The opening credits of BBC4’s acclaimed Mad Men show the animated silhouette of a man in free fall. He descends slowly through a Manhattan skyline of sin; of whisky glasses and alluring women. On first watch, it seems an odd way to start a show about a man who has everything; the deeper you’re pulled into Mad Men, the more perfectly apt that introduction becomes.
Four series in, 60s-set US drama Mad Men has reached a cultural tipping point. The early adopters are busying themselves with talk of ‘I told you so’; the awards bodies are falling over each other to acclaim it, and broadsheet newspapers are finding regular excuses to picture its stars – or rather one in particular – on their covers. Having started life as a niche cable TV drama of which little was expected, a period show about the golden age of advertising – the ‘Mad’ of the title partly refers toNew York’s Madison Avenue – has become a critical hit which is already being termed one of the all-time greats.
So how and why did that happen? Why has a show full of unknown actors, set 50 years in the past and concerned with the antics of smart alec advertising execs, become such a success on both sides of the Atlantic?
The lovable sociopath
At the centre of the answer, and of the story itself, is Don Draper (Jon Hamm) the brilliant Creative Director of the show’s central firm; the star around which everyone else orbits. Initially we meet him as King of All He Surveys – a rising star in his industry, with a beautiful wife, perfect children and huge suburban home. Men want to be him, and women want to be with him; as it transpires, the latter plays unfortunately to his Achilles’ heel. The temptations set before Don are too great; while he tries to play the all-American family man, he repeatedly fails to live up to his own PR.
As we soon discover, Don isn’t who he says he is. And while the show slowly reveals his true identity, the truth is that Don doesn’t really have one. He is no longer the man whose name he was born with; neither is his assumed moniker any more than a two-dimensional façade. Haunted by the life he left behind and the people he continues to betray, yet utterly ambitious in business and in love, Don is – remarkably – blank. He has no real friends, no interests, no life beyond his job and his affairs. A true sociopath, he is seemingly incapable of genuine feeling; his catchphrase, uttered whenever an emotional response is expected of him, is a question: ‘what do you want me to say?’ Don Draper feels nothing, apart perhaps from a nagging fear that he’s already dead on the inside.
The thing that makes Don so compelling is not his apparent journey of self-destruction, although that title sequence suggests this to be the eventual destination. Instead, we are intrigued by Don’s blankness, and what it means for us. The brilliantly-drawn characters around Don project their own hopes on to him, expecting him to be The Answer; the alpha male who will lead them all to a better tomorrow. He is their messiah, and as we watch, it is hard not to feel the same way about him. He’s the personification of the American dream; the man who has everything. So if he doesn’t really know what he thinks or feels about anything, what hope do we have?
The second reason behind Mad Men’s success is the escapism from modern political correctness that its historical setting allows. Not because its fun to see people discriminated against because of race or gender, but because seeing where we’ve come from as a society is a helpful reminder both of how far we’ve progressed, and how far we still have to go. The fictional ad agency, Sterling Cooper, is mainly run by men who sit in their offices enjoying copious amounts of Scotch, ogling the majority of the women, and giving real opportunities to a select few of them. We may no longer think whisky before 11am is a good idea, but has the rest of the picture really changed very much? A recent survey suggested that at the current rate of progress, equal gender pay is still half a century away. Although often accused of misogyny, Mad Men is smarter than that, and uses satire to ask the difficult questions about the way we continue to live and work.
The office’s Queen Bee is Joan, a red-headed fireball of confidence, slick professionalism and sexual power. By calculating her every word; her every swing of the hips, she controls every man in the office, including those who run it. Like Don, she also has an element of blankness – so much is built around the persona she has created for herself, that when it is forcefully challenged, she crumbles. Who is she beyond the character she plays in the office, asks the show. Who is Don Draper? Who are any of us? You begin to see why an advertising agency – concerned with selling false hope to consumers – is the perfect setting for Mad Men.
Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan, has very quickly become a style icon, and won legions of male and female fans in the process. Hendricks is ‘all woman’, according to a recent cover of GQ magazine; a reference to her figure, which would normally be rejected by modern media for being too big. Instead, so dazzling has been her impact that high-end fashion stores are now beginning to stock larger-size and curve-friendly. The ‘Christina-effect’ has achieved what was once unimaginable… it has seduced the fashion world away from its unbreakable marriage to the super thin.
Things to say
The show is also brilliantly written, the brainchild of former Sopranos scripter Matthew Weiner. Alongside Don’s central story, we follow in detail the lives of at least ten other characters, and Weiner and his team skilfully manage to make us care about all of them. The playwright David Hare cited Mad Men as proof that ‘the future of American film is on television’, and the writing on the show is as good as anything on the big screen right now. That isn’t just about snappy dialogue, but also about the messages woven within it – about power, ambition, and the folly of the consumerist dream.
The Mad Men apparently have everything, yet beyond all the high-powered banter and Scotch-necking there is profound unhappiness wherever you look. Don and his peers are looking for contentment in all the wrong places, wondering why they are unable to truly feel. If Paul – in Athenian mood – were to walk into the offices of Sterling Cooper, he would surely say something to the effect of: ‘I see you worship all these material gods, but you have also searched for an unknown God.’
The show even has something prophetic to say about television. Despite the locker-room atmosphere, bad language is almost never used; despite all the sexual liaisons in the story, there is barely any explicit content. Sex is implied, not shown – another way in which Mad Men shows its class. In the context of increasingly gratuitous TV content, the show seems to be proving that the argument that ‘it’s necessary to the plot’, simply doesn’t hold water.
Television success is alchemy. Programmes that seemed destined for greatness have stalled in the pilot episode; conversely there were eight series of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps. Somehow, Matthew Weiner has found the recipe for TV gold. Stylish, inventive and engaging, Mad Men is truly compelling because it causes us to reflect on Jesus own question from Mark 8 v 36: ‘What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?’
This article first appeared as part of the culture column in Christianity magazine. You should all read Christianity you know. Get a free copy here now.