WHY do we love Mad Men, the award-garlanded series set in a 1960s advertising agency in New York?
The sophisticated – but flawed – men? The sexy – but flawed – women? The costumes, the set designs, or just the lavish production?
Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm
Draper, the central character in the series, is the man that men want to be and women want to be with. The handsome bastard in the enviably sharp suit, he gets to drink, smoke and behave like a polecat on heat at the office before returning home to his lovely family, where hot food and a wardrobe full of ironed white shirts await.
His mysterious past has given the scriptwriters meaty lines in the past but the clues coming from the US, where the two-hour opening episode has already aired, are that his recurring existential crises may be wearing thin. Salon.com’s waspish TV critic, Willa Paskin notes: “Of the four characters showcased in the premiere – Don, Peggy, Betty and Roger – Don is the one who is no fun to watch... Change is all around but Don Draper remains as stuck as a slide in a Kodak carousel.” Will this put us off? Probably not. For male viewers, Draper is the ultimate guilty pleasure, living a life they can only dream of. For females he presents a delicious dilemma. He is, for the reasons previously listed, wrong, wrong, wrong. Could he persuade us, however, to unroll our girdles? Yes, yes, yes.
Joan Harris/Holloway, played by Christina Hendricks
During the first series of Mad Men, the lushly proportioned Hendricks caused a sensation in an America unused to seeing women with milky skin, pillowy embonpoint and BMI that begins with the number two on their TV screens. A generation that had grown up thinking ladies were barbecued ribs with two grapefruits stuck on the front realised that other body shapes were available.
Draper might be the central character but the storylines pivot on the dames. “It’s actually all about the women – Betty, Peggy, Joan, Trudy, Sally, Megan – because their stories are the most emblematic of the times,” says teacher and Mad Men fan Olive McConochie. Film critic Hannah McGill says it “passes the Bechdel test” in having at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.
For columnist Joyce McMillan, it raises an important question. “Mad Men restores some powerful, luscious female iconography to a culture where feminism has too often meant women behaving and looking more like men, yet it demonstrates with utter clarity why that culture was unacceptable, and had to change.” So can we have the waists, hats and lipstick without the total exclusion from power?
As the characters edge towards the 1970s, this is set to be one of the big issues of season six.
Writing & direction
Series creator Matthew Weiner, who wrote the first draft in 2000, keeps close control of Mad Men. He co-writes most of the episodes and directs each season’s finale. As executive producer, he also argues constantly with the cable network AMC about money. Each episode has a budget of $2 million to $2.5m. We viewers appreciate his efforts on our behalf. “It is very much art directed,” says vintage clothes dealer Alison Fraser. “I love it when the camera closes on a scene at the end of an episode. Sometimes it is so beautifully shot it’s like a painting, laden with symbolism.”
Writer Stephen Phelan points out that Weiner spent six years working on The Sopranos with David Chase and follows his general principles. And Weiner acknowledges his debt to his former boss, saying recently: “I learned this from David Chase: you don’t want to get bored of the character and you don’t want the audience to be bored of them. You want to parcel it out so that, if you had a lot of cello this week, next week is about drums. Don always has to have a story, and he has to have a business story and a personal story, but there are no rules for the rest of it. I don’t want to just check in on everybody. Who’s the most interesting to me, and what goes with Don’s story?”
It works for Alison Fraser. “Mad Men is consistently good and always believable, even though the characters never fail to surprise me.”
The characters do this. Elegantly. And without having to put on their coats and huddle outside beside the bins. Back in the early days Weiner explained: “Doing this show without smoking would’ve been a joke. It would’ve been sanitary and it would’ve been phoney.”
They are, however, herbal cigarettes. Californian law does not permit anyone, even an actor, to smoke real fags in the workplace.
As they smoke, so do they drink. Hard liquor. In the office, which has a well-stocked drinks cabinet. In cocktail bars. Over jolly lunches and decadent dinners. And while Weiner does not shy away from showing the consequences of repeated overindulgence (after wetting himself, Freddy Rumsen is dispatched to rehab in season two, while Draper struggles with alcoholism in season four) the overall effect is to give many viewers a powerful drooth. “All that drinking,” comments Fraser, “makes me want to reach for the Scotch.”
A whole demographic of viewer, unmoved by Joan’s dangerous curves or the way Don tilts his hat, gets all hot and bothered over the Bauhaus lights, cane-back chairs and pedestal ashtrays. There are blogs dedicated to recreating the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce office. Although before Googling, do note that the set decorator Amy Wells’s budget is $25,000. Per episode.
For those of us who worship at the altar of frock, Mad Men is worth watching with the sound turned down. The prints. The colours. The frouffy skirts. Legs in sheer stockings. The sunglasses. The men’s suits. In our world of saggy Lycra and Ugg boots there is no greater visual treat than Betty in her brocade pregnancy frock or lemon jewelled cardigan, Joan in fitted scarlet with a princess sleeve. Bring it on.
• Mad Men, Sky Atlantic, Wednesday, 10pm