With a lack of good television shows on the few channels I get at home, this spring I decided to take up watching AMC’s Mad Men on DVD. I had heard from many people what a great show it is and it has been at the top of my list of TV shows to watch for a while (a list that seems to constantly grow, but one that I can never find the time to tackle). More than this, I found the costumes I’d seen in the Mad Men advertisements to be rather intriguing.
I set out on a quest to watch all of 5 seasons. I must admit that the show starts out a bit slow. Set in New York City in the 1960s, the series takes the viewer right into the world of an advertising agency on Madison Avenue, where the men were referred to as ‘Mad Men’ (hence the title of the show). It takes some time, at least three or four episodes, for the characters to be developed and arguably even a few more episodes to understand some of the back story, particularly to the complicated life of the main character Donald Draper (played by Jon Hamm). I still don’t totally get him.
While I did have some background knowledge on the show prior to watching it, I found it difficult to remember that it takes place in an era so different from ours. Sometimes while watching it I want to yell at the characters, “just use your cell phone!” but I’m quickly pulled out of this frame of mind when I see scenes like the one when the office gets an enormous new and exciting piece of office machinery called a photocopier. Admittedly, I often think to myself how much more difficult things must have been to accomplish efficiently in an office – although I guess the standard of efficiency at the time was a bit different from ours today where everything is expected to be instant.
Inevitably, any discussion of Mad Men leads to its realistic portrayal of the treatment of women and accepted racism during the sixties. Much of the initial attention that the show received is due to this, as well as its depiction of the relationships between men and women and the traditional family values of the era.
I find that the female characters are the most interesting to watch, especially housewife Betty Draper (played by January Jones) and advertising agency employee Peggy Olson (played by Elizabeth Moss). Their stories are really fascinating. Betty, although highly educated for the time, is stuck at home with the children and must play an obedient role for her husband who provides for the family. In the first few seasons we watch Betty struggle between her role as a submissive housewife and knowing that her husband is out gallivanting with other women.
Peggy on the other hand, struggles as she tries to develop a career in advertising where a woman’s role is generally to fetch coffee, type memos and keep the executives’ extra-marital affairs a secret from their wives. In the man’s world of advertising, Peggy is only useful for her thoughts on lipstick, braziers or vibrators disguised as weight loss machines.
The show has won numerous Emmies and Gold Globe awards. The acting is well done and the show does a great job of drawing in the viewer to make them feel a part of the complex and scandalous lives of the characters. My greatest advice if you are new to the show is to pay close attention, otherwise you do miss a lot. Trust me, I once tried to paint my nails with the show on, but had to keep rewinding it because I found that I had missed so much by only listening. A lot of the show is developed not just through character dialogue, but through the characters’ physical interactions and facial expressions.
Despite knowing that times have changed, I still cringe sometimes at the way women are treated in certain scenes in Mad Men. When you watch the show and make comparisons to present day, you will see that women truly have come such a long way; however, if you happen to work in an office setting like me, you might sometimes still notice a few alarming similarities too…
Mad Men airs on AMC on Sundays at 6/5 Central.