Movie-Hype #739 – MAD MEN
When Mad Men first appeared last year I did not go for it. Call it my Channel Bias. American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies are the two movie channels on cable. (You know: for poor people.) And whereas TCM tends to have dynamite classics from the ‘40s and ‘50s, without commercials mind you, AMC does the opposite. The films tend to be newer, much less “awesome,” replete with commercials, and—worst of all—they’re edited!!
Then, when word seeped out about Mad Men’s awesomeness, they were already into the season, and I like to start at the beginning if at all possible. (Especially for the cable shows, which tend to only have 12-13 episodes per season). I waited for the re-airing but somehow never hit it right.
Finally Mad Men Season 1 came out on DVD. It took me another 4 weeks of reservation time at the library (you think I’m made of money?), but I finally got what I wanted.
I watched Mad Men, Season 1, in about 3 days. I’m frantically trying to catch up online with the couple of episodes (so far) of Season 2, so I can watch “live” on Sunday nights. I’m here to tell you: drop everything you’re doing, and join me.
Mad Men is about the Ad Men of Madison Avenue. More than that, it is about a place and time in American History, when innocence still reigned, and Society’s Explosion still lay dormant in the volcano.
Season 1 takes place in 1960, before Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Before MLK and RFK went down. Before Apollo and Vietnam. Before Woodstock and Watergate. Before the Production Code dropped and “Movements” of any kind had gained momentum. Before the Counter Culture.
But make no mistake: Mad Men is not idealized nostalgia. There is no Fonz. There isn’t even a Danny Zuko. The America of Mad Men is one of prosperity. Aching with money, upwardly mobile, and right on the cusp of change. Or maybe not.
Mad Men is a slice of life for how some people were living then. Not very many people (comparatively) lived in Manhattan and worked at Ad Agencies, but many men went into the city. Many young girls did as well. fulfilling the role society pushed on them: kids, house, suburbs. And everyone (who could) watched television. And smoked. And smoked. And smoked.
Mad Men feels like it belongs on HBO. (It was not a surprise to learn that that Creator and many of the people behind the scenes used to work on The Sopranos.) Sadly, there is no violence or nudity, and precious little sex and language. They could use a lot more than that. Still, the show feels very adult. We see a complex world where not even the people in it know what’s truly going on.
I mentioned HBO not for the R rated content (which there is none of), but for the incredible casting and the incredible writing. I’ll get back to that in a minute. The main reason I mentioned HBO is Mad Men’s ability to stay within the time frame. Most of the time when we watch period pieces we are judging the characters from our viewpoints, our morality in our time and place. The shows are aware of that. Mad Men is like watching Deadwood Rome. The times are different, and the people act differently. That’s just how it is.
The main character is Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm. He won the Golden Globe and likely the Emmy, and he'll deserve it. Don Draper is one of those complex maddening thoughtful exhilarating characters that don't come along very often. There's a little Tony Soprano there, as far as a man who's clearly more complicated than his times or setting. I spend every moment Don Draper is on screen trying to figure out what he's thinking. I rarely succeed. I love shows like that. Don is a conflicted guy. He loves his kid, and he seems to love his wife (even if he does fully participate in the allowances of the day), but he's haunted by a past that shapes him. Or maybe he shapes his past.
Peggy Olson is played by Elizabeth Moss, who was Zoey on The West Wing. She is Don's new secretary when the show begins. She's told in no uncertain terms that the job of the secretary is to anticipate all of her boss's needs. ALL of them, whatever that might mean. Peggy is woefully unprepared for the terrain she's just discovered, but full of hidden reserves of strength, as well. Every other character (with one exception, and this is on purpose, so we'll hate him) are wonderfully cast as well.
This might be a good time to stop and warn you that Mad Men could possibly ruin your marriage. Well, not really, but be prepared to get in a few fights with your spouse. Everybody drinks. All day long. Everybody smokes. Everybody eats what they want without worrying about the cost. And when I say everyone, I mean Men. The women in the world of Mad Men exist (ostensibly) to please men. The men don't take the women seriously. To be sure, some of the women don't deserve to be taken seriously. Many of them like, no LOVE their roles as playthings in the office, or dutiful wives and mothers stuck at home. Some don't. Some might have thoughts of other greatness (or even just "Otherness"), if they knew there was such a thing.
The reason I jokingly say arguments will happen is because men are likely to watch Mad Men and say, "Boy, that was the life." Men didn't have to call home if they were going to be late. It was unheard of. Maybe they "worked" so late that they didn't even come home. No phone calls. No emails or texts, and best of all, no questions. Like I said, men are going to watch and raise their glasses in toast. Women, on the other hand, are likely to throw things. But they'll enjoy it too.
For one thing, every dresses so well. I love the look of this era, and this would be a good time for me to point out that virtually every detail is spot on for the time period. The show-runners were obsessed with this. (In one of the extra features, we learn that an "Etch-A-Sketch" was taken out of a scene because the scene takes place in April 1960, and the Etch-A-Sketch didn't come out until June of that year.) Back to the clothes: AWESOME. The men all dress sharply, understand how powerful a symbol clothes can be. The women, on the other hand, wear copious support garments. Why stockings and girdles and Lord knows what else have gone out of style is beyond me. Maybe because they're a bear to wear. (But skin-tight low-rider jeans, thongs and six inch heels are progress? Please. Go back to the girdles!)
Well, maybe that ship has sailed, but men and women alike will enjoy the fashion. Women will enjoy (and may be jealous of) an era where women's curves were appreciated. Would that we could return to that time! I digress. The point is, we see the way life was. How men treated women. How women treated men. By our standards, there is a lot of sexist behavior. And racist behavior. And several other things (smoking, drinking while pregnant, for example), that will make you pull your hair our. But it's all real. Mad Men shows us those things without ever being those things, if that makes sense. Watching Mad Men is like watching a microcosm of America.
[Important Break. Stretch or something]
I wrote the words above over a week ago. They are all true, and while perhaps not Byronesque, decently exhortational enough, one hopes. But they don't get at the heart of what Mad Men means to me. And I guess I go back to the Advertising.
I have been thinking quite a bit about Advertising lately, and how it works, or doesn't. Certainly the characters who work at the Ad Agency have a jaded and cynical view of what they're trying to do. At one point Don Draper is talking to a woman about love. He says,
The reason you haven't felt it is because it doesn't exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons. You're born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I'm living like there's no tomorrow, because there isn't one.
Not a romantic.
At the same time, Don understands that successful Advertising comes from selling yourself, and that can only be found by revealing Truth, even if that Truth is a lie. That sentence sounds strange, I know, but you'll just have to trust me that it works. It leads to a larger question: Is Advertising the biggest Lie possible in our Society, or the biggest Truth?
In many ways Advertising is a lie. Advertisers will do ANYTHING to give you the feeling of acceptance you're looking for (provided you try the product). Or as Don puts it:
Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing is OK. You are OK.
That's pretty much it. Men want the hot women, so they spray on the cologne or drink the beer. Women want the awesome body (so that men will think they're the hot women), so they eat the Special K or slather on theMaxFactor. You get the point.
Advertising is all about lies. About reassurance. About coddling people. Yet.....
I wonder if Advertising is the most True thing. Maybe not in and of itself, but does it shape us, or Reveal us? Are the things advertisers slam into us the Lies we're forced to accept, or the Truths of how we see ourselves, and how we see our Society? Most women want to look great, and most men want to land those women. Maybe Advertising simply reflects that reality. Or maybe it creates it. Or maybe something even more sinister, or more wonderful.
I feel myself going down the rabbit-hole, and soon I'll be babbling, so I will stop now. I leave you with this thought. You've heard that a Society is judged based on the level of its Art. Perhaps this is also true of its Advertising. What that says about us, I shudder to even contemplate.
Mad Men contemplates those things. I'm not promising answers, but answers aren't really what you're looking for. In the first episode one of the characters calls another and says,
I want you to pull my hair and ravish me and leave me for dead.
That's Advertising. that's Mad Men. And that us. Time to be a part of it.
August 21, 2008
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