When it came to selecting a TV show to binge during lockdown, I was faced with two equally appealing options: should I seek solace in a comforting favourite or take the plunge and finally watch a classic series I’d never quite got round to?
And while it was undoubtedly tempting to go for the former option (a Twin Peaks rewatch will have to wait for now), eventually I decided this was the perfect opportunity to at long last dig into one of the most critically lauded series of my lifetime, and one I had always been meaning to watch.
And so, a trip to 1960s Manhattan was in order – I was finally going to dive headfirst into Mad Men…
What’s Mad Men about?
If you’ve followed TV in the last 15 years, you’ll no doubt be at least vaguely familiar with the premise: Mad Men takes an, on the face of it, rather dull topic – an advertising agency in 1960s’ New York – and turns it into one of the most compelling series of the 21st century so far.
The series, created by former Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner, centres primarily on Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the mysterious creative director at the fictional Sterling Cooper ad agency. Over the run, the show delves deep into his troubled psyche and explores his work life, his home life and, crucially, his past life, as he and the other characters adjust to the quickly changing times amid the cultural revolution of the 1960s.
There are also a vast range of other lead and supporting characters which lend the show a real sense of depth, from the terrific Elisabeth Moss as young upstart Peggy Olsen to Vincent Kartheiser as the ambitious and largely detestable young account executive Pete Campbell.
How long is it?
In total the show ran for seven seasons, from 2007 to 2015, encompassing some 92 episodes – each roughly 45 minutes in length.
Where can I watch Mad Men?
You can watch all of the brilliant Mad Men on Sky as a box set right now!
The series is also available on NOW TV.
Why should I watch Mad Men?
If you’re anything like me, there’s bound to be a long list of shows that have been on your watchlist forever but which, for whatever reason, you’ve just never got round to. Perhaps you’ve simply been daunted by quite how many episodes there are, or too busy catching up with shows that are currently airing to find the time to go back and start something from scratch.
For me, Mad Men is one of many shows to fit this description. In truth, I’d made a couple of false starts in the past – watched the first few episodes, enjoyed what I’d seen, but ultimately been distracted by some shiny new toy and left the project unfinished before it had hardly begun, safe in the knowledge that I’d watch it when I just had a bit more time.
And so now – a time when evenings-in are hardly in short supply – seemed like the perfect time to finally take the plunge and tick it off the list. Thankfully, it has not been a let down: Mad Men has quickly found its place among my very favourite TV series. Of course, declaring the show as a masterpiece is hardly a new or original stance to take – but this is one of those shows that very much lives up to the hype.
For a start, the setting, that of 1960s Manhattan, is one that is uniquely fascinating. Often you’ll find yourself marvelling at the wonderful ‘60s aesthetic, wishing you could be transported back to that time, only to find yourself disgusted by some of the atrocious social attitudes on display and be thankful we’re living in a more progressive age.
There’s a real joy in watching the characters adjust to the changing times (some of them, it must be said, adapting with greater ease than others) while all sorts of cultural milestones appear throughout, including the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam war, woven expertly into the drama without ever appearing shoehorned in. It also makes great use of the pop culture of the period – movies and TV shows regularly appear in the background, often with subtle significance, while every episode ends with an expertly curated song, normally in some way linked to that episode’s plot or themes.
The storyline itself can’t really be summarised in a pithy one or two line description – there are numerous character arcs, with side characters coming and going throughout the seven seasons. But what the show is really about is, essentially, the struggle to find happiness and fulfilment in a society where it’s easier to lie about your identity, and where it’s simpler to do what’s expected of you than to pursue what you truly want. Each of the show’s major characters repeatedly attempts to come to terms with themselves and their respective situations, trying to battle their demons and self-destructive tendencies – often with little success.
There are occasional sojourns into melodrama (a grisly incident involving a lawnmower instantly springs to mind), moments of great catharsis (an office fist-fight between two partners is particularly rewarding) and some truly tragic incidents that will leave even the most hard-hearted viewer struggling to hold back the tears (none more so than the demise of one character in season five). But what’s truly remarkable is it’s a show with hardly a bad episode or misstep, somehow managing to continue to improve on itself even when it seems to have peaked.
It’s also a show with an unbelievable range of characters, nearly all of whom are remarkably well-drawn and three dimensional, with likeable qualities that engender great empathy but also no shortage of, sometimes unforgivable, flaws. Everyone will have a favourite – whether that might be the trailblazing Peggy Olson, the somewhat eccentric Michael Ginsberg or the hilarious though undeniably selfish Roger Sterling – and everyone will have a least favourite, almost certainly Pete Campbell, a truly despicable piece of work whom it is endlessly fun to hate.
The performances across the board are also wonderful – from the remarkable Kiernan Shipka as Don’s daughter Sally (she was just eight at the show’s genesis) to Hamm in the lead role, who brings an effortless depth to Draper, a truly enigmatic figure whose often cool exterior masks all sorts of inner turmoil.
On the face of it, the show might not seem suited to binge-watching – it’s a relatively slow burn, seldom making use of cliff-hangers or other such devices and with complex plot threads playing out over several episodes. But the world is so fully realised and the writing so subtly brilliant that once you press play it’s near impossible to tear your eyes away from. Apart from anything else, it will make you, for a short while at least, forget all about lockdowns and viruses – and at this moment in time isn’t that exactly what we need from telly? So if, like me, you’d been putting off this show for years – now is the perfect time to put that right.
Now, it’s probably about time I finally got round to The Sopranos…
Mad Men is available to watch in full on Netflix. If you’re looking for more to watch check out our TV guide.