Monday, June 16, 2008

A Martini Full of Arsenic

There are those who find Mad Men, the AMC-TV series set at a swank Manhattan advertising firm in 1960, to be too “on the nose” or even over the top (“No one smoked that much”). If you’ve seen only a few episodes, it can definitely play that way, its extremities jutting out and knocking viewers. But it’s a show that rewards both patience and full surrender. If you’re willing to dedicate yourself to the series, you may well fall helplessly into its smoky, sleek clutches, as I did. For me, the show roams the same languorous, sexy, tortured, morally complex terrain as Sweet Smell of Success, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, and Richard Yates’ tormented 1950s novel of suburban dread, Revolutionary Road (about to make its way to the silver screen this year).

While not explicitly a crime or mystery show, it is easy to see Mad Men’s noir underpinnings, such as in the Woolrichian past of haunted ad exec Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and in the machinations of young comer Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), who sweats like Sidney Falcone, connives--badly--like a Willeford hero, and twists with self-contempt like one of Ross Macdonald’s WASP vipers. We also see it in the steely bombshell Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), who demonstrates the canny smarts and the terrible loneliness behind the war-paint of many a supposed femme fatale. Most deeply, however, we see a parallel in the origins of noir. Many point to the impact of World War II as central to the rise of film noir, the sense that the world is a much darker place than we had ever thought before--hence, the feeling of cynicism, anxiety, paranoia, and desperation that drives Kiss Me Deadly, Dead Reckoning, Act of Violence, and In a Lonely Place. Likewise, WWII and also the Korean War weigh heavily on the men and women of Mad Men--in their relationships with each other and in their view of the world and of the American Dream. These men are nearly all veterans and their experiences overseas loom over them, often in unexpected ways, as we see in the rivalry between “Greatest Generation” WWII vet Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and “forgotten war” Korea vet Draper.

I should point out, however, that Mad Men is more than just cribbing and more than just borrowed glamour; it spins some silvery magic all its own. It’s also a show willing to embrace “weirdness,” including pre-adolescent sexual play and incest-tinged family dynamics. There’s a twist in most every character: Much more than another desperate housewife, Don’s lonely spouse, Betty (January Jones), seems to have the darkest secrets of all thudding in her chest. And few shows are as comfortable tackling class issues: the John F. Kennedy-Richard Nixon presidential campaign that served as a running metaphor in Season One, cannily paralleling the battles among the men on this show.

We also get the “hidden” history of a time period that’s been trapped in amber for far too long, most especially as it pertains to the women on the show. The rise of Peggy Olson (The West Wing’s Elisabeth Moss) from shy, open-hearted secretary to ambitious copy writer parallels her emotional girding. The walls go up brick by brick and by season’s end, she’s the toughest ad man of them all.

Most of all, though, this show, like all noir, is about loss. The dark hole that we all fear lies in our centers. Loss of past, of family, of identity itself. These are characters trapped in their own slick, soulless performances of living. Imitation of life, indeed. The brilliant last episode of Season One features a virtuoso client pitch by Don Draper. He presents an ad campaign for the Kodak slide wheel. During the conference, with lights dimmed, the cool-as-ever Don turns on the projector and flips through slides of what we realize are his own family, on vacations, with his newborn baby or opening presents on Christmas morning. “Nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent. ... It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone,” he says. The candy-colored images fly by and they show a smiling Don (we almost never see Don smile), a giddy Betty. “This device isn’t a spaceship,” he says, hand on the slide wheel. “It’s a time machine. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.” Clicking by us, we realize the images are moving backward in time, back finally to a young, unmarried Don and Betty kissing on New Year’s Eve. “It’s not called ‘The Wheel,’” he says. “It’s called ‘The Carousel.’ It lets us travel around and around and back home again to a place we know we were loved.” There is a pause, the lights go up, a fellow ad man brushes a tear from his eye and the clients are clearly all Don’s.

It’s a scene that touches something far deeper than the ad-speak clichés convey. Watching it, it’s hard not to feel the stir of a forgotten ache. It is like we’ve been told something about ourselves, something hidden that we are not ready to hear. It’s that twinge in the heart. Mad Men’s pitch is just that convincing. I’m sold.

Mad Men begins its second season on July 27. The first season will be available on DVD July 1.

READ MORE:Mad Men Has Its Moment,” by Alex Witchel (The New York Times Magazine).


dick adler said...

What a convincing writer! Just ordered Season One on Netflix.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I was just about to write Jeff and tell him how right on the nose he was. HA! I agree wholeheartedly but couldn't have said it so eloquently.

Uriah Robinson said...

Mad Men is an incredibly accurate portrayal of the attitudes of that period.
I can assure you that in the UK during the 1960s people did smoke that much and of my university group three all heavy smokers died very young.
These people and others did not just smoke between courses but between mouthfuls.

Gordon Harries said...

Fabulous article.

Already a big fan of the show, but defiantly some food for thought there.

Roger Morris said...

I'm a fan - of the show and of your wonderful, perceptive review! You make me realise why I love it so much.

Anonymous said...

I think your over-play the whole post-war anxiety angle - if it existed it was well and truly played out by the 60's.

I agree that Mad Men has a noir feel: the anti-hero trying to escape his inescapable past - but how it is resolved is still open.

As for Joan as a "femme-fatale"... gimme a break!