Sunday, July 29, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "Mad Men" from 12.3.2008

This review was originally on my reviewblog
Unusually, another of my favourite dramas just now comes from America; it is Mad Men showing on BBC4 on Sundays and repeated on Wednesday on BBC2.

The programme is set in New York’s Madison Avenue in 1960 just before Kennedy beat Nixon and the short-lived Camelot period began. It was to end within three years with the sound of gunshots in Dallas.

The initial appeal of Mad Men lies in its slick, cinematic depiction of the fresh self-confidence of its time. It is a period drama with production values to die for. The sky scrapers in the Big Apple are tall and shiny, the clothes are sharp and appealing and the advertising executives are creative, forward-looking Masters of the Universe.

When I walk around New York my head is always full of Rhapsody in Blue or the theme from the Odd Couple. I expect to see Holly Golightly fresh from Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Jack Lemon on his way to The Apartment. My mental New York is all about lunch with dry martinis in a buttoned booth at Sardis or The Four Seasons.

In this respect, Mad Men delivers in spades. The production values are delicious and it’s as much of a costume drama as Cranford or Pride and Prejudice. The suits are sharp and somehow of the moment, the dresses and hair are stylish and the sets are authentic from offices to restaurants to suburban homes. Visually it is a delight and a triumph.

As well as capturing the look of the times, Mad Men reflects its mores. Against a background of unlimited chutzpah, political incorrectness and rampant consumerism, we are presented with grotesque displays of sexism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-semitism, racism, bigotry, hypocrisy, immorality and greed.

A general inclination towards excess and self-gratification is reflected in patronising rudeness to black waiters, endemic treatment of female staff as sex objects and virtually compulsory infidelity and drinking.

Strikingly, everyone seems to smoke at all times whether in the office, restaurant or on the psychiatrist’s couch. Smoking in many ways is the leitmotif of this whole story. It is an essential element of the picture of the time; it reflects the bravado and ultimate weakness of the characters and demonstrates the essence of the ad man’s role and mentality.

In the first episode our hero/antihero, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is confronted with the problem of advertising Lucky Strike cigarettes after the link with lung cancer had been established and the advertiser's palette of misinformation had been limited. His solution “It’s toasted” encapsulated the essence of the man and his job. Advertising is not about informing or explaining. Most politely, it’s about comfortable illusion or distraction. More accurately it’s often about misleading or lying for money.

The cigarette advertising dilemma flags up the basic issue about this world. It is glossy, slick and glamorous but basically e-moral, exploitative and corrupt. Its reality is much more desolate Edward Hopper than cosy Norman Rockwell.

Later he comes up with the slogan “Any excuse to get closer” to promote Right Guard. The skill or evil genius involved in arriving at this brilliant commercial solution impresses and terrifies at the same time. This new breed of canny ad man is sensitive and insightful and well as cynical and exploitative. From then on, the innocent consumer didn’t stand a chance.

The world of advertising men is also corrupting. It will be intriguing to see what becomes of the new secretary from the sticks who seems destined to join the rank of abused victims sobbing in the ladies' washroom at the office.

Don Draper himself embodies this moral vacuum of the ad business. He is attractive and intelligent. He seems to reflect a great deal and is not entirely insensitive. He knows the power he wields, but we do not yet know if he feels this should bring with it any responsibilities. He is capable of flashes of insight and we note in the opening episode that he has a purple heart decoration in the drawer of his desk in his office. This may be clarified later.

He is more appealing than some of his more boorish and vicious subordinates, yet he is regularly unfaithful with his girlfriend in the city whilst outwardly devoted to his pretty wife and two children out in comfortable Westchester suburbia.

We do not know if Draper’s occasional reflective moments demonstrate any awareness or concerns about his cynical existence in a moral vacuum. In the real world sleeping in the office in the afternoon is usually just that - and not a manifestation of intense thought, inner conflict or mental anguish. Just because they are still, waters don't have to be deep -still waters can be very shallow.

This uncertainty sums up the point and fascination of the drama. The merit of Mad Men is not just its sumptuous production values that mean one can almost taste the vodka gimlets and smell the Lucky Strikes.

It intrigues because it flags up such unanswered contradictions. Draper, who seems personable enough, can live with a job which is, at best, misinforming his fellow Americans. He can also live through adultery and lies as a matter of routine.

Viewers want to know why and how he can do this. More broadly, we want to know how his whole industry flourished on a foundation of the illusory and misleading. Also, what does it signify for us now when we know full well that spin and deceit dominate what we consume and think and how we are governed?

Mad Men is more than costume drama; it illuminates 1960 and maybe today.



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