Friday, July 30, 2010

On the Avenue

A "Shouts & Murmurs" parody in the current issue of the New Yorker toys with the idea of how different Mad Men would be if it were set in the present day of Tweets and online marketing tactics.

Of course the brilliance of the AMC television series is how masterfully the era of the early 1960s has been recreated. Right down to the period wristwatches and ash trays brimming with cigaret butts, the show's careful stylization mirrors the look and feel of movies that actually were shot that long ago, like Hitchcock's North by Northwest or Billy Wilder's The Apartment, or the film version of the Broadway hit How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Unlike the early-60s advertising-themed sitcom Bewitched, the admen of Mad Men take on real clients like Lucky Strike cigarets, the Volkswagen Beetle, and Kodak. It anchors the work element of the series in a real-world dynamic; we know those products and expect the creatives at Sterling Cooper, or now Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, to apply their marketing expertise in a way that contributes to the success we associate with those winning brands.

What really makes the show work for me, though, is the enigma at its heart: the protagnonist is himself a fabrication no more authentic than a cigaret brand's claim that its smokers would rather fight than switch. Jon Hamm's Don Draper had to fashion himself out of whole cloth before he could create marketing campaigns for Madison Avenue's toughest clients; with an identity stolen from the battlefields of the Korean War he truly is a hollow man, an empty shell down to his core -- the perfect thing to be when you're using smoke and mirrors to get the public to choose one product over another.

Like any series that spans the Sixties, we expect to be awarded glimpses of changing social mores. Peggy Olsen goes from ignored secretary to competent copywriter; Paul Kinsey dates interracially and opposes Southern segregation, and an ad exec named Kurt casually declares his homosexuality, though a main closeted character, Sal Romano, seems to have been written out of the show. I worry that if the series continues much further into the decade, we'll be marched through the usual litany of flower children and Stonewall, but I have faith that the show's creators will do this evolution justice by showing it in context. I just don't want to have to see Don Draper in a Nehru jacket.

If I have any complaint about Mad Men it's that the show isn't sordid enough. People go on at length about what a different world it was, what with all the workplace drinking and casual office affairs, but have they ever worked at an ad agency? It was just a couple of years ago that I worked at a major San Francisco agency where a person pushing a drinks trolley would stop by your desk in the afternoon so that you could order the adult beverage of your choice, and beer coolers stocked with the latest microbrews hummed in every office. I arrived at work one morning to find the producer of a project I was in charge of dancing in the lobby in Kabuki whiteface that turned out to be cocaine, then discovered that $30,000 of post-production budget had gone up the noses of her crew. So if anything, the show could get a little wilder and smuttier.

One last note: I've seen a lot online lately about what a supposedly bad mother Betty Draper is. I give the show's producers kudos for accurately depicting motherhood in that era. After all, this was decades before a child's day was sectioned out into playdate appointments and he or she could be tracked electronically like migrating elk. Back then pregnant women took tranquilizers, smoked cigarets and drank martinis. I'm reminded of my own hugely pregnant mother's reaction when, some time around 1962, I ran screaming into the house with a huge gash torn into my knee. "Oh, stop it," she said, before returning to her soap operas. "You're not going to die." At least she didn't smoke.

Besides, does anyone ever point out that Don Draper isn't exactly Robert Young?

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