5 awesome shows like Mad Men

Mad Men male cast

Kinda sexist though, right?

Okay, so this was a tricky one, since I don’t think there’s anything on TV that’s quite like Mad Men. If you’re looking for period drama, there aren’t that many shows set in the 50s and 60s other than old-timey sitcoms that kinda suck. If you’re looking for slow, methodical workplace drama or ensemble cast realism, they’re quite often rather different shows that aren’t all that similar in overall feel. It’s a tough call. Mad Men is unique.

But I’m not gonna give up that easy. There must be some TV shows like Mad Men out there somewhere, right? RIGHT?!?! There have to be. Here’s what we’re looking for:
  • Conflicted protagonist, who is nothing close to a role model
  • Slow, subtle tension and methodically dramatic situations
  • Wide cast of realistically portrayed characters
  • Snazzy 50s/60s style
I think it’s objectively impossible to find a single show that encapsulates each and every one of these qualities, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few out there that fulfill at least two or three. It may not be a replacement, but it also means these shows will be very much their own thing.

Top 5 shows like Mad Men

1) The Sopranos

The Sopranos male cast

Also kinda sexist.

This is where the anti-hero phenomenon was born. Love it or hate it, Tony Soprano brought the personally troubled, morally conflicted protagonist to a broader audience, particularly at a time when most TV shows and movies centered themselves around likable, heroic, morally sound individuals the audience could admire, but at times, not identify with. Tony Soprano was real.

Not common, but real. He had to go through all the same sorts of irritating troubles any everyday family member would, compounded by a stressful work environment, to say the least. And, in a testament the success of the writers of the show, Tony Soprano was not altogether good. He was the lead character, and one the audiences tuned in for; but he wasn’t supposed to be a role model. He was, at least in some ways, a cautionary tale, one the audience could learn from. Sympathetic in some ways, misguided in others, but ultimately human, Tony Soprano was the sort of character whose troubles were compelling, but also enriching.

Plus, you know, mob violence and stuff. Like Mad Men, the show centers around a central character who’s a mix of positive and negative traits, but also features a wide cast of diverse characters, making for a broad range of experiences and story lines available for dramatic exploration. Both shows let the minor characters have enough screen time to matter, and in both cases, those characters are a mix of good and bad, just like life.

2) Newsroom

Newsroom Will McAvoy

It’s actually a better news program than most news programs.

Taking the workplace drama and behind-the-scenes office politics to dramatic new heights (which in fact are corrupt lows), Newsroom has several things going for it that make it absolutely spectacular: Top-notch writing, expertly delivered performances, and excellent directing. You’ll soon wish all news anchors operated as honestly as the lead character on this show.

It actually has a somewhat similar occupational duality compared to Mad Men; in both cases, the job description of the major characters is to put on a flawless public face, often for the purpose of money, while the gritty realism of behind-the-scenes office drama is on full display. The combination of the office itself, plus the public show the employees have to put on, are integrated and inseparable aspects of the show (unlike another office drama, The Office, which is pretty much all about the back room, rather than the client or public side).

In the case of Newsroom, the central character isn’t necessarily as controversial as someone like Don Draper (unless you disagree with his political stance, which will be true for many viewers), but the supporting cast is varied in the morality of their wheelings and dealings as well, and, as mentioned, office politics are all over the place. But the workplace setting, focus on current events, and constant office drama all remind me of Mad Men, if the spirit of the show is meant to concentrate on other topics.

3) House of Cards

House of Cards title logo and cast

Much more fun than actually building a real house of cards.

Way to go, Netflix. You show those silly cable broadcasters who’s boss!

Okay, rant over. House of Cards is interesting, in that it takes a controversial, somewhat amoral central character, but while Mad Men would have you observe his controversial behavior and react accordingly, the lead character on House of Cards will flat out narrate his dastardliness for all to see and understand.

It’s an entirely different sort of challenge. Rather than giving the audience a character that can be challenging to like (yet somehow we still like him anyway), House of Cards gives you a character that challenges your sense of morality directly. In both cases they’re controversial figures, but Frank Underwood will look you right in the eye with a straight face and tell you that killing a dog was the right thing to do.

And there’s no more dramatic environment for workplace politics than…politics. The shady dealings and behind-closed-doors drama are second to none. Sadly.

4) Breaking Bad

Bryan Cranston Hal

Who would have thought this guy could play evil genius so well?

So if you haven’t been watching Breaking Bad, um, stop whatever it is that you’re doing and go watch it. It’s pretty much the greatest TV show ever. And I mean that in a non-hyperbolic way. It actually capital-G Great.

But it also has a lot of similarities to the direction of Mad Men; centering the proceedings around a controversial main character, who’s tough to love but somehow we’ll follow him along anyway, is the hallmark of both shows. In the case of Breaking Bad, they simply push a whole lot further. Like, murder and stuff. Yet somehow people still like the guy. Or at least, kinda feel for him. He’s not the heartthrob Don Draper is, but whatever.

The similarities sort of end there, although Skyler’s position as something of antagonist is vaguely similar to Betty’s, at least in the beginning. The show is a much more concentrated effort, featuring a rather small number of characters, yet somehow they’re able to mine amazing drama out of a small cast. Mad Men is broader in its scope, though some characters aren’t particularly important.

Just go watch it. It’s amazingly well crafted.

5) Archer

Sterling Archer

Although Don Draper would more likely just wear a hat instead of rock the shades.

This is actually the most accurate duplication of Mad Men you can possibly find. Observe:
  • Womanizing, well-dressed, often intoxicated, ingeniously talented handsome gentleman who’s a huge jerk, yet somehow we love the guy anyway
  • Old-fashioned style from a simpler time
  • A highly dysfunctional workplace environment in which people are constantly causing drama for themselves in all sorts of awkward ways
I mean seriously, if you can point to another show that’s closer to Mad Men, I’ll give you a billion dollars.

Oh, plus Archer is really goddamn hilarious. It’s basically like if you were to take Mad Men, turn them into secret agents instead of marketing professionals, and add a barrel of tequila to the proceedings. I could watch it all day and only ever want more. And you will too!

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