Matt got us started on the TV/Pop Culture kick, so I figured it’d be OK if I made my own TV recommendation for Mere O readers.
Season 4 of AMC’s hit Mad Men will be debuting this July, which means you have a solid month to catch up on it before the debut. Here’s three reasons it’s worth checking out:
1) Everything I’ve come across says they’ve nailed the historical setting perfectly. The show’s first three seasons are set over the period from late 1960 through the Kennedy assassination. And the show weaves the landmark events from that era into the plot seamlessly. The Nixon/Kennedy debate is discussed in one episode, the 1960 presidential elections are a major staple in season 1, the Flight 1 disaster plays a prominent role in season 2, the Cuban Missile Crisis is another landmark event the series plays with and, of course, the Kennedy assassination takes the spotlight in season 3. In terms of capturing the mood of the early 1960s, which are a landmark period in American history as the oft-forgotten transition between the idyllic 50s and the revolutionary late 60s, the show nails it.
2) Every character is well-developed. While Jon Hamm’s excellent Don Draper carries the storyline, every other character receives at least some interesting development in terms of back-story or side-plots. There isn’t a single recurring character that you can feel completely apathetic about. And in the case of several characters, there are individual scenes that are absolutely perfect. One of the best scenes I’ve ever seen in any series happens near the end of season 1 when Don is selling the Kodak Carousel. That scene alone could’ve justified the 13 hours spent with Season 1.
3) Where the series really shines is in its treatment of the interplay between ideas and culture. Something I’d never really grasped until watching this series is the central role advertising executives play in shaping American culture. But as I thought about it more, it makes sense. In an extremely religious culture, religious figures play a leading role in shaping it. In a militaristic culture, the generals and commanders play the primary role as culture makers. And in a consumer culture (and the early 60s were riding the peak of the affluent 50s) the advertisers define it. So as a cultural and sociological study, Mad Men is fantastic.
With all that said, a couple disclaimers should be included: First, the series starts a little slow. I watched the first five or six episodes in two weeks and then lost interest for a couple months before I picked it up again. Because all of the characters are so complex and have so much back story, it takes a little while for their complexities to emerge. For the first few episodes several significant characters felt very flat and cliched, but it picks up quickly once it gets going. Second, the story definitely traffics in the well-worn suburban-dystopic realm of Revolutionary Road and American Beauty. Which is a long way of saying, “It’s very gritty and honest about human nature.” So don’t go into it expecting a light, pleasant viewing experience. The Mad Men lived fast, hard lives and the show reflects that. But if you want a compelling storyline, a fascinating cultural study, and excellent historical detail, you won’t do better than Mad Men.