An account of Mad Men’s first series, written for The Word, August 2008.
MAD MEN SERIES 1
Starring Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones
“The past is a foreign country,” as somebody said. “They do things differently there.” Among the appealing things about this year’s hottest US import is the way we keep getting reminded. It isn’t set in some distant epoch of pre-history, but in 1960, when much of its audience was already born. Nor are the locations, mostly New York advertising offices, especially exotic. Yet the tale of Madison Avenue's executives (the self-styled "Mad Men") is stranger and more alien than an episode of Star Trek. Was this the world that existed just a couple of heartbeats before our own? By and large, it really was. But so much has changed! Nothing shocks like the Shock of the Old.
Fans of the series always mention the cigarettes. Almost nothing happens to any character, almost nothing is said, or thought, without those trademark curlicues of grey smoke. They frame each shot with sinuous grace, the punctuation marks to every conversation, the drag that signifies reflection, the fast stubbing-out that calls to action. Surgeons puff in mid-examination. Tobacco barons scoff at rumoured health campaigns. Lovers light each other’s fire. If it were nothing else, Mad Men could be sold as Prime Nicotine Pornography.
Not only do the Mad Men smoke from packets that are free of prissy government warnings, they keep their watches set to Martini Time all day long. They survey their female secretaries (and females are seldom anything higher) with lordly amusement and the assumption of sexual entitlement. If they bother going home to their wives they will drive, entirely drunk, in cars without seat-belts. All is sleek, coolly modern and “space age”. In some ways, a certain kind of man could look back at 1960 with a wistful pang.
The period details are more than merely cute. There is, on one level, a real enjoyment in Mad Men of retro style. All in all it’s a wickedly good-looking programme. But I don’t know anyone who’d really want to go back there. While it’s true that everyone was better-dressed before psychedelia, the attitudes were more stifling than the shirt-collars. Casual anti-Semitism rivals the routine sexism. Out in big-lawned suburbia, wives try to shop away their ennui. The few black figures visible work as lift attendants, not as account managers. A camp executive plays the hearty hetero in self-protection. And the cleverest girl in the building is the one who sleeps with the boss.
It can’t last. The top dogs must learn to share their kennel. In one particular way, though, these primitive spin doctors seem very contemporary. They were the forerunners of a world where there is no truth, only the “narrative”. They all lie to each other all the time, at home and at work, and in bed. “Perceptions” are replacing facts. On tiny black-and-white sets the Mad Men watch the clash of Kennedy with Nixon. All they see is a liar with charm against a liar without. “Reality,” one declares, “is what we say it is.”
No surprise to learn that Mad Men was created by a Sopranos writer, Matthew Weiner, who looks set to emulate that TV milestone with another epic. Just one series old, Mad Men can’t yet match the mob saga in novelistic density. But it grows emotionally richer with each episode. In its central character, the ad king Don Draper (played with strong, silent charisma by Jon Hamm), we see the ambiguities of the story etched into his handsome frown. Because, of course, Mad Men is far too smart to take the ring-a-ding Rat Pack arrogance at face value. These are worried men, beneath the sharp suits. When a high-living rogue is laid low by a hard-earned coronary, he groans, “I’ve been living the last 20 years like I was on shore leave.” For these men, shore leave is nearly over.
Over time, the series’ vintage setting grows less important. The knowing meditation on changing fashions and values is only a starting point. Next we enter more fully into the lives of these people. The plot-lines take some hair-pin bends. Draper’s life turns out to be a whole Russian Doll of deceits. And what emerges is a top-class piece of old-fashioned storytelling. The hot-shot “creative”, his mousey PA, the hip-swaying siren of the typing pool, the ageing Senior Partner, all become players in a human drama we recognise, regardless of whether it’s in 1960 or 2008, in New York or New Brighton. Give or take the tap of a filter-tip on a silver cigarette case, Mad Men is not such a foreign country after all.