This week's Time magazine is all about Mad Men, your favorite show before Breaking Bad or House of Cards launched a thousand new think pieces. From behind the scenes photos to analysis by TV critic James Poniewozik, Time reminds us of one important thing about the show: it has always been all about the little things.
Mad Men "trusts in the power of style, subtlety and, above all, secrets," Poniewozik writes, crediting the show with being one of the first to provide a legitimate counter example to people who say things like "I don't even own a television." Mad Men helped validate television as a medium as culturally high-brow as movies and books.
"One thing that Mad Men showed is that you can make dramatic stakes out of small stories. It's not secrets like 'what is the smoke monster,' 'what's the conspiracy,' 'who will rule this kingdom?'" Poniewozik explains in an audio slideshow about the show. Instead, it's all about "who is lying to who in this office," proving that "small secrets can be as exciting, and in some ways even more so, than big ones."
That's always been what I loved about Mad Men: how character driven it is, even though it's set in a world grappling with huge historical moments. But its subtlety only worked because the hard, obsessive nature of the people creator Matthew Weiner hired to work on his show. While costume designer Janie Bryant has rightfully gotten a huge amount of press for her fantastic work on the clothes of Mad Men, the set design team has always killed it, albeit in quieter ways. For instance, take this detail about Ginsberg's apartment from a slideshow on Time's website. It is meant to look like Lower East Side tenements did in the mid-60s, as set designer Dan Bishop explains:
"Those pass-through windows—the one between the kitchen and the parlor—came about because there were fire laws and city codes that declared you must be able to get air into those interior rooms, so people installed them later."
Also, even the smallest props are correct:
"The office Rolodexes are full of real vintage cards with retro KLondike-5-style phone numbers. The coffee tables are littered with day-and-date-appropriate issues of the New Yorker and Life. If there's a pile of papers on a desk, someone from the crew typed them—that's typed on a typewriter, not printed on a computer."
As has been noted before, much the style seen on Mad Men is older than the year a particular season takes place in because normal people don't just go and buy new stuff every year:
For instance, shows about the 1960s often look too much like "the 1960s": the too-perfect clichés of Eames and Twiggy and Haight-Ashbury. When researching wardrobe for a given year, says costume designer Janie Bryant, she consults the Sears and JCPenney catalogs, because "a lot of those everyday references are more important than what Paco Rabanne and Pierre Cardin were doing." Mad Men's 1960s houses have furnishings from the 1950s and before, because the past has its own past.
Poniewozik explains that the show "is sort of history told by the losers. It's the history of a time of the growth of a time of youth culture, told by people who were just a little bit old to be part of that culture and were sort of outside looking in." The show's trajectory proves that perfectly: though Peggy Olson started off at the bottom of the food chain and Don Draper seemed to be an unstoppable force, as the seasons have passed, the inevitability of age has caught up with everyone. Mistakes have been made and they add up. And while we know what happened in America as the 60s ended and the 70s began, we don't know what happens to these particular characters. That's why we'll keep watching until the end.
Image via Frank Ockenfels/AMC