Not Yet Mad About Mad Men
September 21, 2009 11:00 PM   Subscribe

So I should be getting season 1 of Mad Men from Netflix soon. As a first-time viewer, what I should I expect, and how can I best maximize the enjoyment of this oh-so-critically-acclaimed series?

Who/what should I keep an eye out for that you missed the first time you saw it? Will the overwhelming genius of the show hit me right away, or is it a gradual thing? Is the show more Sgt Pepper's, or White Album?

I personally wouldn't mind mild spoilers, but there may be fellow newbies reading who are more of a stickler for that sort of thing, so... use your discretion.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing to Media & Arts (32 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You won't really need spoilers to enjoy the show. Just know that the show is not one to watch mindlessly. It forces you to think. Listen to the commentaries after the season is over. There's a lot of them and they'll give you the insight you may be looking for.

Also, don't watch alone. Make yourself an Old Fashioned and sit down with a friend to watch so you can discuss the episode. After more than a few, you'll need to talk things out.
posted by inturnaround at 11:14 PM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Um, just watch the show. It's pretty good. Don't go getting all OCD-Lost-fanboy before you've watched so much as a single scene. It's well written and and beautifully curated, but it's just a TV show and you should be able to enjoy it without taking the bus the crazytown.
posted by dersins at 11:16 PM on September 21, 2009 [16 favorites]

it's a soap opera
a damned good one
posted by philip-random at 11:16 PM on September 21, 2009

The first episode has a kind of a shocker ending that's probably been ruined for you. The show is always discussed as a slow burner, but I don't think that's 100% accurate. There are an infinite number of tiny gestures and recurring themes. Someone suggested that each season is a "Chapter" in a larger Novel, so consider each episode a large paragraph.

I love to read recaps afterwards- MadMen Footnotes, AV Club, whatever I can get my hands on. It's a show that really rewards digging in and discussing. However, my Mom HATES anything beyond surface level discussion and she adores the show. I think there's enough soap-y drama stuff to carry you along if you're not into metaphor.

I'd just pay attention to recurring themes, really. They're very consistent. Season 3 has a strong theme of people rejecting drinks, which is a shocker for a show that, in Seaons 1 and 2, set the gold standard for booze downed on Prime Time.
posted by GilloD at 11:22 PM on September 21, 2009

I think you'll immediately be impressed at how cinematic the show looks, but it might take a few shows to see the genius of the writing. (I loaned a my season one set to a friend, and she said she thought she made a mistake and put the wrong disk in, because it looked like a movie, not a TV show.) The first season was written to conclude the major mystery / story arc ("who is Don Draper?") in the final episode of the season, so there's plenty of payoff for sticking with it.

Don't watch distracted. No tweeting, texting, browsing, nail-clipping, staring at your popcorn, or watching with a gabby friend or family member. There's a ton of subtext, and a lot of the story is told in expressions, reactions, and subtle movements. Much like The Wire, more is often told in an expression or a glance than in dialogue.

Don't get overwhelmed by the number of characters that fall into your lap. You'll catch up. There's no shame in consulting the episode guide or character guide. (Official site.)

The commentaries are very enlightening, and give you a sense of the themes and symbols in the episodes. I don't recall, but the commentaries might contain spoilers for later episodes, so be aware.

Have fun! Post a followup when you're done.
posted by The Deej at 11:28 PM on September 21, 2009

Seconding the advice above. While it is a slow burn there's a lot going on in episodes that can be easy to miss, so don't be afraid to rewatch episodes, just like you would paragraphs in a novel.

I lent out my first disc of season 1 almost as soon as I finished watching it, and subsequently watched (and rewatched) all of the remaining season 1 and 2 without revisiting those early episodes. Coming back to them the other week I was a little shocked by how over-the-top the first two episodes seem. The chauvinism especially seems to be dialed way up for a show that does subtlety and nuance so well.

Episode 3 seems to be the key -- if you watch up to episode 3 and still aren't interested, the show's probably not for you. If you want more then you're in for a treat. There's a scene in that episode where Don is using a 60s camcorder that IMHO is one of the defining moments of the series.
posted by teem at 12:06 AM on September 22, 2009

I really love this show. My advice it to get to know the characters from the beginning. Remember their names, personality traits, and idiosyncrasies. Watch whats going on in the background with reactions to Don Draper. Althought Don will be the hardest to get a handle on.
There are brief references to Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (Who is John Galt--Who is Don Draper), but I see closer similarities to The Fountainhead

You will be happy to have it on disk-be prepared to rewind to re-see a lot!
Joanie is my fav
posted by Acacia at 1:06 AM on September 22, 2009

I just finished watching the first season. I'm really torn. I really, really dislike all the characters (though Peggy is growing on me), but somehow I still enjoy the overall tone of the series, the way it's filmed, the 60s-related culture, etc. So while I appreciate the "genius" of the writing and filming, I'm not in love with the show.

That said, I just got season 2, so I can see what happens next, because I am curious.
posted by olinerd at 4:25 AM on September 22, 2009

From someone who was kinda-sorta enjoying the show (through episode four, I think?) but stopped watching when her partner declared it thoroughly tedious and proposed a Wire marathon instead -- I'd say, be braced not to find it quite as sparklingly stellar as all the reviews suggest. At least not immediately.

I'm quite sure that had I kept watching S1 (and I plan to, on my own, once we're done with the marathon), I would have fallen in love with it, because I was already -- sorta kinda -- intrigued. But it certainly does seem to be a show that starts slow, and rewards the patient.
posted by artemisia at 4:30 AM on September 22, 2009

I actually watched the season opener and another show in season three, and while it was fun I had no idea who the people were (except Don Draper, who even people who don't watch the show know :P)

I went back and watched the episodes from the first two seasons in order, and the fact that I knew something about the future of the characters didn't ruin it very much at all, but at the same time I knew how things were going to turn out.

The less you know about the plot in advance, the better. Watching the new episodes in season three is a lot more intense because I have no idea what's going to happen next.

So my advice, try to avoid spoilers as much as possible.
posted by delmoi at 4:43 AM on September 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd do three episodes at a time, maximum. Two or three drinks per episode (as per Deadwood, any attempt at a drinking challenge with the characters on-screen will land you quickly in the ER). Cigarettes if that's your thing (and if they are, be prepared to get through a lot of them). No snacks (the crunching in your head will distract you). At the end of the episode, refrain from trying on your father's old suit that you remember is stored in the attic: it won't fit and even if it did you won't look as good as Draper. Mad Men is 00s 50s. Your dad's suit is 50s 50s. Also you never see any T&A, though a few scenes hint at the possibility, so the Kleenex aren't needed. It's a good series but it's not Nietzsche or Chaucer. And please don't read Ayn Rand.
posted by turgid dahlia at 5:22 AM on September 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Mad Men is 00s 50s. Your dad's suit is 50s 50s.

It's actually set in the 60s. Although Season 1 is in 1960, with Eisenhower as the president.
posted by delmoi at 5:34 AM on September 22, 2009

For me the thing to keep in mind is that although each episode is compelling, there are exceptionally long story arcs at play, long enough that they are likely much longer than the show will run. One character in particular gets a certain job midway through season one - which represents the beginning of a trend that in the real-life history will only have its full implications felt in the 1990s.

So enjoy each episode as it comes, on its own merits, but if you get really interested in the show there are a whole bunch of layers you can uncover with a little reading and research as you go. There are several possible subtitles to the show. The illustrated history of feminism in America. The cultural effects of 20th century war on American society. The history of modern advertising. The breakdown of the American conservative consensus, 1950-. The prehistory of America as a polyglot society. 1955 to 19xx: American revolution. The more you bring to the show about any one of these themes the more you may enjoy it.

Delmoi is right that it's intense because we have no idea what's coming next - but at the same time we know exactly what is coming next (feminism, civil rights, Viet Nam, etc.). We know where the story has to get - what we don't know is HOW it gets there, and as is always the case, small things become much larger only in retrospect. Weiner and the writers are doling out a ton of those small things, and even having watched the whole series to date, they are all significant.
posted by mikel at 5:36 AM on September 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

We're in the middle of watching Season One, and enjoying it so far. The first episode is GREAT, and the next few after that are not nearly as good, but then it picks up again. Be patient.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:08 AM on September 22, 2009

It's actually set in the 60s.

Yeah, I knew that, but didn't type it, I don't know why, sorry, addled.

(Though in my defense it's set in the early 60s so unless you're buying a suit a year [which of course an ad exec would be, but shhh!], they're gonna be 50s pieces.)
posted by turgid dahlia at 6:08 AM on September 22, 2009

One of the things I didn't learn until later was how close an attention series creator Matthew Weiner has to not only the events of the early 60s but the ideological evolution as well. Don's wife Betty goes through the kind of very gradual realization charted in The Feminine Mystique (I don't think it's a coincidence that Betty and Betty Friedan share a first name). Advertising in the first season is used as a metaphor for the games people play and the emotions we try to create in each other and whether those emotions are real (in the first episode, Don says "Love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons." Much of the rest of the series will provide you alternatively with evidence he means it and evidence he was lying).
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 6:15 AM on September 22, 2009

Mad Men's all about the women. Pay attention to each one, from the major characters (Joan, Peggy, Betty) to the supporting cast (the secretaries, the bohemians, the other wives) and the children (Don and Betty's daughter Sally, especially, promises to shake up the 50's-repression hangover).
posted by oinopaponton at 6:56 AM on September 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Try and forget the critical acclaim. Everyone with a modem and a keyboard seems intent on hyping this show up to almost impossible levels and buying into that hype before you see the show is probably the biggest threat to you enjoying it.
posted by timdicator at 7:11 AM on September 22, 2009

Television Without Pity has a great forum for this show and I enjoy going there after the episodes to see what I might have missed. Nthing the "don't be doing anything else" comments because it does require your attention.

I was late to the MM party and my blogging buddy raved about it enough to intrigue me. I got Season One DVDs at the library and watched S2 during re-runs of it on AMC. It's not a show you can pop in and out of - you need to be a dedicated viewer to get a reward, I think.

Enjoy it.
posted by Mysticalchick at 7:53 AM on September 22, 2009

Just watch the show. The people seeing it on TV for the first time didn't know what to expect, and they seemed to like it just fine.
posted by alligatorman at 8:15 AM on September 22, 2009

They smoke a lot. And they drink a lot. And there are lots of affairs.
posted by chunking express at 8:28 AM on September 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you are trying to quit smoking make sure you've got something else around: nicotine patches/gum, thread/needle to sew your mouth shut, etc.

If you are a recovering alcoholic you might want to cuff yourself to the couch, out of reach of anything that contains the good stuff.

If you like badass TV shows with depth and character development just sit back and have fun.
posted by Gainesvillain at 8:38 AM on September 22, 2009

I suggest reading Tom & Lorenzo's blog after watching each episode.
posted by ericb at 9:04 AM on September 22, 2009

Uh...the one piece of info that would have been helpful to me before I started watching is that you can multiply all the dollar amounts in the show by seven to get current day prices.
posted by phoenixy at 9:08 AM on September 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

Season one is intriguing, and does reward close viewing, but it is not the homerun Mad Men's reputation would indicate. Season two is where it really matched the hype in my estimation.
posted by NortonDC at 9:37 AM on September 22, 2009

I suggest muting the audio on your tv at the start of the dvd as the audio that is looped is awfully short, I hear the theme now and shudder.
posted by jade east at 10:40 AM on September 22, 2009

I'm kind of in your shoes - and it was the recent Vanity Fair article that made me realize that I want to do it right if I'm going to do it. I suggest finding and reading that. It was the comment that they go to great lengths to find smaller, dumpier apples and pastries that weren't huge, as would have been right for the period. It's that good at doing what it does!
posted by peagood at 11:40 AM on September 22, 2009

It was the comment that they go to great lengths to find smaller, dumpier apples and pastries that weren't huge, as would have been right for the period. It's that good at doing what it does!production design.
posted by OmieWise at 12:09 PM on September 22, 2009

...the recent Vanity Fair article

September 2009: Don and Betty’s Paradise Lost.

Also worth reading...

Vanity Fair | June 2008: Smoke, Drink, Man, Woman.

WSJ | August 7, 2009: The Women Behind ‘Mad Men’.
posted by ericb at 12:20 PM on September 22, 2009

Though in my defense it's set in the early 60s so unless you're buying a suit a year [which of course an ad exec would be, but shhh!], they're gonna be 50s pieces.
"Brooks Brothers made the custom suits for...two leading characters [Don Draper and Roger Sterling] in 'Mad Men.' Suits of this period, the early ‘60s, were slim-fitting and often two-button. [slideshow]" *
posted by ericb at 12:28 PM on September 22, 2009

I answered yesterday in kind of a joking manner, and my comments were deleted. I'll try to be more explicit in this answer, although as a consequence I may be less gentle.

Mad Men is a just a TV show. It is not particularly complex (like Lost), or impenetrable when watched from the beginning. You should approach it just like you approach other TV shows, and even movies. That is, you should not approach it with the attitude displayed in this question. Doing so will hamper your enjoyment of the show, and, will actually ruin the show itself. The reasons are as follows:

1) You are already an expert at watching TV. I know this without knowing anything about you except that you watch enough TV to order the occasional show from NetFlix. TV is not difficult to understand, even very "complex" shows are deliberately made accessible enough for viewers to understand. You expertise is more than adequate to start watching a show that presents a standard narrative and pick up all that you need to pick up as you go along.

2) TV shows, especially new shows (Season 1) that have not yet been tested in the market, are made to be watched. They are made to be watched without a net, as it were, without requiring exegesis from the start. Even shows that are deliberately made to be as complex as possible start relatively simply and reveal their complexity as the shows progress. There is nothing about Mad Men that requires special pointers in order to start watching Season One.

3) If you're too busy paying attention to all the articles you've read, too busy looking for whatever it is you think you should be looking for rather than watching the show, you're likely to miss the actual show. In other words, if your goal is not only to enjoy Mad Men, but to honor it (whatever the fuck that would mean with a TV show), then you risk not doing that if you don't just sit down and watch it without looking for Easter eggs.

4) You can only watch Mad Men for the first time once. This is a truism, and seems so obvious as to not need stating, but in this case, it had better be stated. What your question suggests is that you don't actually want to provide yourself with even that pleasure. Instead, you're asking for tips on watching it. What those tips essentially amount to is a method for not having to watch Mad Men the first time. You want to jump to the second watching. This is different from a concern about spoilers, this is about whether you digest the show, or whether you have someone else digest it for you prior to getting the DVDs in the mail.

5) The hype about the smarts of this show should be kept in context. Sure, it's a good show, and people love it with good reason. It is still just a TV show. It's smart, but not brilliant. There is no disincentive for people to hype it, so there are a lot of magazine articles about it. That's fine, but if your question is rooted in the larger domain of media literacy, and it kind of is, then you should remind yourself what you're asking about, and why you think it's worth asking. You should also keep in mind that some of what gets trotted out as evidence of brilliance is evidence of care. These two things are not the same, and shouldn't be confused. Good production design that replicates as closely as possible the period in question is necessary, but not sufficient, to demonstrate that care.

6) Consider that by asking people to "help" you watch the first season of this show, you're actually asking them to tell you what to think about it. I know you probably don't think of it that way, but that's what the request amounts to: you're asking someone else to tell you what you should look for as you watch so that your opinion will match the hype you've read about. Your question betrays a deep anxiety about measuring yourself against what is essentially advertising hype about a TV show. What if you don't like it? What if you don't think it's smart, or penetrating, or incisive? What if you think the observations on offer re gender relations, or the meaning of manliness, or the American way of life, are trite, or boring, or banal? One way to forestall these anxieties is to ask other people to tell you what to look for so that you'll know you're watching brilliance when you see it. But those telltales are not about the show, or about enjoying the show, they're about you and about joining a club that you might find yourself a member of anyway.

By all means, you should be excited to watch this cool TV show. It'll be fun, and if you don't muck with it too much, it may be a great time. I think it always helps to have something good to drink while watching a show that you really want to get into. I also think that overanalyzing the show before you start to watch it is likely to damage your experience.
posted by OmieWise at 6:44 AM on September 23, 2009

Forgive me please, for clumsily stating that it's Weiner's vision for the show that's so amazing to me, to the point that set dec/production is so period-specific. From the article I mentioned (and thanks for the link - I left it behind after reading it on vacation):

"A scene-setting anecdote everyone in the Mad Men orbit tells is how Weiner came onto the set one day and focused on some pieces of fruit he said were too large and shiny and perfectly formed; produce in the early 60s—period produce—wasn’t pumped up. Get smaller, dumpier fruit, he ordered. (Depending on who was telling me the story, from cast members to network executives, the offending produce morphed from apples to oranges to bananas, but Amy Wells, the set decorator, said definitively: it was apples.) In a similar vein, the show’s prop masters have been plagued by the steroidal dimensions of contemporary American pastry whenever a Sterling Cooper secretary needs to pick up a Danish from the coffee cart."

I sell vintage items for a living, and that's just so important - the little things. That's why it kills me to watch Grease, or movies of that ilk. My immersion is interrupted when I see something wrong, like Sandy's pants in the "You're the One That I Want" number. So what I will keep an eye out for is attention to details such as that. I'm not good at picking out anachronisms like fruit and pastries on my own - but I'm glad that someone else is.

For example, I caught a bit of a recent episode, and even the squeegee was period-appropriate.
posted by peagood at 6:07 PM on September 28, 2009

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