I realize that Mad Men pretty much gave birth to online TV recap culture as we know it, and the last thing the world needs is another blogger reviewing the show. However, I’m making posts on each episode at the Mad Men subreddit‘s rewatch, so I figured I’d post them here. I’ll also add some extra thoughts here that aren’t a good fit for a Reddit post.
In the premiere episode of Mad Men, 20-year-old secretarial school graduate and native Brooklynite Peggy Olson starts work at the Sterling Cooper advertising agency on Madison Avenue in March 1960. We’re introduced to her boss, and series central figure, Don Draper, along with the core of the show’s unforgettable cast of characters: quippy Silver Fox co-owner Roger Sterling; queen bee office manager Joan Holloway, closeted art director Salvatore Romano, obnoxious young executive Pete Campbell, and his entourage, including media buyer Harry Crane, and accounts-man-on-the-prowl Ken Cosgrove. Joan gives Peggy an orientation, which includes a lunch-time visit to a gynecologist who will prescribe the then-new birth control pill for Peggy. Don frets over coming up with a campaign that will help Lucky Strike hit back at the latest government health claims against cigarettes, pulling out an iconic catchphrase at the last minute. Peggy takes some of Joan’s advice a bit too far and makes a failed pass at her boss, but gladly welcomes a drunken Pete into her home late at night, after his bachelor party. Oral contraceptives protect you from getting pregnant right away, don’t they?
With the hindsight of having seen an entire series, pilot episodes often appear very different than the rest of the show. This is partly because the creators, writers and director have to exaggerate some of the show’s qualities to get the attention of viewers and network execs, and partly due to logistics–the pilot is often filmed well in advance of the rest of the first season, before the show gets picked up with a series order. Sometimes, sets are different than what we come to know, and there’s even different actors in some roles.
“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” is not as foreign as some pilots, but it still can be jarring to fans who’ve seen the entire run of Mad Men. Nearly all characterizations are a bit exaggerated (only Roger seems 100% like the character we’d come to know). Certainly, Don’s sexism and nihilism is ratcheted up a notch. Overall, the “slow burn” style Mad Men would come to be known for is not in place in this episode, although the show abruptly switches gears to its more restrained style in only the second episode, “Ladies Room.” Fortunately, no actors were replaced; Matt Weiner’s real-life mom in the photograph on Pete’s desk as “Trudy Vogel” (soon to be Trudy Campbell, played by Alison Brie) is the only character inconsistency. (Actually that’s not technically true: the Sally and Bobby we see at the end of the episode aren’t the same actors who would play them in the very next episode, but we don’t get a very good look at the sleeping kids anyway.)
Most of the differences in tone and style can be chalked up to this episode being written at least five years before it was shot (Weiner had been working on it in fits and starts longer than that); it being shot a year before the rest of the Season 1 episodes; and it being the only episode of this famously New York-centric show to actually be shot in NYC. “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” was filmed during the break between the two parts of the final season of The Sopranos, with a crew made up largely of that show’s excellent band of technicians. Weiner had acquired a plum job as a writer and executive producer on The Sopranos, thanks to the script for “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” which had been developing a reputation in Hollywood for some time as the best unproduced television pilot. Other than Weiner, the most essential Sopranos veteran working on this pilot was director Alan Taylor. Taylor directed Sopranos episodes throughout the entirety of the show’s run, but became more of a regular director at the same time Weiner joined the show.
Historically, The Sopranos connection is important. “Made In America,” the famously ambiguous Sopranos finale, first aired on June 10, 2007; “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” premiered less than six weeks later on July 19. (Incidentally, July 19, 2007, was a Thursday! Although Mad Men is remembered as a Sunday night show, like a lot of prestige TV, it actually toiled as a mid-week show early on.) As the first great show of “The Second Golden Age of Television” was wrapping up, its second was waiting in the wings. Retroactively, we can see that there were actually many other great shows in this canon that debuted in between The Sopranos and Mad Men, but none captured the public’s imagination at a level like these two shows, raising the profile of television over the movies for the first time since TV’s first golden age.
What’s most intriguing about Mad Men’s cultural impact is that it even made an impact, considering its low viewership. Whereas The Sopranos could regularly pull in 13 million-plus viewers per episode–a nice chunk for television of any kind, but absolutely amazing for a show airing on premium cable–“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” premiered to a paltry 1.1 million viewers. Even at its peak popularity, the Nielsen ratings for Mad Men would only hit around 3.3 million viewers. One to three million viewers per episode is typical for a TV show with a cult following, but is unheard of for a show that made such a ripple in popular culture. All throughout 2007, Mad Men became the new show to talk about around the water cooler, untold number of bloggers basically invented online recap culture writing about it, while its immaculate Janie Bryant-detailed costumes brought the fashion of the Kennedy years back in vogue. And mixed drinks, primarily Don’s preferred rye Old Fashioned, saw a huge spike in popularity.
Which brings me back around to the content of this pilot episode. Although it can stick out like a sore thumb in comparison to the more muted, slow-paced, introspective episodes that were to come, it did its job as a pilot. It sold the AMC executives on the show, and it also sold a modest, but steady, viewership. Perhaps most importantly, it began the run of the first season which would cement the “prestige TV” concept; Mad Men’s first season would become the first basic cable show to win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series, a feat it would repeat in Seasons 2 through 4. (Its four wins place it in a tie for most wins in this category.)
One final bit of trivia: Although Mad Men is often remembered as the first original show on AMC, the former American Movie Classics, that’s not the case. AMC had a handful of movie-focused documentary shows under its belt already, and a game show hosted by Match Game legend Gene Rayburn, The Movie Masters. Mad Men wasn’t even AMC’s first scripted series; that “honor” goes to the largely forgotten 1996-1998 sitcom Remember WENN. A more promising dramedy, The Lot, premiered in 1999, and limped along for two seasons, hurt by the early departure of its star, Linda Cardellini, who left for the opportunity to star in a broadcast network show, Freaks and Geeks. Incidentally, Cardellini would be back on AMC for a pivotal role in Mad Men’s sixth season.