Mad Men and 30 Rock swept last night’s Emmys — both in terms of numbers of nominations and numbers of wins. They were chosen best in show for their categories (Best Drama, Best Comedy) and their writers —Matthew Weiner and Tina Fey— retired their respective Best Writing awards.
For 30 Rock —the latest extension of the Lorne Michaels’ empire at NBC— the Best Show Emmy is business as usual (it also won last year.)
But for Mad Men — the first production effort of a basic cable network (AMC)— it’s a complete fluke and a signal success.
In the spirit of truth in advertising (a concept that would amuse the hell out of the ad men in Mad Men if it ever even occurred to them) I should make the following disclaimer: I have only seen the series’ First Season, which I bought when it came out on DVD a couple of months ago. I am, therefore, unable to comment on the show’s second (award-winning) season.
Mad Men has one particular aspect that makes it of interest to TNN readers; and I have one personal aspect that makes me particularly qualified to write about it (even beyond my exquisite taste and the fact that I am never wrong).
The first season of Mad Men is bookended by the 1960 presidential election. In the first episode a hint is dropped that the Madison Avenue ad agency in which the series is set —Sterling Cooper— is about to be given the Nixon campaign’s advertising account. In the final, 13th, episode, in the course of an all night election vigil orgy on Sterling Cooper’s premises, they watch RN’s defeat unfold on TV.
In the new meanspirited spirit of post-modern TV, all or most (and all of the most interesting) characters in Mad Men are, on their very best days, completely despicable.
On 30 Rock the characters are philistine, grasping, venal, and insensitive — which means that they are funny. On Mad Men they are philistine, grasping, venal, insensitive, and Republican — which means that they are irredeemable.
If the trademark of 30 Rock is the snarky quip, the trademark of Mad Men is the unfiltered cigarette. There is more curling smoke in ten minutes of Mad Men then in a box set of films noirs. The Natural Resources Defense Fund should file a suit against the producers on behalf of all the trees that had to be felled to produce all the Luckys that are fired up on screen.
In Mad Men, males and females smoke almost non-stop. They smoke when they’re talking, when they’re silent, when they’re happy, when they’re sad, when they’re horny, when they’ve just had themselves some of the fairly graphic sex that’s on offer in most episodes, when they’re drinking (which is a lot of the time including at the office), when they’re not drinking, when they’re driving, when they’re on the commuter train, when they’re eating, and when they’re pregnant.
Lucky Strike cigarettes are one of Sterling Cooper’s clients (the series’ protagonist, Creative Director Don Draper, comes up with the classic slogan “It’s Toasted”) and in some of the episodes the recently-emerged evidence about the health danger involved is discussed and dismissed as the kinds of tiresome technicality that ads are supposed to help the consumer avoid.
The characters are meaty, the casting is inspired, and the acting is superb. Don Draper, monumentally played by Jon Hamm, is the quintessential anti-hero. He has a troubled past, a brilliant mind, a conflicted nature, the looks and physique of a god, and the morals of a marmoset. And he’s the one we’re supposed to be rooting for.
As fate would have had it, my first job after grad school was working for a Madison Avenue ad agency. (Although J. Walter Thompson was so cool that we were one block over, at 420 Lexington, in the Graybar Building above Grand Central Station.)
I ended up writing speeches for Dan Seymour —the legendary radio announcer who had become JWT’s President— but before then I was assigned to Wilson Seibert’s copy group working on French’s Mustard and the introduction of Gillette’s Platinum Plus blade. (Bill Seibert was a fine man, a copy genius, and a generous mentor — a Don Draper with morals. Among his many credits were the copy lines “The Marines are looking for a few good men,” for JWT’s client the USMC, and “America’s Storyteller” for Kodak.)
I arrived in the summer of ’68 — several years after the 1960 setting of Mad Men. But things hadn’t changed all that much between times, and my hat is totally off to creator-writer-guru-producer Matthew Weiner and his design team for having so well recreated the look and —more important— the feel of those now-distant days.
On the physical level alone Mad Men is a triumph of art and vision. The few anachronisms make the achievement even more impressive. And although AMC was clearly willing to pony up some serious dough to do this right (and kudos to them for that), I’m sure there were many times when Mr. Weiner had to fight to keep it this real.
I fondly remember many raucous lunches behind the big two-way mirror watching focus groups (and, as in Mad Men, the most coveted seats were when the most intimate products were being studied); and although Mr. Weiner’s Research VP is a rather too grim Freudian refugee (JWT’s was a very glamorous home-grown psychologist), he’s got all that right too.
The Nixon Account theme runs in and out through several episodes. My first thought was oh great, I’ve just invested in thirteen hours of knee-jerk Nixon-bashing in the name of Art……no wonder it received such rave reviews from all the usual suspects. (I bought the Season One box set after hearing David Bianculli’s glowing review on Fresh Air.)
But that’s not what’s going on here. These Sterling Cooperites are all Republicans — admiring of RN’s experience and contemptuous of JFK’s youth and overvaulting ambition. Although I think Mr. Weiner’s view of them is, in the end, too one-dimensional, it’s his show so he’s entitled to his view. Besides, when has moderation ever produced important art?
The ad mens’ references to Joseph P. Kennedy’s widely known willingness to use his vast fortune to buy the election for his son suddenly become less flippant after the West Virginia primary. On election night, as they watch the election being stolen (as they see it) in the rogue precincts of Cook County, they’re all too blotto to appreciate the irony that other men using other means have turned out to be even more adept at molding and manipulating consumer behavior.
Mr. Weiner gets RN’s reluctance to use ads absolutely right. Sterling Cooper is kept on hold but never signed up. In real life, RN —who would have truly been the client from hell— never used an agency. He had the benefit of advice from expert practitioners like image pioneer Ted Rogers and JWT’s own Harry Treleaven. He respected their expertise but he instinctively resisted their ministrations. As a result he ended up with the worst of both worlds: a reputation for media manipulation and a reality of forgone opportunities.
While I was at JWT —by which time RN was already in the White House where Bob Haldeman and his JWT-West minions were making the trains run relentlessly on time—the agency received a request from Vice President Agnew for assistance with the setting up of SAV (Students Against Violence), a national organization being headed by Dallas Cowboy Lance Rentzel, to which Charles Schulz had lent Snoopy’s “Joe Cool” character as a logo. That’s another story for another time, but the dynamics of agency-politics interaction were clearly still at work.
The Mad Men scripts —some of which are written and all of which are supervised by Mr. Weiner— are full of apt and clever period references.
Bliss it was to be alive in 1960, but to be young was very heaven — and for all its attention to period detail, Mad Men misses that essential fact. It underestimates the innocence of the profession at the time — which was precisely what made it so appealing and exciting and, frankly, so much fun. There’s an unrelieved grimness to much of Mr. Weiner’s version that doesn’t jibe with what I remember.
Before very long it would become a very different —and clearly compromised— business. But in 1960 advertising was still exploring the vast new virgin territories —literally and figuratively— that were still being opened up by the arrival of TV as a mass medium.
When RN made the Checkers speech, only a fraction of his nationwide audience were able to watch it on TV; by the night of the first Great Debate in 1960, only eight years later, some ninety-three percent of American homes had at least one TV set.
Looking back at it now, it’s easy to see it all as jaded and to dismiss it as cynical. But that’s not the way it was for those who were there. For that one brief shining moment back in the day, Madison Avenue was the very cutting edge of the brave new world where all the newly-invented newly-available post-war creature comforts were seen as the fulfillment of the American Dream.
You can dip into Mad Men mid-Season Two on AMC right now, or you can invest in the Season One box set (which would be my recommendation, because the experience is best savored cumulatively and sequentially) and set the timing of your own Mad Men marathon. And there’s still the Season Two box set to look forward to.