First Watch: Mad Men – “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (Season 1, Episode 1)

I might be jumping the gun a bit here, but I think it is important that I preface this review with this fact: I watched the pilot of this show four times because I fell asleep during it the first three times.

Mad Men is a period drama taking place in New York City in the 1960’s and is centered (mostly) around the life of adman, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) — an intelligent, creative and suave gentleman of many vices. While Don can be a prick, he’s probably the least offensive (male) of the ensemble cast comprised mostly of folks working for fictional ad company Sterling Cooper. The pilot introduces us to quite a few faces, but I’ll just be focusing on the ones that stood out.

  • Don Draper is, as previously stated, the show’s main character. In the pilot, he has two storylines: the Lucky Strike account and the Menken account.
    • The Lucky Strike account is the one-off episode storyline. The pilot begins with a stumped Don discussing cigarette brands with a waiter in a bar while he  tries to find inspiration for an ad for Lucky Strike. Unfortunately for Don, he doesn’t figure it out just yet. He does find out that people “love smoking”, though. Throughout the core of the episode, Don manages to make no progress whatsoever, while also completely dismissing ideas from Sterling Cooper’s medical researcher, Dr. Greta Guttman (Gordana Rashovich),  and their art director, Sal Romano (Bryan Batt). Don thinks about the ad in the bar, Don thinks about the ad while in bed with his mistress, Don thinks about the ad while laying on a couch and, in the end, Don comes up with nothing until the last second, where he impresses the Lucky Strike folk and secures the tobacco account with a simple, yet effective new slogan. Hurray for Don.
    • The Menken account is the season-wide storyline. Early in the episode, Don screws up pretty big when he yells at Sterling Cooper client Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff) for not liking his ideas for her department store and then storms out of the meeting. Fortunately, by the episode’s end, Don gathers all of his charm and wins her account back. Hurray for Don.
  • Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) is a slimy, young account executive at Sterling Cooper and probably the reason I don’t like this show. He doesn’t have much of a storyline, but I do want to talk about him outside of Don.
    • It was hard for me to decide whether to list this storyline as Peggy Olson’s (Elisabeth Moss) or Pete Campbell’s, but in the end I went with Pete because I have a little more to say about him. Pete desperately wants to be Don (and is not very subtle about it) and tries to step up and win the accounts when Don initially fails at both of them — meeting miserable failures of his own with both of his attempts, too. But, Pete wanting to be like Don is understandable. That’s not why I hate him. I hate him because he just about rapes a woman at his bachelor party (and probably would have, if this were some premium channel where that sort of thing were allowed on the screen) and relentlessly makes advances on new hire, Peggy Olson. My biggest disappointment with this show is when his advances succeeded and Peggy took him up to her room at the end of the pilot. Sigh. Why, Peggy? Why?

I really want to like Mad Men, but that hasn’t happened for me yet. It’s unfortunate, because this seems like a series I would really be interested in on paper: it’s a period drama with plenty of good actors, it seems to juggle multiple storylines well (including season-wide arcs) and there is some mystery to our leading man to be discovered later, but it just isn’t working for me yet. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop watching, though. I have already decided to watch the entire series so that I can review the final season next year, but I’m really hoping that I have a Turning Point some time soon where I say “hey, I like this show now”. One can hope, right?

  • Rating: “I really want to like Mad Men, but that hasn’t happened for me yet.”
  • Comment:  This show isn’t terrible, I just haven’t been hooked yet. Pete is terrible, though.
  • You might like Mad Men if you like: heavy male chauvinism, racism and overall straight, white male dominance that characterizes pretty much any American period drama. But, really — I’ll update this when I figure out why people like Mad Men.

Mad Men just finished its sixth season on AMC, with its final season airing next year (possibly with a split season). You can catch up the first five seasons on Netflix.

About Daniel

I'm a guy who spends way too much time playing board games and watching television with his friends. View all posts by Daniel

2 responses to “First Watch: Mad Men – “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (Season 1, Episode 1)

  • Josie Kafka

    Daniel, I can’t wait to read what you think about Mad Men as you get more into it. I’ve seen all the episodes, and I’ll finish the entire run once the last season airs, but I cannot understand why everyone seems so taken with this show, especially since no one can actually explain to me why it is great.

    I think it has all the trappings of insight and none of the actual insight. The portrayal of a man coming to terms with himself in a period of social change is ham-fisted to the point of idiocy. The symbolism is over the top. The characters aren’t that complex (with one or two exceptions, like Joan). Most of the shots are boring over-over-two shots. Sure, the clothes are pretty, but I’m convinced people like it just because it rarely uses music, so it feels like watching a stately art film.

    Have you seen Orphan Black? Orphan Black is better than Mad Men. (Ducks to avoid rotting fruits and vegetables.)

    • Daniel

      I actually have seen the pilot of Orphan Black and I have a draft sitting over here waiting to be written for my first impressions of the episode. Cody (my partner on the site) and I watched it about a week ago and there is no doubt that I enjoyed it more than I have enjoyed Mad Men so far.

      I want to like this show, I really do, but it just isn’t doing anything for me yet (I AM only four episodes deep, though). I think you’re probably onto something with your assessment of the show, but I’m going to reserve my judgment until I’ve gotten a bit further in. I’ve already decided to watch it all the way through, regardless of my enjoyment, simply because of how big the show has grown to be over the years.

      Oh well. I’m sure I’ll have some more reviews of this after awhile, I’m trying to watch an episode a day until I get to a point when I actually WANT to watch the show .. No signs of that happening any time soon, though.

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