Mad Men, whose first episode aired 10 years ago today, held far more influence over the rest of television when it was on the air than after it left the air.
Think about how few obvious Mad Men clones you’ve seen since the AMC drama ended in 2015. There was a whole spate of sexy ’60s-set dramas in the early 2010s — your Pan Ams (which was kinda entertaining) and your Playboy Clubs (which was not) and even your Magic Citys (which was a TV show). But they all quickly failed, never recapturing whatever magic kept Mad Men on the air for seven seasons and won the show so many Emmys. (In purely mercenary terms, that magic was, “AMC was hell-bent on rebuilding itself into a home for fans of great TV and didn’t mind weathering low ratings for a while.”)
Thus, Mad Men feels less like the start of something now and more like a TV dead end, whereas the influence of its contemporaneous AMC cousin Breaking Bad is apparent all over the schedule, in ways both large and small. We don’t currently live in a world of small, perfectly hewn moments of interpersonal drama, the type favored by Mad Men and its most obvious predecessor, The Sopranos; we live in a world of big, sweeping stories, with slow builds to climaxes drenched in fire and fury.
But I’m ready for a Mad Men renaissance. The elements of Mad Men that other shows have copied — the ’60s setting and the period clothes and sets — are some of the least interesting, most surface-level things about it. But it has so much more to offer its would-be heirs.
Here are three elements of the series I wish today’s television — and I mean literally any show in any setting — would rip off from one of my favorite shows ever.
1) How Mad Men told stories
Most TV shows — even the really great ones — are structured as stories about a long chain of actions and equal but opposite reactions. Character is revealed by how characters react to adversity, how they push back against the forces trying to stop them, whether those are human or otherwise. We get to know Jon Snow on Game of Thrones by how he balances his duties on the Night’s Watch with his need to stop the White Walkers.
There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but Mad Men, though it had its plottier moments, told stories in an inverted fashion. Episodes were often less about “what happens next” and more about “why did that happen?” The characters were presented as mysteries even to themselves, and Mad Men plots typically revolve around the characters’ emotional reactions to situations out of their control. Character isn’t revealed through plot. Plot is revealed through character.
For a classic example, consider the season one episode “Red in the Face.” Don Draper invites his colleague Roger over for dinner, and Roger hits on Don’s wife, Betty. The next day, Don pays an elevator operator to say the elevator’s broken, forcing the men to climb many flights of stairs after a long, boozy lunch with some clients. When they reach the top, Roger throws up in front of the clients, and Don’s revenge is complete.
The way I tell this story makes it sound heavily plotted, like Don is constantly scheming to undermine Roger after Roger hits on Betty. But Mad Men presents the situation almost as a mystery, where you don’t entirely know what Don is up to until the final shot of the episode. The best Mad Men episodes linger on a character’s face and invite you to wonder what the person is thinking or feeling. They’re about the way emotions ripple outward and bump into other people.
While some current dramas follow this basic structure — Halt and Catch Fire and The Handmaid’s Tale come to mind — the majority of TV shows that operate within it are half-hour comedy-drama hybrids, like Girls and Transparent and Atlanta. But for as much as I like those shows, I loved Mad Men’s more ruminative drama, and I’d love to see it come back in a big way.
2) How the show structured its seasons
A season of Mad Men was a puzzle that assembled itself before our eyes, and where every piece mattered.
The show was heavily episodic, in that every episode was a careful gem of a short story, but each season was constructed so that its short stories collapsed in on each other by the end, in a way the audience could rarely predict. Characters would seem to be trapped in destructive cycles until they weren’t, and Don would always find some new way to reinvent himself, only to realize how unhappy he was all over again.
In our current age of binge watching, this kind of structure has been almost completely lost (or, again, shunted off to comedies; Netflix’s BoJack Horseman uses almost exactly the approach described above). There are so many dramas on right now, even dramas I really like, where I couldn’t quite tell you what happened in any given episode, or even any given season, because they’re constructed to simply keep extending their story into the sky.
But there are so many Mad Men episodes that stand alone, and if you’re a Mad Men fan, I’ll bet just saying the names “The Suitcase” or “Shut the Door, Have a Seat” or “Signal 30” will inspire pangs of nostalgia (which is, of course, the pain from an old wound).
We’ve come to think of the basic unit of TV storytelling as the season, but it’s very, very difficult for most TV shows to concentrate only on telling one big serialized story and make it satisfying. Mad Men proves how much room there is within the short-story show, where each piece is beautiful unto itself, but they’re even more beautiful once you see how it contributes to the full picture.
3) How the show used mystery
People don’t really think of Mad Men as a mystery show, but consider one of its most iconic shots: Don, having called an elevator, pauses after the door opens, because he realizes the elevator never came up to his floor. He’s staring into a dark void, and if he had stepped into the elevator without realizing as much, he surely would have fallen to his death. Every episode of Mad Men begins with a man falling, falling, then landing safely in his seat, in command of his universe. The void is always waiting to swallow us whole, and we keep trying to fill it, in order to establish an illusion of control.
Mad Men is far from a religious show — a couple of the characters practice religion, but nobody is deeply faithful — but it’s about that most fundamental religious and philosophical question of them all. When your needs are met, when you have what you think or say you want, why do you still feel so empty inside? Everything the characters on Mad Men used to fill the void ended up being a panacea.
That allowed the series to introduce mystery and uncertainty around its edges, without becoming a mystery show outright. Mad Men traded in the same kinds of mystery and ambiguity that greet us in everyday life, where we don’t always know the motivations of those around us, and sometimes don’t even understand our own motivations. The characters did things, without being conscious of why they were doing them, as they grasped for answers they wouldn’t find.
In this sense, Mad Men avoided having its audience clamor for answers to its mysteries, because viewers understood that the mysteries Don and Peggy and Pete were facing were the same mysteries we all face, every single day. And yet the show was joyous and funny and deeply human, perhaps because it was willing to embrace the void, the piece of all of ourselves that will always be missing, no matter how skillfully we lie to ourselves that we’ve completed the whole.
Mad Men was an existential series, but not unapproachably so, thanks to its ’60s facade. (Maybe that’s the lesson of the ’60s stuff — if you’re going to make a TV show about the existential mysteries at the heart of humanity, be sure to give it a glossy surface.) It was about looking at someone and wondering what they were thinking and feeling, about the moment when you find yourself in the sky, among the clouds, and wonder if you’re soaring or falling.