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Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Shut the Door. Have a Seat

It is so rare these days to find a drama that is not hackneyed and dumbed-down, or characters that are not cardboard cut-outs, a pastiche of stereotypes or ‘zanily quirky’ (c). At first glance I thought Mad Men was an unlikely prospect, and I dismissed it as a historical soap at the cost of a three year gap before discovering it. The loss was entirely mine, because Mad Men is a hidden gem. It does for Ad Execs what The West Wing did for public servants, etching fascinating characters that bleed, sweat and cry. They are so human, so individual, that they must be real, chock full or vices and virtues as they are. Drinking and womanising are tools of the trade, chauvinism and discrimination of every flavour are rife, men are men and a woman’s place is in the home or a seedy hotel room possibly. But MM is not a lecherous romp, it is very much what is advertised, a way of life in 60’s America.

It is also an enthralling saunter through a seismic period of history, a crossroads in so many ways. It is just starting to be revealed that smoking is harmful. MLK speaks and America listens whether it likes the message are not. Kennedy defeats Nixon, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Dallas Texas. The issues of the period are woven into the fabric of the Sterling Cooper agency and its staff. They are shaken by these world-changing events in a way that we can only imagine. But it is not the breadth of the canvas but the detail, the nuance the charming, hateful humanity of the characters and their workaday lives that give MM its true power. Roger Sterling is an arrogant bully who inherited his success, and yet he falls in love. Bert Cooper is a true eccentric and yet his judgement is incomparable. Pete Campbell is a grasping, jealous young executive but truly skilled at what he does. Peggy Olson is an anachronism, a talented, ambitious young woman who does not fit the new Barbie image, achieving success in a man’s world.

And then there is Donald Draper. How can anyone have sympathy for Don? The serial infidelity to model wife Betty, lies upon lies and the near-callous disregard for his staff, the charmed, seemingly effortless career – Don is fated to succeed, a genius in his field, the man with the golden tongue. And yet for me there is something fragile about him and a fascinating background, and there are secrets, oh boy are there secrets. You won't like Don Draper, but if you are a bloke you just might want to be him. Not since The West Wing has there been a drama from the US that has been so keenly observed and utterly immersing. In my view its creation was seminal in the field of TV drama. Mad Men is unashamedly TV for grown-ups.

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