Final Thoughts: Mad Men Season 1

At the outset of these reviews my stated goals were to figure out what I was missing or pinpoint what doesn’t work about this series for me.  Strangely, I think I’ve succeeded on both counts.  I always appreciated how well-crafted this series is but didn’t find that alone to be enough to make it worth watching.  Having watched it with the critical eye, that’s changed; Mad Men is a clinic in unconventional storytelling.  But that’s all it is.  I watch television to be swept up in the story but Mad Men, even at its very best, seems driven to keep the audience at arm’s length.  Much as I enjoyed analyzing this series, I can’t quite say that I enjoyed watching it.

What Worked

The writing, particularly the dialogue, really is top drawer on this series.  Some lines are better than others but, for the most part, this show positively glows with wit.

Vincent Kartheiser.  Yes, Jon Hamm’s performance also falls into the “what works” category, but I’m baffled by the lack of critical acclaim for Kartheiser.  Pete’s one of the most original characters ever presented on screen and the actor somehow managers to find the humanity while still managing to make it seem like Pete and not Vincent practiced each line the mirror before going to work.  Well done, Connor, well done.

I’d be remiss in not also mentioning that the entire ensemble is excellent on this show.

The sixties setting really helps the immersive feeling of the series, creating a world which is both very realistic, but also just different enough to seem “other.”   It was effectively leveraged to provide storytelling opportunities that couldn’t be found in a contemporary setting.

I’m a sucker for self-aware storytelling and Mad Men has this in spades.

The cinematography on this show is as good as anything on television.  That’s not something I normally notice, but the people at work here clearly know how to use a camera.

Roger.  Sure, he’s a cartoon, but he’s a damn entertaining one.

What Didn’t

The sixties setting was deeply immersive… except when it wasn’t.  While I appreciated all the period details crammed into each episode, they were pushed to the foreground a little too often, getting in the way of what should’ve been character moments.

I still don’t get Pete and Peggy.  There just never seemed to be any juice in this romance and it served only to distract from what else was going on with the characters.

Good as the ensemble cast is, they were spread a little thinly for much of the season.  It’s hard to appreciate characters when you can’t keep all the names straight.

Mad Men paints an effective portrait of emotionally isolated people, so much so that they’re even isolated from the audience.  That’s brilliant on one hand, but poor fodder for storytelling on the other.  I just can’t get wrapped up in the drama of people I don’t care about.

Peggy’s baby.  I say again, “Huh?”

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