On July 19, AMC premiered Mad Men, a new drama series about the advertising industry in 1960s New York.  The series was created, executive produced, and written by Matthew Weiner, former writer/producer of the Sopranos.  If you live outside the USA or haven't seen Mad Men, you can read this quick summary as well as watch several clips on the official site.  Ten or so episodes have aired so far, which constitute enough material for me to have formed a stable opinion about the series.

The Good

Mad Men's set designers have taken great care to faithfully reproduce New York in 1960.  This is the most praiseworthy aspect of the series.  Many TV attempts of this kind have had limited budgets and ambition, resulting in frequent disbelief due to lack of diversity and authenticity.  The year 1960 is especially tricky to get right because it mixes elements associated with both the 50s and the 60s.

As would be expected given its main plotline, Mad Men is packed full of mid-century business suits and office interiors.  But, going quite a bit beyond previous TV efforts, it also delivers a very natural range of supplementary locations and props, all thoroughly researched and authentic: leisurewear, sleepwear, underwear, office exteriors, overhead shots, neighborhoods, nightclubs, restaurants, subways, home interiors, and so on.  Check out that lounge-tastic zebra stripe wallpaper!

Aside from Mad Men's visuals, there's another factor that helps keep your brain zoned into thinking that it's looking through a time machine at another era.  The Mad Men cast doesn't include any megastars, and this lack of familiar faces and overriding presences also helps with the show's multiple storyline structure.

The Bad

During this past decade, the bar for television programming has been raised enormously, resulting in lofty expectations for both production values and storylines.  Modern shows such as Lost and Prison Break have gigantic movie-like budgets and, in their better moments, do a good job of keeping the viewer entertained with exotic locales, interesting characters, and cliff-hanging situations.

Certainly, Mad Men has production values comparable to (or better than) any other modern TV program.  But the key question is: does it bring anything to the table beyond its eye candy?  If Mad Men had been a first-time effort from an unknown producer, would the critics be singing its praises?  If Mad Men had been set in 2007 instead of 1960, would I be watching it, writing about it, or recommending it to anyone?

Unfortunately, no matter how much I wanted Mad Men to be historic and memorable on all counts, I couldn't delude myself.  If it wasn't for the visuals and the producer's reputation, Mad Men would undoubtedly be getting critically slaughtered.  It looks like the massive effort and time spent on the visuals took away from the time spent on the plots and characters, or perhaps the accuracy and hyper-realism of the production carried over into the script.

Put simply, the people and events in Mad Men are excessively normal, without any particularly memorable characteristics.  Sure, there's abnormal amounts of drinking, smoking, and adultery, but those get repetitive very quickly, and the rest of the time you'll feel like you're watching scenes from your own workplace and personal relationships (including, unfortunately, the boring and slow parts).

A key requirement for television or film is that it should feature people, places, or situations that are different from (or more interesting than) the ones we encounter in day-to-day life.  Mad Men does deliver exceptional places via its wardrobe and set design, but the exceptional people and situations are few and far between.

The Bottom Line

The 1960 visuals will grab you, but once the novelty has worn off, I fear that only retrostyle fanatics like myself or people reading this article will keep tuning in.  Unfortunately, the average person will probably perceive Mad Men to be slow and uninteresting.

The show has been confirmed for a second season, so perhaps the plot and characters will benefit if the historical timeline is allowed to advance beyond 1960.  Some of the better bits in Mad Men have revolved around characters getting an inkling of (and trying to uncomfortably adjust to) the massive cultural shifts that were bubbling to the surface as the sixties unfolded.

On balance, I'm glad that Mad Men exists, and I feel comfortable giving it one hour of my time per week based on the show's aesthetics and the occasional interesting subplot.  I plan to stick with it in spite of any shortcomings, as long as its budget doesn't get cut and its visuals don't get repetitive.  But, it's not a series that I expect to have popular appeal, or that I could recommend unconditionally outside the context of this site's stylistic philosopy.  Borrowing a disclaimer from the advertising industry: your mileage might vary.

Posted on Sunday, October 07, 2007
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Comments on this post

# re: Mad Men

I could not disagree with you more. I'll admit, the vintage sets, clothing, hair and make-up certainly got me started watching Mad Men, but the superb production is what got me hooked. I have not missed an episode and each week left me desperate for more! The slow, methodical character development, the amazing direction... maybe we weren't watching the same show? How could you forget the ending scene of episode 9 when Betty, dressed in her nightgown, propped that BB gun on her shoulder and, with a cigarette hanging out of the side of her mouth, she starts picking off the neighbor's pigeons. AMAZING! I recommend you watch it again with NO DISTRACTIONS.
Left by Pinky LaRue on Dec 04, 2007 2:15 PM

# re: Mad Men

Hey, I don't disagree that there's memorable moments like the one you point out...all I was trying to get across is that the ratio of memorable moments per hour of viewing might not be high enough for people that aren't retro stylists. As an aside, I do always watch it on a projector with surround sound and all the lights out, so it's as close to an undistracted movie experience as is feasible for broadcast TV material.
Left by Carlos on Dec 04, 2007 4:24 PM

# re: Mad Men

Totally agree with Pinky. I don't believe in the "average person" who you think "will probably perceive Mad Men to be slow and uninteresting". The series is remarkable precisely for its substance, not just for its style. As a portrait of a time and place, there can be no comparison with fantasies such as Lost or Prison Break.
Left by Steve on Jun 06, 2008 6:21 PM

# re: Mad Men

I love the look of the show. It has impeccable style and attention to detail. As a visual person, this is what got me hooked, as a person in the business, it has many a lesson!
Left by Mona on Jul 29, 2008 3:53 PM

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