I jettisoned the premium cable when the Sopranos and Deadwood went off the air and my Netflix account went live. I haven’t missed being on top of pop culture that much, and TV shows hit dvd almost as soon as their seasons end. Last night, the RLA and I settled down to see what all the fuss was about re: Mad Men. We’re both graphic designers, or were in our past lives, we both lived through the 50s and 60s and so this seemed like a perfect fit for us to watch. After the first episode, the RLA declared the series “depressing and sad”. I stuck it out through the first three episodes, which were all that were on the DVD. I have disc two waiting for me tonight. Annnnnnd, for the record, if John Hamm IS the hottest looking man on television today, then it is a sorry day for TV. He tricks out perfectly as a Hathaway shirt model, but I’m not feeling the sizzle. At all. The women are much more interesting, and I covet pretty much every article of clothing worn by Joan or Betty? Bitsy? whatever Mrs. Don Draper’s name is.
It’s unfortunate that so little of advertising is seen, because I remember the VW ads. In an anti-Semitic throw-away line, there is reference to the shop that those ads came from: Doyle Dane Bernbach. There is a lot of that sort of stuff in Mad Men, anti-Semitic, or blatantly racist attitudes that are oh so carefully crafted to give the image that that’s how everyone was in those days. In the first episode, Don Draper is talking to a Black bus boy (actually an older man) trying to wrap his mind around advertising cigarettes without making a health claim, and the restaurant manager comes over to make sure that Don isn’t being bothered by the chatty and uppity fellow. It was a segregated world, but was it that overt in New York City? It wasn’t that overt in my little home town in the deep south, so it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around this aspect of the show as being truthful to the period.
The women are all bitches to each other. The men universally treat the women like pieces of meat. Hell, the women treat the other women like pieces of meat, even and perhaps especially, the perky and powerful Joan, who tells the dowdy new girl Peggy that the way to make her way in the business world is to go home after her first day on the job, get completely nude, put a brown paper bag over her head with eye holes cut out and stand in front of a mirror and truly and honestly evaluate her assets and flaws. There is much made about her ankles. Joan shows Peggy an IBM Selectric typewriter and tells her not to be overwhelmed by the technology, that the men who built it made it simple enough for a woman to use.
Again, all I have to compare with are the women from my own late 50s and 60s childhood. Honey, let me tell you, that there wasn’t a woman in my mother’s circle who would have said shit like that. These were women who were running their own businesses and breaking horses and organizing flower shows. Mrs. NameEscapesMeAtTheMoment had lived in Occupied Japan with her husband. She could play the samisen and wear a kimono, and do ikebana. And she would do that in her home for the entertainment of the other garden club ladies. And she taught the other ladies (and their daughters, those of us who were the Junior Garden Club) how to do ikebana, too. In a town of less than five thousand people. Is it somehow possible that we more cosmopolitan than New Yorkers?
There are so many things in Mad Men that I find hard to watch: the gay-passing-for-straight man, the endless women sobbing inconsolably in various ladies rooms while other women walk past without batting an eyelash, the sexual double standard. Other things are funny, in a “oh my god, did we really do that” sort of way: the pregnant woman who is smoking, drinking and admitting her craving for raw hamburger, the child playing space-man in a dry-cleaning bag, the raw eggs in the Caesar salads, and the fear and loathing when a divorced woman moves in to the neighborhood.
Possibly the hardest thing for me to watch is the casual infidelity of the lead character and his mistress, who may or may not be another advertising hack. She does paint puppies for Hallmark. Her stereotyping as a Village Beat-nik is also a little hard to take. For all that the clothing is perfect to the period, and a lot of the other set details are too, my general impression is that all of this was written and designed, not by people who were there, but by people who studied movies and cinescopes for what the period was like.
I think that if you want a Peyton Place meets Wisteria Lane, then Mad Men is for you. If you want to know what the advertising world was like, then read the much more enjoyable “From those Wonderful Folks Who Brought You Pearl Harbor”, Jerry Della Famina’s autobiography.