For someone who watches over 50 new shows each year, it is unusual to remember a premiere. However, I vividly recall the first time I caught a glimpse of AMC's smoky advertising drama Mad Men. For any TV enthusiast, there was an overwhelming feeling that TV history was about to be made.
Matthew Weiner, writer and creator of Mad Men, had been trying to get his show made for almost a decade. After unsuccessful attempts with HBO, Showtime and FX, AMC decided to fund and produce the pilot. “America Movie Classics” now “AMC” was, like the name suggests, a movie channel with big dreams. In summary, AMC was looking for a show that could do for them what The Sopranos did for HBO. There was only one problem: Mad Men was everything a show shouldn’t be [according to the unwritten rules of money-making TV execs]. It was expensive, slow-paced, it didn’t have big stars attached and characters were often seen smoking, being sexist or making racist remarks [sometimes all three at the same time]. In an unprecedented move, AMC decided to cover the cost of the pilot, with Lionsgate taking over the production duties after that.
The pilot episode “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” premiered on July 19th, 2007 to a modest audience of 1.6 million viewers [and only a fraction of those viewers belonged to the desired 18-34 demo]. However, what would be a failure for a network like CBS, was an improvement for AMC. Numbers aside, the plodding series became an instant critics’ darling. Both the show and star (Jon Hamm) won a Golden Globe for the freshman season. Of course, they had the misfortune of having their first big win in the middle of the writers’ strike, so no award ceremony was televised. Regardless, little by little Mad Men became a show people talked about as a synonym of quality television.
Sixties, Zombies and Blue-Meth
If AMC was looking for an original show to make an impact, it surely accomplished that with Mad Men. However, AMC’s biggest hits were yet to come. In 2008, they debuted a high concept show that was about to take the world by storm: The chemistry professor, turned kingpin story, Breaking Bad. Two years later, the network launched the ratings juggernaut, The Walking Dead, which is still setting audience records as I type. A period drama, a crime thriller and a zombie show based on a comic book. AMC never had the most consistent line-up, but if its shows have something in common is that they would have never been able to exist in broadcast television.
After the success of Mad Men, broadcast networks made a series of failed attempts to launch a 1960s period drama. Unlike the UK, where finding five simultaneous TV adaptations of Jane Austen books is nothing out of the ordinary, Americans were not accustomed to seeing period dramas on their screens. Mad Men opened the doors for the genre, but sadly its quality could not be so easily replicated.
Disney-owned ABC premiered airline-themed Pan Am, in hopes of luring audiences with the style and glamour of the 1960s. Perhaps unsurprisingly it was cancelled after only one season. Over at CBS, they tried to combine their successful procedural crime formula with period elements. Their show Vegas aired for only 21 episodes (1 season). However, the biggest failure belongs to NBC. Their attempt entitled, The Playboy Club was pulled off the air after only 3 episodes. The abrupt decision was taken as a consequence of most advertisers pulling out combined with the less than desirable ratings. The broadcasters had tried but their failure perhaps proved that American broadcast TV was not ready for period drama. However, cable networks had better success with beautifully made shows like Boardwalk Empire and, more recently, The Americans and Manhattan. The boom of period dramas also prepared American audiences for British imports that were soon to become mega hits in their own right (Downton Abbey e.g.). But the legacy of Mad Men goes beyond that.
It’s not all about exploding cars…
Along with shows like Breaking Bad, Dexter and Sons of Anarchy; Mad Men was part of the antihero renaissance. Having a leading character who always did the “right thing” became a thing of the past, enabling writers to craft compelling and exciting stories. Mad Men also proved that television doesn’t have to be big, explosive and quick-paced. The show was deliberately slow and nothing was ever spelled-out. It was probably the first time in years, viewers were asked to “analyse the silence”. Recent hits like Top of the Lake, The Killing and True Detective capture the same spirit [and probably target a similar audience].
As sad as it is, Mad Men is not going out on the highest note. Its golden days have passed. Not just because of the diminishing ratings, but also because of the marked decrease in critical acclaim and media coverage. I personally don’t think the quality of the show has ever diminished and I still relish every second of it. However, it could be argued that it has fallen victim of its own revolution. It doesn’t feel as shockingly unique anymore and high quality TV shows abound. Suddenly, new episodes of Mad Men get somewhat lost in the middle of the Game of Thrones frenzy and the million other new and exciting series premiering each week [not just on TV but also online].
That’s not to say, the show hasn’t left a lasting mark. According to the internet, Mad Men’s legacy is anything and everything ranging from fashion and modernistic furniture to the realisation that life is futile. The true meaning of it is probably in the eye of the beholder, but one thing is certain: Mad Men is a show that people will remember. I will never forget the first few twists of season one, being acquainted with the glamourous life style of 1960s New York and the many shocks that came after that. I almost wish I could go back in time and experience it all for the first time. As Don Draper would say “Nostalgia… It’s delicate, but potent”.