26 April-2 May 2013 #653

Mad men

Watch this US TV show for its exceptionally subtle story arcs and its perfect recreation of a bygone era
Sophia Pande

When I first started watching Mad Men in 2007, it was a sort of rogue experimental program that AMC (the American cable network) had taken a bet on. Six years later, Mad Men is one of the most highly regarded shows currently on TV and the first few episodes of season six have just premiered on AMC to immense critical acclaim.

I will not mince my words, I have never found Mad Men easy to watch. In fact, somewhere between season two and season three I stopped watching it altogether, thoroughly disturbed by the actions of its entire cast of characters. Having just finished season five however, I feel a certain pressure to write about this show, partly because it is undeniably excellent and partly because a great deal of it pertains to Nepali society, even while Mad Men itself is set in the 1960s.

The title Mad Men refers to the highly competitive advertising agencies that resided on Madison Avenue in Manhattan in those days. These (M)ad men lived lives that are almost unbelievable in today’s world of overt political correctness and seemingly sterile corporate culture. They drank starting at breakfast (whiskey, vodka martinis; nothing light), smoked like chimneys, and slept with practically every semi-attractive secretary type person in sight regardless of their marital status.

Jon Hamm plays the central character, Don Draper, a fiendishly talented, enigmatic, ridiculously handsome (in the old school style) ad man who is the star idea pitcher at his firm Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency. Draper is married to a beautiful Hitchcock type blonde, Betty (January Jones), who eventually divorces him over the course of the series due to his almost sociopath-like tendency to womanise. They have two children at the start of the series.

It is hard to go into the entire ensemble cast here, all of whom are excellent. Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, head writer, and executive producer, reputedly runs a tight ship and it shows in the excellent, taut writing. Weiner’s style is very specific, he tackles all of the era’s ugliness without pulling any punches. At a time when women are slowly rising in the workforce, when sexism is rampant, some of the events at Sterling Cooper are almost unbearable to watch, and yet, it is not hard to think that many women today are probably encountering the exact same environments here in Nepal.

Sexism, homosexuality, racism, everything else that was taboo then in the West is slowly coming to the forefront here and just as it was kept under wraps then, here too we rarely hear anything about sexual harassment (or any other transgressions for that matter) in the workplace.

Weiner does not judge his characters, who are deeply flawed, he only presents them in sometimes awful, sometimes hilarious situations, always with candour and a flawless sense of what is cinematic.

Watch Mad Men for its exceptionally subtle story arcs, its perfect recreation of a bygone era, its fully realised characters, and its nuanced high drama. It will make you think about all the things you have never wanted to acknowledge, about yourself, about society, about the flawed nature of humanity, and yet you will keep watching because Mad Men, is, overall, more than just a TV show, it’s that rare work of art which will keep you awake at night.

Mad Men Season 1 trailer