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10 Years of Mad Men: how the show became one of the best series of all time


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Today marks exactly 10 years since the first episode of Mad Men - 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes' - aired.

When someone asks you about a show you're recommending, you usually think of something exciting to say which entices the viewer - something that will make a friend want to watch it. Mythical fantasy wars, a zombie apocalypse, a corrupt presidential campaign, a blind crime fighting hero, a chemistry teacher who creates his own meth lab, a gangster drama on the streets of post-war Birmingham; the list goes on.

But when someone asks about Mad Men, the answer is on a slightly less grander scale than many other shows. All you can say, briefly, is that it is a show about a 1960s ad firm in New York. And what about when someone asks what happens, or what the storyline is? Well, there isn't really one over-arching story line. It's about the lives of various ad men and women set in the backdrop of one of the must turbulent decades in American history. It serves as a reminder that, in life, the small things become big.

It's a painfully frustrating fact that Mad Men is both beautifully subtle yet so hard to sell to prospective viewers. But that didn't stop its success. Mad Men captured the hearts of millions and went on to be phenomenal success. Besides being widely viewed by critics as one of the best television series of all time, it raked in millions of viewers throughout its seven seasons, and won a total of 16 Emmys and five Golden Globes.

And while it may not seem that much happens in terms of 'events' or major plot points, when you watch Mad Men, you are watching what is probably the most accurate and realistic representation of the 60s in any television show or film. Mad Men is about life and it is about change.

It draws you into the life and work of everyone at the Sterling Cooper ad agency. Throughout the seven seasons you see people, places, and society change. Being set during one of the most socially unstable times in American history, we witness the reality of so many issues including homosexuality and homophobia, sexism, racism, marriage and divorce.

Herein lies one of Mad Men's greatest strengths. Its ability to make you feel genuine, raw emotion in the pit of your stomach is something truly unique and exceptionally powerful about this show. It makes iconic events of the past seem more real than ever, and allows us to experience feelings we could never truly identify with otherwise.

Whether it be the excitement of the 1960 presidential election, the hysteria surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis, the sheer wonder at the 1969 moon landing, or the mourning of a nation in the wake of the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King, all are conveyed from a ground level and give a real insight into what it must have been like to live through these events.

Additionally, it is not just these historical events which evoke emotion from viewers. Relationships between characters are constructed and nurtured so delicately and so genuinely that families, affairs, conflicts and divorces can affect the viewer on such a personal level - there is a sense of reality in every interaction that anyone can identify with.

All of the best shows are the ones that leave something for the viewer to interpret; a camera shot, a moment of eye contact, an expression, a prop - something which allows viewers to come to a conclusion themselves without being spoon-fed every single piece of information. This is what helps Mad Men claim its reputation as being one of the most authentic shows to have ever been on TV. It may be historically accurate right down to the weather forecast on that day in history, but most importantly, the relationships within it are subtle and real.

The result of all of this is an array of the most endearing and fascinating characters to ever grace the small screen. While every single character in Mad Men is constructed and moulded like a delicate piece of art, one that deserves an individual mention is the absolute heroine that is Peggy Olson. This firecracker character, played by Elisabeth Moss, begins her career at Sterling Cooper as a shy secretary. But she has a fire in her belly which allows her to work her way to the top and become one of the most successful women in New York advertising.

Without force-feeding the audience context about the state of women's rights in 1960s America, we watch Peggy fight for the recognition she deserves - not letting her gender stand in her way. These are the kind of on-screen heroes girls need to see on TV; she is a true inspiration and a realistic role-model that we need to see more of.

But of course, the show wouldn't be what it is if it were not for the main protagonist and the backbone of the creative department in the company: Don Draper. Played by the unbelievably talented Jon Hamm, Mad Men really is Don's show. Throughout seven seasons, Don is troubled by his past, identity, relationships, infidelity, career conflicts and his own psyche.

Never has there been a more deeply complicated and multi-layered character who you feel you eventually know, yet is still shrouded in so much mystery. The psychological explanations behind his marriage troubles, complex relationship with his children, and interactions with work colleagues is something we gradually understand, but also something which never truly seems to heal. Only seven whole seasons of the show can truly do justice to portray just how exceptional this character really is.

And amongst all of this, Mad Men actually makes the world of advertising something truly exciting. Seeing the thought processes behind the advertising of world famous brands such as Jaguar cars, Heinz, Coca Cola, Hershey and Gillette is just fascinating. The fictional ad company boasts an impressive portfolio to say the least.

Mad Men is a concoction of all of the qualities of a truly great show. It's like one big mixing pot of all the right ingredients - a dash of this, a pinch of that, and not too much or too little of anything. It's wholly moving, gripping, mesmerising, and unbelievably polished.

10 years on, Mad Men stands its ground and marks its territory in television history as one of the best shows of all time. When you give it your complete uninterrupted attention, it's pretty difficult to argue otherwise.

Mad Men is available to watch on Netflix.

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