Period Drama - American-style!
, 09 Oct 2008
(N.B. I am still waiting for the site to send out disc three i.e. the final four episodes. Thus, I am writing this review on the assumption that the quality doesnt significantly change towards the end)
Im not hugely fond of giving five star reviews reviewers on user-content-driven sites like this site tend to over-apply it for (frankly) mediocre content, thus diluting its meaning: if the majority of items reviewed are five star-rated, what about the really good stuff, 6 stars perhaps? Top ratings should only be applied to outstanding work; conversely, only the utterly abominable should receive the very lowest scores. With all that in mind, I believe the AMC series Mad Men to be one of the truly exceptional - a textbook example of how to achieve excellence through quality writing, without recourse to overly-spectacular special effects, excessive violence or gimmicky high-concepts (take note, Heroes).
Mad Men is a period series set in 1960, in the bustling office of fictional New York advertising firm Sterling-Cooper (the Mad in the title stemming from Madison Avenue, the hub of the US Advertising Industry) in an America on the verge of massive social and political change. It follows a group of characters through their daily lives as they deal with backstabbing colleagues, overbearing bosses, stagnating marriages, illicit affairs, midlife crises and philosophical ennui. Unlike a lot of the current crop of American drama series,Mad Men is all about people and their relationships there arent any moments of ludicrous action, no car crashes or explosions, no needless recourse to supernatural deus ex machina, no yawnsome (gulp) put the gun
down! scenes just pure, unadulterated, grown-up personal drama. Each character, from the shadowy, charismatic Don Draper (a nuanced performance from John Hamm) to the naïve, idealistic Peggy Olson, is finely drawn with subtle aspects of light and shade you wont find two-dimensional goodies and baddies here, just believable, falliable people. Equally of note is the superbly authentic production design (which surely takes its cues from the cinema) - modernist sets, mostly static camerawork (how refreshing that the shaky-shaky CSI-style camerawork is conspicuously absent) and the evocative use of period music provides an environment to get lost in.
The period setting allows a certain degree of guilty nostalgia. To a modern audience used to a contemporary culture tempered by bland political correctness, the unabashed retrograde attitudes typical of the time (casual sexism and racism, macho posturing, copious amounts of on-screen smoking and drinking) are deplorable and yet, shamefully alluring, particularly for male viewers. Its hard to imagine such dinosaur attitudes existing today so openly. Indeed, part of the appeal of Mad Men is the prospect of future seasons exploring how the gathering political whirlwind of the 60s blows through Sterling Coopers offices. The subtle hints peppered throughout Season One (references to VWs seminal Think Small campaign, the proto-hippie beatniks Draper encounters, the scandalising divorcee Helen Bishop from down the street) suggest a world teetering on the edge of revolution, where the certainties of Eisenhower devolve into the self-doubt and instability of the Kennedy and post-Kennedy eras. It will be fascinating to see which characters thrive and which will fall by the wayside. How will they deal with challenges like the conflict in Vietnam, the Pill, civil rights or the counter-culture movement?
Who will this series appeal to? Well, viewers fed on a diet of sappy whimsy like Ally McBeal or Ugly Betty will despair of the dark tones and the lack of immediately likeable characters. 24 action junkies will have difficulty paying attention to its slow tempo (although, the series has nothing on the glacial pacing of Lost) and will be confused at the lack of obvious antagonists. At the same time, Mad Men thankfully avoids the corny moralising and overly-smart dialogue of the likes of The West Wing or the short-lived Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: in short this could be the best series in recent memory to appear on the small screen. As such, I have no hesitation is awarding this the maximum five star rating. Roll on Season Two!
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