Monday, February 8, 2010


Near the end of last year, I watched the second and third seasons of Mad Men. While it is a slow moving drama that is "boring" to my little brother (and he enjoyed the slowest movie I have ever watched: Cache), I find the sets, plot-lines, and characters fascinating. I've already gone into the premise of the show on an older blog, but an abbreviated recap is that the show is about a 1960s ad agency located on Madison Avenue.

One of the thoughts I had while watching the later seasons involved the idea of characters. The show does a swell job of developing each main character, slowly unveiling small portions of each character's person-hood, and rarely using large plot twists in order to interrupt the unveiling. As with every story told, the writers (/actors/etc.) build a character that evokes a certain emotion for those viewing. With an established character, the writer can mold the story in a variety of ways.

Peggy Olson, one of the main characters, is a young, single woman, who started out as a receptionist but worked her way up in the company despite prejudices held against women. To me (and most others watching), she is infinitely likable.

Pete Campbell, another main character, is an ad man waiting for his chance to move up in the company. He does fine at his job but is extremely self-centered and overestimates himself. He is wholly unlikable.

The show often contains meetings held where the ad men try to sell advertising ideas to large corporations. Say, for example, they're meeting with British Airways. They would come up with a quick slogan printed beneath a picture of a well dressed man walking through an airport. The ad would not just be advertising airline tickets, it would be selling a certain quality of life and "cool" factor in attempts to draw the consumer in. There's a story in every advertisement that says to the consumer, "I'm fun and likable in one way or another, you can have this life too with my product." The ad men in Mad Men are experts at tapping into the human psyche in order to find what the consumer wants.

I realized that that's exactly what the show does (as do all stories). It builds a character that is likable, unlikable, or in between...-able. A good writer knows humans well. Well enough to create someone that I have strong feelings for, or against. When Peggy Olson (the one I like) does something, I almost always root for her. When Pete Campbell does something, I almost always root against him.

What I'm starting to realize is that a mark of a good critic is the ability to look outside of a character and start to see why that character is portrayed a particular way. The writer uses a certain criteria to develop characters and I want to get to the place where I'm not so much analyzing a certain character as I am analyzing why and how that character is portrayed the way he/she is.

So I don't want to just like Peggy Olson, I want to know why I like Peggy Olson. And conversely, I don't want to simply dislike Pete Campbell, I want to know why I dislike Pete Campbell.

Basically, I don't want to just buy the product because the ad man sold the product well.

No comments: