Rarely has a television show come to these shores as well decorated as Mad Men. Written by Matthew Weiner, one of the main-men behind the Sopranos, Mad Men is the natural successor to HBO’s epic gangster series and an equally fierce expose of the masculine mind.
Set in advertisement agency Sterling Cooper in the 1960s, Mad Men offers a stylised and distinctive depiction of consumerist America, and an intimately considered study of nihilism and gender-politics in a world where everyone knows their place. Racism and sexism are overt and accepted. The suited, married ad-men of the office bitch and compete and endlessly consume cigarettes and bourbon, their secretaries’ hustle and bustle around them in the hope of a covetous glance, and their women stay at home to care for the house and fill their glasses.
Mad Men’s lead character, Don Draper, embodies the suave, ice-cool and unsentimental approach to the lying, manipulation and one-upmanship that is central to the advertising industry, and the intense loneliness and dissatisfaction that hangs like a mist over every character.
The show received across board-critical acclaim, including Best Drama 2008 from the New York Times, the Television Critics association and the Writers Guild of America Award. It cleared up at every TV awards ceremony of the year, including the Golden Globe Award and an Emmy for Best Television Series. A DVD of the first series was spotted on Obama’s campaign plane, groups on Facebook called “What Would Don Draper Do?” started to emerge, and characters from the show started, strangely, to use social media site Twitter to update the world on aspects of the banal office life in which they inhabit.
Mad Men is the latest drama to succeed in revealing the rotting heart of the American Dream and, as has happened before, the Americans have embraced it wholeheartedly.
But Britain still hasn’t discovered Mad Men, and BBC4 only received the most modest of viewing ratings for the first season, which was screened last Autumn. Despite heavy publicity the second series, which began at the start of February, is still lacking in numbers.
This is a shame, because the hype is justified. Mad Men is undoubtedly one of the smartest and most engrossing TV shows to come out of America for years. It’s a charismatic, witty and very edgy show with an ever-developing web of narrative strands and strong performances across the board, most notably from Jon Hamm in the lead role of Don Draper and Christina Hendricks as the femme fatale Joan Holloway.
But its greatest success is the way in which it forces its viewers to confront a set of principles that don’t seem as archaic as they should. There is such grace and charm in the way Mad Men presents its world of divisions and hierarchies, you could almost be forgiven for a sense of nostalgia.