The origin of my premature judgment is understandable, I think: I tried to watch a few episodes when it debuted, and then tried again several times thereafter, based on the uniformly good reviews I’d heard from lots of people that I respect. But, I was living in the wake of “The Wire,” which to my mind remains unmatched as the best television show ever, and I was feeling dispirited by what dramatic shows had left to offer. I’d heard amazing things about “Battlestar Galactica” and “Lost,” but neither of them were ever able to escape the awkward confines of the hour-long format the way David Simon’s Baltimorean epic did. Where television comedy is an art form unto itself, it’s always been true that most dramatic shows play like cut-rate facsimiles of movies, and that never felt truer than in these few years since “The Wire.”
Cut-rate was exactly how “Mad Men” struck me during its the first few episodes, which seemed to sorely lack for subtlety. Those scripts signaled too loudly, conspicuously and self-consciously that the show’s early 1960s milieu is wackily similar yet outrageously different from how we live today, can you believe it? At least at first, the show seemed preoccupied with consoling us in the knowledge that we’ve come a long way, baby, from the chain smoking, liquor lunching, rampant sexism of a half-century ago. Which is to say that what it had to offer was more of what we already knew, rather than revealing things we’d never known before (which, again, is one of many reasons that I think “The Wire” was such a triumph).
In many ways, I still think it’s true that the show trades in familiarity. I stuck with it and ultimately found it to be rewarding but I still feel there’s nothing inherently revealing about “Mad Men,” nothing that you’d be much the poorer for if you can’t be bothered to watch it yourself. Everything that makes it work is an idea you already know: people have difficulty reconciling their private and public lives; those internal conflicts lead people to treat one another poorly; and everyone used to dress much, much better before hippies ruined it for all of us.
What drives “Mad Men,” and what made me stick with it past those first few episodes, is not inspiration so much as incredibly polished storytelling mechanics. Series creator, executive producer and writer Matthew Weiner has one of the surest narrative hands I’ve ever seen; story arcs, plot details and character development are all so well paced, so exacting that it’s truly a marvel to behold.
The universe that Weiner has created achieves a kind of naturalism that has eluded virtually every television series that has preceded it. Nothing feels rushed, nothing feels opportunistic or adversely reactive to the constraints of the format or the commercial interests that make it possible. Every facet of the show is thoughtful, decisive and precise — though it’s not the kind of precision that feels hollow, either. Its craftsmanship sticks with you; its meticulousness is mesmerizing but it delivers an emotional wallop that’s substantive and truthful, without pretension or histrionics. And its drama is resonant, too. Yes, the show deals in what you already know, but it doesn’t take those things for granted. Rather it uses the familiarity of its ideas to make them unexpectedly meaningful. I often find myself turning over plot twists in my head long after I’d expected to forget them, and long after I feel like I should be thinking about characters on a TV show.
Actually, it’s ironic to call this ‘naturalism’ because its beautifully evolving story arcs aside, “Mad Men” can also be shockingly artificial. Its scripted dialogue is surprisingly wooden and often delivered woodenly, and much of the acting is underwhelming at best. None of the actors’ performances are particularly illuminating (aside perhaps from John Slattery’s unremittingly hilarious Roger Sterling, but then he usually serves only to remind us of the artifice of the whole affair) though I would also say that they’re all effective enough.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this artificiality, wondering how it’s caused me to like “Mad Men” so much, almost in spite of myself. As it turns out, what sometimes seems like a liability actually turns out to be an asset: “Mad Men” revels in its artificiality.
This is perhaps most prominently true in this cast, who are unreasonably, unrealistically, unconscionably good looking. From top to bottom, male and female, nearly ever member of the cast is off-the-charts attractive. Of course that’s not unusual for a television show, but to see a collection of beautiful people shaped by exceptional writing and storytelling is surprisingly rare. Watching gorgeous specimens of humanity wrestle with the mundanity of living is a perverse pleasure in which we can all share, especially when it’s done with such delicate precision. This was the secret behind many of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, and it’s no accident that much of “Mad Men” is highly reminiscent of — to say nothing of being contemporaneous with — the alienation that was rife in movies like “L’Eclisse” and “La Notte” (in fact, the show has established that the lead character, Don Draper, is a fan of these films).
What They’ve Done with the Place
It’s not just that these people are good looking, either. They’re surrounded by beautiful spaces, gorgeously recreated environments from the 1960s: offices, board rooms, nightclubs, hotels, middle class homes — and the furniture that fills them. Like many television shows with limited budgets, “Mad Men” is rarely able to let us see the buildings that occupy these spaces, but we do get a good look at what fills the buildings. More than a good look. The camera lingers over desks and chairs, pulls back so that long, reflective corridors and wide windows are in full view, frames faces against cabinets and wall hangings so that they’re as prominent a participant in any dialog as the actors themselves.
Furniture is truly central to this universe. It’s impossible to watch this show without watching the furniture, without noticing the diligent mix of the oaky decades that preceded the 1960s and the sleek Modernism that was then taking over. Heck, even the show’s logo is the silhouette of a man relaxing on a sofa, as seen from behind, a pose that reflects the way furniture lets us regard the world.
At first, I suspected that the show’s furniture accounted for as much of the show’s popular appeal as its actors did, but then I realized that its actors are a kind of furniture. They’re as beautiful as the objects that surround them. They too are shiny idealizations of a time gone by, expertly arranged so that we may luxuriate among them, contrasting the familiar but strange way of life that they evoke with our own, all for an episode at a time. “Mad Men” is the best show about furniture ever and I admit I think it’s great.