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.”
This was a wildly presumptuous thing for any TV exec to suggest in the mid-’00s, much less at a channel with no real track record in this area. Yet miraculously, Mad Men, which debuted 39 days after Tony Soprano cut to black, and was created by Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner, was exactly that. It won the best drama Emmy in its first year — its first four years, in fact, tying an Emmy record — and was, from the very start, one of the most critically-acclaimed shows ever made. It never became as big a commercial hit or cultural phenomenon as its inspiration, but it, coupled with the arrival the following year of a little show called Breaking Bad, accomplished more than Sapan, Sorcher, and company could have possibly dreamed of when they began looking for it. It put AMC on the map — what cable operator would dare risk the wrath of Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway’s fans by pulling the channel from their lineup? — won buckets of awards, was omnipresent in the media (who never tired of both trend pieces and deep dive analyses of each episode(*)), and helped build the infrastructure that in time allowed AMC to develop TV’s highest-rated (by far) drama, The Walking Dead.
(*) If you’re feeling nostalgic today (or any other day), the majority of my episode reviews are here on Uproxx, while I tackled the first three seasons at my old blog. (Here’s what I wrote about the pilot 10 years ago tonight.) If you want to head straight for my comments on a particular episode, try poking around here.
Weiner had written the script nearly a decade before Mad Men debuted, back when he was an unhappy sitcom writer. He had tried to sell it all around town (including at HBO, where that script helped him get the Sopranos staff job), with no takers. And even once AMC bought it, there was still a lot of time and sweat and arguing — Weiner needed to audition Hamm multiple times, then arrange an in-person meeting with AMC executive Christina Wayne, before being allowed to cast him — before the sleek, beautiful, smart version of Mad Men that we know burst forth on July 19, 2007.
But from the outside looking in, it seemed for all the world that AMC had tried on another identity just as easily as Dick Whitman did when he switched dogtags with the real Don Draper, and the effect on the overall TV business was palpable. Mad Men never had a huge audience, but it was the TV equivalent of the Velvet Underground: every TV executive who watched it tried to launch their own prestige drama.
Again, the groundwork for Don Draper’s existence had been laid by Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, and others. But if the decade following the debut of Oz offered a steady stream of interesting new cable series, the decade following Mad Men has given us a flood. Everyone in the business had seen how AMC went from zero to hero, essentially with one show (Breaking Bad clarified that AMC was for real, but it was an afterthought in both ratings and prestige until its later years), and as the business became more and more unbundled, they understood why Josh Sapan had been so gung-ho to get his own Sopranos. Ambitious scripted dramas became both a status symbol around town and a killer app to survive in an increasingly crowded marketplace, especially once the various streaming services all began making their own shows about difficult men and women. If you didn’t have your own would-be Mad Men, what was the point?
Imitation is the sincerest form of television, and few shows have been imitated more than this one, whether with direct analogues like The Playboy Club, Pan Am, Magic City and Masters of Sex, non-’60s shows about charismatic anti-heroes (House of Cards, or AMC’s own Halt and Catch Fire in its early days), or just ambitious dramas filling one of the many small niches created by the splintering of the audience that Mad Men helped accelerate.
The problem is that the market is saturated now, and it’s much harder for even great shows to stand out the way Mad Men did when it burst onto a much less crowded scene ten years ago. Already we’ve seen a couple of channels like A&E and WGN borrow the AMC/FX playbook, put on good-to-great dramas like Bates Motel, Manhattan, and Underground, then get out of the scripted TV business altogether after failing to generate enough interest.
If he hadn’t already dropped dead of a heart attack from all the drinking and smoking and occasional drug use (and if he wasn’t fictional), Don Draper probably wouldn’t appreciate anyone calling attention to this anniversary. He wouldn’t let Betty and the kids celebrate his birthday, and had a fight with Megan after she sang him a 40th birthday present. But it’s been a remarkable 10 years in television since Don, Peggy, and friends burst onto the scene, for both Mad Men itself and the many, many, many, many, many shows that followed it.
It’s a time machine. But also, apparently, a duplication machine.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org