‘Mad Men’ makes a splash bigger than its ratings

By Lynn Elber

The season finale is Sunday.

LOS ANGELES — “Mad Men” draws a slice of viewers as slender as Don Draper’s 1960s neckties, yet the TV drama unquestionably is all the rage.

There was a “Mad Men”-themed category last week on “Jeopardy!” along with an online game. A “Mad Men” homage is tucked like a fancy chocolate treat into the Nov. 2 Halloween episode of “The Simpsons.”

Fashion designer Michael Kors cited “Mad Men” as an inspiration. The show’s beautifully retro-styled stars are on magazine covers. A “Mad Men” DVD was spotted at the elbow of Barack Obama aboard his campaign plane.

Jon Hamm, who stars as New York ad man Draper, was picked to host NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” this weekend, the night before the AMC series concludes its second season (10 p.m. Sunday).

And, no small point, “Mad Men” was crowned best drama at this year’s Emmy Awards, the first basic cable show to claim top series honors. Shy of being pumped into the water supply, “Mad Men” is everywhere — except on most people’s TV sets.

About 1.5 million U.S. viewers tune in weekly, with another half-million watching later on DVRs. That compares with the 19 million-plus audience for last week’s No. 1 program, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” on CBS.

Doesn’t matter. It’s “Mad Men” that’s permeating the zeitgeist.

“It’s been great. It’s been amazing. Do you have a theory about why it is?” asks series creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner, sounding both delighted and overwhelmed.

“It’s hard to break out from basic cable. ... I had no foresight I would get articles sent to me from friends where it’s become an adjective, or involved in the presidential election,” Weiner said. “And there’s the rest of it: ‘Why don’t we dress that way? Why don’t people have better manners?”’

So how does a period drama — albeit a really cool one with a great-looking cast — end up being so influential? Let’s check with an expert for answers (caution: references to both “elite” and “intellectual” follow).

It’s a recurring phenomenon, said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

“It happens in literature all the time,” Thompson said. “Everyone knows about Herman Melville’s ‘Moby-Dick,’ but a tiny percentage of the population has read it. But we all know about it and it’s highly influential in American literature.”

Television isn’t exempt. Consider the 1987-91 drama “thirtysomething,” which never attained hit ratings but influenced fashion, language and the look of commercials. Or “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” which Thompson calls an important part of the civic conversation despite its small audience.

“You get one of those programs that grip the elite intellectual minority, the people that are writing and about talking about culture, and the influence extends a lot further than the actual audience would indicate,” he said.

In the case of “Mad Men,” it’s deserved: Thompson calls the show “brilliant” and a gift to television (both here and abroad, where it’s widely distributed).

Rewarding followers, AMC’s drama has become even more dramatically and emotionally rich in its second season as its vibrant characters push against self-imposed and social limits. Meanwhile, the world quivers with approaching change.

“Mad Men,” which started in 1960, fast-fowarded in season two to 1962, the year that Marilyn Monroe died (the secretarial pool at the Sterling Cooper agency was in tears) and nuclear destruction loomed.

When he planned the season and its finale, Weiner decided it was “going to be about the end of the world,” a theme he knew would echo with viewers even before the economic crisis hit.

2008, The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

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