I first stumbled across Mad Men on BBC Four early last year, but despite enjoying what little I saw, I never really invested my time or interest in it, and I ended up, after three episodes, neglecting to watch. However, after reading rave reviews and the show getting a hearty thumbs-up from Russell T Davies (and my Mum), I got myself a copy of the DVD. I'm so glad I did. I suppose the main benefit of owning a show on DVD is that you can watch the show back-to-back, and that's just what I did. In the run-up to the second season airing (again on BBC Four), I marathoned my way through the 13 episodes, and this time, the show really grabbed me. By the time Season 2 kicked off, I was up to speed and well and truly immersed in the brilliantly realised 1960s setting.
For those who don't know (and shame on you if you don't), Mad Men is an American period drama created by Matthew Weiner, one of the executive producers/writers of The Sopranos. Set in the smoke-filled offices of Sterling Cooper - a fictitious advertising company based on Madison Avenue, the show is replete with observation, atmosphere and some of the most well-drawn characters to appear on television. The 1960s setting immediately allows the show to stand out from the crowd, and permits the show to do things a little bit differently in comparison to your contemporary run-of-the-mill US drama series. The first season is set in 1961, using the Presidential Election Campaign between Kennedy and Nixon as an effective backdrop, whereas the finale of the second season played out during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The music score compliments the period tremendously, employing artists of the era to help add to the "feel" of the show. Complete with authentic costume and hairstyles, the viewer is easily able to immerse themselves in the beautifully crafted Mad Men universe. The glamour of the 1960's is gloriously realised, and although the production is remarkably polished and stylish, there is still an abundance of substance to be found.
Another appealing aspect of the show is the fact that you actually learn something too. We all have our perceptions of the 1960s, but Mad Men puts us straight. If you will, it teaches us what we thought we knew. The focus on gender roles - on the whole, women are exploited and the men are womanising is also expertly explored. The frustration, the forced silence of many of the female protagonists, the expectations of married life, the notion that a woman should know her place all come under question. Homosexuality is also touched upon in Season Two. A closeted married businessman who clearly lusts after one of his colleagues, but can't voice his feelings because being gay was illegal in the 1960s. These scenes - predominantly in "The Golden Violin" (the seventh episode) are very emotional and affecting. Religion and the role of a Priest is also highlighted in Season Two, as is abortion, the comedy of the era, the place of children, love, and obviously, the pressures of a business environment in the world of advertising.
Mad Men without its central lead character - the enigmatic, suave and sophisticated Don Draper (Jon Hamm) would be like fish without chips. Draper is at the centre of the action. He is arguably one of the coolest, most engrossing TV characters of all-time, right up there with Tony Sopranos in the complex department. He is, in many ways, a total bastard. He constantly and remorseless cheats on his wife, and - without giving anything away - isn't necessarily everything he claims to be. Still, he has a way with people. He is charming and, quite clearly, as irresistible to people in the show as he is to the viewer. It is to the credit of Hamm and the writers that what is, essentially, a hateful character, is brought to life with such vivid conviction that he is engrossing and, dare I say it, very likeable and attractive. There's something about him. His manner, his demeanour, his confidence. But, beneath all the talk, Draper is clearly a desperately lonely, lost man. He uses women and drink to mask it, and the last three episodes of Season Two take the character to all-new territory.
With a stronger, more cohesive storyline, Season Two was an improvement on the first season, in my view. Maybe it's because I was more invested in the character's lives and the world of the show, but I think the writing stepped up a gear. Nothing short of spellbinding, quite frankly. "A Night to Remember" was just about perfection, and the Season Two finale will take some beating. The journeys of the characters were all superbly executed. Don Draper, our flawed hero, went on a voyage of discovery - combining flashbacks, a few revelations, some home truths and some rather surreal Twin Peaks-esque elements along the way. His wife, Betty, grew up and realised that she was living a lie. Fragile, cold and miserable, watching her character develop was most rewarding from a viewer's perspective, as was the growth of Peggy, who transformed into a vibrant, strong, confident woman throughout the course of the season, in a fashion which was both totally believable and also very moving. Poor Pete Campbell was put through the mill - learning the truth about a major event that occurred at the end of the first season, standing up to his stepfather, losing his estranged Father in a plane crash and finally accepting that his marriage was a sham. And then, Duck - who ultimately got what he deserved.
From the stylish opening credits, to the ceaseless chain-smoking and drinking, to the dissection of society, Mad Men is a feast of a television series. It's a rich tapestry, made all the more so by the fact that the drama is consistently underplayed and underwritten. With the majority of your TV drama fare, writers and actors have a habit to go over-the-top, favouring witty unrealistic dialogue in favour of genuine emotion. The emotion in Mad Men is always palpable. Even when there is no dialogue, the acting is so good that you can recognise what a character is feeling. The writing is some of the best I've seen - quietly gripping, if you will. The show is definitely what I'd consider to be a "slow burner" - it takes a while to adjust to the setting and characters in play. Rather like "The Wire", but ultimately, much more viewer friendly. The characterisation is sheer perfection, and the attention-to-detail and concentration on the tiniest of things is what sets this show apart from the rest. Armed with Emmys, Golden Globes, a BAFTA, a Writer's Guild of America Award and a prestigious Peabody, the show has wowed its critics, and rightly so. There hasn't been a television season as outstanding as Season Two of Mad Men since the third season of The Sopranos back in 2001. I eagerly await the next installment, due to air in America in August.