A note on Mad Men


Mad Men is the greatest show in the history of television, certainly the greatest hour-long drama.

When I was a young writer with a hit movie under my belt, TV people came around, as TV people will, to see if I had any ideas for TV shows. As it happened, I did. I had an idea for a show about a group of young people living in a loft together in the East Village in New York. These young people, I said, were post-graduate but still hadn’t quite figured out what to do with their lives. All kinds of opportunities and avenues of exploration were open to these young people, and they would have many wacky adventures in the crazy world of the East Village. It was, the reader might imagine, a show taken from real life.

No one was interested in that show, so I went back to writing screenplays. Then I got a new agent, and they wanted me to develop a TV show for them to push. I brought up the “Young People in the East Village” idea again, and my TV agent said to me “Todd, I want you to think about four areas: Doctors, Lawyers, Cops and Space.”

I laughed in his face. I thought he was joking. “Really?” I said. “Is that the only thing the networks are interested in? Isn’t that the perfect prescription for not getting a show done, to make it about the same things everyone else is making shows about?” It turned out that he was deadly serious — no one, he said, could sell a show, an hour-long drama anyway, unless it was about Doctors, Lawyers, Cops or Space. His point was that TV is interested in people who live at the pressure points of society, where life-and-death decisions are made every day. The stakes have to be that high, or else the viewer will change the channel.

So I stopped coming up with ideas for TV shows. I don’t know anything about doctors, lawyers, cops or space.

Now, let’s look at the recent crop of great television shows, the show everyone is always talking about, the ones deemed “important” and “great.” The Sopranos, The Shield, The Wire, House, CSI, True Blood, Law & Order, Battlestar Galactica, those will do for now. Look! They’re all about Doctors, Lawyers, Cops and Space (if we extend “Space” to include vampires). The Sopranos is, no mistake, a great show. The Wire is, no mistake, a great show. But they’re still crime dramas. The Sopranos is about a gangster and a doctor! The Wire has, for its lead, a hot-headed Irish cop who, what’s this, doesn’t play by the rules!

Now look at Mad Men. It’s a straight drama, a period drama, about a bunch of people that no one has thought about for about 50 years — the Madison Avenue advertising men who changed the way America looks at itself in the late 1950s and early 1960s. No doctors, no lawyers, no cops, and no space. Right there, it shouldn’t be on the air.

How does it handle its drama? With incredible restraint — incredible restraint. The show isn’t loud, it isn’t emphatic, it doesn’t build to enormous emotional peaks or explosive confrontations. With startling attention to detail, it builds its narrative over hours and hours of subtle interactions and thoughtful observation of behavior. It’s about the lives of a group of people, and it feels like life. It is shockingly, utterly free from caricature, broad strokes, predictable drama or simple solutions. Its episode narratives interweave in complex, intriguing ways. Its characters continue to reveal more and more interesting sides to themselves.

Its production design and photography are beautiful in their attention to mood and detail, the performances are so lived-in and deep that I can’t believe I’ve never heard of anyone on the show before (except Robert Morse, obviously). In spite of disobeying every single rule about what constitutes “good television,” the show is hugely compelling, breathtakingly sad and profoundly moving.

They say that the Great American Novel is dead, but I think that the age of the Great American TV show is just beginning.


52 Responses to “A note on Mad Men”
  1. I’m surprised you haven’t heard of Elisabeth Moss, but I suppose Zoey Bartlett was never a hugely prominent character on The West Wing . . . and only Joss Whedon fans would recognise Vincent Kartheiser from Angel.

    I think The Wire actually constitutes a rejection of all of the standard Cop Show good versus evil narratives, and I still think it’s the best show ever made, but Mad Men is amazing – and you are right that it’s incredible just for being such a different show than almost anything else on television.

    When’s the last time you saw a gun on Mad Men? Pete Campbell has one, a rifle, but it’s never fired. There’s never any sense that Mad Men will ever be the kind of show where someone pulls a pistol from their pocket to get something they want.

    I hope your last line is correct. I’d love to see more shows that break the mold like Mad Men does.

    • Anonymous says:

      Joss Whedon fans also might recognize Christina Hendricks from Firefly – she was only in 2 episodes, but she was a fan favorite.

    • robjmiller says:

      I actually recognize Kartheiser from a couple late 90’s movies: Masterminds and Crime and Punishment in Suburbia. Masterminds is basically Home Alone meets Toy Soldiers with laughable 90’s style hacking scenes.

      • Hm, I didn’t realise he’d been a genuine child actor before Angel, though it makes sense they wouldn’t hire a real unknown. A lot of the Buffy people had been child actors – Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan for sure.

  2. spookyturtle says:

    I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with this show as a woman of color. However, as the series has progressed, the show has grown from “look how awkward and funny racism/sexism” was to being more subversive in portraying early 1960’s WASP culture.

    I’m not sure if you’ve read this, but it’s a pretty great write up on the topic: http://www.racialicious.com/2009/08/14/on-mad-men-and-race/

  3. spiralstairs says:

    It took me much too long to start watching ‘Mad Men’, but I got through the first two seasons before the third started and now I’m going out of my mind for season four. There have been some folks who’ve said the series is too slow or that it’s boring, but I’ve found the tension in every episode to drive me to the edge of my seat. I can see why the cops, lawyers, doctors, and space stories are the go-to for high stakes, but you can find that in any subject. This really is an amazing show and I hope this is the first of more great shows to come. 🙂

  4. Anonymous says:

    You mentioned Battlestar Galactica during the Doctors, Lawyers, Cops, and Space bit – have you watched Galactica? If so, what’re your thoughts? I, personally, think that it’s the best show of all time, though Mad Men is a very close second, with Curb Your Enthusiasm nipping at its heels in third.

    • Todd says:

      I’ve been told by many people that Battlestar Galactica is great and I have no reason to doubt that it is, but I haven’t actually seen it yet.

      Curb Your Enthusiasm is also great, but it’s a half-hour comedy and not in the same league as Mad Men.

      • mimitabu says:

        bsg is interesting… for every big theme/character/plot thing they do write, there’s an occasional blaring writer’s sin. it’s weird… they can be very ingenious, but then there’s a 3min stretch of thankless dialogue giving us bland sentimentalism and garish exposition. on the whole, it’s excellent, but the weird spotty parts stand out all the more for it. honestly though, that just sort of makes me love it more.

        • mimitabu says:

          ‘right’ not ‘write’!!!!!!!!

          • mimitabu says:

            (posting in 3s)

            when you do get around to bsg, make sure you watch the 1st real episode, no matter how you feel about the miniseries. i like the miniseries, but the 1st ep steps up the pace considerably and really lets the viewer know what they’re in for.

      • greyaenigma says:

        I’ve seen the whole of BSG (well, the whole of the broadcast episodes), and I have a few reasons to doubt that it is great. There is a lot of greatness in it, however.

        It’s funny that your TV people mention Space, since shows of that theme never seem to get a chance. I suppose the later Star Trek series had a good run. Oh, it’s a catch-all? Even so…

      • Anonymous says:

        BSG can be wildly uneven, but even its clunkers have interesting moments. And when it’s on, it’s unstoppable.

        — N.A.

  5. igorxa says:

    I posit that the show only got a chance to be created because it’s on AMC, a channel not known for serial television. That and Breaking Bad seem to be the beginning of a new trend for the channel, with Hustle, Rubicon and The Walking Dead coming down the pipe. If more of these “outsider” channels start pushing the envelope more, I think we really see the age of the Great American TV show.

  6. taskboy3000 says:

    Sorry for being trite

    But my wife and I got into Mad Men this year. It’s an overwhelming powerful show. I do not say this lightly. I have very low tolerance for most TV these days. I limit myself to documentaries (military, history and science), a bit of old Adult Swim and, er, that’s it. No news. Definitely no TV punditry.

    I cannot believe how much tension every episode of Mad Men can carry. I have no seen season 3 yet. I’ll wait for DVD.

    Again, this show is almost a wonder of TV history.

  7. gdh says:

    Space? Really? BSG is the only successful space show I can think of that didn’t have “Star Trek” in the title.

  8. I need an idea for a successful TV show, let’s see …

    Space … vampires … Holy shit, “Space Vampires”!

    I’m off to write the treatment.

    • Todd says:

      Believe me, when my agent told me the Doctors/Lawyers/Cops/Space thing, the first thing I thought of is a show, in space, about cops who are also doctors and lawyers.

      And, the day he told me this, there was a show going up about a hospital in space.

  9. perich says:

    I agree wholeheartedly, and I’ve already said as much over on OTI.

    To add something useful: I don’t think we’ll see this formula transition to network TV anytime soon. If I had to guess, I’d say Life on Mars was network TV’s stab at it, and, well.

  10. shocka says:

    Utterly free of caricature? Are you fucking kidding me? Everyone in this show is a caricature, a stereotype, a period-myth. I hate Mad Men, and having suffered through the first two horrible series I remained stunned that it’s so highly rated – compared to the Sopranos even, which it desperately wants to be – and I’m comfortable in my position since not a single person can articulate for me why it’s supposed to be so good. It’s a transparent bit of insipid garbage – every single plot revolves around the fact that “Hey, we’re in the 60’s!” Oh look, they got a photocopier, HOLY SHIT, TECHNOLOGY!! Imagine if, in 50 years, they remake the Sopranos with an entire episode devoted around the shock of someone getting a fucking iPod. HOLY SHIT, TECHNOLOGY!! That’s the kind of crap that Mad Men peddles in – simple, obvious, moronic.

    It’s so poorly constructed and inept that entire plotlines appear and fade without notice. There’s a B-plot around the midpoint of S1 in which one of the male characters goes out with a friend who reveals that he’s gay for him. After that initial shock comes and goes, it’s never mentioned again (at least not for many episodes). Any intelligent viewer is left going “huh?” – there’s no cause and effect. Then the exact same fucking plot is played a couple of episodes later, with Joanie and her housemate, which is again forgotten about a couple of scenes later. How can you consider this good?

    Every single fucking plot revolves around how the time period is sexist, homophobic, sexist, in love with cigarettes, in love with drinking, sexist, afraid of the new technology, so on so on. It rubs your face in it without actually tackling any new ideas or challenging ideas of that time period – it’s horrible. To compare it to genuine masterpieces like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire – it’s miserable junk.

    • fetorpse says:

      Very clearly you miss the point, and have made yourself upset.
      I suppose some people like their subtlety as they like their sledgehammers.

      • shocka says:

        I had completely expected this. “You don’t get it!” Don’t get what, exactly? Articulate “the point” for me.

        And as for subtlety, the idea of Mad Men being subtle is ludicrous. Insane. You are BEATEN DOWN with the fact that the 60’s is sexist/homophobic/racist/sexist/sexist/racist over and over and over – the characters are overbearing in their stereotypical behaviour depicting a hyperrealistic 60’s that’s probably not even close to realism.

  11. curt_holman says:

    This is a little off-topic, but something that’s struck me about quite a few of the decade’s hit shows is that they can be pitched — at least, the early ones — as being about a protagonist with a special relationship with a drug.

    The Sopranos: It’s about a gangster… on Prozac!
    Big Love: It’s about a guy with three wives… and he’s on Viagra!
    Weeds: It’s about a suburban housewife… who sells marijuana!
    Breaking Bad: It’s about a chemistry teacher… who cooks meth!

    With that in mind:

    Mad Men: It’s about men and women… who smoke cigarettes!

    (Incidentally, I saw the first season of Breaking Bad, thought it was incredibly awesome and recommend it highly.)

  12. dougo says:

    The West Wing and Six Feet Under seem like obvious counterexamples. Okay, maybe politicians count as Lawyers, and The West Wing was certainly about “the pressure points of society”. But you really can’t say undertakers are doctors! (And Six Feet Under is hardly “an undertaker show” anyway.)

    Going further back, 30something was pretty popular. I couldn’t stand it at the time because it was all about Boomers, but I think it could be called “important”.

    For what it’s worth, my favorite current drama is “Sons of Anarchy”. It’s clearly in the “crime drama” category; it’s basically a West Coast Sopranos. But it’s really well done.

    • Todd says:

      Well, of course there are exceptions. My agent was simply trying to tell me what I had to do to sell a show. West Wing and Six Feet Under sold themselves, one was created by Aaron Sorkin, and the other was created by Alan Ball, who’d just won the Oscar for American Beauty. And after I win an Oscar, sure, maybe someone will do my twentysomethings-in-the-East-Village show.

  13. notthebuddha says:

    I don’t know anything about doctors, lawyers, cops or space.

    Sean Connery’s OUTLAND managed to hit 3 out of four.

    Before “The Closer”, I had a 4-in-4 idea: She’s a special prosecutor investigating a corporate moon colony, he’s a medic and coroner with lots of skeletons in the closet.

  14. Do you have an active interest in writing for television, or ongoing work in general? Ongoing serial fiction, like a television drama or a comic book series, is such a different beast than film.

    • Todd says:

      I have plenty of interest in that. Earlier in the year, I started working with Urbaniak on a webseries idea. We’re still working on it, trying to figure out the best way to bring it to the web. I’d also love to have my own franchise picture, and I’m also working on a series of YA novels. The thing most tempting about serial drama is the job security.

  15. marcochacon says:

    I’m almost finished with Season-2 of Mad Men and I have to agree with you. It’s a polished show especially in its pacing (it’s one of the most patient shows I’ve ever seen–something I also admired in The Wire).

    It also manages to give us characters that are compelling if often unlikable (in fact, the unlikeablity of Don Draper is such that it threatens to damage the show for me while still making me want to watch–that’s playing close to the edge).

    If you get around to BSG, please write up your thoughts: I’d be very interested to see what you think.


  16. jvowles says:

    I’m interested to see where you stand on Babylon 5 — for me, it’s one of the other seminal space shows, and despite several failings stands as one of the more successful TV experiments.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Mad Men, for me, is a lot like the character of Don Draper. A fascinating, undeniably handsome exterior, an air of brooding mystery and deliberation — and absolutely nothing at the core. No one knows who Don is or what he really wants. Even Don doesn’t know. Same with the show. It’s a (gorgeous) milieu, (superbly crafted) dialogue, and (well-acted) characters in search of anything to say, aside from “people are unhappy,” and “wow, things sure have changed a lot in fifty years, huh?” And there’s a smugness, a gracelessness to the way it rubs the characters’ unawareness of the future in our faces, that really tires me.

    Don’t get me wrong. The production design’s extraordinary, the premise is wonderfully novel, and I wish more TV shows had its earnest intelligence and attention to detail. I just wish there was some “there” there. For me, it’s less of a TV show, and more of the best ad for a TV show ever created.

    — N.A.

    • I wonder, was the line ‘…the best ad for a TV show ever created’ meant to intentionally refer back to the backbone of Mad Men?

      Your sense of there being no “there” there is what so many people – myself included – find so compelling (and disturbing). The characters spend all day trying to craft narratives for consumers yet are unaware of their own narrative. They just bounce around, really, making mistakes that have huge ramifications, with no real sense of their own purpose or mission, doing what they think is best at the time and hoping that everything sorts itself out at some point. There is no clarion call announcing that a horrible mistake has been made, or warning against a planned action, or preventing the characters from occasionally listening to their demons instead of their angels. At its core, beneath the pretty wrapping paper, it’s the same situation that every one of us is living every day. The dual juxtaposition between the viewer and the characters having perfect vision when it comes to everyone but themselves is what keeps me interested.

      Besides, watching the show for period details is like staring at the rivets on fighter jet. These characters would be compelling no matter where they worked or what time period it was set in.

      • Anonymous says:

        First off, you are totally entitled to your opinion, and I don’t in any way want to suggest that you or any other fans of Mad Men are anything but discerning connoisseurs of quality TV. (I know, I totally fail at starting fights on the Internet.) The show’s just my cup of tea.

        I was indeed trying to draw an analogy between the show itself and what the characters do. As admen (and women), they spin pretty lies to cover a banal core of mindless appetite.

        And while I can appreciate the honest human truths Mad Men manages to convey in the emptiness of its characters’ lives, I just personally prefer fiction in which stuff happens. If I want mundanity, I can just live my actual life. (: I made it through all of season 1 of Mad Men, and four episodes of season 2, before I realized that I personally wanted more from a show than to sit there staring at it, trying to puzzle out truths that simply weren’t there. I’m watching David Simon, Ed Burns, and Evan Wright’s miniseries of “Generation Kill” via Netflix now, and I get more delight, humanity, tension, truth, and dread from an hour of that show than I got from the whole of Mad Men’s first season.

        Also, the show completely destroyed my suspension of disbelief the moment it suggested that anyone, even a guy as preposterously good-looking as Jon Hamm (and please, Hollywood, cast him as Superman already), would cheat on January Jones. (:

        — N.A.

        • shocka says:

          No, I think you’re being too polite. People who watch and enjoy Mad Men are idiots. I don’t think Mad Men is trying to convey the emptiness of its characters’ lives – I think it has no idea what it’s trying to convey. Also Generation Kill is the best thing I’ve seen this year – above all other movies and TV and everything else.

        • I don’t mind difference of opinions until people start making value judgments based on personal preferences – and I don’t think you have here. Season 1 really did get by on the “whoa, wtf” nature of the show popping up on AMC, but the gee-whiz ad agency magic disappeared halfway through Season 2 and was basically nonexistent during Season 3, and I think the show is better for it. There’s still a dabble of Madison Avenue in the show, but it’s pretty much straight character drama at this point. Granted, not at the pace of a show like “Generation Kill,” but then again, war zones tend to heighten and compress. (For the record, I love that show too)

          As for the idea of someone cheating on January Jones, I was in total agreement with you until this last season, when her character’s personality overshadowed her physical beauty. But there it was again – that horrible reflection of what happens in real life.

        • Anonymous says:


          I agree. Much the same thing happened when reality completely destroyed my belief in it the moment it suggested that anyone, even a guy as preposterously good-looking as Hugh Grant, would cheat on Elizabeth Hurley. (:

  18. Anonymous says:

    late in the game

    I keep missing when your blog starts to post again – sorry to be late but:

    I think “Mad Men” works so well because of the way it offers itself up for so much projection. What is at the center of its offer is an origin myth, a tale of the creation of our modern new postwar American schizoid selves as a functioning cosmos. At the center of this cosmos is an implicit nirvana – when we reach ad infinitum re-invention. Which is paradoxically to be the stable core of American society, identity and values.

    The show situates inbetween a certain kind of perspective and pacing from European productions (pre-commercial BBC or 70s German TV when the film studios were involved with real auteurs) but driven by a knowledgeable American pop/broadcast media culture sensibility – it’s sharp and crisp instead of the more ponderous aspects of circa-70s. And perhaps the sets and objects have a heightened place in the series overall cosmos – it is ad men after all – and should resonate as meaningfully as that tasty morsel in Proust’s novel no one recalls anymore but still signifies as an idea of recollection… It is projection surfaces on projection surfaces, new xerox machine and pasteboards with transparency overlays, or for that matter, tv screens, California, space rockets, and inevitably proto-hippies opening sexuality … alot of projections, that are then anchored back by the dark, lost/found schizoid reality of an America that Dick/Don represents and brings with him and literally passes into the DNA of the new cosmos being produced through Madison Avenue.

    Isn’t the point of the xerox or such focus points in the show, that this is precisely the perspective of one long strange, schizoid ad pitch colliding with actual memory – it has to be, this being about American culture after the war – and it is perfectly represented by Don’s now infamous first season Kodak Carousel pitch, constructing a synthetic family nostalgia/technology projection as “safe spot”, that he creates on the spot by an epiphany, to draw from his fears of his own identity ripping open any second at the seams. It wouldn’t resonate in the same way if we didn’t have this kind of equilibrium set up in the television show, where indeed the Xerox machine was the latest in a series of holy grails and so on.

    Mad Men also has the overall heightened, synthetic feel of certain 80s cinema, but toned down to relieve us of the ironic winks and the cynical rejoinders of “its all just empty compared to the original”. (In that way it could be a cousin to the Venture Bros. and their relation to the original cartoons, but that’s another story) It passes a line through the 90s and 00s and sutures it back to the point where society is just easing out of the postwar “degree 0” starting point (again, see Dick’s backstory)

    The whole was already basically perfectly represented by the splitting cultural representative Don/Dick, where it’s never clear should we empathize with Dick, Don or just be fascinated with the surfaces reflecting a kind of repulsion at work in the American re-invention drive operating at full speed.

    Plus I loved the ending of the this season, where in order to jump start the new company and bring everyone on board, they had to be fired first to be reborn in the new Sterling Cooper vII. And to have this happen, Don had to go to all those involved and sum up everyone’s character to their face, how he sees them – he introduces them to the “re-invention” at work at the same time he reveals something important for us about how he sees them this past year. It’s a brilliant way to reshuffle the deck and start what is going to be mighty interesting.

    Arthur F