Not-so-good old days

October 23, 2008

Mad Men offers a chilling look at the world of the early 1960s.

MAD MEN, now well into its second season on AMC (the first is available on DVD), is television drama at its best.

Like The Sopranos (Matthew Weiner is behind both shows), it features an excellent script, acting, music and overall quality production. And through the microcosm of an atypical social group--contemporary New Jersey mobsters and 1960s Madison Avenue advertising executives--it illuminates broader social truths.

The stylized graphics of the opening credits depict an anonymous dark-suited executive in an office that dissolves around him. The figure plummets from a high-rise building covered with glossy advertising images of sexy women and perfect nuclear families. This establishes a central motif of the show: Everything is an illusion, no one is what they seem, nothing has substance, and all that is solid melts into air.

From this point on, every frame is a work of art. Attention to historical detail is obsessive--members of the production team describe lengthy debates about ashtrays and wristwatches--and each episode effectively transports you to a different world.

The difference is conveyed in the very filming. The director of photography, Chris Manley, used to be a revival cinema projectionist, and knows all about medium lens cameras, dollies and low-angle shots; they aim to use only techniques that were available in 1960. This, coupled with an almost achingly slow pace of plot, makes for a somewhat restful experience in contrast to the frenetic motion and eye-popping special effects of much television.

But the overall experience of Mad Men is far from restful. Rather, an atmosphere of stifling repression and non-specific threat prevails. Some reviews call the show "nostalgic," but while the clothes and furniture are recreated with loving attention to detail, the actual world is brutal and chilling.

Most of the action takes place in the luxury offices of Sterling Cooper Ad Agency, and centers round the creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm). Competition is cutthroat, and the hierarchy strictly enforced. Everyone drinks liquor (in the office, at lunch, after work, at home) and smokes constantly, and there is a forced joviality. But bigotry simmers just below the genteel surface: anti-Semitism, racism, derogatory jokes about "homos" and "perverts." Only a bigot could be nostalgic for this world.

Review: Television

Mad Men, created by Matthew Weiner, starring Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks, on AMC.

Sexism is pervasive on every level. The women--relentlessly referred to as "girls"--are secretaries (there is one exception that only proves the rule) and their job is not only to run the office while looking immaculate but also generally to serve and obey.

In one episode, a flustered secretary reveals that her boss was out of the office when he shouldn't have been. She apologizes for not "covering" for him; he replies, "Your job is not to 'cover for me' but to adjust people's expectations," and promptly fires her. In another, the sole woman among the copywriters joins her colleagues for an after-hours get-together and is mortified to find that they are in a strip club.

Degrading ogling, demeaning banter, condescending pats and propositions are routine. And the women have their own hierarchy, enforced with the velvet fist of Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), the glamorous office manager who is for most of the first season the "mistress" of firm partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery), who is twice her age and married.

IF THE world of the working-class woman is harsh, that of the middle-class housewife is claustrophobic. Don is married to a former high-end model, Betty (January Jones), whose dream of wedded bliss progressively disintegrates into stultifying domestic routine. As the old adage goes, it begins when you sink in to his arms, and ends with your arms in his sink. Though in this case it is the Black housekeeper Carla whose arms are more likely to be in the sink.

In the first series, Betty develops a mysterious tingling numbness in her hands, which comes on sporadically, and at one point causes her to lose control of her car. When doctors tell her it is psychosomatic, she is sent to a Freudian therapist who reports back to Don (without her knowledge) that she is hysterical and infantile.

While Betty is planning dinners, disciplining the children, and beautifying herself in preparation for her husband, Don is boozing it up with his officemates, or, more likely, having sex with the lover of the moment.

But he is no more content than Betty. The world of Sterling Cooper is alienated to the core. These men spend their life finding ways to sell products they know to be worthless (not to mention deadly: searching for a campaign for Lucky Strikes cigarettes, Don quips, "All I have is a crush-proof box and four out of five dead people smoked your brand") with images and words they know to be untrue; their manic camaraderie barely disguises ubiquitous rivalries and gnawing insecurities. And we soon learn that Don Draper is literally not the person he seems to be.

The series is not without humor, though of the macabre and sardonic rather than light and warming variety. When he has a sudden heart attack, Sterling thinks it ironic that his heart might kill him, when on doctor's orders he's been dutifully consuming heavy cream daily to protect his stomach ulcer. When Betty sees her little daughter running around the house with a large plastic bag over her head, she threatens punishment--if there's any damage to the dress the bag came from.

The first season is set in 1960, the second begins in 1962. At first Sterling Cooper seems immune to the swirling change taking place across the country, but progressively the world intrudes: one copywriter has a Black girlfriend, who gets on a bus to go to Mississippi to register black voters; one of two young men who have been brought in to advise the company on the youth market rocks the office when he unapologetically declares himself to be homosexual. Don's wife seems ever closer to reading Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique. And the arms race heats up.

It isn't that any of these questions are at the heart of the drama, nor that it is progressive politically. The story always focuses on the personal conflicts, petty victories, loves and frustrations of the "mad men" themselves. And there is a lot of cynical product placement and associative advertising in and around the show. But through compelling depiction of the hollowness of this life--as Don says to Roger Cooper after a long night of drinking and gambling, "This can't be all there is, right?"--it also captures something about the emptiness of consumer capitalism, and about a historical moment on the threshold of profound change.

It certainly illustrates how much the social movements of the 1960s were needed, to sweep away the dross of the 1950s. It also cuts against backlash ideas, like women are happier staying home and taking care of the children. At the same time, Mad Men's depiction of the indulgent lives of the super-rich anticipates the excesses of today's wealthy elite. And the show taps into our current awareness of the instability of this system, where you might just wake up one morning to find the whole global financial system in utter crisis.

Further Reading

From the archives