Mad Men: An incomplete review

Posted by Dan January 15th, 2009 at 11:34am In General

madmen-chrishendOne of the good things about being a blogger is that you can write about whatever you want. So, even if you’ve only seen one season of a show you can feel free to write a review of it regardless of completeness or timeliness.

Another good thing is that you always get a shit-ton of promotional DVDs from the Turner networks, which often look dreadful (Bill Engvall Show, anyone?) but still — it’s fun to get mail. (Please, Turner publicists, don’t take this as meaning I want off your mailing list. By the way, have you lost weight?)

But on that first note, I recently finished watching the first season of Mad Men, which a lot of critics have had a lot of hard ons for for a long time. And I can’t say I have the same bursting-at-the-seams enthusiasm that they do.

And if I had to sum up Mad Men in a word, it’d be “watchable.” Which is a word that pleases no one — not the critics, not the makers, not the fans, not the detractors. And I’m fine with that.

Like every awful writer’s workshop I’ve ever participated in, I’ll start by saying what I like about the show. First, most of the performances are pretty solid. My favorite is Christina as Joan — the office manager who is all attitude and curves. She’s a total pain in the ass, but she doesn’t really care. After all, she’s a mean girl before mean girls were mean girls. Joan can toss off a backhanded compliment or a digging piece of advice like no other woman on the show. I don’t really need to gush about Jon Hamm as Don Draper — he’s great in the role and he’s one of the best-looking men on TV.

There’s also the incredible style and costuming, which is the unspoken star of the show. Everyone looks so pristine, like they do little else than plan their outfits (which, when I rule the world, is the way things will be done).

And finally, the writing is pretty emotionally acute. The characters’ inner machinations are interesting, and it’s fun to watch it all play out through their words and actions.

But what gets me about Mad Men is that it both moves very slowly (big things don’t really happen so much) and the social commentary can sometimes seem obvious.

To an extent, I’m still trying to figure what bothers me so much about the tone of the show. Maggie hates that Mad Men seems smug in its modern morality — there’s dramatic irony in what we know now about cigarettes and technology. I’m more irked by the constant reinforcement of some of the more obvious behavior, namely then mens’ chauvinism. I get that this is the setting — a testosterone-fueled ad business where women gladly ride in the backseat as secretaries and wives. But building a series around a single issue like gender dynamics (and to come back to it over and over) seems to drive the same point home repeatedly. Women were undervalued and mistreated in the past — this we know — but the point often seems belabored.

On a side note, I can’t for the life of me figure out whether January Jones is a phenomenal actress or a ridiculously inept one. Because the way she portrays Betty Draper is spot-on — a quietly yearning housewife who is keenly aware of her limited expectations for her life. Her high, flat tone expresses equal parts girlish wonder and resignation. But my inner feminist makes me want her performance to be a little more flashy — to really show off her acting chops. So it’s entirely possible that she’s a lackluster actress who lucked out with a role where her lack of expression works in her advantage.  I’m rooting for it to be an artistic choice (never seen her in anything else).

So we’ll see how things develop in season two, where I hear Betty begins to lose it.


  • 1. sara  |  January 15th, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    January Jones was also in Love Actually and the third American Pie movie, so I think you may have nailed it with the lack of expression serving her well here. Mainly, Mad Men makes me happy I get to wear jeans to work.

  • 2. emily  |  January 15th, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    season two picks up a few years later…i think you’d like what happens to january jones’s character. and she also played a killer in law and order (original) last season, but who hasn’t?

  • 3. Lyn  |  January 15th, 2009 at 9:01 pm

    I have to say I agree. I don’t get why everyone gushes over this show. It’s just ok.

  • 4. Maggie  |  January 16th, 2009 at 11:30 am

    I am a little embarrassed about how angry my initial review was. Not that I’ve significantly changed my opinion — I still don’t watch it — but I think I could’ve tempered that a little bit. I’m sure there’s value in it, I just didn’t see it.

    I have a new theory that individuals feel an affinity for certain decades — you’re a 60s person, a 80s person, a 50s person, etc. And I think I’m a 30s/40s person. If it had been set in an ad agency then, I might’ve been on board.


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