The Culture Beat

August 29, 2007

TV Review: Mad Men

Filed under: Television,Uncategorized — Alex @ 7:30 am

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Cable television, both basic and premium channels, continues to be a place of innovation in dramatic content. HBO’s The Sopranos, was the watershed event that demonstrated the ways non-network channels could go places broadcasters were unable to follow, both because of the FCC’s control of the content of network airwaves and because of different business model for cable. Whereas networks plan for 22-24 episodes of a series each season, cable channels may choose to produce anwhere from eight to thirteen or some other number less than network numbers. Thus there is less pressure to churn out episodes of varying quality. Premium channels HBO and Showtime have offered stories with “adult” content that would rate an R in a movie theater, they weren’t as bound by FCC oversight since cable is considered a consumer subscription technology and is not broadcast over the air as network affiliated local stations do. Thus language, sexual content and violence are part of cable’s narrative spectrum in ways you’d never see on NBC.

Cable channels like FX have emulated the premium cables with hot series like Nip & Tuck, The Shield and Rescue Me that are somewhat more restrained than their pay cable cousins but not as much as broadcasters. Thus it has behooved a longtime cable channel AMC to get in on this ambitious new wave of television dramas and now it has mined some of the dramatic gold of the other cable nets with Mad Men.

Each episode starts with one of the best opening credit sequences on television–an animated silouette of a man falling from his office past the glass and steel windows of a skyscraper–a metaphor for the precarious nature of those who sell and spin the webs of advertising.
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Named for the term ad executives working on New York City’s Madison Avenue gave themselves in the era of the 1950s, it follows the lives of the employees of a fictional advertising agency in 1960. This of course makes it a period piece and one that in its own way is as informed by its social mores and norms as those of a Jane Austen novel. This is the pre-Sixties era before the youthful rebellion against anything the Establishment offered. In fact, the series captures what was the status quo’s marketing arm–the salesmen of consumerist dreams and the imagery of the affluent postwar age. Men wore lean, dark suits and narrow ties, used Brylcreem in their hair and casually objectified women. Females in the office were fair game for the male executives as this is the age right before the women’s movement.

The lead character, Don Draper, appears to have leapt out of a Look magazine of the era. Darkly handsome, he is the star of the agency, but there’s more to him than a successful executive–in the first episode we see him trysting with his lover, an artist who rejects marriage in order to live life on her terms. In his office we see him open a drawer where his Purple Heart medal lays. Later, Draper, meeting a female client at a restaurant, starts to make romantic moves towards her even as he confesses his belief in the meaninglessness of life. That night he take the commuter train to a suburban bedroom community where he enters his home to be met by his beautiful young blonde wife. The scene ends in his children’s bedroom as he kneels gazing at them and wondering about his messy life.

The series goes to exquisite pains to evoke the look of the early 1960s. (The online making-of documentary at AMC’s site is here–then go to the “behind the scenes” tab.) Such lucious production design transports viewers into the world that many, as I do, recall from childhood, that is, the late 50s fashions in dress, furniture and architecture, and this is part of the show’s initial nostalgic attraction. But it also features lots of smoking, again, from my recollection as a six-year old, quite accurately, but seeing it represented in our less hazy age, its almost seems overdone (the actors, by law, must smoke herbal cigarettes lest they get hooked).

This is the era of American success, before the Vietnam-induced self-doubt yanked away the ring-a-ding confidence of a generation. Draper’s wife, Betty, is the model suburban mom, but she’s plagued by bouts of nervous agitation and perhaps by an intuition that her marriage isn’t as sound as it seems–in fact she seems haunted by the possibility of divorce, that whispered scandal creeping through the well-kept neighborhoods of these affluent families. And Don, her husband, is, we learn, not even who he says he is–his name itself is a facade created by this fabulist of capitalist mythologies. Well then, who is he?
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Each episode touches on a different theme such as upward mobility, the elusiveness of true happiness amidst wealth, suburban angst and the uneasy relations between Gentiles and Jews. I’m hoping the series will eventually examine the religious life of early 60s’ suburbia. There was a hint of the possibilities in last week’s episode. Titled “Babylon,” it featured storylines about Don’s boss’s affair with a secretary, Draper’s ongoing juggling act with the women in his life amidst his search for a way to market Israel as a tourist destination. The episode ends with Don’s mistress taking him to a beatnik coffeehouse for a poetry reading and a musical performance. It’s easy to see the collision of the Brooks Brothers business class culture with the bohemian forerunners of the hippie era. A young folksinger begins to sing a song based on Psalm 137:

“By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion”

We see a montage of the floundering characters, each of them, consciously or not, swept up in a modern age of wealth, lust and and intimations of how fragile and empty their world really is. This may sound rather depressing to some, but onscreen, it works as a mirror on our own time and I found myself wondering if, in forty years or so, someone will create a series about the first decade of the 21st century with all it’s smug ideological certainties and political correctness. Fashions may change but human nature doesn’t. Mad Men is an intriguing window into a world not terribly different than our own–maybe we can learn something about our own age by taking this time capsule.

Mad Men is on Thursday nights (check local listings or the AMC website or complete schedule of episodes) and is available on demand where available and episodes can be purchased at iTunes.



  1. Great recap. You’re right that though it’s set in 1960, the same social issues are just as prevalent today. I also love the opening sequence…very Alfred Hitchcock/Vertigo.

    If you’re a fan, you might also enjoy these hysterically funny recaps of each “Mad Men” episode.

    Comment by Julia — August 29, 2007 @ 12:08 pm | Reply

  2. Mad Men is an undiscovered treasure. It is beautiful to watch and I cannot stop marveling over how something so can be so dark and yet so captivating! Everyone will start talking about it once it catches it will be a firestorm. It is tne first original TV I have seen in years.

    Comment by Hannah — September 14, 2007 @ 2:01 am | Reply

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