And in a world filled with American Idol, American Gladiators, and other reality TV (which I have never been a fan of) it is always refreshing to find creative stories, with good scripts showcasing great acting. That’s exactly what I found watching the first episode of Mad Men, the recently minted Best Drama by the HFPA in that horrid “press conference” I endured on CNN a couple of weeks ago.
Now, Mad Men has a lot going for it: a great leading man in Jon Hamm (how had he eluded my radar with his guest-starring roles in Charmed, Providence and Gilmore Girls?), impeccable production that so realistically recreates 1960s Manhattan (yes I’m talking both at the level of costuming and art direction as I am about the chain-smoking, chauvinistic attitudes and that oh-so nuanced closet-case) and a story that speaks to both the America of an era where Jews weren’t hired on the boss’s watch, psychoanalysis was a feared European fad, short skirts were encouraged secretary attire and also to the America of today.
Mad Men (titled after those Manhattan Advertising Men) follows Hamm’s Don Draper, the golden boy of the Sterling Cooper Advertising agency. He has the life that all the men in the office aspire to: a great job, a beautiful wife and kids, and of course, a gorgeous lover. But slowly, the pilot reveals that under all that cigarette smoke, Don is not as happy, fulfilled or satisfied as one may think. Clichéd? Maybe, but what really makes Mad Men stand out is the verisimilitude in which it establishes its characters. You may be watching the show in your HD TV in 2007 but the show feels as though it lives and breathes in 1960s America. At one point during a pitch meeting Draper – rejecting the now common psychoanalysis that drives contemporary advertising (focusing on our death drive and our rush to feel dangerous and otherwise not ourselves) gives the following speech, which speaks to the two Americas reflected on screen:
“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK.”
And with that Sopranos scribe and producer Matthew Weiner gives us the quintessential American world that his new show depicts. Happiness – in Draper’s world, is not found in his family, his job, his wife’s love or his lover’s bed, but in the ephemeral moment of… well, capitalism? That seems like a much too pedestrian look on life, and I think Weiner and Hamm (with his brooding face and imposing figure) want to show the flipside of that very formulation. If happiness is only found in a reassurance which exists in billboards, and love is a figment of the advertising imagination of people like Draper created in order to sell Nylons, then what does a white middle-class married American feel when he falls asleep next to a woman whose anxiety numbs her hands, or a newlywed who pursues the new secretary, or an art director who relishes the image of a man in a campaign and not of that of a bikini-clad woman? Needless to say, I can’t wait to catch up with Mad Men’s entire first season to find out what Weiner and his team cook up as potential answers.