How 'Mad Men' marked the end of one revolution and the start of another
There are the 1960s, and then there is "the Sixties," and they only overlap to a degree. Popular culture and popular history have turned the Sixties in America into a dreamscape of mop-topped British invaders, painted hippies, an escalating war in Vietnam, a moon landing, and massive social unrest. But before the rise of the flower children, there were men in suits and short haircuts, women in conservative dresses, and chaste movie musicals dominating at the box office. And it's not like the counterculture obliterated the culture that had already existed. The psychedelic-inflected comedy of "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" was the highest rated show of the 1968-69 season, but the top 10 also included "Gomer Pyle," "Bonanza," "Mayberry RFD," "Family Affair," "Gunsmoke," "The Dean Martin Show," "Here's Lucy" and "The Beverly Hillbillies." In 1969, the same year that The Beatles released "Abbey Road" and The Rolling Stones presented "Let It Bleed," aging Rat Pack icon Frank Sinatra had a huge hit with what would become his signature song, "My Way."
"My Way" was part of one of the best "Mad Men" scenes ever, and much of the run of "Mad Men" has been devoted to chronicling the less-celebrated side of that turbulent decade, showing us the 1960s — and the Sixties — through the eyes of establishment figures like Don and Roger, and pre-Boomers like Pete and Peggy who were already adults when the calendar turned over from 1959 to 1960.
In fact, "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner intended to start the series in 1959, only changing his mind because he wanted to incorporate the birth control pill — which wasn't commercially available until the following year — into the first episode. On the whole, though, a "Mad Men" that began in the late '50s would have been barely different at all, because one of the key stylistic and thematic elements of the show's early seasons was how much the early '60s looked and felt similar to the Eisenhower era, even with a dashing younger couple in the White House. The show has chronicled one decade, but a decade that spanned at least two different eras — the latter of which arguably doesn't even end until Nixon resigns the presidency and climbs into his helicopter to depart the scene.
Though Weiner had little control of the TV world around him, "Mad Men" itself wound up spanning two different eras in television: the drama revolution itself, and the golden age it spawned.
"Mad Men" came on the air in the summer of 2007, as the initial wave of the revolution seemed to be dying down. "The Sopranos" had cut to black a month earlier, and "The Wire" and "The Shield" were soon to air their final seasons. Without any of its signature series from the start of the decade, HBO was about to spend several years wandering in the desert with the likes of "John From Cincinnati," "Tell Me You Love Me" and "Hung." Showtime and FX would find big commercial success with the pulpier "Dexter" and "Sons of Anarchy," and while each of those shows would have its moment in the creative stratosphere, neither was built to stay up there for very long.
Television abhors a vacuum at least as much as nature, and "Mad Men" arrived at the perfect time to fill one, feeling very much of a piece with all the landmark dramas that had come before it, while not seeming like an imitation of any of them. Weiner had worked on "The Sopranos," and while the two shows were far from identical — Guy MacKendrick's foot getting mangled by the lawn tractor would barely qualify for honorable mention in a list of memorably violent Sopranos moments — there was a similar fixation on detail, there were unknown leading men giving revelatory performances, and each episode (and even scene) was so laden with meaning that you could watch over and over again to dig out new thematic nuggets. The opening credits presented a silhouette of a man falling out of a skyscraper; the show itself invited its viewers not to fall, but to dive deep into the world Weiner and company were recreating.
Because the era was in transition, as were the cable channels that had been at the forefront of it, and because very few people were watching fellow AMC trailblazer "Breaking Bad" at first, "Mad Men" largely had the quality drama field to itself early in its run. It won four Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series in a row, one of only three series to ever do that ("West Wing" and "Hill Street Blues" are the others), it routinely finished at the top of year-end top 10 lists from critics, and it proved perfectly-suited to the rise of episode-by-episode online analysis, with bloggers having just as much fun trying to predict solutions to the show's early mysteries as they did studying the fashions and what they said about each character.
It was a glorious time to be a fan of "Mad Men," or just to be "Mad Men."
And then the world of television(*) began changing as dramatically, and rapidly, as society began changing around Don and Peggy as the '60s became the Sixties.
(*) I should note that, just as the late '60s still had room for Sinatra and Gomer Pyle, the TV landscape over the run of "Mad Men" had more than enough room for "NCIS," "American Idol," "Modern Family" and several dozen Kardashian spin-offs.
Netflix came onto the scene. "Breaking Bad" (helped in part by people catching up on Netflix) exploded into a giant commercial success in its final season. AMC got into the horror business with "The Walking Dead," which is now the highest-rated scripted show on television. HBO put itself back in the center of the discussion with "Game of Thrones" and others. FX let Louis C.K. create the closest thing the medium's ever had to a one-man show with "Louie," a half-hour series that could be just as powerful as series actually classified as dramas. Every cable channel, and every content delivery system — from Sundance to Amazon to PlayStation — is racing to develop its own scripted programming, many of them dramas, trying to follow the path AMC took a decade ago, under the belief that a single transformative show will make them indispensable to consumers at a time when the abundance of choice has them trying to choose fewer options, not more.
Unlike "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men" hasn't seen an appreciable viewership surge from the Netflix crowd, and I don't expect one for these final seven episodes (they begin Sunday night at 10). AMC did the show no favors in splitting up this final season. "Breaking Bad," with its propulsive narrative, could pull something like that off, because it could end a half-season on a big cliffhanger and know that its audience would only get more anxious and thrilled about seeing the next episode a year later. "Mad Men" isn't built like that, and thus it's felt like two mini-seasons — "Waterloo," with the latest firm restructuring and Bert Cooper's musical number, felt not only like a season finale, but (like so many of the previous season finales) like a point at which the series could have simply ended — rather than a big one separated by a long hiatus.
Because of the scheduling, and because there are now so many other exciting dramas on television(**) — many of them with more visceral thrills than "Mad Men" offers, and several of them offering incredibly rich character and theme work in their own right — there hasn't been a noticeable groundswell of enthusiasm for the show's end like you might expect for one of the greatest TV dramas of any era.
(**) The seven days following this final "Mad Men" premiere will give us new installments of "Better Call Saul," "Justified," "The Americans" and "Louie," the season premiere of "Game of Thrones" and the entire first season of Netflix's "Daredevil," among others.
The show stopped winning Emmys a few years ago, and while there's a chance it could, like "The Sopranos," win again for old time's sake (especially with no "Breaking Bad" as competition), the entertainment world seems to have moved on. Like Don, it's still doing great work — some of the series' finest hours ever ("The Strategy," "In Care Of," "Far Away Places," to name just three) have come from the second half of its run — yet I hear talk all the time that "Mad Men" is past its prime, or simply that the audience is tired of seeing characters like Don and Betty make the same mistakes again and again.
When I interviewed Weiner a few weeks ago, I noted that shift from "Mad Men" briefly being the only show of its type to being surrounded by shows that have been inspired to do many of the things he's done.
"I still think it’s the only show of its type," he insisted. If you're the man who has sweated over every last detail of this thing for a decade, from the dialogue to the character arcs to the clothes to the props, you probably have to think of it exactly that way. "Mad Men" was Weiner's obsession for years before it was made — he wrote the script at 35, and got to produce it at 42 — and its success is largely a tribute to that obsession.
But timing plays a role, too. The Beatles came to America playing a brand of rock music inspired by, but not wholly like, all the rock 'n roll acts of the late '50s which had largely faded away, and they filled a void in a way that made them much bigger than if they had been the second or fifth or ninth band in the British Invasion. "Mad Men" got to build on what both Weiner and the TV audience had learned from "The Sopranos" and the early millennial dramas like it, and to premiere at the exact moment when the audience was hungry for more of that. A "Mad Men" that somehow premieres after "Breaking Bad" and "Game of Thrones" — assuming that HBO would have been driven to take a gamble on something like "GoT" if not for the pressure created by AMC stealing its Emmy thunder — is no less great, but it is perhaps not the watercooler or awards phenomenon it was in its early days.
In the greatest pitch of Don Draper's life, he compares Kodak's slide projector to a time machine, saying, "It goes backwards, and forwards... It takes us to a place where we ache to go again."
"Mad Men" has taken us on a rich, gorgeous, unforgettable trip back in time. It's also carried us forward from one great era in television into another, staying constant in its style, its vision and its greatness even as the TV world churned mightily around it. And when these last seven episodes are done, I expect I will often feel the ache of not being able to visit with these characters, and this show, one more time.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com