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From Camelot to Polyester: ‘Mad Men’s Landmark Contribution
March 30, 2014  | By Eric Gould  | 2 comments

Mad Men
soon returns for its final season in two weeks -- and maybe more interesting even than the saga of self-sabotaging Don Draper, the series may best be remembered as part of an American television evolution that saw enormous changes in what we watch, and how.

AMC, the basic cable channel, has caught lightning in in a bottle three times: once with the compulsively detailed study of 1960s optimism (some of it misplaced) in Mad Men, again with the bleak modern-day existentialism of smash hit Breaking Bad, and also with the post-apocalyptic dystopian survival saga of The Walking Dead, currently cable television's highest-rated scripted series.  All three series have shown that smart, literary-styled television can survive, and even thrive, and receive tons of critically acclaimed press in the process.

Based on the success enjoyed by HBO's The Sopranos, FX's The Shield and AMC's Mad Men, other cable channels have begun to roll out similarly styled dramas aimed at similar audiences. Last year, Sundance premiered Top of the Lake (starring Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, right) Rectify, and the French import The Returned. IFC, more committed to offbeat comedy, premiered the über-smart, über-squirmy Maron in 2013, as well. The same season, History Channel also ventured into original drama with the miniseries The Hatfields & McCoys, and added Vikings to their schedule (since renewed for its second season).

FX has been in the same small-ball drama game for the past five years with the hillbilly noir of Justified, the Cold War spy thriller The Americans, and is now only weeks away from rebooting the 1996 black comedy Fargo into a series starring Billy Bob Thornton.

With Thornton coming to a series, it’s also notable that another film actor, this year’s Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey, will likely also win an Emmy for his performance in HBO’s True Detective. That furthers the argument that new television, by many measurements, is outperforming film in revenue, quality and critical acclaim, and is a becoming a first choice for many top actors. That’s a long way for what used to be called The Idiot Box, and a venue that most film actors used to avoid at all costs.

All of that is also good news for those unwilling to shell out top dollar for premium cable and who have to wait for DVD releases of acclaimed shows like True Detective and Showtime's Ray Donovan.

AMC is now having Mad Men take a page out of the Breaking Bad handbook by increasing the final season to 16 episodes, but dividing them into two releases, eight episodes this year, and the final eight in 2015. The effect, of course, is two, eight episode seasons, which in itself isn’t a bad thing for viewers dedicated to quality shows, or ones shifting to binge-watching their favorite television series.

With Netflix premiering the entire seasons of House of Cards and Orange is the New Black as same-day releases, viewing habits are changing. For those of us willing to binge on those, eight episodes is a bit more digestible over a weekend than the Netflix model of thirteen, but either way, shorter, more tautly written seasons, particularly as done by True Detective writer Nic Pizzolatto, have obvious appeal over the usual network model, which, by nature, is rife with filler and plot hysterics out of writer’s rooms under pressure to churn out the requisite 22 hours every year.

Mad Men also shows us, along with Breaking Bad, that the goal now of a smart series production isn’t necessarily to stay on the air as long as possible, but to find its strongest narrative arc and establish its legacy as a singular, complete vision. (January Jones, Christopher Stanley and Kiernan Shipka, left.)

In talking with The Daily Beast last week, Mad Men series creator Matthew Weiner (and writing veteran of The Sopranos) gave his thoughts on crafting the appropriate ending for his acclaimed period series. In the interview, Weiner discusses the short-term effects of the plot line on the current audience and the critical long-term aftereffects of the show, and how it will be remembered.

The short clips on the AMC website recap the universal scorn aimed at Don (Jon Hamm) and his alcoholism last season, and give an ultra-short look at his coming rebound for season 7.

So far as Don’s redemption is concerned, and Mad Men’s contribution to the evolution of the American anti-hero, it’s a fair guess that Mad Men won’t wrap up on a tidy, happy note. Picking up on last season’s finale, when Don took steps to reconcile with his daughter Sally, Weiner asked The Daily Beast, “Is making an effort enough?… Announcing to the world that you’ve changed—that changes you. Does it do anything else?”

More than anything else, Mad Men’s study of American wealth and desire, fabricated by advertising, is now hard up against the 1970s – with the swinging cool of JFK’s Camelot disappearing into oil shocks, polyester and mustaches. (Rich Sommer, Jay R. Ferguson, Aaron Staton and Ben Feldman, top photo.)

That, more than whether Don finally finds stability and peace, is probably Mad Men’s more fertile territory anyway – it’s the decade when a lot of society’s rules finally unraveled. Families and corporations had to change, and throw off stifling conventions that eventually would allow level playing fields and freedom beyond old, narrowly defined models of social conformance.

Men like Don and Roger Sterling (John Slattery) had to grow… or simply fade away into irrelevance. That could be Don’s most feared outcome. And one he might, or might not, evade.

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Sean Dougherty
Mad Men was important to me because it was one of the only shows that depict what it's actually like to have a job. The politics and business of working within the agency setting was dead-on accurate. That's why I was never really all that interested in Don's family or Peter's affairs etc. Every drama on TV has infidelity, random violence and alcoholism. Almost every other show set in a workplace used it as an irrelevant backdrop for the story of the week or was set in a high-drama setting like hospitals or police stations.
Mar 31, 2014   |  Reply
Do not forget that FX also hosted Rescue Me, a series that had a couple of weak and a few very strong seasons. It should be remembered as a significant post 9-11 work.
Mar 31, 2014   |  Reply
Yes, Paul, 'Rescue Me' ought to definitely be on that list. Good catch. –EG
Mar 31, 2014
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