. “We got it all huh?” a seemingly content neighbour remarks to Don. “Yup, this is it.” he replies, subtly suggesting to us that the American Dream ain’t all that.
Frequently, we witness John Hamm’s seductive slickster staring introspectively into the distance, and it’s this soulful, enigmatic quality that makes Don Draper such a captivating character. Surrounded by an air of mystery, he’s gradually fleshed out via extended flashbacks to his childhood and past, yet remaining intriguingly unpredictable and naturally charismatic. Hell, with his classic handsome features, perfect hair and a jawline to rival the Man Of Steel, Hamm even looks like he belongs in the early ‘60s.
Elsewhere there’s a host of mesmeric performances; from Vincent Kartheiser’s ambitious subordinate to Elisabeth Moss’ up-and-comer, from January Jones’ painfully-pretty Mrs Draper to Christina Hendrick’s outrageously-curvy temptress. There’s not a bad turn from top to bottom. As for John Slattery’s charming bossman, he’s about the most entertaining and likeable of the lot.
Definitely too slow and complex for mainstream audiences, but Mad Men is top-drawer stuff. For intelligent, patient viewers, you’ll be sold.