It is elegantly shot and superbly written. It’s so classy it sweats Chanel No 5. It is the year’s best drama. It is Mad Men, and it’s coming to BBC4 this month.
Created by Sopranos veteran Matthew Weiner, it deals with a Madison Avenue advertising agency (Mad Men, geddit?) in 1960, and has just bagged two Golden Globes: Best TV Drama and Best Actor in a TV Drama for Jon Hamm.
Right from the start, dramatic irony is a key device. Everyone smokes. All the time. Everywhere. At work, in restaurants, in bed. Even the doctor who’s examining you has a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Everyone drinks too, especially at work, where it’s the norm to walk into someone’s office and go straight for the Scotch. Children climb around the car with no seatbelts. Black people are the city’s invisible servant population. And women know their place.
On one level, the series winks at us knowingly as we see its coded messages of creeping feminism at work. And this is a strand that works very well. We’re totally behind new girl Peggy Olsen as she arrives in the big city and struggles to make her mark in a man’s world that she hardly recognises is prejudiced against her.
But the show also has a lot to say about what it means to be a man in the ruthless battleground of corporate gladiatorial warfare, and at a time before men had emotions. Don Draper is the archetypal 1950s man’s man, a guy who’s fallen straight off the screen of a Hollywood B movie: a beefcake with brains and charm and style. He’s the man who has everything… and nothing. Because inside he is as empty as his fake ID.
More important than the implicit social commentary and dramatic irony, though, is the oblique storytelling style. Familiar to anyone who’s ever watched The Sopranos, the way each episode of Mad Men unfolds often defies what we expect of TV drama, and certainly feature film. Dialogue is never on the nose; a scene is almost always not about what it’s about; and the meaning of a whole episode can often be found in an innocuous detail that can go unnoticed by the casual viewer.
A case in point is the brilliant seventh episode, Red in the Face, where you might totally miss out on Don’s elaborate revenge on his boss Roger for making a pass at his wife, involving a heavy lunch and a gruelling climb to the twenty-third floor, none of which makes any sense until you remember that throwaway scene of Don handing Hollis the elevator operator a handfull of bills.
It’s shows like Mad Men that make me want to hug my TV set (but I don’t because that would be weird).
If you only watch one TV drama series all year, make it this one. It is that good.
Watch a short Making of featurette here.