Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Maddest Man

TV is going through a revolution. Over the past 10-15 years, we've had some shows that have redefined the medium and really embraced the potential of the long form nature of a TV show. The Sopranos is probably the most famous breakthrough and the one that everyone has heard of. Rightly so, as it was a compelling, brilliant piece of drama. It's importance in shaping the high quality TV we see today is key, particularly in regard to HBO's output. It makes sense that one of the head writers (Matthew Weiner) of Sopranos would be driving force behind Mad Men - it feels like a natural evolution of that show in terms of pace and character.

An evolution, but a bigger risk too. The Sopranos had the appealing hook of the mafia lifestyle to draw in potential viewers and was able to carve an audience from those who tuned in for the tits and violence and those who watched for the characters and storyline. Mad Men is aimed squarely at the later, those concerned with character and story. Sadly regarded as the smaller, niche audience.

Anyway, Mad Men is about an advertising agency called, Sterling Cooper, set in the 60's, and deals with relationships of the people working for and connected to the agency. It delves into the issues and attitudes of the time, without focusing on them, using the whole setting as a springboard to tell a story about,well, people: Their fears, hopes, desires, relationships, problems and how they make their way through life.

The key to all of this is the characters. Don Draper is usually regarded as the lead, the marketing wizard who is the secret to much of Sterling Coopers success. Peggy Olsen, however, is just as important and it's her rise from secretary to copywriter that has really provided the whole show with much of its impetuous. If you could say this show had any sort of traditional impetuous. Which is probably both the best thing and worst thing about the show.

Because Mad Men is slow; very slow. It's not going to rush to get it's point across or to force a dramatic ending just because this weeks episode has finished. It's not going to hammer you over the head with large unsubtle hints as to peoples motivations or emotions. Which is what makes it so good. Mad Men wants you to get to know these characters. It wants you to understand their motivations and emotions for yourself. It wants you to pay attention! It's interested in what drives real people and how they deal with what life throws at them. Something you just can't say about the augmented reality that most entertainment provides.

Which is fine, of course. People don't want to have to deal with real life, for the most part. You get enough of that at work. Many, many shows cater for this way of thinking and will continue to do so. But they'll always be lacking. They'll never be able to tell a story with a sentence or make you laugh with look. They'll never be able to make you cry with a flawless moment of silence. Of course, it's difficult to adjust to something this subtle considering what we've all grown up with. We're used to our story telling in broad strokes, with easy to understand motives and clearly defined roles. Mad Men is told in fine, subtle brush strokes and is defined not by an ongoing narrative drive, but by the characters who inhabit it. Most of all, it requires an emotional investment, but it's one that you'll never regret paying.


  1. Have you seen the clips of January Jones on SNL? She should have a restraining order against her and Live TV:-(