by Jason Smythe
I have a confession to make: I am an addict. My addiction: Mad Men. And with the show on hiatus until 2015 I am suffering from serious withdrawals. I thought I had experienced pain but I was mistaken, for there is no pain greater than a Mad Men detoxification. But in-between the jags of immense soul-crushing pain I had an epiphany, and it was that Mad Men is more than a TV show – it is art. What is my definition of art and how Mad Men reaches such lofty heights? Read more to find out.
Art is a vague concept, and does not necessarily have to be visual. But since we are dealing with the inherently visual medium of television I will limit myself to defining what makes something visual art. My definition is as follows: It must contain a visual component, and it must be sublime. The latter criterion is by far the most important, because there is a massive difference between something that is say, a painting versus a painting that is art. Let me explain: A few days ago I decided to look through some drawings I did when I was roughly eleven years old and I remember thinking to myself, “not bad, Jason! Those are some decent looking trees. You sure put those crayons to good use!” And because my mind is random I then started to think about my first visit to the Getty Museum, which also occurred when I was roughly eleven years old. It was the first time I had seen the works of Titian and the other Italian Renaissance masters in person, and it was awe-inspiring. The way Caravaggio played with shadows, the sheer power of Titian’s imagery – it was a transcendent experience. Eventually I stopped reminiscing and looked back at my drawings. The trees looked decent, but it wasn’t awe inspiring. In other words: It wasn’t art.
With my definition of art now elucidated, we come to the central question of this article: how does Mad Men transcend the realm of television to the higher plane of art? The answer is through cinematography. The camera work and lighting on Mad Men is beyond brilliant, and any casual or avid fan can point to myriad examples of this over the years. But the most sublime of them all occurred only a few short weeks ago during the penultimate episode of season 7. As you will soon see, the episode’s last scene was a piece of Titian-quality art.
The scene begins with Don Draper, Peggy Olsen and Pete Campbell (three of the show’s main characters) sitting together in a fictitious fast-food restaurant eating burgers. The restaurant is sanitary and well-lit, and they are all smiling. Pete takes a bite of his burger and some ketchup squirts on the side of his face. All three of them find this to be amusing, and as the camera begins to slowly zoom-out the characters continue to interact in a way that can best be described as ‘like a loving family’. This is appropriate, because the main theme of the episode is family, and in particular how shared experiences bring families closer together. The camera continues to zoom-out, and most of the restaurant’s exterior is now visible. The roof is lined with white fluorescent lights, and the glow of the lights, combined with the actions of the characters, gives off an aura of love. This is the feeling you experience when you are at home with your loved ones – trading stories, presents and smiles over holiday dinner, and here is that very feeling being replicated on television through the use of lighting and camera equipment. It is simple yet awe-inspiring, and is slightly reminiscent of Hopper’s iconic “Nighthawks”, with the difference being that this diner is packed and the patrons are far happier. Come to think of it, it is probably more reminiscent of a Rockwell painting. Regardless of which painter this scene most reminds me of, Mad Men has been full of sublime scenes like this throughout its run, and because of its ability to consistently reach such heights we must consider Mad Men to be more than just a television show. It is a work of art, and we should start treating it like one. Museums of the world take note, and start showing loops of Mad Men beside your collection of Hopper and Rockwell paintings! At the very least you’ll help cure my Mad Men-related pain.