Review Of Mad Men
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/12/12
Recently, the AMC cable network finished airing the fifth season of their highly acclaimed advertising agency soap opera, set in the 1960s, called Mad Men (industry slang for the men who work on Madison Avenue, in Manhattan). I’ve yet to watch that season, as I lack cable tv, but, over the last few weeks watched the first four seasons (covering about 5½ years chronologically- 1960-65) on Netflix, due to the laudatory comments I’ve heard from others (the fifth season should be due soon for streaming). The good news is that it is, indeed, a well written and well acted show, for the most part. The bad news is, contra to most claims, it is not a great nor culturally significant television show- despite its Emmy stash, nor one likely to be recalled fondly in three or four decades, because it simply is not deep enough. Yes, there are episodes and character arcs of depth, but this show is about advertising agents- the same people whose greed is good philosophy helped bring cigarets mainstream, launch the consume at all costs ethos that has brought global warming, deregulation, NAFTA, and a host of other ills upon this nation and planet.
But, more than that, the underlying flaw of the show, created by ex-The Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner, is its being set in the 1960s, rather than in the 21st Century. The fact is that advertising, fifty years ago, was in the equivalent of the Mesozoic Era, and, since not that much time is spent on the nitty gritty of the business, it’s simply not a compelling enough premise, without the adding of the characters’ melodramas. Add to that the postmodern cynicism of all these characters, the silly equation of advertising with creativity (it’s not, unless one considers deceit for profit to be creative), plus the overabundance of women in positions of power, rampant and easy office sex, and there just is not a 1960s vibe to the show. Before watching this show, I was regularly streaming old episodes of The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which were made in the very era Mad Men is set in (as well as Hawaii 5-0, set just a few years later), and it’s quite instructive to contrast the dialogue from those shows (especially Hitchcock’s) to Mad Men and see how wanting (in terms of realism) the Mad Men dialogue is. It’s as if Weiner was incapable of recalling that era (and he’s just a few months younger than me- both born in 1965). People were far more reserved in those days, on all matters, and throughout the 1970s- and I grew up knowing many of that era’s ‘Long Island Republican’ types- which predominate on the show. This makes the whole setting somewhat of a gimmick, and given all the other positives the show has, that’s a shame, for, aside from some unintendedly hilarious moments of melodramatic sex and aftermath (it is a soap opera, after all), Mad Men does strive to achieve more.
The show’s lead is Richard ‘Dick’ Whitman (Jon Hamm), who starts out as the creative director for the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency, then becomes a partner, then a founding partner at the reformed Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency. Whitman was a farm boy from the Midwest, who had an abusive family situation, and joined the military, to serve in Korea. When there, he was injured in an accident with a soldier named Donald Draper. Draper was burnt beyond recognition, so Whitman changed dog tags, and assumed Draper’s identity, to avoid more battles, even though he was some years younger. Stateside, the faux Draper let his family think him dead, and proceeded until caught by the real Draper’s widow, Anna. Learning of her husband’s death, and Whitman’s life, she allowed him to keep her husband’s identity, and the new Draper vowed to ever take care of Anna, which he does, until her death, a few years later. He is a handsome sexual scoundrel who has a sexy blond trophy wife, Betty (January Jones)- a woman with anxiety and anger issues of her own, and two children- Sally (Kiernan Shipka) and Bobby (several actors), with a third- Gene- by Season 3. By the end of the third season, Don’s repeated and many infidelities lead Betty to fall in love with a Republican political operative named Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley). When she finds out of Don’s ID switch, she blackmails him into divorce and marries Francis.
The main cast of characters at Draper’s office includes Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), who starts out as Draper’s secretary, and ends up as a copywriter. She has a baby out of wedlock, in the first season, and gives it up for adoption. The baby’s father is likely the sleaziest regular character, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), a scion of Old New York Dutch aristocracy. In Season 1 he finds out of Don’s shady past and blackmails him for career advancement, only to have Don call his bluff. He eventually weasels his way into a partnership at the reformed firm, but cheats on his wife almost as much as Don does on his; save that, whereas Don smoothtalks gullible women, Pete often blackmails his desperate women for sex. Roger Sterling (John Slattery) is one of the senior partners of the original firm, and is the man who unwittingly hired Draper in the first place. He is also a Lothario, who constantly cheats on his first wife, Mona, and by Season 4 is divorced and remarried to a young secretary named Jane. He served in the Navy in World War Two, and is plagued by memories of those years. He is not that adept at business, but maintains both firms’ relationship with Lucky Strike cigarets until, in Season 4, the cigaret company leaves SCDP. Slattery often steals the scenes he is in, and is the most consistently likable character, despite his flaws. He cheats on both of his wives with the red haired siren of the office, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks). By Season 3, Joan marries a young doctor, named Greg Harris, who- in one episode, rapes her. She does not dwell on this, but gets vengeance by later cheating on him with Sterling, when Harris is shipped off to Vietnam, then getting pregnant by her boss, and faking getting an abortion, as Season 4 ends. Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) is the other senior partner at the original firm, and a widower. He is a Randian Republican with a germ fetish, and started the firm with Roger Sterling’s father. He is almost a surrogate father to Sterling, and a voice of calm. However, in Season 3, he blackmails Don into signing a contract by using the information that Pete Campbell made available in Season 1. Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) is the fifth partner in the SCDP firm, and joined the show in Season 3, after the original Sterling Copper was bought out by an English ad agency, and he was brought in to straighten out the finances. When that company wants to turn around and sell the firm to a rival company, Draper talks Pryce into firing all the partners so they can form their own agency: SCDP.
Secondary characters include salesman Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton)- who is the scrupulous yin to Pete Campbell’s nefarious yang, as well as a writer, with a short story published in The New Yorker magazine. Ken is the object of desire for the firm’s homosexual art director at Sterling Cooper, Sal Romano (Bryan Batt). In the third Season, Don finds out of Sal’s homosexuality, and after a sleazeball big shot from Lucky Strike come son to him, and is refused, Draper does not stand up for Sal, and seems contemptuous of his homosexuality, and allows Sterling to fire him, to appease the Lucky Strike slimeball. He is gone by Season 4. Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) runs the media departments at both firms, and is a nerd few like. Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) is a copywriter at the original firm, but not SCDP. He is an annoying artsy liberal type who thinks poverty is cool and dates a black woman while becoming a Freedom Rider. Few miss him, when he is dropped by Season 4, either diegetically or not. In Season 4, Don becomes engaged to his much younger brunet secretary, Megan Calvet (Jessica Pare).
But, while the show fails to realistically depict the 1960s- from attitudes to even the casual use of current language that would be nonsensical to someone 50 years ago, and far too often falls into soap opera clichés, it does succeed, and sometimes brilliantly, with its character tropes and arcs. To give a few notable examples, Don Draper is a man lacking almost all personal ethics- in his infidelities to his casual disregard of homosexuals, Jews, and blacks, but he does show occasional business ethics, such as being upset over how others at his firm deal with clients and contracts, even as he tries to guilt trip a lover with connections at another firm to tell him of their unhappy clients. Perhaps the best moment for Draper, in the first four seasons, comes after he seduces a secretary of his, Allison, then ignores her at work. The girl eventually breaks down in his office, and reaches a tipping point when Draper tells her to type up a recommendation letter and he’ll sign it. He’s so callous that he is clueless to her feelings, as she would have been satisfied for him to write the letter- to make even that small of an effort to be decent. But he doesn’t, and she tosses an object at him that breaks a picture frame. Draper seems shocked, but it perfectly captures his character- or lack thereof, and anyone who’s watched the 3.5 seasons of shows before this moment likely cheered at his near comeuppance. Another classic moment shows Draper going to bed with a nameless brunet and waking up with an equally nameless blond he has no recall of.
Betty Draper starts out as the almost perfect Stepford Wife, but she slowly frays into a frigid monster- partly due to Don’s psychological abuse, but also to her own narcissism and immaturity. Over the course of the series she first befriends and emotionally seduces a neighbor boy, Glenn- even giving him a lock of her hair, but then turns on him after his mother berates her, and he shows an interest in Betty’s daughter, Sally. This leads her, in the Season 4 finale, to her firing Karla- the black nanny who has raised her children, because she lets Glenn say goodbye to Sally, as the family is soon to move out of the home Don and Betty shared. Peggy Olson starts out as a would be typical working gal wanting to sleep her way to the top, but slowly develops a spine and personality. In Season 4 she befriends Beatniks, and there is a great moment when she leaves for lunch with her artsy pals, and eyes Pete Campbell, as he eyes her, and heads into a meeting with a bunch of much older, gray-haired businessmen. The characters, even if you’d never seen them before, bespeak their true selves in that great scene. Joan Holloway veers back and forth between siren and wannabe domestic spouse. And Pete Campbell sometimes elicits loathing and then pity, and often both at once. His portrayer, Vincent Kartheiser, has that rare ability to show vulnerability even as he is exploiting others- such as in one episode where he blackmails his neighbor’s au pair into sex. But the most consistently watchable character is Roger Sterling, and John Slattery- who spent a career as a slimy playboy type, has never been better. The episode where he has two coronaries is a classic, and assorted shows, where he lies to cover up infidelities and business mistakes, often evoke the same qualities as Kartheiser’s Pete Campbell, save that one never really feels loathing for Slattery’s Sterling. Even early on, when he makes a pass at Betty, the viewer can almost feel the <wink-wink-nudge-nudge> of it all.
Some critics have unfairly ripped the show for things it is not guilty of, such as not showing black people in the workplace. But this was standard, in those days. The number of black management types was in the 1 in a few hundred to one in a thousand range. More apropos would have been pointing out the ahistoricity of the concerns about the war in Vietnam. As example, in an episode set before JFK’s assassination, a minor character comments that his father can not stop talking about Vietnam, yet, the Gulf Of Tonkin Incident, under President Johnson, took place over a year later, and the draft did not root in the public consciousness until almost three years after this scene. During shows set in 1964, also before the Gulf Of Tonkin Incident, characters talk as if anti-war protests were raging. They were not. In the 4th season, set in 1965, even Joan Holloway trashtalks (to use an anachronistic modern word) some of the male employees who have poked fun at her, by stating that she hopes they all get sent to Vietnam. In short, while her character’s husband is going there, he is going as a doctor who signed up, not as a draftee. Similar false scenes and comments occur in regard to Beatniks, hippies, and the Modern Art scenes. Then there are the overreactions and held too long for realism shots of characters in reaction which define this show as a melodrama rather than a drama, like The Waltons, which is a large part of why this show will not be held in such fond esteem as that show, set four decades prior to its making, in the Great Depression. Too often the show’s takes on ‘issues’- to again use a modern word, be it depression, infidelities, pregnancies, alcoholism, homosexuality, sexism, racism, etc., are only used as plot points to swerve the action of the show into this or that predictable ‘crisis’ that must be resolved, rather than having the ‘issue’ stand on its own. Still, on the positive side, this anachronistic quality goes straight through to essence of the show’s storytelling, which is compact, with little wasted narrative- such as no use of excessive flashbacks. When we learn of things, we do so by picking up on conversations and glances, not by having the screenplay point a neon sign at the point it is trying to make; and this is just like many classic television shows from the late 1950s to early 1960s: all the details matter, in some form and to some degree. Hence, while critics who have ripped the show have done so in mostly offbase fashion, so, too, have critics who have overpraised the show.
In short, Mad Men, and its 21st Century drenched characters, is about as relevant to the 1960s as The Sopranos was to the real Mafia. But, that does not mean Mad Men is not compelling, and often excellent, television and fiction. It’s simply not high art- although one might argue that its memorable opening credit sequence and lyricless musical score, by David Carbonara, are. Nonetheless, its consistent quality, in artistic and technical merits, makes Mad Men one of the best television shows of this century. And, given the narcissistic, deliterate, and self-absorbed state of this reality television era, that is no small compliment.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the No Ripcord website.]
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