AN INTRODUCTION TO WHY THE HELL I’M INSISTING ON WRITING ABOUT A SHOW THAT’S ALREADY OVERPOPULAR AND OVERANALYZED
For those of you who don’t know, Mad Men is short for Madison Avenue Men, for the sharp almost exclusively male denizens of the advertising world in NYC circa the ‘50’s and ‘60’s.
First, WHY am I interested in it and HOW did I get interested? Very much the same way I got into the Harry Potter books – skeptically! (NPR helped fuel the interest, too.) Both creations are/were just too popular, and being something of a culture snob, I didn’t want to care for either. Thanks to a librarian in both cases, I dipped my toe into the waters, so to speak, and instead of tedium, found immense entertainment as well as food for thought. To my delight, I’ve found Mad Men on dvd (and the Harry Potter books on tape) to be engrossing, fun, intellectually nourishing –I don’t care any more that such things are ridiculously popular, because they are QUALITY, people! So, I am giving my elitism a holiday; it’s no longer useful. One more thing: I don’t regularly watch any TV shows; probably haven’t since Dark Shadows many years ago. . . I just catch interesting shows on dvd.
Because I’m a New Yorker of a certain age and my father worked in Manhattan in the sixties in the PR/Advertising world, I am first of all fascinated by the setting of Mad Men, especially the old-fashioned office world, where “gals” worked and the men ruled mighty. . . (but of course it was really a gynocracy deep down!) I can just imagine my dad in the office at Sterling Cooper, struggling alongside those other young men (and women). At the same time, I can see myself in the character of Peggy Olsen (the ambitious Borough-bred Catholic girl and graduate of a secretarial school), and in “Big Red” Joan (the buxom office manager whom I originally pegged as a manipulative bitch – but now I relate to her a lot more as somebody who’s smart, who’s “been around the block” and tries to help). Morally bankrupt characters or merely mortal? You, the viewer, be the judge!
A friend of mine identifies with the daughter of Don & Betty Draper, Sally. Her mother was a beautiful, crazy alcoholic, and she grew up in a very similar household. And so on. . . just about everybody can relate to a character in the show because there are too many great characters that have dynamic lives. I’m sure there are lots of men who identify with Don Draper, the suave leading man of the series, the top “Mad Man” with a dark past. And I’m sure people see themselves in other characters, like Pete Campbell, Paul Kinsey, Harry Crane, Ken Cosgrove, Sal Romano (the closet gay art department head), Roger Sterling, senior partner & sexist master of the advertising universe. . . and of course, Betty “Bets” Draper, Don’s very complex, chinadoll-pretty wife. The addition of Robert Morse as the Senior Partner, Bert Cooper, is wonderfully ironic in that the young Robert Morse’s landmark role was the lead in a musical called “How to Succeed in Business (Without Really Trying).”
It would almost go without saying that the actors are so brilliant I think of the characters, not the actors. . . but they’re all too young to have lived through the sixties (well, almost all too young). In fact, Jon Hamm, January Jones, Vincent Kartheiser, Elizabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery. . . etc. etc. This troupe is utterly fabulous (including guest actors like Colin Hanks).
Besides the characters, a big part of my fascination with Mad Men has to do with the loving attention and historical detail, stylistically. I’ve always been a history buff, and it’s really fascinating to see a time in history that you actually lived through (even if you were almost too young to remember). Big things like the Nixon/Kennedy election, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vatican II, Bob Dylan playing at Carnegie Hall. . . they happen and are important (my friends and I snorted at the irony of the given date of Roger’s daughter’s wedding: November 23, 1963), but it’s really the day-to-day details that make Mad Men brilliant. Little things I remember seeing, like the old style milk bottles, dresses my mother used to wear, my father’s hairstyle, a pink bathrobe I wore, the big vintage American cars, like Chevys and Fords, our the old family car (Ford Fairlane 500, ice blue) . . . it creates a little pang, an ache that’s more of a flutter in my chest: this sweet nostalgia of the soul.
Best of all, it all looks brand new, and the people that wear or use these things look so young and innocent. . . even the old people! And I know many of you PopKrazy addicts are definitely sentimental for something. . . something that makes you ache from the past. We yearn to be there to fix something, to be with somebody who’s no longer there, to live in a time that no longer is. . . and that is just human nature.
Of course, in every Mad Men episode, there are also the pithy comments usually attributed to creative head Don Draper, the handsome Face of Sterling Cooper. To quote Don Draper from a recent episode (season three’s “Out of Town”), “. . .New products aside, there will be fat years and there will be lean years -- but it’s going to rain.” Actor Jon Hamm as Don Draper looks at the client (the London Fog people) pleadingly, earnestly – and he knows it’s the truth. At least, the truth of the moment.