Saturday, February 18, 2012

The First Five of "Mad Men"

A few months ago, ABC and NBC both rolled out new prime time dramas set during the 1960s, a move that many in Hollywood observed was probably an attempt to cash in on the fascination with the time period brought about by the AMC drama "Mad Men." Having been unfamiliar with the show when I reviewed "Pan Am" and "The Playboy Club," I wasn't in a position to make many comparisons, but now I've consumed a good chunk of "Mad Men's" first season, and can draw the following conclusion: the networks totally missed the point of "Mad Men." Their shows romanticize the era, relying heavily on nostalgia and warm feelings toward the bygone past. "Mad Men," on the other hand, seems intent on demystifying the 60s, and proving that the good old days were only good for a select few, and only at a high cost.

"Mad Men" provides a look into the world of Don Draper (John Hamm), an advertising executive at the fictional Sterling Cooper advertising agency in New York City. The year is 1960, and Draper battles to stay on top of a highly competitive industry, where threats come not just from other firms, but within his own. An ambitious young account executive, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), wants his job. His mentor, senior partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery), can usually be counted on to take Draper's side, but has his limits. Draper gets most of the screen time and most of the press attention when people talk about "Mad Men," but the show has two other lead characters who are just as important. One is Peggy Olson, who arrives at Sterling Cooper as Draper's new secretary in the pilot, and has to learn the rules of a male-dominated workplace with a little help from bombshell office manager Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks). The other is Don's wife, Betty (January Jones), a perfect vision of domesticism and motherhood, except that she's suffering a mysterious psychological ailment straight out of Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique."

Watching "Mad Men" is a constant exercise in re-evaluating the status quo, comparing how Americans lived fifty years ago to the way we do now. It's one thing to read about the prevalence of sexism and racism and quite another to watch how Draper and his colleagues react to a client who is a Jewish woman, or to hear the kind of comments Peggy has to endure from her doctor in order to obtain a prescription for birth control. Every mother must have winced at the sight of Betty Draper ignoring the fact that her daughter was playing astronauts while wearing a plastic dry cleaning bag over her head. More importantly, it's fascinating to watch how the men and women interact together, conforming to social mores that are now outdated, but still linger in the present day. The catcalls of the junior executives might seem extreme and inappropriate, but it'll take a minute or two to remember that this kind of behavior is still depressingly prevalent in certain places.

Throughout the early episodes, there's this feeling of impending destruction, the knowledge that Don Draper's world will soon come tumbling down around his ears, and he'll suffer a fall like the silhouette figure in the opening credits. And it's not just Don who's on the brink, but perhaps everything around him too. The lifestyle Don enjoys, which includes endless drinks at work, wining and dining clients, visiting a beautiful mistress (Rosemarie DeWitt) in the afternoons, and being able to go home to his loving wife and children in the evenings, presents a very seductive image of American masculinity, one he does a great job of selling. Of course, it's too good to be true, which is clearly going to be a major theme of the series. Already, after five episodes, the cracks are beginning to emerge, and the tumultuous Civil Rights movement is just around the corner.

Good grief, I've spent an entire post talking about the social issues and historical context of "Mad Men," and haven't said a word about the writing or the performances or the set design, or just the overall production values, which are absolutely remarkable for a cable television show. I can hardly get my head around the logistics for some of what we see onscreen, including period fashions, d├ęcor, locations, and more. Then again, I think I'll have plenty of time for that in future posts. The show has me pretty hooked already, and I suspect I'll be with it for the long haul.

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