Off the top of my head, and many TV shows live there, I can’t think of any TV dramas about businesses that I’ve found compelling. All the TV dramas of note seem to be set in hospitals, law firms, police departments, or the White House.
But then there’s Mad Men. It’s not only a period piece, set as it is in early 1960’s America, but it focuses on an advertising agency in New York City. There’s no stunt casting, no crossover movie stars or famous TV stars recognizable from monthly appearances on magazine covers. In terms of degree of difficulty, Mad Men is ambitious and uncompromising.
After one season, it’s also this: my favorite show on television.
It turns out that this business, the advertising business, is a rich metaphor for examining the tension between the image we want to project to others and our inner selves. Show runner Matthew Weiner mines it for every possibility. Weiner, whose pilot for Mad Men earned him a job as a writer and executive producer on The Sopranos, has the men and women of fictional ad agency Sterling Cooper crafting brand campaigns for their clients, but their greatest challenges lie in creating personas that they can still live with when they’re alone with just a stiff drink to keep them company. As the characters light up one cigarette after another with almost eerie self-assurance, you realize each and every one of them is under an intense pressure to stave off the unsettling suspicion that the images they’ve constructed for themselves are as artificial as the ones they conjure for their clients.
It’s difficult to discuss Mad Men without mentioning the stylish period costumes—the fedoras, three-piece suits, zeppelin bras—and period props, from authentic vintage typewriters to the monolithic copy machine that appears in the season two premiere. Though Sterling Cooper is fictional, many of the ad agencies and campaigns mentioned in the show are real, like easter eggs for advertising and design junkies. And the dialogue is a fireworks show of wit. When you hear these ad men trade bon mots over cognac, you’ll understand how they command top dollar for their copy.
But it’s what lies beyond these visible markers that elevates the show to greatness. There is a subtlety and refinement to the shape of scenes in this series that is breathtaking. Many a scene ends with an extra several beats, to let the subtext hang in the air like smoke curling up from a lit cigarette. This show is powered by true ensemble acting, and a conversation about the show’s plot can dwell on any number of the characters, from Don Draper, played by Golden-Globe winner Jon Hamm, to secretary turned junior copywriter Peggy Olson, played by Elisabeth Moss (Zoey Bartlet from The West Wing is all grown up!), to Account Executive Pete Campbell, played by Vincent Kartheiser as a sometime villain and yet ironically the one character closest to letting his true self out in public. Come for the outfits, but stay for their stories.
The premiere of season 2 of Mad Men, set in 1962, two years after the finale of season one, hints that more than ever that what we’re watching is akin to a horror movie in which we watch each of the characters killed off by some unseen bogeyman. In the case of Mad Men, the people of Sterling Cooper, with their sexist, racist attitudes, are about to be ambushed by the 1960’s counterculture. We know it, and we realize it will overtake them faster than they suspect.
Here’s the part where you get to tell us if we’re mad. We were only able to secure streaming clearances for one full episode, this premiere of season 2, to be posted to our site a short delay after air date, in addition to some clips from Mad Men throughout this season. In most cases like this, we’d pass on adding the show to the site. At a minimum, we’d wait until we could add more than one episode. Like you, we prefer full runs of shows to individual seasons, full seasons to rolling five episodes, and full episodes to clips, the closer to TV air date the better.
But we love this show so so much, and more importantly, we think that the best way to accelerate the online content clearance process is to continue to demonstrate the strength of this channel. The more viewers watch videos on Hulu, the more of you write us demanding more episodes be streamed on our service, the more convincing is our argument for more.
Whether you agree with our decision or not, you can reach us, as always, at .
One of Hulu’s Mad Men, (),