The first episode of Mad Men I saw was the Season 4 Christmas episode my sister was watching on Netflix. It wasn't terrible but it didn't captivate me either. I just felt rather lost.
Mad Men has a reputation as one of those "great shows", addictive television like the Wire or Breaking Bad, that has achieved both commercial and critical success, yet seems to retain a tight artistic focus that was once rare on television, (though, in the wake of Mad Men's surprising popularity, seems to be as prevalent as network-driven programming). I didn't have a tremendous interest in watching it initially, yet with the critical acclaim continuing through its fourth season, I thought I should at least give it a shot.
The first season, to be honest, was a bit of a slog, not nearly as immediately captivating or addictive as I was led to believe. The wife and I watched a half dozen episodes over a month's time and then left it for a while... at least half a year before resuming. It was around episode 9 of the first season that the switch was flipped, however, and the addictive nature of the show kicked into full gear.
There are many facets to Mad Men that contribute to its appeal. It's very soap operatic, meaning there's a lot of romantic entanglements to deal with, a tremendous amount of infidelity and relationship drama. It's a nighttime soap, like Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest, amongst others, that long ago went out of favour (replaced by teen-geared soaps), yet more mature, less tawdry. With its early-1960's setting, it's impeccable set dressing, wardrobe and styling, it's visually striking, refined and very stylish. There's an investment in production value, and a palpably high level of research into the advertising game, the culture and the zeitgeist of the '60's.
What really makes Mad Men tick, however, is its characters. It's evident from its slow-burn beginnings that creator Matthew Weiner wasn't interested in shorthanding his characters by archetyping, instead they come fully formed and it does take over half the first season for the audience to get to know them and begin to understand their motivations.
Weiner also created a storytelling language for Mad Men that makes it distinct from almost every other program on television. Besides Don Draper, no other character's story carries on from episode to episode. They're generally all present in the community of Sterling-Cooper, but the focus shifts around the large cast, and it can be 3 or 4 episodes (or more) before focus falls back on one of the supporting players, picking up their story in a "real time" sense. This means, typically, that much has developed off screen since last their non-professional life was followed.
Then there's Don Draper, the show's centerpiece, it's ace in the hole, an instant classic character that has transcended the show, to the point that I'm sure as many people know of him that don't watch the show as those that do. Don Draper begins as a bit of a mystery, but a man of ultimate cool: composed, suave, dapper, talented, respected, even a little feared. He's part James Bond, part Wolverine for the dramatic set. It's evident early on that nobody on the show really knows him, and the show parses out bits and pieces of Don's surprising past across the first three seasons in flashbacks and fever dreams.
Don's character constantly pulls at the seams, in surprising ways. When Don has a breakdown, or is stymied, or becomes Dick Whitman, you see the facade drop, chipping away at his mystique, if not his appeal. Yet, Weiner always has a restorative bullet in the chamber, something that, once fired, immediately brings Don back to his god-amongst-men status. Jon Hamm is fantastic in the role (and so goddamn handsome, you want to hit something), and it's his ability to show those fractures in the mask that the show is hinged upon. Without it, Don Draper would be too perfect, perhaps unlikeable, callous even.
The show is typically exceptionally well written, and it constantly defies expectations. Unlike most nighttime dramas, Mad Men rarely takes you where you think its going to go. We've trained ourselves as a viewing audience to look for foreshadowing and to get wrapped up in the build up of drama, and as such Mad Men is constantly setting up paths in that regard. Yet it rarely follows them, as it seems doing so would be far too easy, too "TV dramatic" and less interesting than the road it actually does wind up taking, those which are rarely foreshadowed.
The show's involvement of the events and politics of the '60's is one of its weaker traits, though valiant in its efforts. As often as it handles these well, it doesn't. It's use of the Kennedy assassination was brilliant, especially in how it interrupted the drama in everyone's life, an even that united people in shock and sorrow. Conversely, its handling of era's race issues is quite often clunky, as is it's pointed use of smoking, big tobacco in advertising, and things like shock therapy or even littering, which are displayed in a manner like "look how ignorant we were". It's a little too flagrant and could've been incorporated more organically or not at all. It handles feminism and gender issues far, far better. The diversity in its female characters, how they view themselves and their roles within their professional and personal lives as the sixties barrel on is one of its strongest facets.
That said, weakest element of the show is, hands down, January Jones. Devoid almost completely of any charisma, she's unappealing in the role of Betty Draper, Don's somewhat depressed suburban housewife. Prudish, sour-faced, and neglectful, she's a thoroughly unlikeable, and with Jones in the role, mercilessly unsympathetic. I have a feeling that the audience is supposed to feel something towards her other than pure detestation, alas, Jones is unable to elicit anything resembling compassion or affection.
Mad Men's first four seasons are exceptional, with the fifth season only slightly less so. The latest season suffers from, primarily, the distance to its beginnings. It's pretty much exhausted the drama of Don Draper's origins, which means as the central figure to the show, he's marginally less engaging, and largely demystified. As well, the transition from the buttoned down, conservative style of the 50's into the mod-influenced mid-60's (including a set change between the 3rd and 4th season for the advertising agency) greatly impacts the overall feel of the show. The fifth season is a little too bright, a little too showy, losing some of its subtlety. While still good, with some of the show's most shocking and depressing moments (and, finally, a scene the focuses solely on Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks, which is so much concentrated attractiveness that your TV set might overheat) it also features so much infidelity (a show staple) that the affairs have become tiresome and uninteresting.
Next to Don Draper, infidelity is the show's center point. The characters seem to constantly revolve around it, but there's little exploration of what it actually means to these people, why they all do it (and they all do) and I find it even harder to believe that the 60's are accurately represented by its prevalence within the show. The closing scene of season five had me throwing my hands up. We will see where we are when season six hits, and apparently there's another season to follow before the show runs down, but by then I'm wondering if it won't have overstayed its welcome.