AMC’s Mad Men debuted 10 years ago tonight. To celebrate its anniversary, Brian Grubb rewatched the pilot to see how it plays knowing all that we know now, while I decided to look at its enormous impact on the TV business.
The name “Dick Whitman” isn’t uttered in the Mad Men pilot. The closest that first episode offers to a hint about Don Draper’s true identity is a brief moment while Don is napping in his office and he imagines the faint sound of gunfire and explosions from what will eventually be explained as his time in Korea. Dick’s name wouldn’t be mentioned until the third episode, and the full story not explained until late in the first season.
But the tale of an unwanted, unloved loser who reinvents himself on a whim as a titan of industry applies not only to Mad Men itself, but to what AMC did in putting the show on the air — and the impact that had on TV in general. Other shows had made this one possible, but Mad Men in many ways is the Patient Zero of Peak TV.
Think about what AMC was before the summer of 2007 began. It was everyone’s second-favorite classic movie cable channel, which in a universe that featured only one other, also made it everyone’s least-favorite classic movie cable channel. It was the place you turned to if you didn’t mind sitting through a version of The Godfather with constant commercial interruptions, or if you just had a hankering for the films John Wayne made after he’d gone up a few belt sizes. AMC had made an earlier attempt at a scripted series in the critically-praised but little-watched Remember WENN (like Mad Men, a period piece about the power of mass media), and the regime that greenlit Mad Men had previously developed a popular, Emmy-winning miniseries Broken Trail, but even that seemed an anomaly. AMC wasn’t already prestigious the way HBO had been when Oz and The Sopranos debuted, nor did it have the enormous corporate backing FX had in the lonely years before The Shield and Nip/Tuck. It was a niche channel being badly outdone in its own niche by TCM, and the only reason it even went into original scripted drama was because CEO Josh Sapan wanted a reason for viewers to complain to any cable company who dropped AMC.
As former AMC exec Rob Sorcher put it to me when I interviewed him for The Revolution Was Televised, “[Sapan’s] directive to me was, ‘We need a Sopranos.”