Television is in the midst of a wonderful renaissance. In the early 2000’s, networks were forced to examine the continual success (whether critical or commercial) of high-brow programs like The Sopranos or Six Feet Under, and with the launch of Lost, intellectually challenging programming ceased to be the sole purview of premium cable channels. Basic cable has become the home of much of TV’s most exciting shows from the gritty meth drama of Breaking Bad to the character driven zombie apocalypses of The Walking Dead to motorcycle gang violence of Sons of Anarchy to the dirty cop antics on The Shield (not to mention Battlestar Galactica, Rescue Me, Damages, Louie, and other cable favorites). One of the most celebrated basic cable series of the last several years (and the first and only one to win Best Drama at the Emmy’s which it has every season) has been AMC’s Mad Men. Ever since The Wire and The Sopranos went off the air, AMC has made a name for itself as the new HBO in terms of quality prime time dramas, and Mad Men is arguably its flagship property. While I’m not sure yet if I think it’s better than Breaking Bad during the latter’s first season (it certainly isn’t better yet than Breaking Bad‘s phenomenal fourth season), it is a surprisingly intriguing programming that I can’t believe I’m only catching so late in its shelf life. The series hinges on some maddening contradictions but its unmistakable visual flair and its stellar cast guarantee I’m already invested in the tale of the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency after only five episodes.

Set in 1960, Mad Men focuses on Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the creative director at the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency in New York. A chain-smoking, hard-drinking skirt chaser, Don Draper epitomizes both the male power fantasy of the beautiful wife, Betty (January Jones), and family alongside a successful and lucrative career while simultaneously showing the darker side of power through his self-centered and occasionally destructive tendencies, such as his regular adultery and an extraordinarily complex web of lies that shroud his true identity from even those closest to him. Alongside Don, the series also explores the lives of the other employees at the firm such as the ambitious and well-connected Pete Campbell (Angel‘s Vincent Kartheiser) who is gunning for Don’s job while battling extreme personal insecurities. Peggy Olson (Invasion‘s Elisabeth Moss) is a mild-mannered and shy secretary new to the agency forced to deal with the never-ending sexual advances of her male co-workers. Joan Holloway (Firefly‘s Christina Hendricks) is the head secretary and the office floozy. Showing both the male-driven egos and tail-chasing that was the cornerstone of the Madison Avenue experience as well as the burgeoning feminism at the core of Peggy and Betty’s storylines, Mad Men is as much a character study of the complex Don Draper as it is a portrait of a turbulent and ever-changing time in American history.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the series is its undeniably visual nature. During each episode, I am strongly reminded of Tom Ford’s A Single Man (though Mad Men predates that film by around two years so maybe it should be the other way around). With a remarkable eye for fashion and recreating the colorful interiors of the 1950’s and early 1960’s, the show often seems like a time machine to that mythic period of American history. There are honestly moments in the series where I could turn the volume off and just look at the arrangement of shots and the wonderful set direction and costuming. What’s remarkable about the visual look of the show is the immediate contrast it creates when the story delves into darker waters, whether this be Don’s infidelity, Betty’s depression over her lot in life, or Pete’s continually cracking facade. It intentionally disorients the viewer as the glamorous visuals make us want to bask in the romanticized glory of that era and then the plot forces you to recognize the darkness seeping in the background. Unfortunately for the program, style often trumps substance, and the series visual style is arguably the only aspect of the series that has been consistent enough for me to recognize just why this series has become so beloved.

As the spiritual core of the series, Jon Hamm’s Don Draper is a remarkable creation and both the strong writing concerning his character and Hamm’s performance make him easily one of the most intriguing characters of recent television. Jon Hamm is able to channel the slick charm and machismo that makes Don Draper the man nearly every woman I know wants to sleep with while also exploring his emotional depths through his drinking problems and his slowly unraveling mysterious past. Bryan Cranston is still much better as Walter White on Breaking Bad, but I now understand why Jon Hamm has consistently been his biggest competition (though Jon Hamm lost to Kyle Chandler for Friday Night Lights in the one year Bryan Cranston wasn’t eligible). My feelings towards the other cast members aren’t necessarily as celebratory. Vincent Kartheiser is a little over the top and stale as Pete, despite Pete being nearly as complex a creation as Don. January Jones vacillates between a soul-shattering rendition of a woman whose fate is out of her and then a boring stereotype of a 1950’s housewife. Peggy is possibly my favorite character on the show (for reasons I’ll delve into shortly) but Elisabeth Moss’s performance is often bland and unconvincing. The only two cast members to consistently turn in entertaining performances are John Slattery as Don’s boss and Christina Hendricks as the office tramp who infuses some joie de vivre and feminine wiles as a woman who uses her assets to get what she wants.

My biggest problem, even more than the occasionally uneven performances, is a similar issue I have with Dexter. Mad Men can’t seem to decide just what kind of series it wants to be. On one hand, when it’s told through the eyes of many of the male characters, it’s an almost unnervingly misogynistic escapist male power fantasy. Yes, they suffer from their share fair of inner demons. Don’s past is an enigma wrapped in a riddle (to quote Seinfeld), and the many lives he leads is finally starting to take a toll from him, but there seems to be little in the way of actual consequences for his philandering or even explicit thematic judgments on the actions of him and the other characters. On the other hand, when the story is told from Peggy and Betty’s perspective, it is the tale of the beginnings of feminist urges and the roots of female empowerment. Betty crashes her car while struggling with the dead-end nature of her life as a mother and trophy for her succesful husband, and Peggy is used sexually by one of her co-workers and immediately tossed out with the trash. It is a very intriguing 21st century perspective on the rampant sexism of the 1960’s. Unfortunately, the two segments of the show rarely have a chance to interact. Instead, it comes off as a disjointed product that tries to hard to please too many people at once. At this point, the women are easily the most interesting aspect of the series, but they’re stories often pale in comparison to the hedonism of the men.

The show has some flaws that it needs to work through, and I’m still not entirely sure if I’ve been able to pick on the single over-riding theme of the series unless its excess and the ruthless pursuit of wealth and pleasure. However, at the end of the day, it’s still compelling TV and I know I’ll be back for more. At the end of the day, I’m simply thankful that I’m alive and old enough to appreciate the television renaissance we’ve been in for a while now. Yes, there are still mind-numbing reality programs like Jersey Shore or Teen Mom that are destroying the youth, but for those of us who want more mature fare, some of the best programs in the history of the medium are either on air right now or they ended only within the last three or four years (though most of the shows that are on the “best” list are sadly off the air: The Sopranos, Lost, The Wire). I’m ready to see more of Sterling Cooper and to find out just who Don Draper really is.

Final Score: A-