'Mad Men' at 10: Why This Landmark TV Show Is Still a Golden-Age Standout

Rob Sheffield on how, a decade after its debut, Matthew Weiner's Madison Ave drama still feels timeless – and totally unique

Rob Sheffield on 'Mad Men' at 10: How Matthew Weiner's Madison Ave TV drama still feels timeless and totally unique a decade after its debut. Credit: AMC

"What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons." With these tender words, Don Draper talked himself into the heart of his new client Rachel Mencken, and into TV history. The first episode of Mad Men aired 10 years ago today, on July 19th, 2007, introducing the world to a rogue's gallery of glamorously twisted con artists. Jon Hamm as Don, the Korean War deserter who steals a dead officer's dogtags and invents himself a new life as a Madison Avenue advertising genius. John Slattery as Roger Sterling, the silver-fox hustler who shows him the ropes. Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson, the timid secretary who claws her way into the business. Christina Hendricks as Joan Holloway, the bombshell driven by rage and vengeance. How strange to recall there was ever a time when we didn't know these people.

Mad Men came out of nowhere – in other words, from AMC, then just known as a second-rate basic-cable rerun machine. But more importantly, the series came from nobody – a nobody named Matthew Weiner, who started writing the pilot in 1999, after winning prize money as a contestant on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? He had already kicked around the TV business, writing Ted Danson jokes on Becker, after drifting into college theater as a teenage Elvis Costello fanatic. That's an underrated aspect of the Mad Men legend for sure: you can trace Don Draper's whole sensibility to songs like "Riot Act" and the way Costello sings, "Don't put your heart on your sleeve when your remarks are off the cuff."

Weiner spent years working on that pilot. When David Chase hired him in 2003 as a writer on The Sopranos, it was on the strength of his Mad Men script. "I wanted to write the greatest pilot ever," he told Rolling Stone in 2010. "That was my ambition. I wanted it to be profound and I wanted it to be true, and I wanted it to be about a man my age and what I was interested in: Who do you look up to? Why am I still 18 inside? Why am I so ungrateful for everything that I have? And who am I?"

That first episode is clearly a work in progress, like all pilots – Don Draper isn't fleshed out as a character yet. When he shows up for a pitch meeting unprepared, he both looks and sounds nervous, bumbling and stammering his way to a sale – that's not the Don we see swagger through the rest of the season. His ability to fake unflappable confidence on the spur of the moment is part of why he's irresistible to clients. It's also why he's a danger who anyone who gets too close to him.

From the beginning, Mad Men worked so well because Weiner found such an astounding cast of his fellow nobodies – brilliant but unemployed actors with a hunger that only he recognized. The year before Hamm auditioned for the role, he took seven screen tests for TV shows and didn't score a single day's work. "My life at the time was trying to get a job," he said. "Talk about ruthless – being an actor in L.A. and not working is nothing but hustling. I just really responded to it on some visceral level, and that may have been what Matt picked up on. That may be why the character resonates coming from me."

Hendricks had been kicking around for years, like everybody in the cast. She was a grunge-goth vixen in an Everclear video – "One Hit Wonder," a great tune that nobody noticed. She was also in a 1997 credit-card ad with Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, serving 007 tea and caviar but then asking him to show some ID. "Drivers license, license to kill, that sort of thing?" January Jones, as Betty Draper, was best known for her role in one of the American Pie movies as a girl who sneaks off to have sex with Stifler in the closet. (He goes into the wrong closet and doesn't realize he's having sex with her grandmother. Hilarity ensues!)

John Slattery played Walter Mondale in the 1999 HBO movie From the Earth to the Moon – damn good in the role, but as a rule, getting cast as Walter Mondale is a sign you're not on your way to becoming a legend. You watch these actors' apprentice work now and you see the blazing talent there. But on Mad Men, they were startlingly new, like the hustlers they played. The cast was stacked with these people, from the big roles to the tiny ones, from the pilot to the finale. (Namaste, Helen Slater!) The show has to hold the record for one-hit-wonder characters – like a classic noir such as Kiss Me Deadly or The Killing, it's full of people who show up for just a scene or two, sometimes even just a line, yet burn themselves into the memory forever.

A decade after it debuted, and two years after that cliffside yoga epiphany of a finale, Mad Men remains strangely isolated in TV history. There's nothing like it now, just as there was nothing like it before. Other dramas imitated the surface trappings for a while – think of the period detail in Masters of Sex or Manhattan. But nobody really imitates the show because it's just too difficult to pull off what it had achieved. It stood out from the first episode as an adult drama that wasn't a crime story. Other Golden Age contenders – The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad – could always fall back on the comfort-food staples of the crime genre, spicing up an episode with a shoot-out or a chase scene. Mad Men never went there. Pete Campbell kept that stupid rifle in his office for over a decade without firing it once, a clever flip-off to Chekhov's famous dictum that if you show an audience a gun in the first act, it has to go off before the final curtain. The only time we heard gunfire was in Don's Korean War flashbacks or Kenny's unfortunate hunting accident. The closest Pete Campbell came was fondling it during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Instead of cops and robbers, Mad Men was about liars, a much more threatening American archetype. You probably haven't shot anyone today, or sold any crystal meth, but you've probably already told a few juicy lies, even to yourself in the bathroom mirror. That's why the canon-worthy show was such a disturbingly seductive fantasy from the start. And that's why – 10 years after Don Draper introduced himself to the world – there is still nothing like it at all.