TV: Mad Men (Season 1)

There are television shows that connect with me instantly, and then there’s Mad Men, which took its sweet time, but eventually got its hooks in. Is it as good as all the critical buzz? I’m not sure yet, but it is layered and interesting and different. Season one feels like a pretty solid start.

Set in 1960 at a Manhattan advertising agency, the show centers on Donald Draper (Jon Hamm), the golden boy of the firm, a self-made man and a model of conventional sixties masculinity. He has the corner office, the perfect wife Betty (January Jones), two kids and a house, the whole world at his feet. But something is missing; Draper has it all, but he isn’t happy. There’s a disconnect between his idyllic suburban home life and his swinging, cock-of-the-walk city persona, and as the season progresses and we learn more about his past, even more layers of his personality are peeled away. What is he hiding?

Meanwhile, the agency simmers with period office politics. Draper’s prim young secretary Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) provides a woman’s-eye view of the agency, and it’s a decidedly bleak lens on the era. For contrast there’s Joan (Christina Hendricks), who works all the angles and plays all the games.  Among the scumbag junior executives, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) is perhaps the most noticeable for his insecure sleaziness and vindictive, entitled ambition, while senior partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery) stands out as a representative of the old guard holding the power. There are personality conflicts and selfish agendas galore, and the show works them to good effect.

In the main it’s good stuff, then, and thematically it’s one of the more intriguing shows on TV right now. I don’t find advertising particularly interesting, but the inherent superficiality and deceptiveness of that world makes it the perfect vehicle for the show’s sociopolitical agenda. Mad Men is a show about surfaces and depths, about people hiding their true selves behind phony fronts calculated to meet the world’s impossible standards. And it revels in deconstructing the lie of the good old days. The glossy, glamorous surface Manhattan conceals a seedy, ugly underside, and the show gradually shreds that façade to show us the social injustices at the heart of its world. It presents a status quo, then picks away at it, the show’s characters struggling to live up to its expectations.

It’s an impressive thematic arc, and it runs parallel to the arc of Draper’s character, the slick, smiling manly man whose personality is built on a shaky foundation. Draper is the standard, he is the status quo — but is he really? As Draper, Jon Hamm is perfect, his inscrutable persona gradually becoming more and more readable as the episodes unfold. If there’s a story angle that kept me interested throughout, it was the mystery surrounding Draper; it’s a well written arc, and Hamm executes it nicely.

As much as I enjoyed the broader picture of Mad Men’s first season, however, I wasn’t quite as enamored of all its components. Some episodes felt strong, others slow; some scenes felt powerful, others dull. There’s very good acting from some of the cast, but stilted acting from others. And at times, the depiction of the era — showing us how appalling men are, how neglectful or mean-spirited the parenting could be, how many unhealthy habits everyone has — felt a little like being hit over the head repeatedly with a blunt object. The season had an impressive cumulative effect, then, but I wasn’t always enjoying the moments and the details.

That said, the season makes for a unique viewing experience, the whole more than the sum of its parts. I’m more interested in its world now than when I started, and good shows do that. The final few episodes of the season felt like a slow-build paying off, and while I wasn’t convinced I would want to continue beyond the first season as I was watching it, I have a feeling now that I will.

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