If you haven’t heard of Mad Men, then you’ve been living under a rock. The show exploded onto the cultural scene a few years ago, inspiring fashion collections, numerous copy-cat shows (The Hour, take note) and way too many articles about Christina Hendricks’ cleavage. After being off our screens in the UK for nearly a year- close to two years in America, with well-publicised disputes over its recommissioning, Mad Men’s return was one of the most hyped TV events so far this year.
And, so far, Season 5 has delivered. It’s undeniable that this is a show that definitely fancies itself- why have rapid plot progression and unrealistic, hyper storylines when you can revel in long, lingering shots of cigarette smoke? The nuanced and sophisticated writing works as the framework for the lavish tapestry of outstanding actors, developed characters and erudite plotlines. And trust me- the number of adjectives in that sentence matches a show that luxuriates in its own exposition.
This season has really given actor Vincent Kartheiser the chance to stand out as he brilliantly explores the subtleties of character Pete Campbell: the guy who has it all, but just wants more. Kartheiser’s refined and understated approach to playing the character means that Pete is creepy without ever tipping over into being a full-blown villain. He makes your skin crawl, and yet despite his ruthless ambition and past actions- including attempting to blackmail Don, Pete is just too pathetic a character to despise.
In fact, Mad Men’s real strength comes from the way in which it avoids slipping into the character stereotypes and predictable plot lines that even good programmes tend to rely on. Even Peggy, up until now the most likeable character who, even in her flaws, remained consistently sympathetic and relatable, has lost her crown with that painful moment between her, Dawn and the handbag. While Mad Men has had the occasional storyline that has strayed out of the realms of normal, everyday human experience- think the Don/ Dick Whitman storyline that just wouldn’t die, unlike other popular shows it doesn’t rely on big set piece plot lines for character development.
Writer Matthew Weiner doesn’t need implausible hostage situations or major character deaths in order to make the programme compelling; rather, it’s the small, subtle moments that matter. Mad Men certainly won’t leave you feeling warm and fuzzy inside, preferring to explore its characters’ flaws than serve up an hour of feel-good TV. Cynical, unhappy, discontented- the show can serve up plenty of angst when it needs to, but crucially, it’s never overstated. The writers can do caustic one-liners and physical set pieces just as well as the tense, intelligent dialogue, somehow enhancing the overall sense of bleakness as they find comedy even in apparent darkness- Grandma Pauline sharing her sleeping pills with Sally against the backdrop of the student nurse murders, Pete and Lane sparring off outside the meeting room.
And the best thing about the show? It’s been elevated to such a level by all the hype that Mad Men is one of the few TV programmes where watching it makes you seem all intelligent, sophisticated and culturally clued-up.