The fourth season of Mad Men premieres tonight, and I can’t wait.
For the uninitiated, the show is basically a window on upper-middle class American culture in the early 1960s. It centers on Madison Avenue and the ad men who work there, especially the ever-mysterious Don Draper. The season one trailer should give you some idea of the series’ tone.
I was a late-comer to Mad Men, only hearing about it after the third season, but I found myself quickly addicted. I burned through those first three seasons in just a couple of weeks.
My main source of fascination is the show’s treatment of the time period. As the trailer should make clear, pretty much every episode is dealing with gender roles in some way. The men still clearly have the upper hand, but women are always looking for ways to even the playing field. The struggle for equality is constant.
A casual viewer might say the show glorifies the sexism of the era. And, to be fair, it does seem to revel in the excesses of the male characters – the constant drinking, the womanizing, and so on. But the writers are always careful to show consequences. If your life is built on over-indulgence and lies, you can’t expect smooth sailing all the time.
If the show has a weakness, it’s that finding a moral anchor isn’t exactly easy. It’s hard to care about the fates of the characters when so many of them are basically self-absorbed jerks who deserve what they get.
Thankfully though, the show does have a handful of sympathetic figures. And many of the unsavoury types are so well acted it’s hard not to like them even in the midst of their deceptions. I’m thinking specifically of Jon Hamm as the aforementioned Don Draper.
Draper is a manipulative man who lies to everyone, including himself. And yet, he’s extremely intelligent, and is capable of kindness and consideration toward others. It’s rare to have a lead character in a series be one who has so many contradictory traits, but the writing in Mad Men really pulls it off.
I’ve focused on Hamm, but in reality the entire cast is excellent. The show is well-written and gorgeously photographed. Everything from the costumes to the set design looks perfect.
There’s not much else for me to add here, but I’ll close with a quote from The National Review’s Daniel Foster: “It seems to me that the brilliance of Draper, and of Mad Men as a whole, is its ability to make people born in 1974 or 1983 or 1990 nostalgic for a world they never knew.”