Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The 10th Anniversary of Mad Men

Anyone who gets to know me soon realises that the vast majority of my favourite shows were made before 1980. In fact, if I were to make a list of my top fifty favourite shows of all time, there would probably be only one show on the list that was made after the Seventies. What is more, it would likely rank in my top five. That show is Mad Men. It was ten years ago today, on July 19 2007, that Mad Men debuted on AMC.

For those of you are not familiar with the show, Mad Men was a drama that aired on AMC from 2007 to 2015. It was set in the Sixties around the advertising agency Sterling Cooper. It's chief protagonist was Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm), who began the show as the agency's creative director. Equally important to the show was Peggy Olson (played by Elisabeth Moss), who began as Don's secretary and eventually became a copywriter and still later head of creative. While arguably Don and Peggy were the show's central characters, Mad Men was truly an ensemble drama with a fairly large cast, including not only the employees of Sterling Cooper, but their wives, relatives, and lovers. The series spanned the whole of the Sixties, beginning in late 1959 and ending in 1970.

The origins of Mad Men go back to 1999 when the show's creator Matt Weiner was one of the writing staff on Ted Danson's sitcom Becker. It was at that time that he conceived a TV show set in the Sixties. To that end he spent his spare time doing extensive research on the Sixties, including the fashions, the decor, and even what people drank during the decade. It was in 2001 that he wrote a spec script for an advertising agency called Sterling Cooper at the close of the Fifties, a script that would eventually become the first episode of Mad Men, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes".

Matt Weiner's spec script drew no buyers, but it did get the attention of the creator and executive producer of HBO's critically acclaimed TV series The Sopranos, David Chase. Impressed with the script, Mr. Chase hired Mr. Weiner as a writer. It was only a matter of weeks after Matt Weiner had joined the writing staff of The Sopranos that David Chase recommended Matt Weiner's script for "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" to HBO's development department. HBO decided that they would only make Mad Men if David Chase was an executive producer. At the time Mr. Chase wanted to move away from weekly television shows, so he declined. Despite this, David Chase still admired the script and continued to promote it when he could.

It was in 2004 that Matt Weiner resubmitted "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" to HBO's development department. Once more HBO turned the show down. Afterwards Mr. Weiner's agent shopped Mad Men around to various cable outlets, including Showtime (who, like HBO, had been doing their own original series for some time), the USA Network (then best known for such "blue sky dramas' as Monk and Pscyh), and FX. FX had already produced three critically acclaimed shows: The Shield, Nip/Tuck, and Rescue Me. It should then come as no surprise that Matt Weiner actually got a meeting with FX's president Kevin Reilly. Unfortunately, FX wanted to make Mad Men only as a half-hour show.

It was Matt Weiner's manager's assistant who sent "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" to AMC. AMC had originated as American Movie Classics, a classic movie channel that existed in the days before Turner Classic Movies. It was in 2002 that the channel ceased to be a classic movie channel and began airing movies from all eras. AMC was not known for original scripted drama at the time. In fact, they had only produced one original scripted show in their history, the comedy Remember WENN, which had aired from 1996 to 1998. That having been said, since it had ceased being a classic movie channel, AMC was struggling.  Its vice president in charge of programming and production at the time, Rob Sorcher, decided that what AMC needed was its own signature show, much like HBO's The Sopranos. He hired Christina Wayne as the channel's new vice president in charge of scripted programming. Years before Miss Wayne had wanted to option the novel by Richard Yates, which dealt with suburban life in the mid-Fifties. She saw similarities between Revolutionary Road and Mad Men. In the end, AMC bought Mad Men.

Mad Men would turn out to be a very expensive show. The first episode alone cost $3.3 million. Unfortunately for AMC, the channel could find no partners to help finance the show. AMC ultimately wound up financing the pilot themselves. It proved to be the best investment they ever made. One the pilot was finished Lionsgate, who had turned down the pilot, agreed to partner on the show.

As strange as it might seem now, Mad Men was not a hit in the ratings. It debuted to a paltry 1.65 million viewers. That having been said, while its audience would never be very large, the audience for Mad Men did grow over time. Not only was the audience for Mad Men small, but it also tended to be older. Relatively few people in the 18-49 demographic desired by advertisers watched the show. The majority of Mad Men's viewers were over 50.

While Mad Men had a relatively small audience made mostly of older viewers, it also had a good deal of critical acclaim. The Television Critics Association named it the best show of 2007. The American Film Institute named it one of the ten best TV shows several years in a row. In the Writers Guild of America's list of the 101 best-written shows in the history of television, Mad Men ranked no. 7. Mad Men also won a tonne of awards. For its first season it won the Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series, and was nominated for several more. It became the first drama on an advertising supported cable channel to win the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series (previous winners had either aired on broadcast networks or premium cable channels). Ultimately Mad Men would win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series four years in a row. Through the years it also picked up Emmy Awards for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, Outstanding Casting for a Drama Series, Outstanding Art Direction for a Single-Camera Series, Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series (for Jon Hamm),  and yet others.

Here it must be pointed out that it would probably be a mistake to consider Mad Men simply another low rated, but critically acclaimed TV show. Mad Men may have had a relatively small audience, but it was one that is fiercely loyal to the show. Over the years Mad Men developed the sort of fans usually reserved only for genre shows like Star Trek and Dark Shadows. Several different books centred on Mad Men have been published, from The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook to Sterling's Gold: Wit and Wisdom of an Ad Man--the memoirs of Roger Sterling. There is also a tonne of Mad Men merchandise for fans to buy, including coffee mugs, T-shirts, notebooks, pinback buttons, laptop skins, and even clothing lines.

Indeed, fans were so fiercely loyal to the show that many inserted themselves into the show after a fashion. Several fans created their own Twitter accounts for various characters, tweeting in character. Almost no character was overlooked, not even Betty Draper's fainting couch. The various Mad Men Twitter accounts would even roleplay various events, such as the Great Blackout of 1965 and a funeral for Lane Pryce.

In the end Mad Men would prove to be a very influential show. Here it must be pointed out that it did not begin the current Silver Age of American Television (I refuse to call it 'the Golden Age" as to me that was the Fifties). By the time Mad Men had debuted, HBO had already aired Six Feet Under and The Sopranos, while FX had already aired The Shield and Rescue Me. That having been said, it certainly proved that cable channels were capable of producing quality dramas at the same level as HBO. Indeed, as mentioned earlier,  it became the first ever drama on an advertising supported cable channel to win the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series. In this way Mad Men insured that the Silver Age of Television would not be confined to HBO and Showtime.

Given its status as a quality TV show, Mad Men certainly put AMC on the map. After AMC abandoned classic movies in 2002 it was often in danger of being dropped by cable operators. Mad Men changed all of that. It made AMC the home of quality dramas. Without Mad Men, such shows as Breaking Bad, Hell on Wheels, The Walking Dead, and Preacher might never have aired. After Mad Men, AMC went from a channel that was always in danger of being dropped by cable operators to a must-have channel that could win carriage disputes based on its prestige and popularity alone.

Mad Men would have an impact in other ways as well. In the years since its debut there has been an increase in period pieces in television, some of which could be considered outright imitators of Mad Men. In 2011 alone the broadcast networks tried two: The Playboy Club on NBC and PanAm on ABC.  Since 2007 there have been such other period dramas as The Hour on BBC Two, The Americans on FX, Masters of Sex on Showtime, Manhattan on WGN America, The Astronaut Wives Club on ABC, Halt and Catch Fire on AMC, and yet others.

Mad Men would also have an impact beyond television. Because of the success of Mad Men, in the late Naughts and early Teens, various fashions from the Sixties would make a comeback. The slim Brooks Brothers suits, ties complete with tie bars, and even fedoras came back into fashion for a time. In the wake of Mad Men, men's retail sales actually went up. Brooks Brothers even came out with a "Mad Men Edition" suit. Women's fashions were affected as well, with bodycon dresses, pencil skirts, kitten heels, and pearls even making a comeback. For a brief time in the late Naughts and early Teens, people were actually well dressed again.

Of course, the question for many may be, "What is the appeal of Mad Men?" I am not sure that can ever be adequately answered. Speaking as someone who spent his first seven years in the Sixties, I have to say that much of it is probably nostalgia. The show is a look at a bygone era that many people remember with some fondness. As a Gen Xer I can watch Mad Men and recognise relics from my childhood, everything from the Kodak Carousel slide projector to Burger Chef to the movie Planet of the Apes. Even the aforementioned fashions bring back memories. It was a time when suits weren't only worn for formal occasions.

While much of the appeal of Mad Men is nostalgia, unlike many other shows, Mad Men does not idealise or romanticise its era. Smoking is rampant, with only a few characters never lighting up. Many of the characters drink too much, a fact that sometimes causes problems for them (such as Don Draper getting in an auto accident while driving drunk). Sexism is rampant. Husbands (especially Don Draper) often cheat on their wives and many of the secretaries are often treated as sex objects. Racism is also common place. Dawn Chambers (played by Teyonah Parris) was the first African American ever hired by Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and for a time the only African American working there. Michael Ginsberg (played by Ben Feldman) was the first Jew ever hired by Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and the only one to ever work there as long as Mad Men aired. Sadly, in the offices of Sterling Cooper, sexist attitudes and racist attitudes are all too common. It is one of the great things about Mad Men in that just as one is thinking that the Sixties would be a great time in which to live, there is something to remind him or her that it really wouldn't be.

Regardless of the nostalgia the show creates or its somewhat realistic portrayal of its era, I have to suspect that the primary appeal of Mad Men is that it was very much a character driven show. The majority of characters were complicated and three dimensional, to the point that any given viewer's reaction to those characters could be complex. There were generally those characters one would be expected to like. I have trouble seeing anyone disliking Peggy Olson, the earnest yet determined young woman who in the early days of the show served as the audience surrogate. There were also those characters one liked despite his or her better judgement. Let's face it, Don Draper drinks too much, womanises, can be dismissive, and has a sometimes volatile temper, yet he is so charming that most fans like him anyway. And then there are those characters that fans love to hate: Pete Campbell (played by Vincent Kartheiser), for whom the word "smarmy" may well have been invented and Lou Avery (played by Allan Havey), who is not only extremely old-fashioned, but apparently lacking in any talent as well. Finally, there are those characters I suspect that fans are meant to like, but many fans simply do not. An example of this is Megan Draper (played by Jessica Paré). Most of the characters on the show apparently liked Megan, yet it seems many fans (myself included) never did. I personally found her immature, entitled, passive aggressive, and annoying.

Indeed, the characters of Mad Men were so complicated that one's feeling for them could change over time. Initially I didn't care much for Joan (played by Christina Hendricks) because I thought she was a bit catty with the secretaries and mean to Peggy. Despite this, by the end of the second season she became and remained one of my favourite characters. My feelings for Betty (played by January Jones) were a bit more complicated. I started out basically liking her, only to grow to dislike her, and then to start liking her again towards the end. Of course, even when I disliked Betty, I could sympathise with her. She was an intelligent woman in a time when there were a few opportunities for intelligent women, and one who had been emotionally abused by her mother, spoiled by her father, and emotionally abused by her first husband (Don Draper). I could understand why Betty was the way she was.

Personally I think it is too soon for Mad Men to be termed a classic, but I have no doubt that eventually it will be. As mentioned above, it received a number of accolades and it is still regularly ranked in lists of the greatest shows of all time. It still has a loyal following, one that continues to grow as new fans discover it on Netflix and Hulu. While some other shows from the Silver Age of American Television might eventually be forgotten, I think Mad Men will continue to be popular even once the Sixties are a distant memory.

(for a slightly more personal post on Mad Men, see my post on the show's ending from 2015 here).


KC said...

Very interesting. I didn't know the history of the show's development. Surprised to hear that the viewership was so old, but perhaps that's because the people I know tend to be more interested in vintage-style programming.

Terence Towles Canote said...

That always surprised me too, KC. I was still part of the demo when Mad Men debuted and everyone I knew who watched it was fairly young too. In fact, my sister is 17 years older than me and she has always hated the show!