From the first note of its surreal opening credit sequence, "Mad Men," which returns Aug. 16, transports viewers to an entirely different world, one where overt sexism filters through clouds of smoke that choke optimism and hope. Bigotry and adultery are as much a part of the workplace as highball glasses and bottles of liquor. Women are marginalized and demeaned; men are trapped by their families, patriarchy, and their own insecurities; everyone desperately struggles to be understood, loved, and appreciated.
Meanwhile, the men and women of the fictional Sterling Cooper advertising agency craft marketing messages that draw people in despite the reality of the product they're selling, as on the very first episode when Don Draper proposed selling Lucky Strike cigarettes as "toasted," selling the attractiveness of the process over the actual effect.
Why, despite all of this, is "Mad Men" not just good television, but thrillingly entertaining to watch? Because it does exactly what Don Draper did: it gives viewers an alluring package that contains some not-so-pleasant material.
"Mad Men" isn't the first great TV show to deal with difficult, even brutal themes, characters who aren't always sympathetic, or an unpleasant environment. But it's a far a more easygoing show than HBO's "The Sopranos," for which "Mad Men" creator Matt Weiner wrote, or "Deadwood."
That's not to say that "Mad Men" isn't as great as those series; it is easily in their company, and in its greatest moments, even better. And of course, its exceptional production values, acting, and writing embarrass most network TV dramas.
A beautiful fantasy
The AMC series is accessible and engaging in large part because its universe is so stunningly beautiful, and that softens the impact of the cultural shocks. Weiner's attention to detail and the show's incredible production design make this world come alive, from the men's crisp suits to the women's perfectly shaped hair, the muted tones of the office to the hazy air from the never-ending chain of cigarettes.
The realism is astounding, yet it also seems to be a fantasyland, from the whimsical patterns and shapes of the 1960s to the way the characters seem both thoroughly real and yet archetypes, thanks to their frequent lack of expressiveness.
But the larger setting and context also add to the show's appeal, even though the time period had plenty of problems.
The early 1960s time period is just far enough away that it induces both nostalgia — both for those who actually lived during that time and for those who wish they had — and contempt. That time has passed, and society has evolved and changed enough that the characters' behavior is often shocking. More significantly, "Mad Men" is set at a time when major change was afoot, so even in its darker moments, there's a sense of optimism, that society will grow and change and free these characters from what holds them down.
Familiar yet broken characters
Then again, the characters and their lives may also be too familiar, like Don and Betty Draper's marriage, which is loveless yet somewhat functional.
As the series has progressed, the characters have often found ways to empower themselves, even at the expense of others, whether that was Peggy Olson's ascension within Sterling Cooper, which is entirely due to her actual work and talents, or the way Peggy devastated Pete Campbell by revealing to him that she gave away their baby, which he never knew she had.
Likewise, the second season ended as Betty's pregnancy led her to have a sexual encounter with another man before returning home to her husband.
Besides getting back at one another for the way they've been treated, the characters also have reclaimed some of what society has taken from them — sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly. The actors allow us to see their characters' motivations clearly, and thanks to those fantastic performances, the characters' insecurities and fears are sometimes communicated more clearly than their bad behavior.
That's what makes it easier for a late-2000s viewer to watch 1960s-era behavior, whether that's men making demeaning remarks about women or, more broadly, a character fighting for acceptance in a time and place that wasn't willing to accept them.
Likewise, the show doesn't telegraph its messages. It mostly remains disconnected from the outside world, so the politics and cultural trends of the time are illustrated through people and their lives, not broad, sweeping arguments.
It's much more horrifying to see something happen to a well-developed character than to hear about an abstract concept. In the Madison Avenue offices of Sterling Cooper, "Mad Men" offers plenty of horror, but more than enough character to compensate.