Mad Men’s Back

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Mad Men, which premiered its third season last night, is a cool show to like. Stuff White People Like (which, let’s face it, should really be called “Stuff White Hipsters Like”) sums it up pretty well: “Mad Men is a TV show on cable with low ratings, multiple awards, critical praise, and full seasons available on DVD. It’s no surprise white people love it.”

But it’s not just white people who like the show; everyone loves Mad Men: black people like it (though not the way it deals with race), women like it, the Emmys love it, Banana Republic loves it.

There are a lot of reasons Mad Men is so well-liked (the most important probably being that it is a very good show). One reason is that it manages to balance prurient, intellectual and emotional appeals all at once; it is simultaneously inclusive and esoteric.

Last night’s Season Three premiere, for example, uses the pregnancy of Don Draper’s wife (Betty, played by January Jones) to examine his own birth, how he feels about his oncoming child, the nature of wishes and wish-fulfillment, which dovetails nicely with a secondary plot in which Peter (Vincent Kartheiser) and Kenny (Aaron Staton) receive the same job. But it also had Don and Sal flying to Baltimore, where Don (Jon Hamm) takes a flight attendant to bed while Sal gets hit on by the bell-boy, only for them both to be interrupted by a fire alarm.

The premiere, then, was a return to form, as the show brilliantly balanced the “scandalous” with its deeper themes. AMC has been billing the show as “the sexiest show on TV” (and it probably is, with Jones and Christina Hendricks, not to mention Hamm, who isn’t hard to look at) with shots of girls in lingerie and Draper bedding his many conquests. But if people just wanted to watch a show where guys sleep with lots of attractive girls, then Entourage would still be on (wait, Entourage IS still on? Really?). Mad Men manages to connect these things with grander themes.

Right before Draper takes his flight attendant into his hotel room, for example, you can see him internally debating his behavior, not just because he is married with a new child on the way, but because, as he tells Ms. Trans-Am, it’s his birthday. It’s his birthday, which only he (and now the flight attendant) knows, since it’s not really Draper’s birthday, but Dick Whitman’s (Draper’s former identity), so Draper is essentially trapped in this private life in which nobody, not even his wife, knows who he is. At the same time, though, he views the baby— and his kids in general, as the final scene illustrates— as his gateway to being the kind of person his father never was and he likely never thought he could be.

In short it’s complicated. But these characters are so rich and developed—and so well played— that small scenes that seem to be only about infidelity are about a lot more.

Season three, as the picture is supposed to indicate, is going to be about change and how people react to it, according to the show’s creator Matthew Weiner. Normally my reaction to this would be something sarcastic and dismissive: “Wow, a story set in the 1960s about change! How novel!” With Mad Men, though, I’ve learned to realize that it actually can tackle some really worn themes— segregation, gender inequality, corporatism and materialism— with an original perspective.

If this week’s episode is any indication, the “change” will not simply refer to the civil rights movement and rock and roll and all the stuff we already know about, but the change that comes with Don’s growing family, with the British taking over Sterling-Cooper, with Joan trying to leave the office, with Peter and Ken dueling in their promotion, and with Roger’s increasing laziness as an employee. Mad Men has always been more interested with how history affects individuals than with broad historical trends, and that has what has made the show successful. That and scantily clad, attractive females.

One response to this post.

  1. […] among different ethnicities, voyeurism. Leave a Comment About a month ago I declared Mad Men “a cool show to like” at least partially due to the fact that it was so critically […]

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