The first season of Mad Men is one of those magical moments in TV history where all the forces align properly. Matthew Weiner came up with a really cool concept for a TV show, raising the curtain on the rise of the modern advertising industry in the 1950s and '60's. The show was picked up by a network that had not released an original drama series before, AMC, and everything blossomed. The casting was perfect, the integration of sponsors to keep the show afloat unobtrusive and sometimes clever, and the technical quality of the series was top of the line. The show grew a solid fan base and has gone on to win the Emmy for Best Series, Drama for four seasons. After an unexpected delay, Mad Men returned last night with a two hour premiere. AMC aired the first two episodes back to back as an appetizer to the season ahead. The result was, expectantly, very engaging television.
Without getting into any major spoilers, I feel that it is a good time to discuss just what keeps people coming back to such a tightly controlled and un-explosive hour long drama. This is a show that gets its thrills from character interactions and dark humor, not huge fights and shocking twists. If the ad agency loses a client, you know the relationship is going under. And if someone dies at their desk, it's meant to be a twisted joke, not a momentary lapse into melodrama.
The core of Mad Men is Matthew Weiner. The creator of the show planned out a long-reaching story following the progression of a charismatic adman's career. The man, Don Draper, has a secret past that bubbles under the surface but doesn't dominate the show. Don is who he is because of what he went through, but that is a characteristic of a person alone. The plot of Mad Men rarely broaches this subject. The biggest blow up over it resulted in Don's boss saying "So what?" and telling the power-hungry Pete Campbell to back off and leave personal business out of the office.
The key to Mad Men is this level of nuance in the series. Matthew Weiner is an exacting writer/producer who wants every detail perfect. His writing staff has to do a lot of research to make sure topics of discussion--headlines, fashion, art, history--are accurate to whatever year the season is taking place in. The designers have to stick with the fashions and styles of the period (down to what colors linens would be appropriate on the beds) and not make mistakes like using a font that came out a year later in an ad design.
The nuance of Mad Men goes beyond the visual style. Everything that happens is subtext. Sure, Peggy Olson might vent to Joan Harris about some of the sexism in the office or Roger Sterling might pull Don into his latest affair, but these candid moments are rare on the show. To the great credit of the cast, tension can build between characters without having huge fights. The employees of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce know that they have a good thing going on. They're intelligent men and women who understand that bringing crazy drama into the office will mean they lose their jobs.
The result is a tight and captivating drama about professional people and their problems. Mad Men is perhaps too slow and dry for everyone to fall in love, but the fans are drawn to the unique dynamics established years ago in the mind of Matthew Weiner. There is strong internal consistency and the relationships between the many characters have evolved in believable ways.
Season 5, set in 1966, will bring Civil Rights into the work space thanks to a childish series of pranks. What we learned in two episodes last night is that perhaps the new SCDP firm is better at reaching a wide audience than they thought. I know I'll be watching. Will you? Sound off below with your thoughts on the Season 5 premiere and the series in general.