Old Fashioned Television

Ironically, the greatest thing about the cable movie network AMC is its original television series like Breaking Bad and Mad Men.  By far, the most popular of the two, Mad Men has garnered loads of critical acclaim and an audience that will no doubt increase as each season releases on DVD.  The first season of Mad Men is already available on DVD.  Pop Theology contributor Richard Lindsay offers an insightful look book on this hit series’ first season. 

We all have a fantasy 1950’s. My own includes an Upper West Side incubating the Beat poets, lectures at Union and Jewish Theological Seminaries by Reinhold Niebuhr and Abraham Heschel, and easy A-train access to the jazz joints of Harlem uptown and the Village downtown. Somewhere in this imagined world is a cocktail party with Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, and Leonard Bernstein. My idealized New York of the 50’s was an oasis of avant-garde in a country gone blandly bourgeois; a place where artists, writers, and gays came to drink, hook up, write, paint, compose, think, be analyzed by Freudians, and morbidly obsess about the coming atomic apocalypse.

The AMC drama Mad Men may be as close as I get to this world, with a precise eye for period detail that focuses on one of the creative hubs of the post-war boom – the ad agencies of Madison Avenue. The series and its writer/creator Matt Weiner recently cleaned up at the Emmy’s, the first basic cable show to win the Best Drama category. (Being a poor graduate student without cable, I will focus on the first season, out on DVD.)

The series introduces us to the swinging ad agency of Sterling Cooper. Located in a High Modernist office building, it is a heterosexual male paradise with full bars in the corner offices, cigarette and cigar caddies on every desk, and sexual harassment lawsuits a distant nightmare of a dystopian future. The division of labor is clear: white men run the show, women serve the men as “office girls,” wives, and sexual playthings, blacks clean the office and run the elevators. If the men get their inspiration from Playboy and How to Win Friends and Influence People, the women get theirs from Sex and the Single Girl. (When your boss is out with his mistress and the wife makes a sudden appearance at the office, the savvy office girl knows it’s her job to stall for him.)

The protagonist Don Draper (Jon Hamm), creative director of Sterling Cooper, has an uncanny genius for plumbing the secret desires of the human heart (in order to sell that heart something, of course). Draper is detached and cool, a man of mystery, the “prince of the firm,” as one character calls him. Despite his stunning blond wife Betty (January Jones) and his two adorable children, a sheik of his looks and talent is expected to have a harem. During the first season he carries on with a downtown graphic artist (giving him access to my bohemian fantasy world) and a client, the daughter and heir of a Jewish department store owner. We also learn early on in the series that Draper is harboring a secret about his identity, which plays up the juxtaposition of reality and fantasy both in life and the advertising industry. (The tagline to the series is “where the truth lies.”)

Other characters include the privileged Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) Draper’s underling. His cunning in advancing his career is apparent (As Draper says, “There’s this kid who comes by my office every day and looks for where he’s going to put his plants.”), but so is his throbbing need for acceptance. Homely office girl Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) starts as Don’s secretary, but quickly shows a talent for writing ad copy. Her orientation session by curvaceous secretarial queen bee Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) offers an enjoyable establishing shot of the office zeitgeist. (“Try not be overwhelmed by all this technology,” she says, pointing to an electric typewriter and an office intercom, “…the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.”)

Desperate housewife Betty Draper is a living embodiment of the ennui captured in The Feminine Mystique. She spends the series wondering why on earth she is so unhappy if she has everything, including a hunky husband, spacious house, and all the kitchen appliances a woman could want. The conflict is so great and so repressed she has shaking fits. She goes into the city to lay on the couch of a Freudian who listens and tells her nothing, but still reports their sessions to Don.

Some of the funniest scenes come from the junior copy writers, all twenty-something man-children only one step removed from the frat house. Presented with the first bottles of spray-on deodorant, it takes them mere minutes to figure out its actual purpose as a flame-thrower, paving the way for generations of adolescent knuckleheads to follow. Many of these underlings in “Creative” are frustrated writers and artists, just making ends meet until the novel gets sold or the gallery calls offering a show. This is consistent with the experience of many creative people of the era that fed from the teat of the corporate golden calf to support their art habit, including Andy Warhol, one of the most successful commercial artists of the 1950’s.

Art Director Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt) is the Andy Warhol of this firm, a closeted gay man who has a subplot in which he has a near affair with another art director. In fact, the several art directors introduced in the show are all as well groomed and arch-eyebrowed as Salvatore. They seem to be cut from the same mold as the lilac floor-loving Leonard from Doris Day’s advertising firm in Lover Come Back. (Note to Mad Men writers: this means the art director gay joke has been around at least since 1961 and really should be retired.)

A tribute to Matt Weiner’s writing is the number of top-tier character actors that signed on for the series. Stage legend John Cullum coughs his way through some entertaining scenes as a Southern good ‘ol boy who runs a tobacco firm. Robert Morse, playing agency founder Bertram Cooper, adds the penumbra of memory from his mid-century adman in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, although his Zen-like demeanor in this series plays against frenetic type. John Slattery is co-founder Roger Sterling, whose porcine selfishness would render him completely unlikable if not for the unrepentant relish with which he chases alcohol and female tail.

Contrasted with these corporate Beelzebubs, Don Draper comes off as quietly, even secretly, ethical. He refuses to talk down to his underlings in the office and carries on his sexual dalliances with non-employees. He doesn’t drink in the morning. He wasn’t born into this world of clubby privilege, and often seems bemused by its rituals and games even as he has mastered them. His integrity is based on the peculiar American ethic that a self-created identity is truer than an inherited one, even if it requires you lie about your past.

The show is full of carefully researched anachronisms that add historical authenticity. The first episode deals with the agency’s difficult task of coming up with a new ad campaign for Lucky Strike cigarettes now that the writing is on the wall that smoking causes cancer. Draper invents the bland “it’s toasted” slogan, rather than accepting the psychological theory pitched by the research department that reveals humanity’s secret hunger for danger and even self-destruction. The “death wish” theory would lead to later campaigns like the Marlboro man. Small actions cause cringes in the modern viewer, like children crawling over the seats of a car while it’s in motion, and pregnant women drinking and smoking. The bodies of the men and women have never seen a gym machine. The women’s swooped hair adds stories to their height, while the men are close-cropped, revealing asymmetrical heads and protruding ears.

The men and women carry on mannered, severely formal social relationships, even in marriage. Husbands and wives rarely say what’s on their minds, maintaining facades of false confidence and equanimity in each other’s presence even when all is crumbling inside. Women steadfastly refuse to stand up to their husbands. During one stomach-turning sequence, Don Draper, hardly the faithful husband, shames Betty like a child for hitting it off in what he deems a too-flirtatious manner with his boss. And she agrees with him.

The problem this gendered formality causes for the flow of the series is that so many important scenes take place during man-woman pillow talk. If the men are not capable of sharing their feelings in normal conversation, then they let down their guard with their wives and mistresses only before or after sex. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I’ve always found whispered intimacy on screen tedious—especially when it does much of the heavy lifting in advancing the characters and plot.

Religion doesn’t really come up in the first season of Mad Men, except in a glancing way through Don Draper’s affair with the Jewish department store heiress. (The untouched shrimp cocktail served by boneheaded goys during their initial meeting with their client is a subtle gem of a joke.) Don Draper also has a charismatic, even preacherly presence in the boardroom. During one exasperated ad pitch, he says, “Listen, I’m not here to tell you about Jesus. You already know about Jesus. Either he lives in your heart or he doesn’t.” The line suggests the influence of Draper’s devout family may not have been wholly left behind in his hardscrabble youth.

The second season brings religion more into focus in the form of Peggy Olson’s relationship with her traditional Catholic family in Brooklyn. This is an important addition to the story line. Whatever else the 50’s/early 60’s was, it was a time of religious consensus. It wasn’t so important what denomination you claimed, but in the face of “godless Communism,” that you claimed something. 1960, the year the show begins, represented the high point of institutional religion in the 20th Century, with an average attendance of 47% and an average church affiliation of 62%. The skirt chasing, hard drinking, and existential nuclear (bomb/family) -era angst experienced by the characters is that much more complex if we know some of them have to face walking into church on Sunday.

I began with my fantasy of the 1950’s, and I’m aware that it may be a minority reading of the era. Many Americans, mostly conservatives, but some liberals, have idealized the time as a halcyon age when society was ordered and prosperous, families were good, decent, and respectful, and people knew their place. This assessment may be true. If there is a carefully formed and scrupulously maintained social hierarchy with educated white heterosexual men on top, followed by white heterosexual women, and people of color, gays, and Jews forming a permanent and unquestioned underclass, this may in fact lead to a more ordered world.

Where Mad Men succeeds is in showing that even for those on top, maintaining their place in the social order was difficult, repressive, and painful. For those forming the underclass, or simply wishing to break out of their assigned place, it was unlivable. It’s especially fitting that this reevaluation of the era takes place on television, where much of the family values mythology of the 1950’s was created.

Where Mad Men falls short is that as much as it questions the assumptions of the 1950’s heterosexual nuclear family, it safely reestablishes those standards before any real subversion can creep in. In the last episode of the season, in a sequence that walks a fine line between knowing irony and pure hokum, Draper sells Kodak’s new slide projector with a pitch based on an emoto-porn appeal recognizable to anyone familiar with the last forty years of advertising. (“It’s not a ‘Wheel,’ it’s a ‘Carousel’ of memories.”) But wouldn’t you know, as the music swoons, as the clients look on in awe, all the slides he’s chosen for the pitch are of his beautiful wife and two kids. Don Draper, drinker, womanizer, man of mystery, just wants a white female spouse, two blond offspring, and a three-bedroom house in Ossining. For all Mad Men’s retro originality, we’ve seen this show before.

–Richard Lindsay