It's tempting, but wrong, to think we are cleverer than previous generationsby / August 15, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
In the second decade of the 21st century, the 20th century has already become a strange land, ripe to be looked back on through television fiction. If you were there, the results often taste wrong, especially if they look right. A mental flavour is hard to re-create; but never mind, because you won’t be around long to object. Trying to be generous as I bow out, I personally am careful to give points for any attempt at fidelity to the way we were, although all too often the flashback shows strike me as adding up to a startling registration of the way we weren’t. What are these young people trying to achieve, when they pour so much money, talent and effort into telling us what they think our lives used to be like? Well, if the first thing they strive for is a financial return on investment, they’re certainly achieving that. And anyway, they’d do the same for Henry VIII: The Tudors and Wolf Hall between them must already have made more money than the dissolution of the monasteries. We should never forget that we’re watching a market at work, even if the market is making the market the subject: self-reference is no guarantee of objectivity. It’s more likely that objectivity had been made part of the pitch.
Among the growing worldwide audience for box sets of American television serials, the quiet but insidious craze for Mad Men spread at a highly sophisticated level. People latched on who would never buy a box set of Entourage (too silly) or Californication (too dirty) or Band of Brothers (too noisy) or The Sopranos (too grisly) or The Wire (too druggy) or even The West Wing (too witty). But a box of Mad Men they had to have, even if they hadn’t seen a single episode on television. Transmissions of Mad Men on mainstream channels, in fact, drew a notably restricted audience. In its land of origin the show was a hit for the cable channel (AMC) that developed it, but a big cable audience is a small percentage of a network audience, and in other countries the show was usually a minor event when it went to air. Even if it didn’t rate on a terrestrial channel, however, the distributors of the box set were likely to get happy, because there was an upmarket consumer stratum out there whose hunger for the product seemed to be made all the sharper by the fact that hardly anybody else knew about it. It was like a taste for some homemade ice cream that gets taken up by a big manufacturer: the marketing will depend on the message that somehow the product is still home-made by Ben & Jerry, even though it’s rolling out of a factory by the truckload.
There’s a lesson there about advertising: a mass demand for something often begins when nobody knows about it except you and your friends. Mad Men is full of the lessons that were learned about advertising in its late 1950s and early 1960s boom days on Madison Avenue. (Mad Men is shorthand for Madison Avenue men. But you already knew.) Because they were boom days, people came flooding into the business whose intelligence might previously have kept them out, and one of the continuing thrills of the show is the sense of mentally energetic people breaking fresh ground and building a new city whose ethical basis they might question if they didn’t so much enjoy the lawless excitement, the sexy buzz, and the view from the top floors. In this respect, the show’s closest predecessor is Deadwood: the Mad Men are ruthless Western desperadoes in tailored suits, swearing much less but smoking a lot more.
They, too, risk death. Indeed the actors playing the Mad Men might well be risking death from too many herbal cigarettes. If the show has a weakness—and, dare I say it, it has— it lies in the fact that this thrill of contesting and tumultuous intelligence is too often damped down by a lingering emphasis on character. That could be part of the elitist appeal, however: when what sounds at first like a quick thriller by Raymond Chandler threatens to turn into a slow novel by Henry James, there will always be readers who feel flattered, and they might be right. Character studies are hard to do, and they give actors opportunities. The central figure of Mad Men is a character study and almost nothing but. Tall, handsome, enigmatic, and effortlessly dominant, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is the creative genius of the Sterling Cooper agency. The agency’s name is made up, and it turns out that Don Draper’s name is made up too: or at any rate he stole it. During the Korean War he switched dog tags with a socially more privileged dying buddy and came home with a false identity. So he arrives on the Avenue with at least one interior conflict already working full blast, and there are plenty more waiting for him on the road ahead. His childhood, fragmentarily revealed in flashbacks—there is a storm of them in series six—was hellish, and he can overcome it only by mass philandering: he betrays his current wife with his last wife and betrays both of them with someone else’s wife. Don Draper is the most convincing portrait any size of screen has ever provided of a man compelled to begin his life again every few hours, each time with a new version of the only woman he can’t do without. He’s like François Truffaut’s L’Homme qui aimait les femmes with all the lightness removed and replaced with uranium ore. Today his career as a kinky mass seducer would be inhibited by the security demands of email, mobile phone and credit card account, but in those days a man like him could disappear at will, returning from a late lunch after manifold debauchery. His compulsive life is a refuge from his ruined childhood; his drinking is a refuge from his life; and buttoned up over all that turmoil is a fatally attractive cool-jazz façade. Bidding fair, unfairly fair, to being the single most magnetic male character of the whole box set era, Don Draper is Don Giovanni in a Brooks Brothers shirt.
The actor who plays him is ideal casting for a commanding figure racked by secrets. Blessed with a deep voice, an athlete’s grace, and good looks beyond cavil but not beyond the bounds of credibility, Jon Hamm is the actor with everything, except the sense to change his name. There must have been a moment, just before he hit the big time, when he still had a chance to call himself, say, Jon Hunque. His agent and every friend he had must have been trying to tell him. “Listen Jon, for God’s sake listen. You’re going to be huge, but the word ‘ham’ means bad actor even with an extra ‘m.’ Change it. Change it.” But he didn’t, because he didn’t have to. We’re in a new world now, when the mass market can cope with the raw facts.
In the old world, as represented in Mad Men, it can’t. The facts have to be cooked, by the Mad Men. Few of the Mad Men are women, but since creative intelligence is at a premium, there is a door open for female Mad Persons to push through, even though the males waiting on the other side might have the sexual ethics of wolves fuelled by alcohol. Doe-like in her shyness of eye but needle-sharp in her originality of brain, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) is determined to break through a glass ceiling that is set at floor level. You loved her as Jed Bartlet’s daughter in The West Wing: now see her fighting for lebensraum 40 years earlier. Made pregnant by one of the account executives—a marvelously off-putting performance by Vincent Kartheiser—Peggy hides the baby lest it slow her down. One of Don Draper’s countless internal contradictions is that he can see Peggy’s potential even while he continues to repress his wife without a qualm. Betty (January Jones) was a model, a Grace Kelly lookalike, until she met Don, but now she is a full-time housewife when not prostrate on the shrink’s couch. She has no idea of what her husband does in the office, or indeed, away from the office after lunch. (The same applies for his second wife, Megan, played by Jessica Paré as an insecure beauty who has chosen exactly the wrong man to lean on: as Betty tells him when falling back into bed with him after she has married someone else, to be in love with him is the worst way of getting close to him.) When at work, however, even Draper must be on guard from detection by the all-seeing eye of office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), she whose sumptuous behind is considered by the average journalist as the second most important character in the show. Most press pieces about Mad Men, especially if written by women, mention Joan’s salient rear end even before they get around to the sexual challenge posed by Don Draper’s brooding glance. The general assumption is that a dazzling job has been done of reproducing the way things were in those days.
It has, especially when it comes to things you can see. Right from the title sequence, which recalls the work that Saul Bass once did for Alfred Hitchcock, the look of the thing checks out in almost every detail. If you compare the look of the thing against the gallery of advertisements hilariously preserved on Lileks.com, it’s a perfect match. The men’s haircuts are exactly right, like their clothes. The women’s clothes are so right that it aches: underneath, the foundation garments must be firmly in place. Everything graphic has been reproduced from scratch, thus avoiding the usual anomaly of art direction by which people in days gone by read old-looking magazines. Even those of us who were alive at the time will find it hard to find a fault, and those who weren’t might well be led to believe that the atmosphere of a high-powered advertising agency has indeed been captured. Pulsing below ceilings that are almost always in shot—the camera spends half its time aimed up from below eye level—the pressure cooker is practically bursting with angst, ambition and sexual tension. No hand-held shots; no Steadicam shots; even the technique is of the period. This, you are led to think, is the thing itself. But there is still more than one reason to worry about Joan’s voluptuous figure.
She’s a parody, and even at the time she would have been thought of as too much. Her early conviction that the only desirable destiny of an office girl is to become a married woman is very plausible, but her incarnation of oomph is a put-up job by the show’s creator, who wants to give us a past much more clear-cut than it actually was. To give the show its due credit, as the seasons go on she climbs to power: a Mad Person possibly even brighter than Peggy. But she still never reads a book. Matthew Weiner—who is in control of Mad Men the way Aaron Sorkin was in control of The West Wing, except that Weiner has never allowed himself to be shaken loose from his creation—has devised a complex story about bright people, but he has simplified them while doing so. The concept that a woman should be a brood mare was certainly still prevalent, but men who were smart at the level of advertising executives had already begun to question it. When Marilyn Monroe swiveled her butt in Niagara, there were already plenty of men who knew it was a joke, and by the early 1960s the ideal of blatant sexiness had already given way to something far more subtle in the mind of any man who could read.
“There would have been subversive critiques a lot more penetrating than anything spouted by Peggy’s radical boyfriend”
Right there, however, lies the biggest implausibility of the show. Most of the Mad Men carry on as if they read nothing except their own advertising copy. The only intellectual among them smokes a pipe, to indicate unusual thoughtfulness. The rest of them live in a world without books. Not even the supersmart Don Draper has a book in his house. At one point in the plot he stumbles on a collection of Frank O’Hara’s poems and his brooding attention is captured by the printed word. (This episode has done for O’Hara’s posthumous sales what Four Weddings and a Funeral did for WH Auden’s, but this time the readers are probably doomed to confusion, because very few of O’Hara’s poems get far beyond the condition of not being prose.) Draper also, at one point, dips into Dante’s Inferno, no doubt finding a world ripe for market penetration. (I hasten to admit that I wish my own translation of the Divine Comedy had already been on the bookshop shelves when that episode went to air: I might have done a bit of market penetration on my own account.) At all other times, however, the agency’s top ideas man behaves as if Gutenberg had never lived.
In Mad Men, the corporate world never questions its right to manipulate a captive audience. The truth of the matter was very different. Vance Packard had already published The Hidden Persuaders, and most of the people in the upper echelons of the consumer society had read it. Most of the Mad Men had read every issue of Mad magazine, a publication which, under the genial direction of its editor Harvey Kurtzman, was largely devoted to an unflinching linguistic analysis of salesmanship’s bogus eloquence. Social critiques were bestsellers, just as movies like Marty won Oscars. Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl, Tom Lehrer, Jonathan Winters, and Lenny Bruce had already made their satirical records and most of the Mad Men had heard them. At the time, Mad Men were part of the off-Broadway audience for Nichols and May. In the show, a bunch of Mad Men might get tickets for Hair, and Don and Megan might go to see Rosemary’s Baby, but that’s about it. In real time, some of the Mad Men—notably David Ogilvy—were already producing successful advertisements that parodied the assumptions of their own culture. Ogilvy’s book Ogilvy on Advertising was a much-read vade mecum that helped the trade to consider itself as a profession precisely because its author emphasised the level of solid research and unpretentious practicality: “The customer is not a moron. She’s your wife.” Ogilvy’s autobiography Confessions of an Advertising Man was—and remains, in my view—one of the key critical works of modern times. If the Mad Men couldn’t look like Ogilvy—he was as handsome as Don Draper—then they certainly wanted to think like him. Armed with their readings of books like his, and eager to emulate his general taste and cultural hunger, the Mad Men were much more conscious of what they were involved in than the show makes them out to have been. They would have talked about it among themselves. There would have been subversive critiques a lot more penetrating than anything spouted by Peggy’s bad choice of radical boyfriend, the least smart rat in her rat-infested apartment. There would have been disputes, and, these being intelligent people, they would have been intelligent disputes about ethical purpose and legitimate method.
And that would have been the truly interesting conflict in the mind of Don Draper. In the show he spends a lot of his time questioning himself, but hardly any of it questioning his job. But questioning his job would have been part of his job, because one of the ways that advertising developed was by becoming more self-aware. Advertising was a medium, and that was what all the media did, on their way to generating the media world we live in now.
The media world we live in now has generated Mad Men, and it’s a high-end product, with a sure sense of the smart audience that preferred to find it than be hit over the head with it. Even when they were hit over the head with it by an adroit international campaign of promotion, they were still convinced that they were finding it all by themselves. But what they were finding was yet another illusion, though a remarkably nuanced and fascinating one. The illusion was of a past when even the smartest people weren’t quite as smart as us. There is still much talk in the press about how the secret of the show’s appeal lies in nostalgia—nostalgia for a time when a man was a man, a woman shaped like an hourglass full of peach juice had no ambition except to stay at home and cook, and everyone smoked like a train with no thought of ever hitting the buffers. But the show does better than that. It doesn’t make the mistake of presenting life on the Avenue as a fairground.
Indeed it’s a prison, and young Peggy will have to fight her way out. But few of them will think their way out, and the awkward truth is that a lot of them, in reality, were already thinking. They just hadn’t figured out what to do next, mainly because they were involved in a paradox: it was the wealth they produced that would give them the freedom to question their lives. Stuck with the same paradox, we revel in the opportunity to look back and patronise the clever for not being quite clever enough to be living now. Mad Men is a marketing campaign: what it sells is a sense of superiority, and it sells it brilliantly. Personally I still can’t get enough of it. But then, I could never get enough of Rothman’s King Size filters in the brand-new flip-top box.