Mad Men returned to our screens last week for its final series, and after only two episodes it's clear that it has lost none of its lustre. For seven years it's been the gold standard in television. Its stars and writers have collected award after award and counts viewers all over the world who wait anxiously for every new episode as each one ends perfectly balanced on a precipice, with issues to be resolved and truths to be revealed.
But what is it exactly that makes Mad Men so great. What is it that has sustained it, and in many ways improved it over seven years. Is it that it so perfectly captures the social and political upheaval of the 1960's with the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce acting as a microcosm of America. As American values and norms change so does SCDP. The overt sexism and racism of the first few series subsides by the seventh and even the Waspish Pete Campbell has developed some level of tolerance, although it's not all positive, and as we near the end of the sixties we can also see the optimism of Kennedy's America give way to the cynicism of Nixon's.
It not just captures the changing values and norms of the 1960s but everything about the decade with the most exacting historical authenticity and continuity. Every rock song, news report, TV show down to the box of Ritz crackers that Don munches on this week's episode are historically accurate. It's enough to make any history junkie slap his wrist and beg for another hit.
Is it that despite its name and most of its main characters it's a tome on feminism and the empowerment of women. Peggy Olsen has come a long way from being just another secretary for the men to ogle. In eight years she's worked her way to being a senior copywriter, earning the respect, much of it begrudged, by the men of the office. If the change in SCDP represents change in America in the 1960s, then Peggy, and to an extent Joan, represent the changing roles of women.
Or is it less that what the Mad Men represent and more who they are that makes it so good. Mad Men has the most fascinating characters that are perfectly developed and full of complexity and contradiction (and most often inner-conflict), none more so than Don Draper. The Mad Man himself appears as if he were from an ad that he created, possibly one for Brylcreem, or Trilby hats. He is a figure to be admired for what he is and to be pitied for who he is. He is like so many men, an artifice waiting to be revealed for what he is, and to which he still seems to be as unsure to as the rest of us.
But maybe it's more simple than that, maybe it's just down to the aesthetics. Mad Men is an elegant world of Scandinavian furniture, British sports cars and Japanese electronics with men dressed in finely woven charcoal suits and women in pastel chiffron dresses. It's not grimy or gritty, like great TV shows like The Wire and The Sopranos were, and like so many have been since, given that grime and grit seem to make a show more real, and real seems to be today in TV something that is good in itself. And yet Mad Men feels as real any of them.
It is for all these reasons and many more that Mad Men has come to be defined by its greatness. It's easy to forget, given that we view it every week in our homes, that a TV show can be art. Mad Men is a work of art which is great whether you believe art should be appreciated for its style alone or also for its content. There are few works of art that tell such well-drawn stories, full of such well-developed characters as Mad Men, and few shows, if any, have recreated, and just as importantly, recorded a period like Mad Men has done for 1960s America. As for its content, it's hard not to interpret something in almost everything, whether there is initial intent or not, such is the great subtlety and nuance we have become used to over seven years.
Mad Men like so many other shows of this golden age of TV, Breaking Bad in particular, doesn't feel like a television show but rather a series of short films, and not just because of its production value but because of how new and unique every episode seems. The film critic Roger Ebert said that "every great film should seem new every time you see it," which I think is as simple and as good a phrase as any to sum up why Mad Men is as great as it is.