Debate of the Day: Why Do You Like Mad Men?

I’m usually pretty good at getting people into TV shows. My recommendations have led people to discover classic programs like Arrested Development, The Wire and Friday Night Lights. But so far, the only person who has matched my love for Mad Men has been my grandma, as she actually lived through the era.

But I know I’m not alone. 3.5M people tuned into the season five premiere this weekend, and the show has won a Best Drama Emmy each year it’s been on the air. I describe it as “the most interesting show on TV where nothing ever happens.” My girlfriend watched about five episodes before stopping, and it took me all of three minutes to catch her up on four seasons worth of plot. These two got divorced. This agency split up. These two had a baby. Because outside of that, what really is there?

It’s a strange phenomenon really. I feel like I could watch this show forever and not get bored, despite the fact that nothing incredibly significant will happen in a given episode. I credit the writing and the acting, but there’s just a certain indescribably quality to the show I have trouble articulating. Any fans out there, can you more clearly profess your love for Mad Men than I?

  • Jake Fortner

    That’s a good point actually. I think it’s very similar to The Sopranos like that. The Sopranos may of had more going on in it’s first several seasons, but to me, by the time we reached season 4 or so, then most of the episodes started to have nothing happen. The creator of Mad Men was a writer in this time of The Sopranos (I think he started in Season 5), too.

    I think Mad Men is so compelling because there is a lot of subtle, slow burning character development going at all times. Nothing happens to a character that doesn’t show a certain side of him. And That’s what’s compelling to me. I guess then that would make this show have a minimalist plot, and make it more expressive than narrative.

    I mean, there’s also the more shallow reasons to like the show that are also very entertaining. like the perfect production design, the way they captured the time so well, etc. But I prefer t think it’s that character development. It’s what made shows like Deadwood and The Sopranos so compelling. After all, The Sopranos was never really a mafia show so much as it was a psychological study of Tony and his family.

  • Ramiro

    Maybe, my reason to love the show is because i study advertising, but i think is beyond that.

    The part of “nothing happens” is kind of true, if you compare it to other shows with cliffhangers for every commercial break. The shows has its own rythm, and people who understand that rythm, end up loving the show.

    The 5ยบ season premiere had everything: humour, excellent music, good stories and megan in undies.

  • Andy

    I watched the first 5 or 6 episodes before losing interest. I couldn’t even tell you what happened in them. I must be missing something here, because I have pretty much the same taste in shows as you, Paul.

    Also, the fact that you have a hard time explaining why you like the show is a good example that something is wrong here, especially because you’re normally very good at that.

  • Mark

    Two BIG reasons. Christina Hendricks… her two BIG reasons.

  • Bob

    My wife and I watched the first season of Mad Men but lost interest after that. One reason is because our parents immigrated to America and so we have no familial connection to this era, but the stronger reason is because it was the first drama that we watched *after* The Wire, and even though Mad Men was well-made, it just didn’t feel as important or impactful.

  • Rob

    Good points Andy. I tried watching it as well and was bored to death. Nothing really happens, just people having conversations in an office. I have an interest in advertising, but have seen a few documentaries on the topic and feel it has been covered for me. Although, 90% of what I watch are sitcoms. I am not big at all on TV drama. So, I am not really the target audience.

  • harryseldon

    I think it can be a good show but it just gets boring after a while. I liked season one and the Whole ‘who’s Don Draper’ arc alright but I didn’t find much interesting in season 2 and finally gave up in season three a couple of eps in. It is a lot like the Sopranos in that some episodes are really good but you have to wade through mountains of boring garbage to get there and have it make sense.

  • Lost Link

    I also have a hard time describing to my friends what I like about Mad Men. I usually just end up saying, “It’s just so good.”

    It’s got to be the writing, subtlety, acting and characters. There was one episode where Don was staring into a cracked glass. It was just a random moment but there was a significant pause and you knew it related to Don’s psychological state.

    There’s so many moments like that that are just so cool.

    Halloween scene:

    “Look at this,” says Carlton, Francine’s husband, to Sally and Bobby. “We’ve got a gypsy and a hobo.” Glancing up at Don, he asks, “And who are you supposed to be?”


  • Kong1965

    I understand how people could have found it hard to get into during the first few episodes, because I found Don Draper to be a repellent character when I first started watching. Misogynistic, ego-maniacal, and an asshole frankly.

    But that’s what does make this show so good. It takes a wide variety of characters, and slowly dissects them in completely believable and complex ways. The Sopranos comparison is perfect, because although “nothing” happens in the global context, the lives of the characters are brought into stark relief through excellent writing and plots that build tension episode to episode.

    Superb acting (and casting) make the writing come to life, so that if you are willing to invest the time, you feel attached to each character and their idiosyncrasies and personal lives. Sometimes because you love them, sometimes because you hate them, but always because you have some emotional stance about them.

    Finally, add the lens of the ’60s and the wild contrast between today’s world and that period culturally, and you have the perfect backdrop to examine aspects of our history that seem mundane now that they’ve passed, but were critical and electrifying socially at the time. It’s easy to forget how different things were in this country even 40 years ago, and that lends a certain voyeuristic aspect to the show, as well as a visual distinction that makes it unique from almost everything else on TV these days. Avant garde decor and fashion of the day are jarring in comparison to what we consider chic or stylish today, but still maintain a certain retro appeal, and even more shocking is the concept that you smoked EVERYWHERE, ALL THE TIME, and drank when you wanted to.

    How can you not like the show?

  • Nickincollege

    It might be because Don is the man every guy wants to be and the man every woman wants to be with. Despite being a drama, it’s actually quite funny at times. Like last season when Miss Blankenship died… people dying isn’t funny. But the matter in which it had happened and how it was handled was quite humorous. I know this argument is cliche but it reminds us how different things were back then. i.e. Pete aiming his rifle around the office in season 1. It’s just interesting to see how the times have changed since that time period. And it will be interesting to see how Don handles the change when the show concludes in the the 21st century during the seventh season.

  • E. Lee Zimmerman

    Erm … I don’t like it. I watched the first season and was bored out of my mind. Never been back.

  • Tim

    Don Draper is one of the most multidimensional characters on any TV series presently. He reflects a real human being, in that he has both good and bad qualities. He redeems himself only to show you how heartless he can be. This is very true of most human beings. Granted, his actions are a bit more extreme. But he’s not clearly defined as a good guy or a bad guy, like most shows tend to do with their characters. What makes Don Draper tick? That’s the heart and reason this show is as good as it is.

    Honorary mention to the sets and backdrops. Picture perfect. Its like looking at a moving Norman Rockwell painting.

  • Mr Jim

    For me its the facets of all these characters, there’s not one where something is not broiling underneath the surface. They’re all quite amazing, and yet petty. They’re all characters that are so interesting to watch due to their passion and yet own misgivings.

    It’s also because of the intrigue on a cultural and historical basis. I never lived through this era, no way close in fact, and although you see films that do portray life in the 60s they’re usually to an extreme or a special case is covered. Whereas Mad Men, despite mostly covering the lives of the relatively rich, gives a better idea of just the average life. There’s an undercurrent of change, and also a reluctance to embrace new ways, but it is never really the focus and it’s always about the characters and how it subtly or obviously moves them to act in a particular way.

    Another is, quite obviously, is the wonder Christina Hendricks.

    But two other characters I always find fascinating, more for their actual stories, is Peggy and Roger. Don’t get me wrong I like Don, and understand why it’s mostly his story, but I usually find other characters to be more compelling than him. I mean with Peggy and Roger, here we have two quite different beasts, the story of the old and the new, with one trying to desperately hold onto the past and the other striding leaps and bounds into the future, it’s just very interesting to watch. But also Roger can be bloody hilarious at times.

    And I guess that’s another reason, Mad Men can be hilarious at times. I’m a strong proponent of having strong drama laced with strong humour, in my opinion each makes the other much more effective.

    I’m sure there are plenty more reasons, and I’m pretty sure a person could spend hours writing about why Mad Men is an amazing show. Needless to say it is a set of incredibly interesting, and yet somewhat ordinary, characters experiencing life-changing, and Zeitgeist-defining events.

  • Sara C.

    I think there’s something really valuable about a show that focuses so much on the characters and their interactions with each other, simply because that’s exactly what we do in real life. Our days don’t end in cliffhangers, and workplace politics often become the most talked about thing in our relatively humdrum existences. While movies and television obviously serve to show us the heightened adventures and historical personalities, etc. that we wouldn’t otherwise experience, it’s always a nice change of pace to follow a story that focuses on the small stuff, especially if it’s framed by a glamorous world like the mafia or advertising. It’s one of the reasons Seinfeld worked so well, too. That was a show very much about living in New York, but you didn’t have to live in New York to get it since it was, as it pointed out in it’s own meta style, really about nothing.

  • Gladeye

    I actually know the show’s creator, Matt Weiner, but I’ve still never seen it. I’m a teacher and I’ve taught some of his kids, and just today he visited to speak to the class about writing and character development. I think character development is a very big deal to him (but seriously, what do I know?) The Soprano comparisons are interesting, because Matt was a writer for that show, as well. Anyway, it’s fascinating to me that he has all this success and talent. He is extremely down to earth, warm, friendly, and easy going. He shows no attitude at all, always has time to chat and somehow never seems stressed by whatever the demands of the show are. I know this is going way off topic, but fans might want to know that the show’s mastermind is a good guy.

  • Kong1965

    Hey Sara C.,

    While I won’t disagree that most of our days don’t end in cliffhangers, I’d press you to think about the amount of time you spend concerned or worried about things that seem mundane or trivial in retrospect. At the moment are filled with some sort of tension, dread, or worry, whether it’s social, or self imposed insecurity, or a real moment of potential danger.

    This show does an excellent job of portraying those common, universal moments in a completely believable way.

    Betty Draper with the car repairman, that subtle exchange where she evokes some sexual vulnerability, in a gamble, so she doesn’t have to face Don and his glaring examination of her incapability.

    Dick Whitman, in his most honest and vulnerable state learning that Anna has terminal cancer, and for once he is caught between the artificial life he’s constructed with her permission, and the desire to reconcile so many painful moments from his past.

    I may not have moments that reflect those plot developments exactly, but I can tell you they each connected deeply with personal experiences I’ve been through. In that connection, with the incredible acting, I am emotionally tied to not just the characters, but the story.

    It’s the genius of the writing/acting/production that makes the whole picture fall together.

  • thomzda

    because it makes me look cool

  • T.R.

    The first half of the first season kills off a lot of new viewers. I’m shocked it didn’t get canceled amid the first season. Series creator Matt Weiner also points out that fans usually express displeasure about the early episodes as the subtle plot line often seems to build towards nothing, until, at the end of the season, you realize how the narrative arc all fits together. I’d say that beside the divorce, the hook for the 1st season really comes from the lingering questions about Don Draper’s buddy Dick Whittman. Yet, I also don’t want to slight Elizabeth Moss’ character of Peggy and her continued evolution.

    To seel my friend on the show, a guy whose got some real intellectual game who generally likes quality dramas, I showed him the best episode of the series, “A Man Walks into an Advertising Agency.” It’s a good stand alone story that doesn’t require much outside knowledge of the show. He’d stopped watching in season 1, but this episode sold him on the show.

    Plus, Christina Hendricks is the hottest woman on television with the only possible exception being Kim K. In a game of, Fuck, Marry, Kill–KimK gets fucked, and Christina Hendricks you marry, and Elizabeth Moss you kill (or paper bag it). Jessica Pare offers some fresh competition, Zoo-be-zoo.

  • keo

    Is it just me or is the lobby full of ………, That’s why, no other show has the balls to pull shit like that. I hate Don mr faggy pants Drapper, but I really like most of the other characters. The setting is great, the shows atmosphere. I can watch that intro a million times, it’s great like the one from Carnivale.

    I love the fact, that in one points in time all women didn’t look like cheap whores, this show captures that, and many things of that nature.

  • Sara C.

    Hey Kong1965! The crux of your argument is actually exactly what I was trying to get at, meaning it’s the trivial, mundane (by tv/film standards) things that make up the most important moments of our actual real lives, so the characters on shows like Mad Men, et al. are infinitely more relatable. You articulated the point better, however.

  • isaac

    here is why its so wonderful, tv shows are about escapism and so is mad men but un like most shows it gives you a world where everything that happens is realistic even if things are much different now then back in the 60’s. Everything from the emotions of the characters to the scenes are real and therefore its escapism that you can feel like you could achieve. I know I want to be the people on the show even though they are all so sad and thats very powerful.

  • Billish

    Because it looks cool..
    Why else would I watch such a shallow show?

  • martha

    Jon Hamm’s acting. The writing. Hamm’s delivery of this last soliloquy took my breath away.

  • EPOC

    It is actually quite deep in its tackle of the variance between facade and reality at character level juxtaposed to the clients’ issues. Every person has or is forced to have a facade (a way they must act or say, or a situation they must be in) or multiple denying their true self, parallel with the work they do (convincing markets of less than truths for their clients),

  • Carlos Costa

    Im in the 6th episode, and I m liking it a lot, it just gives me pleasure to watch.