Ruminations on Mad Men

There have been at least two article of late where a writer explains why he doesn’t like the 1960s advertising industry drama Mad Men. Here’s an appraisal from the New York Review of Books that I linked to before and here is another from the London Review of Books. There’s also a rebuttal from Slate.

Both articles capture many of the issues I have with Mad Men, mainly the “Look at those people. Aren’t they backwards” condescension coupled with the nostalgic “But it sure looks cool, doesn’t it?” longing. And of course, the backwardness and dated attitudes are pointed out so blatantly in the dialogue that all that’s missing is a flashing red arrow. The New York Review of Books writer is absolutely right, all that’s missing are the captions.

And true to American form, we are constantly reminded that smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol is bad, but neither Don Draper nor the narrative sees any problems with smoking pot. Maybe it’s just me, but I have a hard time believing that a suit-wearing upper middle class suburban office worker would have tried marihuana quite so readily as Don Draper does in one of the episodes featuring his beatnik girlfriend. One of the things I find very hard to comprehend about the US is that alcohol and tobacco are condemned, but drugs, though illegal, are a lot more accepted than over here. My mother, who is a member of the Mad Men generation, always feels actively alienated whenever drug use (that is illegal drugs, not House’s painkiller addiction) is casually portrayed in American television.

The past as portrayed in Mad Men is also strangely monolithic. Everybody smokes all the time without exception. Everybody drinks all the time and they all drink the same five drinks, too. Every man cheats on his wife. All the secretaries sleep with the male executives. Whereas in the real 1960s, people weren’t that monolithic, they didn’t all smoke and drink and sleep around. For example, my parents are slightly younger than the Pete and Peggy characters on the show, i.e. they lived and worked in the Mad Men era, and they never smoked. And while based on my Mom’s stories, there was a lot of sleeping around going on in the office where she worked and a colleague of my Dad’s actually did leave his wife for his secretary, it was not nearly as universal as portrayed in Mad Men. And the secretary in question was no Joan nor even a Peggy. And none of the women I know who were stay-at-home wives and mothers in the 1960s were even remotely as zoned out as Betty Draper.

What is more, there are times where the attitudes and behaviour just don’t seem right for the time either. For example, while I can accept that a nice sheltered middle class suburban girl like Peggy would allow herself to be seduced by Pete Campbell at some point, I have problems accepting that she would sleep with him on the first day they met. That simply doesn’t ring right for the character as she is portrayed. I also have issues with the fact that every character who does not work in advertising or is a customer constantly makes disparaging comments about the advertising industry and how it’s not a suitable career. Sorry, but that sounds like 21st century left-leaning Americans concerned about consumerism talking to me. Because when I was growing up, a good twenty years after Mad Men, advertising was considered a highly suitable career for those with creative and artistic impulses. Artistic and creative kids were often advised to go into advertising as a way of following their impulses and making money. I know a couple of people who did just that, too, and none of them even remotely resemble the characters in Mad Men (well, one is a womanizer, but that’s where the similarities end). So the constant disdain of “This isn’t a real job” faced by several characters just doesn’t ring true to me.

Watching Mad Men, I can’t help but think how much better Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes handled the whole “attitudes of the past” thing, though they do walk a fine line in the “Yes, it all was very politically incorrect, but wasn’t it cool?” question. But in Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, the present day characters Sam and Alex are not automatically right, while Gene or Ray are not automatically wrong, even though they have the approximate mentality of dinosaurs. And some of the worst villains seen in both shows are also some of the more “progressive” characters, e.g. the human rights lawyer who kills himself and his family, the understanding psychologist who is behind a brutal terror attack, the nice doctor who helps the poor and sleeps with underage girls, the police officer publicly committed to fighting corruption and modernizing the police force, who neither drinks nor smokes and gives all the right answers regarding taste in music and films and yet turns out to be quite literally the devil. And of course, Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes also handled the deeply closeted gay character thing so much better.

The article also touches on the fact that Don Draper and friends constantly create ad campaigns for real products, completely disregarding that someone actually did create that ad campaign and it sure as hell wasn’t Don Draper. And no, he didn’t name the Kodak Carousel projector either. I always found this unethical, because whoever really created the advertising campaigns for Lucky Strike, Kodak, Right Guard and the other real products that show up in the show* might still be alive and certainly won’t be pleased to have his or her real life achievements transferred to a fictional character working for a fictional ad agency. The article points out that they even get the whole timeline wrong, e.g. having Don Draper create an ad slogan in 1960 that was actually first used in 1917 based on a principle created by someone in the late 19th century. Finally, the Mad Men character also seem to be the worst advertising specialists ever. At one point they even snarl at the famous “Think Small” ads for Volkswagen, complete with bonus anti-German remarks (well, everybody in Mad Men is a bigot). Whereas real advertising specialists only consider “Think Small” the best ad campaign of the 20th century.

Where I disagree with the article is in the question of Don Draper, because I actually like the actor and think he does as well as he can with flawed material. Though the “deep dark secret” felt very anti-climatic. So he comes from a poor rural background, is the illegitimate offspring of a prostitute and changed his name? Big deal. I was hoping for something with a bit more bite, e.g. it turns out that Don Draper is a black southerner passing for white or that he was born Jewish and has rejected that background. Because honestly, what exactly is the problem with, “I come from a poor rural background and hated my family so much that I ran away from them by any means possible”? Okay, so the identity switch might be a legal problem, but the basic background? Considering that Don is good at his job, I don’t think anybody would care. And indeed, the elderly partner with the funny dress sense (Cooper?) really does react with, “Who the fuck cares?”, when Pete tries to tell him that Don is an impostor. So perhaps the point here is supposed to be that Don’s past isn’t an issue for anyone but Don.

But then, the plot developments are foreshadowed with about the same subtlety as the commentary on the dated attitudes of the past, i.e. they are hammered home with a sledge hammer. I noticed that the Salvatore character was gay in the very first scene he was introduced. I also noticed that Peggy was pregnant (though I initially assumed the actress was pregnant and the costume designers were doing their best to hide it) which was supposed to be this huge shocking revelation. And both times I went, “What? That’s supposed to be a secret and a great revelation?”

There are moments when Mad Men is genuinely clever and funny, e.g. the whole sequence when Pete, who is jealous of a coworker getting a story published in The New Yorker and sends his wife out to rekindle her relationship with her editor ex-boyfriend in order to get Pete’s story published. She succeeds, too, and Pete’s story is published – in Boy’s Life!

Or take the final moments of the first episode, where we see Don getting off the train and driving home to the wife and family the viewer didn’t know he had up to that point. For the briefest of moments, we catch a glimpse of the sign of the station where he gets of. It says Ossining, which is of course the location of Sing Sing prison. Don’s and Betty’s suburban dream life is in fact a prison, now that is a clever bit of writing. So clever that I’m not sure it really was intentional, considering the usual sledgehammer method of the show in driving its point home.

* Are any of the brands and company actually not real? I strongly suspect that the Jewish department store is fictional, but are any of the others? What about the lipstick brand Peggy for which develops her first slogan? Is that a real brand?

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