The curious appeal of Don Draper

Don Draper: Mad Man of mystery
Don Draper: Mad Man of mystery
It’s probably no longer worth fighting the argument that telly is the new film.

Actors must believe it, or Dustin Hoffmann wouldn’t have chosen his first TV show since the 1960s. That’s even if three horses dying on set have seen the inappropriately named Luck head for the glue factory.

Netflix and Lovefilm must do too, or they wouldn’t be offering TV series to rent as well as movies.

The playwright and screenwriter Sir David Hare wrote that the future of American film is on television.

And the kerfuffle around the return of Mad Men, from broadsheets to billboards, has been as feverish as the welcome for any new Scorsese or Christopher Nolan flick.

Most recent hit dramas have been successful because they revolve around a strong central character who is either a hero or an anti-hero. Martin Sheen’s President Jeb Bartlett delivers his stirring monologues to orchestral backing in a way that would have you seeing his Ready Brek halo if the show was screened in HD. Jack Bauer saves the President, his wayward daughter and the English-speaking world from nuclear Armageddon before breakfast without so much as a loo break.

In the morally ambigious corner, the list is exhaustive – Bryan Cranston’s dark-hearted “Heisenberg” in Breaking Bad, Edie Falco’s pill-popping Nurse Jackie, the cops in The Shield and The Wire, Tony Soprano, Damian Lewis’s Sgt Nick Brody in Homeland, Michael C Hall’s Dexter, Boardwalk Empire’s arch-politician, Nucky Thompson. None of these would be anyone’s first choice for babysitting duties.

Mad Men’s originality lies in constructing its narrative around a cipher. In many ways, it is the most sophisticated ghost story committed to screen.

Don Draper is not a hero. He’s not a villain. (Mild series one spoiler alert…) Don Draper isn’t even Don Draper.

There’s no denying he and naturally the actor who plays him, Jon Hamm are a large part of the reason for Mad Men’s success, and why its female viewers outnumber the male. His character is the wheel around which the show turns. He’s the poster boy. (That’s if they’re not using Christina Hendricks.)

The agency may have started as Sterling Cooper, but Draper was the focus of attention.

Mad Men viewers may look on Roger Sterling’s lackadaisical work ethic, especially journalists from the 1970s, with awe and reverence. Many can recognise someone in their office who shares the same, back-biting, supercilious, small-picture ambition of Vincent Kartheiser’s magnificently smarmy Pete Campbell. Women, even those revulsed by the show’s celebration of throwback gender politics, can appreciate Peggy Olson’s best efforts at making a dent in her own glass ceiling. Others, but not all, respect Joan Holloway’s desire to make the best of her own gifts.

Don however is a mystery to his colleagues, his family and – some achievement from writers and cast, this – the viewers themselves. While he regularly comes home to wife and family, to whom he is devoted, he pursues other romantic options in a cavalier and random manner. On any given period at work, he promotes and encourages female colleagues. On another day, he’ll belittle them. He’s a cold fish with lady friends but warm and loyal to certain account executives.

He is kind to a man pitching a million on an unwise business venture, or an alcoholic colleague, and cruel when he leaves his mistress to crawl out the passenger seat of a car so that he can patch things up with his wife. He’s a used car salesman turned New York’s greatest ad exec, the ultimate self-made man. He is….well, you decide.

Showrunner Matthew Wiener describes the programme as “very personal to me” which makes one equally curious about who Matthew Wiener is … apart from being a former writer on The Sopranos. The momentum of Don Draper, a man with a supreme belief in his ability but shaky self-knowledge, is bound to keep viewers gripped through the next few series.

One aspect of the Mad Men fandom is troubling. In 2009, Ask Men website ranked Don Draper as “the Most Influential Man in the World” ahead of the US President and Steve Jobs. If that really is true, that’s identity crisis on a global scale.