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Why Mad Men needs no hard sell

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Will Dean Will Dean | 10:23 UK time, Friday, 3 September 2010

When Mad Men first appeared on BBC Four in 2008 it wasn't the casual racism and misogyny that shocked most viewers. It was the smoke.

Mad Men introduced us to a world of 1960s ad men who smoked like industrial revolution-era chimneys and drank up spirits like whisky-powered Henry hoovers. And, very quickly, many of us were hooked. Not by the smoking and the drinking. But by the most stylish and extraordinary drama of the 21st century.

Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm, smokes in front of on-screen wife Betty Draper, played by January Jones

I was lucky enough to be asked at the start of the second series to write an episode-by-episode blog for Guardian readers. It took a few episodes to really kick off, but by the end of that series - as Don Draper briefly ran away to California - we had hundreds of commenters trying to work out what everything meant.

The discussions that followed were fascinating. And as the group grew so did the level of debate - whether it was from people arguing over the accuracy of the pantyhose worn by the women or the intricate details of Don's double life.

And that's the key thing about Mad Men. While similarly acclaimed shows like The Wire are often beguiling - but for the most part, unambiguous - 90% of the value of this show is working out what everything means.

From a camera shot lingering slightly too long on a locked drawer to Betty Draper's impassive face at an awards' dinners, viewers who've immersed themselves in the show are treated to being able to tell what something means just by a quick glimpse at a character's eyes.

The BBC has taken the excellent decision to start showing Mad Men a couple of weeks after its US transmission (it previously ran from January). This means Mad Men's UK Maddicts have only had to wait a couple of months for the action to pick up from the end of series three, where Don Draper engineered a split in the original company just as his wife was engineering one away from him.

We meet Don just before Thanksgiving 1964 - it's the year of the Beatles' US invasion and the new office's furniture reflects a change away from the staid 1950s chic of the first three seasons. But despite the cheerful tumult of the office split we soon discover that there's as much darkness in the heart of Don as ever.

So why do we love a show with an often unlikeable central character?

The most simple reason is that it's great drama with no characters there simply to fill screentime. As much as we might dislike young account man Pete Campbell, we can understand why he does what he does.

Every thing and every shot is there for a reason.

Peggy Olson, played by Elizabeth Moss, Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm, and Joan Harris, played by Christina Hendricks, in Mad Men

But it's more than that just being great TV, Mad Men has captured the zeitgeist in a way that The Sopranos never managed.

The style of the show is so iconic that in this month's Vogue a model has been styled to look like January Jones' Betty Draper, while Jones and Christina Hendricks (Joan) sit on the covers of current UK editions of Tatler and GQ respectively. It cleverly runs through the many revolutions of the 1960s (civil rights, women's lib and the sexual revolution) without ever being obvious.

It also reeks of cultural class. The characters' film, music and reading habits send viewers running to investigate them, thus sending obscure books like Frank O'Hara's Meditations In An Emergency up the Amazon bestsellers chart.

It's even often very funny. In this first episode of series four Roger Sterling says of a war veteran Ad Age reporter: "A wooden leg? They can't even afford a full reporter."

For me and so many other people who can't stop watching - and if you start, you won't stop - it's possibly the most complete TV show of all time. So pull up an Old Fashioned, put on your smartest Brooks Brothers suit and enjoy series four.

Will Dean writes an episode by episode Mad Men blog for the Guardian.

Will has also blogged about the food and drink of Mad Men on the BBC Food blog.

Series four of Mad Men starts on Wednesday, 8 September at 10pm on BBC Four and BBC HD. To find out when Mad Men is next on please visit the upcoming episodes page.


  • Comment number 1.

    I was over the moon to read that the new series of Mad Men will air on September 8. I am a confirmed maddict. The acting is brilliant and the script is tight with not a word nor a wink wasted. It's a true classic. I cannot wait for September 8th.

  • Comment number 2.

    Good blog. However,what do we mean we say a character is 'unlikeable?'
    Well, of course, there are moral elements to his character that might be distastful or morally repugnant. But isn't that a reflection of the last 40 or so years? Even Doctor Who now has to have a dark side to his personality. The main character of The Sopranos,The Wire and the unfeeling Dexter all have affairs outside marriage. And how could you watch Dexter if you disliked him?
    The truth, of course, is that they are not unlikeable, to the contrary they are liked - hugely. I think we become like Saints who hate the sin yet love the sinner. Don is cool,classy and, whilst he differs morally from the whiter than white Gary Cooper (from another age)he shares with him a stoic secretive quality that is still attractive.
    For me the scene that epitomises Don, is when he is beside the pool in sunny California, smoking and sweltering in his suit and pork pie, surrounded by all the beautiful young people and he still looks the coolest guy on screen.
    How can you not like Don?

  • Comment number 3.

    I concur, an excellent decision by the BBC to air the show soon after its UK showing; something I've been advocating on the BBC HD Blogs for a long time and for which I'm very grateful.

    I'm so very pleased too that this story proved to be unfounded: http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/media/article6827894.ece . Or was it a case of the BBC listening to its viewers and coming to its senses?

    Despite the title of your Blog I have to say that I'm very surprised how little advertising I've actually seen for the new series and, more particularly, the fact that neither your article nor other BBC trailers seem to make much of the vastly superior quality of its picture and sound available when viewed in HD.

  • Comment number 4.

    sorry, meant US showing, obviously.

  • Comment number 5.

    Much is written about this series along with other fantastic US cable drama, like the Wire and the Sopranos, but they are not ‘smash hits’ in the UK. I very rarely find family, work colleagues or friends of any age who watch any of this TV. The X Factor and Casualty have smash hit devoted followings although they are the ones missing out.

  • Comment number 6.

    Found this great blog with some really fascinating insights into the appeal of Mad Men given by current advertising people: Mad Men Series 4 UK Launch Tonight: London Ad Men Discuss All Things Mad Men http://museofmarketing.wordpress.com/2010/09/08/mad-men-series-4-uk-launch-tonight-london-ad-men-discuss-all-things-mad-men/

  • Comment number 7.

    It would be a good idea if the BBC actually advertised the fact the new season of Mad Men was starting tonight. Were it not for message boards, I wouldn't have even known. Plus, why is such a great show buried on an obscure channel like BBC 4?

  • Comment number 8.

    Other than my wife, I don't know anyone in my life (family/friends/work colleagues) who watches Mad Men - and I don't care.

    It's our little secret and offers 45 minutes of pure class, style and escapism.

    It is so compelling that an episode can have very little in it which drives the story/stories forward - but it just doesn't matter; it's beauty is in it's execution.

    Mad Men has class stamped all over it.

    Without doubt one of the best dramas of the 21st century providing in Don Draper one of the truly great central characters in TV history.

    And Roger Sterling must run him a close second...if only for some of the funniest, sharpest one-liners ever brought to the small screen.

    A definite case of substance over style - but with those magnificently dressed characters and sumptuous sets...only just.

  • Comment number 9.

    I don't know anyone else that watches it, but that's their loss. I don't care that it's on the "obscure" BBC4. It's one of the reasons why BBC4 is such an outstanding channel.

    Mad Men might just be the best TV drama - ever.

  • Comment number 10.

    So pleased to see Mad Men is back loved it on weds it is so clever, stylish and beautiful to watch. The interaction of the main characters is brilliant Don and Peggy's scenes are always amazing. I really worry for Don's kids this season as we all can see that betty isnt the best of mothers. The young actress that plays sally is brilliant.

    Best show on tv and this show is suited to the bbc with its stylish follow ups and documentaries to coincide with the 60's theme. Also love the shows music and the subtle hints to the historical dates in US history.

    One last point Don is such a brilliant and dark character who is just fascinating to watch and we all want to find out more.

    Thank you mad men and BBC you got a real winner here.

  • Comment number 11.

    Hello, I'm the Head of Communications for BBC Four.

    I was interested to see your comments on the return of Mad Men and thought I would try and answer some of your questions (where I can!). paul_geaton and Mr George Banjo asked why there was not much advertising and also why we didn't make more of the fact that it was on the HD channel. I've spoken to my marketing colleagues who said that, as it was series four, very well established and always gets a big press profile (Radio Times front cover...), they focused the trails on BBC Four and around drama on BBC One to reach both loyal and drama fans ie, all the potential viewers. With regards to HD, there were pointers to the HD channel, but only on the day of transmission. It's always good to have feedback on marketing and publicity, so thanks for those comments.

    I can't leave without challenging Mr George Banjoy's comment that we are burying the programme on BBC Four, as it's not a small channel - it reaches over 8m viewers a week! Thanks to shrewdchemic for your kind words about BBC Four ('It's one of the reasons why BBC4 is such an outstanding channel') and finally to Will Dean for his brilliant blogs, both here and on the Guardian website.

  • Comment number 12.

    Having only just watched season one of mad men, I'm disappointed to see season 4 starting and no idea of when seasons 2& 3 will be showed.

    Can anyone from the BBC tell me if/when these seasons will be repeated?

  • Comment number 13.

    FAO legoman12,

    Fortunately all of the first three seasons are available on DVD ! I can pretty much guarantee that you will end up watching multiple episodes in quick succession !

  • Comment number 14.

    I agree with all the praise for Mad Men, one of the best programmes ever - thanks to the BBC for continuing to show it. However, the end of the programme is spoiled by an announcer speaking over the music (I watch on BBCHD, I don't know if the same happens on BBC4). The carefully chosen end credits music is one of the distinctive features of Mad Men, and it shouldn't be ruined by a voice telling us 'the next episode can be seen next week', or 'coming up next is...'. Programme controllers seem to be paranoid that people will turn over or switch off unless there is some kind of audio or visual interruption of end credits, but I doubt if these do anything other than annoy.

  • Comment number 15.

    Wow, I never realised a blog post could have such an immediate effect! Thank you for ditching the voiceover at the end of the latest episode of Mad Men (on BBCHD), I was jumping for joy - please don't let it creep back in.

  • Comment number 16.

    #15, sipasblog: another (HD) voiceover-free end credit sequence (and a tremendous episode). Excellent.

    For peoples' info, this came up as an issue during season 3 on the abruptly closed HD blog, and to give credit where it's due it was quickly acted on then as well. There must have been some sort of communication failure between broadcasting that series and this one, but it's good to see that somebody somewhere was again promptly on the case.

  • Comment number 17.

    Whoops--bad possessive case there! Apologies.

  • Comment number 18.

    I quite agree - super episode, & a great (uninterrupted) closing mood. Only snag is I'm going away and will miss the rest of the series; BBC please make sure it gets repeated in HD in 6 months time!

  • Comment number 19.

    What an absolute shame it is to discover that Sky have poached the next and following seasons; So dis-heartening to have followed something since day one, only to have it snatched away. Sad news.

  • Comment number 20.

    #19 Kevj, are you being serious? Was http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/media/article6827894.ece , mentioned in my #3, founded after all? And, if so, why didn't LauraD let us all know that when she commented on my earlier post, at #11? Where's the evidence. LauraD please tell me that Kevj has his facts wrong! If it's true then how I hate $KY, they took away my Test Cricket, then Lost, now Mad Men, whatever next? Pray not the 6 Nations!

  • Comment number 21.

    Paul_geaton I'm assuming by now you've seen the news ...but in case you haven't http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/08bf7d6e-cd6b-11df-ab20-00144feab49a.html All the gory details are there.

  • Comment number 22.

    #21 Kevj, thanks for responding, your link didn't work for me (it said I had to register with FT) but I googled "mad men bbc outbid by bskyb" and got this, seemingly identical one, which did: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/08bf7d6e-cd6b-11df-ab20-00144feab49a.html

    Dash it! I guess $KY has won then. The BBC promised a lot but then didn't deliver on HD, whereas by all accounts $KY do deliver (see trevor's http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/researchanddevelopment/2010/09/super-hi-vision-and-3d-and-ste.shtml ) whilst at the same time, by degrees, $KY has robbed me of all my favourite viewing off FTA channels. I don't think it's right, but maybe I'll just have to bite the bullet and jump on the bandwagon and buy it all back.

    BBC, you're being trounced; please fight back!

  • Comment number 23.

    #22, paul_geaton: you've put in a nutshell why reining back on non-UK originated programming might look like a sensible move for the BBC in these straitened times--but sometimes isn't.

    Oh dear.

  • Comment number 24.

    What a shame, especially as the BBC are now treating the programme with respect, with a regular slot at a reasonable time, and not shrinking or talking over the credits. I'm guessing there'll be a DOG when Sky show it, which will be enough to make me wait for the Blu-ray. I suppose the BBC has to draw the line somewhere if costs are becoming ridiculous - but I would put Mad Men at the top of the priority list, I'd rather the license fee was spent on high quality US drama than mediocre UK drama (too many examples to list).


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