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‘Mad Men’ at 10: The Last Great Drama of TV’s Golden Age

Variety logo Variety 7/18/2017 Sonia Saraiya
© Provided by Variety

A decade after its premiere, “Mad Men” is still one of the leading lights of prestige television, a hall-of-fame show that put together an array of once-in-a-lifetime performances. On a more personal note, it’s also one of my favorite dramas; possibly, probably, my favorite drama ever. There are a lot of reasons why: Its historicity, its emphasis on New York City, its exploration of gender, its reckoning with the underpinnings of advertising. I’ve written about the show in appreciation, and so have many others.

Looking back on it 10 years later, what’s surprising is not its quality or the widespread nature of its phenomenon, but how the firmament of television around it has changed so much. The series was an inflection point, of sorts, in the contemporary history of the medium. Everything before it was one thing; everything after, another. When “Mad Men” aired its series finale in 2015, it ended not just its window into the tumultuous cultural history of America of the ‘60s but also a specific moment in television history.

You might call that moment the Golden Age of Television (though there already was a Golden Age, in the late ‘40s and ‘50s, so append “second” or “so-called” as you see fit; I like Alan Sepinwall’s term, a “big bang” of TV, where innovation and engagement expanded in seemingly every direction). Regardless of term, what I’m referring to is that much-discussed period when a combination of factors, many of them simply technological, led to several brilliant and well-made shows that altered the way audiences watched and thought about television. These were complicated and challenging dramas, often with material that had never before been depicted on television, which both moved away from the idea of TV as appealing to everyone and found success by pushing the envelope.

I’m not going to do a better job of recounting the history of television’s phase shift than Sepinwall, who has written a whole book on the topic. But let’s establish a few basic points. Even if “Oz” (1997) paved the way for David Chase’s show,“The Sopranos” (1999), it is generally agreed, is the show that kicked off what we know as the Golden Age. “Breaking Bad” — which started six months after “Mad Men” and ended two years earlier than “Person to Person” — marks the last show in the medium’s sudden transformation. Because “Mad Men” ended later — and because “Mad Men” ended, it felt, multiple times, with a protracted two-part goodbye where every scene felt like closure — it has the privilege and the curse of being the one to turn off the lights. At the point where “Mad Men’s” finale was slowly unfolding, it seemed bizarrely out of pace with the TV boom it had helped to spawn. While we were feverishly livetweeting it, the show seemed to move even more slowly, with a pooling energy that, looking back, is a close analogue to the bravura nothingness David Lynch displays in “Twin Peaks: The Return.” (Though the shows otherwise don’t have a lot in common, showrunner Matthew Weiner certainly has Lynch’s auteur aversion to spoilers, too.)

“Mad Men” has had a long and lingering aftertaste. Several of its stars have done little else since the show ended, basking in post-finale glow, and yet the drama is already celebrating its 10th anniversary. But in its quiet aftermath — for while some shows end with a bang, “Mad Men” ended with cosmic infinity — it took something with it, and that’s what prompts me to call it the last great drama of that era. When “Mad Men” debuted it was still astonishing that dramas would make bad men their lead characters. By the time it ended, critics and audiences were lamenting the glut of antihero stories. “Breaking Bad” was a brilliant show, of course. “Mad Men,” with its finale, made shows like “Breaking Bad” seem obsolete — made nearly any show about an antihero seem obsolete. Don Draper was the last antihero, and unlike several of his predecessors who either died brutally or left the careers that rewarded their twisted souls, he somehow found his way to inner peace in time to (probably) go back to McCann Erickson and write what creator Matthew Weiner calls “the best ad ever made.” “Mad Men” was a remarkable show in so many ways — a deeply stirring show, in so many ways — but perhaps its highest achievement is that because it so thoroughly interrogated its characters and its premise, it functionally (and politely) made itself obsolete.

But where other lights of the TV revolution tapped into and reworked existing TV stories — the mob movie (“The Sopranos), the cop show (“The Wire”), the Western (“Deadwood”), the high school soap (“Buffy”) — “Mad Men” kind of created its own subgenre, an aesthetic procedural. It’s a period antihero/workplace drama about the cultural history of an increasingly pervasive and singularly American craft — branding — and whether Weiner knew it or not, “Mad Men” came to the viewer just as branding was moving away from being simply the purview of companies to a practice that every individual had to partake in. Social media, the gig economy, the eroding middle class, and the cameraphone all made the ability to sell yourself, or an idea of yourself, absolutely essential. We are all Dick Whitman, grooming our Facebook profiles to make us look more like our idealized Don Draper.

As a result — because the show was about product, and perhaps because Weiner has so much respect for the medium of advertising, even while exposing its artifice — “Mad Men” became a cultural phenomenon in fashion, advertising, and design that is simply unparalleled to this day. “Game of Thrones” might match “Mad Men’s” utter ubiquity, but it cannot claim the lock on the highbrow that the AMC show had and maintained. The Guardian posited that “Mad Men’s” influence on men’s fashion in particular “could not be overstated.” In addition to a multiyear tie-in with lower-brow Banana Republic, the show’s footprint on haute couture was so broad that in 2015 the New York Times ran a smart column pleading with fashion designers to move away from ‘60s inspired fashion, citing the show’s complex struggle with the era as a key reason. Even bartenders reported a “Mad Men effect” that is still present today — how else to explain the preponderance of Old Fashioneds at seemingly every hipster bar? “Mad Men” took us all back in time for a little while, whether we wanted to embrace the midcentury modern or not.

AMC’s success with “Mad Men” also fundamentally changed the industry behind the scenes. Before “Mad Men” debuted, HBO was the top dog of premium cable, with the occasional foray by FX and Showtime rattling its throne. But by the time “Mad Men” ended, networks as diverse as Lifetime and TV Land were producing critically acclaimed dramas. If “Mad Men” had ended up at HBO, as it well could have — Weiner was a writer on “The Sopranos” because the “Mad Men” pilot script impressed Chase — the last 10 years of television might look very different. After all, while the HBO shows were available on what was then the DVD-based Netflix, they didn’t follow as Netflix expanded to streaming. (The two companies became increasingly wary of each other, as HBO put out its own streaming service HBO Go and stopped directly selling DVDs to Netflix.) But AMC”s shows did: “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” and eventually “The Walking Dead” amassed audiences through binge-watching that then tuned in for the next seasons live. Emboldened by its power, Netflix started producing their own programming. And meanwhile, AMC’s success encouraged other cable networks to start producing more originals, coming out of the woodwork of your cable bundle with new procedurals and buddy comedies. “Mad Men’s” success was the first ringing bell of Peak TV, and it’s felt like a free-for-all ever since.

And maybe most importantly, from the vantage of a critic: “Mad Men’s” rise and success was so unlikely, swift, and monumental that television ever since has all seemed laden with expectation. Part of the reason the big bang of TV was so explosive is because many of us had limited expectations for what a show could accomplish. But after beginning to expect it from HBO — and being blown away by what a show staffed by and starring relative newcomers could do, on a network no one had heard of — it’s seemed that TV has lost any semblance of obscure, plucky, random success (give or take a Netflix debut that performs better than the studio thought it would). Now seemingly every show hopes to be a “Mad Men”-like phenomenon; now seemingly every drama with some vision enters into the world with the bold strokes of assured success. Before these explosive successes on AMC, networks trying their hand at fielding an original were tooling around with an unproven idea. Now the seemingly open playing field of non-broadcast has been flooded with nearly 500 shows, all eager to convince us that they too have the potential for the cultural resonance of “Mad Men.” It’s not exactly bad, but it is overwhelming. Before “Mad Men,” the show didn’t seem possible (HBO didn’t jump on it, for some reason or another). After “Mad Men,” it seems that everything is possible.

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