Time's 'Mad Men' cover story: What we learned

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The story of Mad Men is as much about the transformation of its characters as the changes that took place in 1960s America — not to mention the storytelling revolution of modern television. As the iconic AMC drama prepares to enter its seventh and final season, Time TV critic James Poniewozik examined the broad significance of Mad Men for the magazine’s latest cover story. Here’s his take on why we’re mad about the show.

The characters

It’s easy to envy a guy like Don Draper (Jon Hamm) — on the surface, at least. But the tailored suits and beautiful apartment and gorgeous women are just selling points in the broken ad man’s personal marketing campaign.

“I’m always surprised when people are like, ‘I want to be just like Don Draper,'” Hamm tells Poniewozik. “You want to be a miserable drunk? You want to be like the guy on the poster, maybe, but not the actual guy. The outside looks great, the inside is rotten. That’s advertising. Put some Vaseline on that food, make it shine and look good. Can’t eat it, but it looks good.”

After six seasons of secrets, philandering, and questionable parenting, Poniewozik asks Hamm if Don is fixable, or if we should even want him fixed. “I would hope that we see the guy find balance, that we see him find peace,” Hamm says.

A more appropriate role model, Poniewozik suggests, may be Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss). “It’s in Peggy’s story that Mad Men‘s feminism seems most like today’s, because she’s most like us,” he writes. “She’s leaning in not from ideology but instinct; she’s not a crusader so much as a working stiff who wants a good job and a fair shake and to get laid now and then.”

Whether you’re a Don or a Peggy, Poniewozik argues that you can’t really understand one without the other. “If [Don’s] descent is half the story of Mad Men, Peggy’s ascent is the other half,” he writes. “Her elevator is going up, his is going down, yet they’re more alike than anyone on the show, creatively driven, stubborn, secretive. They’re the Janus face of Mad Men, he looking toward his past, she toward our future.”

The time period

Mad Men‘s six seasons have spanned from 1960-1968 (the timeframe for season 7 is one of the “spoilerphobic” show’s secrets heading into the April 13 premiere). But series creator Matthew Weiner has paid painstaking attention to detail to ensure nothing about the show feels like a parody of the ’60s, or a glossy memory of what the era was like.

Poniewozik writes: “Weiner says the standard hack line that America lost its innocence in the ’60s is condescending — because we didn’t have it to lose. ‘The heart of the show is, Look at the people who are older than you and stop assuming that they’re a bunch of codgers who’ve never lived a life,’ he says. ‘They weren’t like Ozzie and Harriet. They were laughing at Ozzie and Harriet the same way we do.'”

Throughout the piece, Poniewozik reminds the reader that history repeats itself — both on the show, and in the way that Mad Men reflects our present day. And though the names and faces are different — and fashions have, sometimes amusingly, changed entirely — we’re trying to figure out the same things as Peggy and Don, and their parents, and everyone who came before.

Mad Men…resonates with themes as old as the frontier and as current as today’s gender politics,” Poniewozik writes. “Days after I visited the set, President Obama (reportedly a Peggy Olson fan) advocated equal pay for women in his State of the Union address by saying, ‘It is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode.'”

The TV revolution

If The Sopranos was the catalyst for changing the way stories are told on television, is it any surprise that one of its writers — Matthew Weiner — would create a show that helped usher in a full-on revolution?

Poniewozik calls Mad Men “the signature show of a period in which the same kind of people who used to say ‘I don’t even own a television’ were now arguing whether film and novels could even compete with TV drama.” The series debuted on AMC — a network then best known for airing old movies — in 2007, one month after the finale of The Sopranos. Its overwhelmingly positive reception paved the way for AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008) and The Walking Dead (2010), not to mention the incredible series on other cable networks getting into the original programming game. “In more ways than one, Poniewozik writes, “the end of Mad Men will be the end of an era.”

He gives these examples: “TV’s top dramas — and drama-tinged comedies like Girls and Louie — have a hold on the culture that only a handful of books or movies do anymore. House of Cards and Homeland transfix politicos, while HBO’s literary murder mystery True Detective absorbed viewers in the fiction of Lovecraft and the philosophy of Nietzsche. Last year, director Steven Soderbergh said he was quitting the movies, frustrated by Hollywood’s lack of interest in creative visions that don’t involve blowing stuff up. His next project, a 10-part series called The Knick, premieres on Cinemax this summer. This winter, the New York Times Book Review asked, ‘Are the New “Golden Age” TV Shows the New Novels?’ comparing Mad Men and company to the serial novels of Charles Dickens.”

That’s heavy praise for one show. Great Expectations, perhaps? Mad Men has never operated on anything less.

 


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