A decade ago, AMC was just the channel you’d skip because it was playing an old movie you’d either never heard of, or you’d seen too many times already.
But when AMC’s “Mad Men” premiered ten years ago today, and it quickly became one of the most iconic shows of all time, and proved that television was in a Golden Age.
“Mad Men” was AMC’s first try at an original series. And before it aired, expectations weren’t high.
It starred mostly unknown actors: No one knew who the lead, Jon Hamm, was.
The biggest draw to the show was that Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, had written on HBO’s “The Sopranos,” which ended its run about a month before “Mad Men” started. But in 2007, showrunners and television writers weren’t really big names yet, they were more behind-the-scenes.
While the first season of “Mad Men” wasn’t very popular, it was a hit among critics and at awards season in 2008. Recognition at the Emmys and the Golden Globes gave it a broader audience that included fans of shows like “The Sopranos.” “Mad Men” was character-driven and challenging for viewers, but different enough that it felt fresh and new. And it proved that a great show didn’t need big names or a big network.
“Mad Men” also paved the way for AMC’s original shows including “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Better Call Saul.”
Here’s why “Mad Men” is one of the best shows ever, and the best to come out of television’s Golden Age:
Shows like 'Lost,' 'Westworld,' and 'Breaking Bad' have storylines that are defined by a twist, and lured viewers in with mysteries and cliffhangers. And that's not a bad thing. But especially at this point in television, twists and cliffhangers aren't all that surprising or unique anymore.
'Mad Men' rarely used cliffhangers, with some exceptions -- Don proposing to Megan in the season four finale, for example -- because it didn't have to. The season-one twist that Don Draper was actually Dick Whitman was a big reveal, but the most shocking part was that the show didn't make a big deal out of it. True to character, Don brushes off Pete Campbell's discovery of his stolen identity, and so does their boss, Bert Cooper.
Don's identity crisis is a big part of the show, and one of his defining character traits. But by staying true to its characters, and to the fact that it's a show about flawed people, 'Mad Men' stood out among all the other shows that were desperately trying to draw viewers in.
If you took any character from the cast of 'Mad Men,' and lined him or her up among a million people, each would easily stand out. From Don Draper, to Roger Sterling, to Pete Campbell, to Joan Holloway-Harris, to Peggy Olson, you know and understand every character to the point that you feel like you're right there with them. And no matter how deeply flawed and awful they are (some of them are so awful -- we're looking at you, Pete!) you love them, and you care what happens to them.
The same goes for more secondary characters like Ken Cosgrove, Harry Crane, Paul Kinsey, Mona Sterling, Bert Cooper, and Ted Chaough.
Pete Campbell is like the Christopher Moltisanti ('The Sopranos') of 'Mad Men.' Campbell is slimy, selfish, and generally speaking, a very awful guy. But somehow, he is one of the best parts of the show. And even as he gets worse with every season, there is some part of you that cares about him, and wants to see his good side come out. Pete is complicated and is played so well by Vincent Kartheiser that you kind of forget that they're separate people.
Peggy starts off the series as Don's secretary, and she was chosen because Joan knew that Don wouldn't want to sleep with her. And although Peggy and Don never have a sexual relationship or date each other, their friendship is one of the most romantic relationships on television. Don took Peggy in.
Don was there for Peggy in one of the worst moments of her life (surprise Pete Campbell baby), and he guides her throughout her career. He's her toughest critic, and she's tough on him, too. They are tough on each other because they love each other. But their relationship always remains platonic, which makes it more beautiful than any other relationship on the show, or in TV in general.
Everything on this show means something, from a pile of papers out of focus in the background, to a character's tie.
The show is written and produced very much like a book. It's a literary journey, because it dives deep into these characters. Every episode feels like a new chapter, and every scene a new page.
Every episode and season of 'Mad Men' has a theme, and the writers leave a lot up for the viewers to interpret, but show enough that we understand what's happening.
Matthew Weiner and his team of writers definitely took advantage of their captivating characters and incredible actors. They made some episodes that focused on secondary characters, and some that only focused on the main cast, so each episode feels like a short story in a book collection that all tied together in the end.
Standout episodes that emulate the short story include 'Three Sundays' (season two, episode four), 'The Suitcase' (season four, episode seven), and 'Signal 30' (season five, episode five).
The costumes, the makeup, the hair, the sets. It's all a work of art. Set in the 1960s, it would have been easy for 'Mad Men' to go cheesy. But it didn't. With a great team that did a lot of research, the show felt all the more real because the world looked just as real as the characters felt.
'Mad Men' also did something not a lot of shows do: It made the characters look bad. In the earlier seasons, Peggy isn't hip and doesn't quite know how to dress or style her hair. But instead of the typical just throwing a pair of glasses on the actress, and revealing how beautiful she is when she finally takes them off, it took some time for Peggy to grow her personal style and confidence. And to get rid of those awful bangs.
Everyone on this show is excellent. But it is amazing that 'Mad Men' was what made Jon Hamm famous. Don Draper -- like Tony Soprano, Walter White and many characters before and after them -- is an anti-hero. Don is probably the most decent man of the three, but he's still a selfish cheater who stole a man's identity to run away from his problems, only to realise that he still has problems, because that is life.
But Hamm brought charisma and tragedy to Don that made audiences love him and want him to be happy, despite his many, many flaws.
Another notable performance is Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson. Peggy transforms dramatically season by season (not just visually). Every season she becomes a little more confident, and a little more like Don. Moss channels that energy and makes you feel like she's your best friend whose career you're kind of jealous of.
'Mad Men' is historical, and that's an important part of the show, but that's not why it was so good. The human stories make it relatable.
Some network shows thought the success of 'Mad Men' was due to its setting, like NBC's massive failure 'The Playboy Club' and ABC's 'Pan Am.' Those shows didn't work because setting was their defining element in a way it wasn't for 'Mad Men.' When you think back on 'Mad Men,' the 60s is not the sole reason it was made, or the reason it was interesting.
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