Mad Men

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TV Series Review

It was as if the world itself had been turned upside down and shaken.

So were the 1960s, at least in the world of Mad Men. Set sprawling in the tumultuous decade, AMC's show chronicles a decade of transformative, cataclysmic change through the eyes of a handful of lecherous, hard-living ad execs working on New York City's Madison Avenue—they themselves tasked with expressing and harnessing the desires of a culture on the move. Gray flannel suits make wary room for love beads. The three-martini lunch is shoved aside for a toke or two of pot. Career-minded women find room for themselves outside the secretarial pool—and newfound freedom and power in their relationships.

Working at fictional ad agency Sterling Cooper (turned Sterling Cooper & Partners), Don Draper certainly knows a thing or two about shaking things up. When his picture-perfect suburban life—complete with beautiful homemaker Betty and two adorable kids—fails to satisfy, he scraps it for a glamorous new wife, this one an up-and-coming actress. And when even that amped-up brand of domestic bliss doesn't hold his attention, he'll step out—be it on a one-night stand or a drawn-out affair.

By the end, he's destroyed two marriages but continues to sleep with almost anyone wearing a skirt. He's forced out of his beloved business, only to work his way back in. He smokes and drinks with abandon, and his life all too often resembles the man in the show's intro—falling out of control, only to land comfortably on a couch, cigarette in hand.

The fact that Don Draper isn't even Don Draper (the former Richard Whitman swapped out his identity during the Korean War) seems fitting. This man lives dreams just as he sells them—as insubstantial as the threads of the night's visions, as vacuous as a commercial for cologne. And it would seem as though Don somehow believes the lies he sells: Happiness lives just around the corner. For him it's not the right brand of aftershave or the perfect vacation spot, but rather hooking up with the right woman or making the perfect ad pitch. He longs to check off happiness with the tick of a pen—and yet his own life always seems to fall short.

"I'm always surprised when people are like, 'I want to be just like Don Draper,'" says the actor who plays him, Jon Hamm. "You want to be a miserable drunk? You want to be like the guy on the poster, maybe, but not the actual guy. The outside looks great, the inside is rotten. That's advertising. Put some Vaseline on that food, make it shine and look good. Can't eat it, but it looks good."

Naturally, as the show trundles through the decade, vices take up residence like so many Woodstock revelers. Drug use is a common theme—occupying the story's counterculture environs. Men drink constantly, smoke incessantly and can treat women like cheap, pretty baubles (even as the ladies learn to push back). Drunken trysts, homosexual experimentations, even bedding a secretary right before and after your wedding day are all kept hidden under the table—though not hidden from the camera. Sexuality is raw, with glimpses of breasts and backsides during intercourse, along with pasty-wearing strippers. And as those thin ties have given way to tie-dyes, foul language has morphed and mutated too.

As it muddles through this moral morass, the series offers a kind of social commentary. Ostensibly, none of the atrocious behavior we witness is meant to be excused. And yet Mad Men sometimes makes bad behavior look oh so glamorous—just as all "good" advertising does.

Legendary ad man William Bernbach once said, "All of us who professionally use mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it to a higher level." Mad Men does both. Its creators use 50 years of hindsight to subtly satirize America's love affair with consumerism and excess, claiming to be "big on [showing] consequences." But the price is awfully high. So heed the time-honored warning of caveat emptor: Let the buyer beware.

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Episode Reviews

MadMen: 4-5-2015
MadMen: 4-27-2014
MadMen: 4-7-2013
MadMen: 4-12-2012
MadMen: 7-25-2010

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

Genre

Drama

Author

Cast

Jon Hamm as Don Draper; Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson; Vincent Kartheiser as Pete Campbell; January Jones as Betty Draper; John Slattery as Roger Sterling; Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris; Kiernan Shipka as Sally Draper; Jessica Paré as Megan Draper

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AMC

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Reviewer

Paul Asay Paul AsayBob Hoose Bob Hoose