Mad Men: an underrated great?

Rebecca Johnson reminisces on her favourite show, which doesn't get enough attention

Rebecca Johnson
22nd March 2020
Credit: IMDb, Justina Mintz/AMC
Whenever we talk about great TV shows, there’s always a list that springs to mind. Breaking Bad, the Sopranos, Game of Thrones. However, one series that is always up in that top ten, but never gets the recognition it deserves is Mad Men.

Mad Men is one of the most well-written and well-casted TV series to ever be aired, in my humble opinion. Unlike a lot of TV series, it is consistently brilliant throughout its seven-season tenure. Set at the start of 1960 and finishing in 1970, Mad Men explores the ruthless and cut-throat world of advertising in this period. It follows a group of employees at the advertising company, Sterling-Cooper along a journey through the decade. The character at the centre of the series is the allusive figure of Don Draper, a brooding and authoritative figure among the male-dominated workplace.

Mad Men helps to document a changing world and workplace from the perspective of its characters

The 1960s is arguably one of the most decisive and important decades in American history. Mad Men helps to document a changing world and workplace from the perspective of its characters and how external events change their lives. The series also explores the culture experienced in American offices, Sterling Cooper is rife with sexism, smoking, homophobia, racism and adultery. How the series is able to handle and explore these controversial topics is executed extremely well throughout.

One huge element of Mad Men is the drinking culture in offices at this time. The creators spoke to those who had experienced '60s office culture and drinking is a recurrent theme, with some saying that the drinking in Mad Men wasn’t a patch on what had actually happened. In every office in Sterling Cooper, there’s a table with whiskey, rum, gin and vodka, with men guzzling it after a big deal or contract has gone through, more often than not it’s just an excuse to celebrate that the clock has hit 11am.

Smoking is another huge part of the series. From the very beginning, we start to see how smoking is beginning to be perceived as unhealthy, causing problems for Draper and his team dealing with the cigarette company, Lucky Strike. Nonetheless, smoking is still a huge, yet quiet part of the show, with its consequences coming into play towards the end of the series.

Credit: IMDb

One of the things Mad Men does extremely well is the telling of huge events in the '60s through the eyes of its characters. After all, this was a decade packed with change, with events like the Civil Rights Movement, the Moon Landing, the assassination of JFK, writers were never short of material to throw in. It shows how whilst these great events in history were happening, characters are still concerned with their own work and lives. For example, during the moon landing, Peggy and her team are more concerned with their pitch to the company Burger Chef than the historic moment that is happening in front of them.

How black characters are perceived is interesting throughout, as there’s no real focus on anyone other than white people. There’s the occasional glance at black people working as bathroom staff or service staff. However, one story-line sees employee, Paul Kinsey, boasting that he has a black girlfriend, though seems reluctant to go with her to campaign in Mississippi to campaign against segregation. The series also uses an episode to explore the assassination of Martin Luther King, an event which essentially grinds the office to a standstill due to shock.

Throughout the decade, characters tone down on sexist remarks and start valuing women for their opinions

Sexism is the biggest factor in the programme. In the first couple of series, we see women treated as objects rather than people by the male-dominated work-force. Women are reduced to the roles of typists and secretaries, whilst the men are the accountants, copywriters and creative designers for the agency. This is where the character of Peggy Olson steps in well. Peggy is the primary character in which changing attitudes towards women are illustrated. Starting out as a mere secretary for Draper, by season seven, she's one of the most powerful female copywriters in the advertising sphere, a highly sought after and incredibly talented woman. Furthermore, throughout the decade, characters tone down on sexist remarks and start valuing women for their opinions.

Credit: IMDb, Frank Ockenfels/AMC - © AMC 2012

As the series progresses, the writers start to let the counterculture of the '60s seep into the story. Arguably, this a period associated with brand new experimental music, questionable fashion and, of course, recreational drugs. Peggy is a character used to introduce us to this world as she explores the art of Andy Warhol and tries out marijuana in a brand new culture. This culture is also growing in the office with the likes of Stan Rizzo who is often smoking a joint with his long shaggy hair any clothes representing this other side of America. From about season four onwards, the writers show the counterculture and how this is balanced with corporate America and how both sides of the coin perceive each other. This is illustrated in one episode, where Draper complains about his lack of knowledge regarding youth culture and his girlfriend presents him with a copy of the Beatles' album, Revolver. The scene then plays Tomorrow Never Knows, which he listens to most of it, before turning it off completely and walking off in silence.

Mad Men is well worth a watch, it's quiet and consistent brilliance spans over all seven series, and is one of the only ever TV shows in existence to finish with a relatively satisfying ending. All seven series are currently streaming on Netflix.

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