With 'Mad Men' Return, A Look At Its Influence

AMC's Mad Men returns with new episodes starting on Sunday, after being off the air for over a year. Audie Cornish talks to Tampa Bay Times critic Eric Deggans about the cultural influence of the show.

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(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC, "MAD MEN")

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

If you recognize this music then you know what we're about to discuss, the mysterious Don Draper and his gang of '60s era ad man and women. It's the return of "Mad Men." The show on AMC has been off the air for almost a year and a half and that's been rough for the show's passionate fans.

And for them, and for those of you wondering why should I care about "Mad Men," we have TV writer Eric Deggans of the Tampa Bay Times here to catch us up.

Hey there, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS: Hey, how are you doing?

CORNISH: Good. So, this is a show I have seen but I am not committed. So - and I know I'm not the only one. People say that "Mad Men" is like the most influential show that very few people watch.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Is that true?

DEGGANS: Yeah, just don't say that around the creator and executive producer, Matthew Weiner, 'cause I made that mistake and he corrected me quickly. But according to Nielsen Ratings, it only draws maybe two to three million people a week, which is very small. But the influence that it has is incredible and it's seen on a lot of different platforms - iTunes, video on demand, Netflix. There is a sense that that audience is much larger than maybe we realize.

And you can look at everything from some of the TV shows that we saw this fall - NBC's "The Playboy Club," ABC's "Pan Am." It's on the cover of TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly, and these guys are on the Today Show...

CORNISH: Well, I want to ask you about that. I mean, it seems like ad men love "Mad Men." You know, Madison Avenue loves "Mad Men."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Is it really a marketing phenomenon more than a cultural one?

DEGGANS: No, I think there's a few things going on here. Number one, there's nostalgia. I think people do like looking back to a time gone by. And they like looking back with a little bit of realism. You know, there's a sense that we're not seeing the airbrushed idealized version of the '60s. We're seeing it warts and all. We're seeing these guys who drink too much. They're sexist. They're racist. They're all the things that we knew people were back then.

And it's substantive. There's a reason this show has won the Best Drama Emmy every year that it's aired. It's because the stories are dense and so when people are fans they really have stuff that they can talk about.

CORNISH: Well, in trying to get back their audience, AMC has been heavily promoting the show. We saw some pretty hilarious promos over the past week or two, because I'm a fan of "The Walking Dead."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: Exactly. And what's amazing about this is that, of course, Matthew Weiner, the creator of the show, does not want to reveal anything that happens in this two-hour premiere. So AMC has all these promos that don't use any footage from the new season. So they did a great one where they incorporated "The Walking Dead," as well, one of their most popular shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF "MAD MEN" PROMO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: But it's set in a volatile time. Everyone looks good, has lots of sex, "Walking Dead" fans, "Mad Men" is for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: You've gotta love that. I mean, it's a great way of tying together their most popular show...

CORNISH: Which is about zombies, OK?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: ...which is about zombies.

CORNISH: Which is nothing close to the topic of what "Mad Men" is about.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: I think the idea is that really geeky fans of TV, like me and probably you, will enjoy another show that's really good television.

CORNISH: Now, the promo doesn't say very much, obviously, as you mentioned here, about what is actually going on, on the show. So, set it up for us. Where are we in the plot? Where are we with the hero, Don Draper?

DEGGANS: Yes, it's kind of hard to remember. It was 17 months ago. But he's a guy who's known for being a little self-destructive, drinking too much, too much indiscriminate sex with women, going through a very painful divorce. And at the end of that, we got a surprise. He proposed to his secretary, who he didn't know very well. And he chose this woman over a psychotherapist that he was dating who knew him very well.

So the question is: does he actually go through with the wedding? Is this his way of choosing somebody who's in love with the image of Don Draper rather than the reality? As you can tell, this is a show that has so many layers. It's so much fun to talk about and I think that's one of the core reasons why it's so influential and people really like it.

CORNISH: All right. Eric, thanks so much.

DEGGANS: Thank you.

CORNISH: That's Eric Deggans of the Tampa Bay Times talking about the new season of "Mad Men."

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