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TV: Mad Men Season One

One of productive things I did while I was ill was watch pretty much the entirety of the first season of Mad Men that I had on the PVR from the BBC2 repeats on Sunday nights. As usual, I’m late to the party, but I have to admit that it is really good television and deserves all the hype and accolades it has received.

I remember when it was first being shown on BBC4 and the good previews/reviews it was getting. I wanted to watch it but I think it was being shown at the time when BBC2 was showing the entirety of The Wire, and I simply didn’t have the space on the PVR to record another quality television series. There was also a strange feeling that I wouldn’t be that interested in a series set in America in the 1960s about advertising. It’s particularly strange when you consider that my day job is as the editor at a healthcare advertising agency, and so I have an understanding of the setting; perhaps I thought it would be a busman’s holiday?

I’m glad that BBC2 showed the first series again so I could catch up because I now know for myself why the praise had been flowing in abundance – this is a show that was good from the first episode. Everybody probably knows the basic set-up – it’s the story of the advertising men of Madison Avenue (hence Mad Men) in 1960, particularly Don Draper, creative director at Sterling Cooper. He is very good at his job, but he has secrets about who he is, and is unfaithful to his wife Betty (stuck at home in the suburbs with the two children, feeling depressed before it was diagnosed as such) but bearing the weight of his own guilt. The story follows the lives of various characters, including Peggy, Don’s new secretary, and Joan the office manager, and shows the sexism of the time, the constant smoking of all characters, the drinking during the day that was seen as normal, the way the secretaries were abused, the casual anti-Semitism, the horrible attitude towards divorced women, with the background of the election campaign leading up to JFK becoming president.

Mad Men is extremely well written, beautifully acted, the era lovingly recreated and is utterly absorbing, despite the fact that there are very few characters with whom you can actually sympathise. Even Peggy makes a decision at the end of the series that makes you reconsider her. The most sympathetic character is Betty, but you just want to shake her until she does something to help herself (I loved it when she was shooting at the neighbour’s pigeons), which is why it is heartbreaking when she is used as a pawn by an agency who are trying to woo Don to work for them. Don Draper is a fascinating central character, a serial womaniser with a talent for creating copy and ideas but who phones his wife’s therapist for updates on her mental state and refuses to connect with the younger brother who thought him dead. To make Don slightly more likeable, the series has the loathsome character of Pete Campbell, a junior account executive with ambition and the belief he deserves it because he comes from old money family, and he was perfectly cast because I didn’t like him from the moment I saw him.

I realise that I’m showing how out of touch I am with the series by talking about the events of three seasons ago (BBC4 is showing the current series, season four, soon after transmission in the US) but I don’t care – I’m just happy to have caught up with the latest quality American import, and I don’t mind the proximity of the material to my actual work (I even recognised some of the real-life agencies mentioned in the series). Now, if BBC2 could just get on with repeating series two and three …

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