AMMAN: On paper, “Mad Men” seemed like — at best — a niche, and quite dull, idea. Exploring the workings of a New York ad agency in the 1960s? Who cares? (Except for ad-agency employees, perhaps, keen to see their choice of occupation as dramatic and meaningful, rather than inherently loathsome.)
However, Matthew Weiner’s depiction of life at the fictional Sterling Cooper agency was one of the finest television shows of this century. First off, it looks spectacular: Weiner and his writers carried out intensive, exhaustive research to ensure the sets, costumes and props were historically accurate (hence the almost constant smoking and boozing), and with a budget that reportedly ran to more than $2 million per episode on average, they were able to create a lush, immersive visual style (Weiner has cited Alfred Hitchcock as a major influence) that rivaled big-budget movies.
Secondly, the casting and the cast’s performances were superb throughout. Jon Hamm became a global star for his portrayal of the agency’s complicated, conflicted, alpha-male creative director Don Draper; Elisabeth Moss was brilliant as Peggy Olson — Draper’s secretary who rises through the male-dominated ranks to become an acclaimed copywriter (with her own office!); John Slattery got most of the funniest lines as jaded senior partner Roger Sterling; and Christina Hendricks stole numerous scenes as office manager/office mother Joan Harris — charged with keeping the chaos in some kind of order, with varying degrees of success. They were supported by an ensemble cast who were equally adept at giving their characters an emotional depth rarely matched in primetime TV.
Thirdly, the actors were aided by scripts in which powerful drama was balanced by biting humor; social commentary (particularly about race and gender roles) that still hits hard 60 years on from the period in which the series is set; great tragedies; and life’s big questions. Weiner showed real respect for audiences, providing a show that demanded and deserved their attention (this was not ‘background viewing’) and rewarded focus and inquisitiveness. Even the most minor of characters had three dimensions, and heroes and villains — as in real life — were often hard to separate. Indeed, they were often the same character in the same episode or scene.
Five years on from its final episode, “Mad Men” still deserves its position as a benchmark by which other shows are judged. It may be a period piece, but it’s a compelling, aesthetically gorgeous, and timeless look at life.