This week, as Mad Men‘s seventh and final season hits the small screen, we give you what you need to know to get all caught up on the goings-on within the smartly decorated offices of Sterling Cooper & Partners.
What’s the premise? The management and employees of a 1960s Madison Avenue advertising agency deal with interpersonal issues and changing social dynamics.
What’s it like? If one were to distill the essence of Mad Men into, say, the trappings of a swingin’ bachelor pad, you’d probably find a cocktail shaker on the counter next to a ripped ticket for Ocean’s 11. On the coffee table, you’d see a dog-eared copy of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, on top of a barely-cracked edition of The Bell Jar. Tying the room together would be a bright orange shag carpet on the floor, a framed Roy Lichtenstein poster on the wall, and vinyl copies of Getz/Gilberto and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan next to the hi-fi.
How long will it take? Mad Men has run for six seasons, with 13 episodes per season and 47 minutes per show, give or take a couple extended episodes. If you watch at a relatively brisk pace, you should be able to jump into season seven by week three.
What do the critics think? Each of Mad Men‘s six seasons is Certified Fresh, and the last three have each notched a 97 percent Tomatometer. “It’s a tribute to the writers and the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, that most characters are so well imagined and enigmatic that they never seem like mere caricatures of the period,” wrote the New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley. “[The difference] between how things look from afar and how they feel close up is one of the fundamental topics of Mad Men, which remains the best show on television,” wrote Alan Sepinwall of the Newark Star-Ledger.
Why should I watch this? In short, go for the clothes, stay for the characters. And what characters they are: ambitious, mysterious, and at times frustrating, these desperate personalities help to make Sterling Cooper & Partners a hotbed of intrigue and (often sublimated) desire. There’s Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), a sometime bohemian whose creativity is regularly ignored by virtue of her gender; Roger Sterling (John Slattery), a witty, glad-handing founding partner who never seems to be without a drink in his hand; and Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), whose knockout good looks belie a quiet competence that keeps the firm running smoothly — sometimes at the expense of her mental well-being. However, the center of the Mad Men universe is Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who comes off as a cross between James Bond and Tom Ripley; he’s a brilliant ideas man with a sketchy past and an air of inscrutability that makes him one of the most compulsively intriguing characters on television. Throw in a speakeasy’s-worth of booze, a bunch of world-changing historical events, and a ton of extramarital affairs, and you’ve got more than enough for a potent, combustible drama.
What’s my next step? If you’re in the market for another 1960s period piece featuring nattily-dressed depressives, check out A Single Man. Fashion designer Tom Ford’s Certified Fresh debut stars Colin Firth in an Oscar-nominated performance as a closeted college professor haunted by the death of his longtime partner (see if you can spot Jon Hamm’s cameo). A bunch of retro-minded TV series have sprung up in Mad Men‘s wake, though Masters of Sex, renewed for a second season, is probably the best. And if you like the clothes on display, there are hundreds of websites ready and willing to dispense advice on how to achieve the Mad Men look. It’s the show that spawned a thousand Etsy tags.