The Carousel: Introduction, Season 1 Discussion and Poll
Girls, fellas: welcome to The Carousel (Revisiting Mad Men)! This will be a celebration of Mad Men’s seven seasons during the seven months leading up to the ten-year anniversary of its premiere on July 19.
That means monthly general discussions of a season and Favorite Episode polls (and then specific reviews of the poll-winning episodes later in the month).
But we also hope this series moves slowly enough that any interested newbie could take the chance to watch the show and discuss along with us! We can discuss events according to how later seasons reflect on them – revisiting in hindsight, looking for foreshadowing – but please put that behind spoiler tags. To be clear, this first discussion assumes you’ve seen Season 1 but no further than that, for newbies.
So, how we think this will work:
1) The first week of each month, a general discussion thread for the season will be posted by Miss Rim or Spiny Creature. We’ll share our thoughts, I’ll post my thoughts on the costumes in the comments, we’ll post brief summaries of each episode in the comments and ask You the People to vote for as many favorite episodes as you like. Just please don’t all vote for 11 out of 13 episodes, or something.
2) Later in the month, Miss Rim and I will make at least one review / discussion for maybe the Top 4 voted episodes. Or the Top 3, or 2, or 1. We have yet to decide how lazy we are!
3) If your favorite episode of the season (or one you just want to discuss) isn’t voted for, go ahead and ramble about it anyway. Give your own review in the comments!
So… About Mad Men
Mad Men is one of the most critically acclaimed modern TV dramas, but it’s an acquired taste for many, and it takes a bit for viewers to fall into its rhythms and see its intentions, and it easily topped the Avocado poll of Beloved TV Shows You Can’t Get Into a few months ago.
So what is Mad Men and why are we so obsessed? It’s a show about several people that work at a midsize Manhattan ad agency in the 1960s, and about their families. But beyond that, it’s unique among the big-name prestige dramas in being about character more than plot, and small self-contained stories more than hyper-serialization. The best episodes of Mad Men, in my opinion, are the most like a self-contained short story from the period.
This short story anthology structure works because Mad Men isn’t that interested in telling a huge, sweeping saga – though, as it documents 11 years in the lives of its unpredictable protagonists, the scope does look large when considering the whole show at once. It would rather chart the petty miseries and triumphs of people who have bought into the mid-century American Dream, believe they should be happy, and are flabbergasted that they aren’t.
Advertising is the business chosen for a reason, aside from its sleaziness and hedonism during the 60s. These are people that sell capitalist, nuclear-family, “2.5 kids and a house” visions of happiness and normality for a living, but can’t get the values they sell to work in their own lives. And yet, they passionately believe in the version of the world they’re selling.
Mad Men is a show that uses the word happy astoundingly often, once you know to listen for it. Characters are constantly pitching a definition of happiness to a client, or discussing their own happiness, or obsessing over their lack of it.
Protagonists have different definitions of success – Peggy comes from a working-class family and starts with a working-class salary; Roger was born rich and inherited the agency from his father – but what they have in common is an obsession with goals that should eventually bring them happiness and never do. These are people who fundamentally don’t understand what they want, which is the central tragic flaw on Mad Men.
And of course, it has better female characters than any drama on TV. That helps.
OK OK JUST TALK ABOUT SEASON 1 ENOUGH WITH THE THESIS
FINE! Season 1 of Mad Men starts in March 1960 and ends in November 1960. Historically, that year is mostly known for the transition from Eisenhower prosperity to Kennedy prosperity. What happens to our characters, plot-wise:
1) Peggy, a lowly secretary, becomes a copywriter
2) Roger has two heart attacks that almost kill him
3) Pete finds out that Don took a dead guy’s name and identity during the Korean War and tries, unsuccessfully, to blackmail him for a promotion
4) Peggy has a baby out of wedlock
And, uh… that’s really it, plot-wise. Many other things happen, of course, but when you look for story developments that unfold over multiple episodes and have tangible consequences beyond how they affect the characters’ feelings, it becomes clear it’s not really a show about plot twists.
The agency has yet to become a character with dramatic stakes in its own right, so the business ends the season in the same situation and status as when it started. This is the only season where the business doesn’t majorly evolve and change, just like the characters.
This season was extremely well-received – in fact, Mad Men fell out of the mass zeitgeist in later seasons and was replaced by Breaking Bad hype, so I think it got the most awards love and journalism in the first couple seasons. In hindsight, it’s a beautiful season with a few flaws that needed to be ironed out later:
1) Too many “LOOK, THIS IS THE PAST!” moments. While the historical detail of Mad Menwas always there, it’s only in Season 1 you see the writing making a point out of things like the dry-cleaning bag over the head, or that it’s OK to slap somebody else’s kid, or making a groanworthy joke about how “there’s no magic machine that makes identical copies”. In other seasons, characters’ differences from us are casually there, but not highlighted. Which I’m glad about.
2) Presenting attitudes the characters have that modern people find repulsive, without really trying to show it from their internal perspective, and before viewers have many other reasons to root for them.
The only negative review of Mad Men Season 1 I’ve ever seen came from a critic who felt its purpose was to show how terrible things were in the ‘60s and how much better we are now, and that the show was smug and superior. I MASSIVELY disagree that the writers believe racism and misogyny and child abuse are all better now, or that they want people to feel better than the characters, but I get how someone could conclude that.
3) Taking too long to make it clear that Mad Men is a feminist drama (with a mostly-female writers’ room!).
The show immerses you in the casual, constant workplace misogyny for the first five episodes of the show, not really pulling out of it to comment on it – just throwing you into it, much like Peggy the New Hire is being thrown into it. Then it pays off in Episode 6, “Babylon”, the first explicitly feminist episode of the show. But I think a lot of people don’t see payoff coming, get exhausted by the men in what was, at the time, considered the sleaziest industry in NYC, and check out early.
That said, Mad Men nailed so many things from the word go: the unique Edward Albee-esque dialogue style, the accuracy and depth of meaning in the costume design, the thematic structure of episodes (“Red in the Face” is about male aging and emasculation in every subplot, “The Hobo Code” is about dishonest lifestyles in every subplot, etc.).
The short-story structure is also there. Episodes 1 and 2 are pretty wide-ranging as they introduce you to the show, but Episode 3 is an hour split into two halves – one where a man falls for a potential exciting new mistress at work, and one where he sits at his child’s birthday party, bored out of his mind. That would work great as a self-contained story. Ditto Episode 4, which is almost entirely about the life of Pete, a supporting character, and completely ditches Don Draper as the protagonist.
From there, the show catches its stride fast, with a run of all-time classic episodes at the midpoint (Episodes 6-9, “Babylon”, “Red in the Face”, “The Hobo Code”, and “Shoot”), and a brief lull before a strong finale that sets up Don and Peggy’s arcs for the rest of the series.
So that’s it! We request thoughts! Costume pictures! Future season discussion behind spoiler tags! Go wild, we only half know how this will work anyway!