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Top 10 TV Shows: #3 Mad Men

I’ve got a joke for you. Stop me if you’ve heard this before. A guy walks into an advertising agency…wait, let me keep going. I’m really not sure this is the same one you think it is.

A guy walks into an advertising agency because he works there. He has a secret identity. Seriously, even the man’s name isn’t real. It’s stolen from the ID tags of his lieutenant in the Korean War after an accidental explosion leaves him wounded and the lieutenant dead. He fought next to the man and the two were somewhat close. He’s married to a blonde bombshell, has two beautiful children, and a life of luxury, though not excess. He’s the most debonair, smooth, brilliant ad man on Madison Avenue. He’s also the most insecure, troubled, unstable man on Madison Avenue. It’s early 1960s America and, for Don Draper and the rest of the world, everything is about to change.

It was a simple and solid enough premise without all the extra-curricular depth. Matthew Weiner wrote the unsolicited screenplay in 1999 while working as a staff writer on the Ted Danson CBS comedy Becker and when Sopranos showrunner and creator David Chase read through it, he found it so strong he immediately brought Weiner onto his show as a writer and producer. Incidentally, HBO passed on it, but thank goodness AMC decided it wanted to expand its reach and change its image.

NUMBER THREE: MAD MEN (2007-2015)

I wrote two weeks ago about the character of Tony Soprano, calling it one of the three most defining portrayals of the past fifty years in dramatic television. The second of that trio is Don Draper, played by a little known actor named Jon Hamm. As a result of Mad Men, he’s one of the most recognizable faces of this century in Hollywood.

The first season of Mad Men takes place between March and November of 1960. Don Draper is an ad man with a keen ability to turn a phrase and hit the right note for his client. During the pilot, we see much of Draper in a professional setting, first in a subtle condemnation of outdated thinking as he asks a black waiter for his opinion on cigarette branding. When the white restaurant owner comes over, the idea is the black man must be bothering the white-collar patron. Draper dispels the notion. However, in the final minutes of the pilot, we find out Don Draper has a mistress. In the world of Mad Men, no one is just one thing.

People tell you who they are, but we ignore it because we want them to be what we want them to be. (Don Draper, S4E8)

I have tried to take each show and find one theme, for example last week The Wire and its focus on brutal truth. One of the critics I’ve read for many years, Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter, boiled Mad Men down to one overriding tenet, identity. That echoes my own feelings on the show as the double-life of its lead character certainly qualifies. Dick Whitman and Don Draper are the same person but, in many ways, are completely different. Peggy Olson’s (Elizabeth Moss) struggle for relevance in a male dominated society is another prime example. She begins the show as Don’s secretary, eventually works her way up, and today, going into the 2015 final season, she’s one of the top creative minds in the agency. Her business success is sometimes shadowed by a personali life in shambles, though that’s true for nearly everyone on Mad Men. That’s why it’s on a drama list.

Everybody cheats in Weiner’s world. Draper is, at best, a serial adulterer. He cheats on Betty (January Jones) early and often, first with a beatnik who ends up a massive drug addict. Betty Draper isn’t at all blind to it. It slowly and completely destroys their marriage but after both have moved on, they cheat on their new spouses with their ex. Roger Sterling (John Slattery) is in a relationship with the buxom Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), of which no one could blame him, except that he too is married. Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) cheats on Trudy (Alison Brie), which should be grounds for flogging. Trudy might be annoying but Brie is awesome in every conceivable way. (Sorry for the Community aside.) Back to the infidelity, are you beginning to sense a pattern here?   

What you call love was invented by guys like me…to sell nylons. (Don Draper, S1E1)

Past the sex in and out of wedlock, these characters all have issues. Betty Draper grew up wealthy but empty and emotionally stunted. Sadly, she never grew past it and acts like a petulant child. Her own daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) shows signs of similar problems, but seems to be smarter to the changing world around her. Roger Sterling produces plenty of memorable lines, but he drinks all day, can’t find true love, and as he reveals with his “black face” performance in Season 3, doesn’t realize the norm has shifted. Pete Campbell can’t avoid saying the wrong thing, to the extent it actually sometimes feels like a disease. Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt) is gay in 1960. I’m not sure I need to expound further to explain the challenges he faces in the corporate environment.

Peggy Olson: Sex sells.

Don Draper: Says who? Just so you know, the people who talk that way think that monkeys can do this. They take all this monkey crap and just stick it in a briefcase completely unaware that their success depends on something more than their shoeshine. YOU are the product. You. Feeling something. That’s what sells. Not them. Not sex. They can’t do what we do, and they hate us for it. (S2E1)

Again, juxtaposed to our own lives, we all have our own issues. The extent to which our loved ones or those we meet understand or notice those blemishes depends upon two factors: How much those problems either control us invidivually or how good an actor we all are. It could be the smallest thing. It could be the biggest. In Mad Men, Weiner gives us both, but more often that not, it’s a small thing that becomes something enormous. A small fib becomes a big lie. A pot habit in Greenwich Village becomes a crippling heroin addiction. Insecurity becomes rage and vindictiveness.

One of the things Weiner does best with Mad Men is in creating a story and a setting where he can tackle difficult issues and state opinions on all sides without turning his show into a vehicle for activism or advocacy. Personal and internal evolution takes place within the characters and their own minds just as it did for America following the Kennedy assassination or Neil Armstrong’s boot sole kissing the lunar surface. Both events are shown in a very real way as nearly every main character watches on a television in complete silence respective to the former or pure awe in the case of the latter. Race, class, sex, orientation, jingoism, politics, it’s all there. But it never feels like the focus, just a part of the world. It’s all there simply because it’s all there, both in Mad Men and in 2014.

Eugene: Hey Brooklyn, come home with me.

Peggy Olson: Nuh-uh.

Eugene: Why not? I live alone.

Peggy Olson: Why should I?

Eugene: Because I like you, and we’re having a good time, and I’m a good kisser and you know you want to.

Peggy Olson: Eugene, I’m in the persuasion business, and frankly I’m disappointed by your presentation. (S2E2)

In our own lives, this “it’s there because it’s there” fashion is how we generally experience these broader concepts. Right now, we’re watching and living through the aftermath and reaction to the events in Ferguson, Missouri. But for most of us, these are news events that lead to discussion and perhaps to growth, but they aren’t the crux of our everyday existence. That may sound callous, but without a personal attachment, all news, all sports, all of it exists at some kind of a distance. It’s the “other” stuff that defines us. It’s our jobs. It’s our spouses. It’s our children. It’s our faith. It’s our financial concerns. It’s our relationship mistakes, both personal and professional. Mad Men provides all of these “real” catalysts in a perfectly humanizing and riveting fashion.

Weiner learned plenty from his time on HBO with David Chase and the Sopranos team. You can see definite parallels between the flashbacks, dream and drug hallucinations, and in the sometimes lovable, sometimes despicable lead character. I love the Mad Men flashbacks. Dick Whitman’s childhood, growing up poor, “The Hobo Code,” his parents, his brother, and the infamous importance of a Hershey bar to a whorehouse. Because Don is living a lie, these flashbacks aren’t just interesting, they are absolutely necessary. As for the other devices, I’ll admit the dream stuff and the drug stuff sometimes goes a bit further than I’d like. I’m not the audience for the trick content. I can’t recall anytime I’ve enjoyed it in film or television.

Another thing Matthew took from David was the role of showrunner and what it truly entailed. Chase was notoriously tough, would rewrite nearly every script, particularly those penned by others, was very careful with the media and hated the very idea of a spoiler. He’s lucky his show ended before Twitter and Facebook truly took off. Weiner has to deal with leaks that could cost him dearly and as a result, he doesn’t talk all that much until a season has ended or to set the stage for a season that’s about to begin. As with most, his show, if spoiled, loses a tremendous amount of its kick. He doesn’t divulge what story year each new season will begin, letting it reveal itself in the first stage of his premiere.

You don’t know how to drink. Your whole generation, you drink for the wrong reasons. My generation, we drink because it’s good, because it feels better than unbuttoning your collar, because we deserve it. We drink because it’s what men do. (Roger Sterling, S1E4)

Then there’s the world of Sterling Cooper and later of the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and Sterling Cooper and Associates advertising agencies in New York. One of the reasons I found myself most intrigued with Weiner’s show is I loved the backdrop. It wasn’t the bloody Mafia, the inner city, space, or the Wild West. All of those are great. Most of them aren’t unique. But an ad agency, where business takes place and the viewer gets to see client pitches from inception to conclusion, Mr. Weiner, you had me at “advertising agency.” The concept got me in the door. The characters and the superb performances kept me in the building. The scenery, the pace, the dialogue, and the growth, that’s what made me purchase a penthouse suite.

Mad Men has won 15 Emmys, including four consecutive awards for Best Drama Series, one for each of its first four seasons. It joins LA Law, Hill Street Blues, and The West Wing as the only shows ever to win four. Weiner himself has won three Emmys to join the six he won for The Sopranos. In 2013, TV Guide ranked the show number six on its all-time drama list. The Writers Guild of America placed it as the seventh best-written show in history.

What’s most astonishing about the accolades is in the inconceivable lack of acting awards. The argument to explain it always seems to be the show is so good that the performers are just the background. I find that patently and terribly false. Plenty of nominations, but Moss, Hendricks, Slattery, none of them have ever won Emmys for their Mad Men work. Elizabeth Moss has been nominated five times and while she won for the Top of the Lake miniseries, she has never stepped on stage for Peggy Olson. Her work is impeccable. Christina Hendricks has lost Best Supporting Actress for the past four years in a row, most recently to Anna Gunn of Breaking Bad. She’s up again this year, as is Robert Morse for his final salvo as Bert Cooper.

Jon Hamm has never won an Emmy for his role of Don Draper. If he doesn’t win this year or next, it may well go down as the most glaring omission in Emmy history. He’s been on the Emmy ballot every time Mad Men has been eligible. Combined with his guest work on 30 Rock, he’s been nominated ten times. He probably would have won at least three had it not been for his AMC cohort Bryan Cranston. He was also beaten by the “hot” performance of the year multiple times. Kyle Chandler won for the final season of Friday Night Lights and Damian Lewis for the brilliant first season of Homeland. The one that stands out is Jeff Daniels for The Newsroom. He was great, but to say that role was better than Hamm strains credulity.

In one scene from Season 5 last year, Don Draper’s adolescent daughter catches him in the act of adultery with new mistress Sylvia (Linda Cardellini). The way Hamm played Draper’s reaction and the opaque shame of that moment is just one of the countless instances where his work stands atop the ladder. He continues to add more depth and talent to the character, but that scene may well be the summit of the Don Draper performance.

Both Hamm and Cranston are again up for Lead Actor in a stacked category this year. We’ll find out on August 25th if Jon’s (and Mad Men’s) acting Emmy streak ends.

Well, technology is a glittering lure. But there is a rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash – if they have a sentimental bond with the product. My first job I was in house at a fur company, with this old pro of a copywriter, a Greek, named Teddy. Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising is “new.” It creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion.

He also talked about a deeper bond with a product: nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent. Sweetheart. [starts slide show featuring Draper’s family] Teddy told me that in Greek, nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a space ship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.

It’s not called a wheel, it’s called a carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Round and around, and back home again. To a place where we know we are loved. (Don Draper, S1E13)

The above quote comes from the first season finale, “The Wheel.” It’s part of a pitch to Kodak for a carousel slide projector. It was at this moment that Mad Men became more than a television program for me. I already loved it, but it hit a new level here. The sales pitch, with photos of Don’s family on Christmas morning, kissing Betty on New Year’s Eve, or holding his newborn child, remains one of the best scenes ever shown on television.

While “The Suitcase” in Season 4 is the show’s high mark (also among my top five drama episodes period), along with the Season 3 finale and the final two episodes of this year’s half-season, that one three minute scene changed everything for me as a viewer. Don was showing us photos, showing Kodak its future, while we all knew he was cheating on that family, cheating everyone he knew in New York of his own identity. It was imperfectly flawless.

It’s ironic that a show about Madison Avenue advertising sold me without a clever tag line about itself. Mad Men, taken as one singular entity, is about as enticing an ad as one could hope for to promote iconic, timeless television. The identity of Don Draper may be shrouded in mystery, but the identity of Mad Men is clear:

She’s stunning, man, just stunning…with nylons or without.

The first six seasons of Mad Men are available on NETFLIX, with the first half of the seventh soon to be added. It can also be found on AMC.com and OnDemand through the AMC portal. The final seven episodes of the series will air on AMC in early 2015.

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Written by Jason Martin