Is Mad Men the greatest TV show ever?


Despite the solid competition, the 1960s period drama remains in the top television league and here's why.

by Gregory Wakeman in TV & Movies

Mad Men moody perfection
Mad Men moody perfection

Recent years have seen international audiences enjoying what I would describe as the halcyon days of television drama, as the medium has moved from broadcast to cable, satellite and more recently, into streaming.

Many of the outstanding shows of this latter era have been produced in the US, where cable stations such as HBO and AMC had already proved that it was possible to offer competitive subscription pricing for television content (a model since championed by streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+) whilst waiving content restrictions. Freed from such advertising and broadcast regulations, TV on-demand has subsequently flourished.

In the process, television dramas such as The Crown, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, The Morning Show, For All Mankind, The Sopranos, The Servant, The Wire, Lost, Breaking Bad and Six Feet Under have all played a part in progressing the creative television medium, with some critics even suggesting that television as a platform is now artistically more innovative than current cinematic output (which is itself, ironically, is shifting more and more into streaming for its first runs).

Amidst this plethora of high-quality programming, there has been one televisual creation that has continued to stand out from the multi-channel competition, and which was early on the creative wave that subscription has delivered for audiences.

Matthew Weiner's Mad Men (originally offered on US cable channel AMC between 2007 and 2015, and now available on Amazon Prime) has seduced millions of television viewers around the world with its combination of alluring 1960s settings, charming actors and kamikaze characters who womanise and drink their way through the drama, turning two of its characters, Jon Hamm's Don Draper and Christina Hendricks Joan Holloway, into pop culture icons in the process.

Quality, at a price

But it is Mad Men's high-end production values that elevated it above its contemporary and later rivals, and which laid the groundwork for other equally high-quality period dramas, such as Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs Maisel.

The vast roster of writers, directors and producers Mad Men employed during its production had each worked on some of the greatest television programmes seen in recent decades, but don't let this make you believe that Weiner's period piece is a hotchpotch of ideas stolen from other shows, because nothing could be further from the truth.

Mad Men remains unlike anything else seen on the small screen, even today, despite the recent high-value competitors now out there. As a drama, it progresses subtly and patiently through its narrative, enticing its viewers to become deeply immersed in the world of 1960s New York advertising that is at the heart of its script. 

Weiner achieved this creative impact partly because he did not work under the restraint of conventional television showrunners when Mad Men was created. It is the responsibility of showrunners to maintain audience viewing figures or risk network cancellation for the show under their control. Instead, Mad Men progresses with its own confident swagger because it is freed from this kind of corporate oversight, with Weiner trusting his audience to follow Mad Men as its drama unfolds season by season.

The show's large ensemble cast also thrives in this protected creative medium. No character feels under-appreciated in the Mad Men universe, and each show member, whether it be Roger Sterling, Peggy Olsen, Pete Campbell, Ken Cosgrove or Harry Crane, help the narrative to develop in an intimate and often unpredictable manner.

One of Mad Men's key techniques is to juxtapose its fictional setting against the real timeline of 1960s America; an era of dramatic change for the country as it changed and forged a new and alternative culture that would become increasingly influential politically and socially over the coming decades. In so doing, Mad Men educates its audiences, which are enlightened by the revelations that the show's characters make as their journeys coincide with the seismic events taking place around them.

It's a technique that more recent streaming hits, such as For All Mankind, have riffed on, repeating it in an alternative future context. Mad Men's narrative and storytelling techniques, however, are so compelling that as a viewer you feel smarter just for watching the show, with episodes such as Season One's concluding soiree, The Wheel, Season Three's action-packed Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency and Season Four's The Suitcase, remaining on a par with any comparable small-screen artistic creation.

To those who remain a member of the Mad Men congregation, you will no doubt be as fervent in your anticipation of the show as I am. But for those who did not come under the Mad Men spell on its first run, and who have yet to witness the exploits of the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency, I envy the journey you can today choose to embark upon.

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