Mad Men gives lie to the saying – and I’ve often said it – that there is nothing to watch on television. I admit that I missed this series when it premiered then was turned off by the media hype. But I caught up just before this season, the third, caught fire (AMC 10 p.m. Sundays). You might say I became obsessed with the series. I watched the first two seasons in just a couple of days and celebrated the advent of DVDs with each back-to-back episode.
Mad Men seems fresh as a multi-layered counterpoint to films and television produced during the early 1960s that depict the era as modern and uncomplicated. This resonates particularly with me this fall because I’m teaching a seminar called Culture and the Sitcom (check out The Sitcom Reader: America Viewed and Skewed edited by Laura R. Linder and myself if you have an interest in this area), so my students have been watching sitcoms ranging from the early 1950s to shows that are still on the air presently in order to get a critical and historical overview of the genre.
In some ways, it seems that television as a medium plays a minor supporting role in the series. We more than the major characters know the growing influence TV is about to unleash on families and the employees of Sterling Cooper. Occasionally, we see the Draper family plopped in front of the TV set, but more often the show reveals the initially unsophisticated ways advertising executives are working to understand and exploit the medium.
In addition to providing a contrast to popular shows from the period like Leave It To Beaver and Bewitched (which also had an ad agency as part of the narrative), Mad Men also contrasts with films like Revolutionary Road that cover some of the same terrain of suburban angst and the ill-fit of the gray flannel suit, but the series is more nuanced than most of those stories.
Mad Men deals with the issues of the day, particularly sexism and racism, in ways that let us look anew at how much culture really has changed in the last fifty years while also prodding us to recognize ways in which changes have been incremental. But the series is also fun to watch. This is what TV used to be like when there were shows you loved, those appointment TV episodes that you watched then discussed with friends and family because the drama was so compelling.
After a tiny bit of a slow start, season three is living up to the promise of the first two seasons. If, like me initially, you’ve been slow to get on board, I recommend that you get your hands on the DVDs and start catching up!