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Why I Love Mad Men
On paper I probably shouldn’t adore this US import as obsessively as I do.
It’s not that I can only empathies with characters familiar to me, but I do normally need to relate on some level. The fact that I became so taken with these chauvinistic and frequently racially offensive middle-aged men was a little surprising.
I remember the first trail I saw for the show on BBC Four. It was set to the Amy Winehouse song ‘You know I’m no good’ and was a montage of some of the characters. The dresses were colourful, the suits were sharp and the focus was a devilishly handsome fellow. I would soon find out his name; Don Draper.
I did a little digging and read that it had been well received by American critics for a show on a small cable channel with no famous faces. I made a date to watch and was hooked after those first 50 minutes.
The Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker wrote ‘you don’t really watch Mad Men: you lie back and let it seep into you. It works by osmosis.’ That essentially sums up how you should approach the show.
The pace is slow and the plot is left to gently unfold. The writing, performances, design, and direction - everything is an example of people working to the top of their game.
Astonishing detail has gone into what you see and hear on screen and you have to savour every minute.
We first meet Don in 1960, in a bar, and he’s smoking a cigarette. He’s alone, thinking and scribbling notes on a napkin. An elderly black bus boy comes over to clear the table, and Don asks for a light. Then he strikes up a conversation about cigarette brands. The bus boy is clearly taken aback, as if he’s been asked a trick question. Within seconds it becomes clear why; his white supervisor suddenly appears and asks Don if Sam is ‘bothering him’ as he can be ‘a little chatty’. Don explains they are just having a conversion and the supervisor backs away. Once gone, Sam opens up a little and he and Don even share a laugh over how much ladies love ‘Readers Digest’. Don jots down a few things Sam has said and appears to be satisfied with this short exchange.
The whole scene lasts less than three minutes and tells us of what is to come. Don is alone and drinking. His focus is work, he side steps social norms to talk to Sam for some jolt of creative inspiration. The smear of lipstick (or is that a kiss?) is an omen of how big a role the female sex will play in what we shall see of his life.
Those three minutes also perfectly exemplify one huge hurdle I had to overcome early in my relationship with Mad Men. The issue of race.
Yes I know the show is reflective of a specific time and place but boy did it hurt seeing the look on Sam’s face as he was dismissed as ‘chatty’. His body language screamed subservience and his initial look of suspicion and confusion when Don first spoke to him made me freeze.
I’m a black woman of the 21st century, I know how things were less than 50 years ago, and I didn’t want to watch it on screen. But I made it through and I’m glad I did.
In my opinion Mad Men is among the best television dramas ever. 2011 was a poorer year without it, but roll on March 25th which is when the new season is due to premiere on AMC in the US. Sky Atlantic has vowed to screen episodes as soon as possible after their US debut so April should be a good month indeed.