The Best Season of ‘Mad Men’ Is a ‘Hallmark’ of Primetime TV

No roundup of the best TV shows of all time is complete without Mad Men. The show took the circuitous route to the small screen. Two networks passed it over before the series landed at AMC. It quickly became apparent that HBO and FX had made a big mistake. Mad Men immediately became recognized as a work of brilliance, thanks to its consistently great writing and performances that made every character more interesting as viewers spent more time with them. Its reputation remained high throughout the show’s seven-season run, but Mad Men‘s best season remains a “hallmark” of primetime TV.

‘Mad Men’ was a breakout TV show during its 1st season

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John Slattery, Rich Sommer, and Jon Hamm film a scene for ‘Mad Men’ in 2013 | Gonzalo/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

Describing what happens in most Mad Men episodes on a literal basis makes it sound like the most mundane and forgettable show that has ever existed. “A group of upper-class yuppies tries to run an advertising agency” doesn’t sound like a show worthy of reverence years after it left the airwaves. But the magic of the show lies in the amount of thought and care that creator Matthew Weiner and company put into every detail about these characters and the world they inhabit — even if they filmed most of it far from its setting

That setting is New York in 1960, the home of Sterling Cooper, a respected ad agency whose main asset is executive Donald Draper (played by Jon Hamm). From a distance, he has everything a man could want. He has a beautiful wife and family, he can turn on the charm at a moment’s notice, and he’s great at his job. He’s the archetypal “men want to be him, women want to sleep with him” guy. 

But beneath the surface lies a traumatized man whose failure to reckon with the pain in his past reverberates through every decision he makes. The first season methodically shows how his biggest secret influences his actions while he attempts to keep up appearances at work and home. 

Draper is the main attraction, but the other characters also get some shine. The audience surrogate is Peggy Olson, Don’s new secretary, whose ambition conflicts with the sexist attitudes in the world, and several other Sterling Cooper employees have unique storylines.

The first season averaged a modest 900,000 viewers but quickly became known as one of the best shows on television. Season 1 has an 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and won six Emmys, including Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series. Jon Hamm and John Slattery, as Roger Sterling Jr., also earned nods in the acting categories.

More fans hopped on the bandwagon for ‘Mad Men’ Season 2

Although season 1 was well received, Mad Men Season 2 pushed the show to another level. It takes place in 1962, and Don’s bad habits are beginning to bear consequences as his life spirals out of control while he deals with new tensions at Sterling Cooper. As that happens, we learn more about his wife Betty (January Jones) as she’s pushed into unexpected positions as she reconsiders her life amid marital troubles. And amid the office drama, Peggy makes real strides in her career for the first time. 

Mad Men Season 2 boasts a perfect rating on Rotten Tomatoes and earned rave reviews.

“The writing is a real thing of beauty — from … nuance to searing workplace witticisms and pitch-perfect tone from a multitude of characters. You can’t overstate how accomplished Mad Men is at understanding the vagaries of dialogue among disparate characters,” Tim Goodman of SFGATE wrote after the season 2 premiere. 

And Rob Owen of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said of season 2: “It’s a Mad Men hallmark that sets the show head and shoulders above its prime-time peers.”

After the second season, the show won Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series again, and Elisabeth Moss earned her first nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. 

(Warning: The video below has spoilers, so be careful if you haven’t watched Mad Men yet.)

The show is rightly regarded as an all-time classic

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Mad Men was considered one of the outstanding achievements in modern TV before it ended, and that consensus has not changed. 

Each season made the show more profound and expansive than the previous. The particulars of each plotline change, but they generally revolve around the identity crises of each character. As America went through one of its most transformative decades, the entire cast is searching for their place in the world as society’s chaos is reflected in their personal and work lives. 

The show is also hilarious. As heady and existential as Mad Men gets, Weiner and his fellow writers always make room for one-liners and genuinely silly jokes. A different version of the show could’ve been a workplace comedy in the style of The Office.

Mad Men shows the nuances of life in a way that speaks as much to present-day problems as those of the ’60s. It succeeds at that goal more often than most other TV series.