November 04, 2009

Mad Men, the upscale drama about an early 1960s Madison Avenue advertising agency, is a sort of Brideshead Revisited for heterosexual American grown-ups. For Baby Boomers, it’s hard to watch Mad Men without enviously exclaiming: Our parents had it better!

Like the eleven-hour 1981 British adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel about the elegance and indolence of post-Great War Oxford undergrads, Mad Men‘s languorous 13-hours per year pace affords viewers the time to wallow in the visual details and manners of a more adult age than our own.

Matthew Weiner, the 44-year-old creator of Mad Men, describes the root of his fascination with the post-WWII/pre-Beatles New York City that he never experienced firsthand:

Catcher in the Rye has got to be at the bottom of the entire show. It’s the first book I ever completed reading. I read it many times. I fantasized about living in New York. I loved the WASP-iness of it even though it’s got these Jewish undertones to it.

When first reading J.D. Salinger’s novel in the 1970s, I was surprised by 16-year-old Holden Caulfield’s assumption, shared by his culture in general, that it was more fun to be old than young. In contrast, as far back as I could remember”€”the historic hinge years of the later 1960s”€”the media had marketed the opposite message.

Mad Men‘s cinematography is suitably mature, using a dolly-mounted camera instead of the jitter-cam of today. The serial resembles a Ralph Lauren catalog with plot twists … more plot twists than I, personally, care to follow, but there can certainly be worse things in a storyteller than a fecundity of invention.

The main plotline about a handsome fellow (played by Jon Hamm) who went off to war as Dick Whitman and returns as Don Draper is particularly old-fashioned. I suspect Weiner was inspired, ironically, by Random Harvest, the movie Holden Caulfield grumbles through at Radio City Music Hall, the one in which Ronald Colman gets amnesia from being knocked on the head on the Western Front and then starts a new life with Greer Garson under a new name.

Mad Men‘s music isn”€™t as good as it could be if the show had a bigger budget (rights to the Sinatra catalog and Broadway standards don”€™t come cheap), but it’s easy to remember while watching that this was the last era when more than a few of the hit songs on the radio were composed for the over-25 demographic.

While Waugh wore his reactionary heart on his sleeve in Brideshead, Weiner maintains plausible deniability in Mad Men by methodically depicting how unenlightened the upper-middle class WASPs of a half century ago were. We in the audience are scandalized to note, for example, that even the most respectable parents in 1960 devoted more time to socializing with other adults than to obsessively overseeing their offspring’s next leap up the steep slope of the meritocratic pyramid.

Moreover, many families in 1960 can afford a home on just one income. As Betty Friedan noted, housewives are imprisoned in their suburban homes, escaping in Mad Men only, well … any time they feel like it.

Worse, firms pay married workers more than equally productive single ones, in violation of all the tenets of Friedan and Friedman. Employers back then felt they had a “€œduty to society,”€ a concept with which our advanced cultures are no longer familiar.

Even more shockingly, the employees at the Sterling Cooper ad agency knock off work right at 5:15 PM each day. They appear to have some weird Depression-era relic of a notion of solidarity among American workers: that if the bosses want more work done, they should hire more workers.

Didn”€™t they understand back then that cheap wages and expensive land are what made America great?

And, in contrast to today, everybody in New York wants to move to (pre-diverse) Los Angeles. Weiner, who grew up in LA (attending Harvard-Westlake, the rich kid’s high school that was my school’s archrival in debate), depicts Los Angeles in 1962 as the Paradise for the Common Man. During the second season, rich Don goes AWOL from Madison Avenue to see what it would be like to be poor Dick in LA. He discovers a low-rent utopia next to the beach where blue-collar artistes exquisitely customize cars straight out of Tom Wolfe’s famous first article. Weiner told blogger Alan Sepinwall:

… part of the point of the 60s is the focus is going to change from New York, and by 1972, New York is going to be a disaster. At this point, it’s on its way down and California is on its way up. That hot rod, read Tom Wolfe. It’s “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.

While watching Mad Men, Weiner affords us ample opportunity to congratulate ourselves on how much progress we”€™ve made. For example, most of the black characters in Mad Men have servile jobs. Today, of course, things are infinitely better. Black men are seldom seen in servile jobs (unless they are African immigrants or gay). In fact, black men aren”€™t seen in any jobs as much anymore: ten percent of black men were out of the work force in Don Draper’s 1960 versus 24 percent in booming 2000. Indeed, black men aren”€™t even seen at all as much anymore because a million are now locked away in prison. (The incarceration rate of black male high school dropouts was one percent in the Bad Old Days of Dwight Eisenhower’s last year in office versus 25 percent in Bill Clinton’s glorious finale.)

The kicker to the joke is that Mad Men, despite being set in New York, is filmed in LA, where Latinos have been imported in vast numbers to fill the servant jobs that today’s upper-middle class whites no longer trust blacks with. Yet Hispanics are even more invisible to the Hollywood elite today than blacks were.

Is Mad Men a satire on the old WASP-run America? Or is it, more daringly, a satire on the new America watching the old America?

Neither, really.

In setting and characters, Mad Men is a de-satirized, minor key riff on the musical comedy How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. (Indeed, Robert Morse, who won a Tony in 1962 for his role as the social-climbing young VP of Advertising in How to Succeed, plays senior partner Bertram Cooper in Mad Men).

Weiner has the fetishistic, obsessive-compulsive observational skills to be a great satirist, but his heart’s just not in it. He’s a nostalgist.

Satire, from Swift onward, has been a Tory art form. In contrast, Weiner, at least consciously, identifies with the triumph of progressive liberalism. He is the loyal son of the kind of hard-working, left-leaning Jewish family (his father is a prominent neurologist, his mother a housewife and attorney) whose conventional wisdom has come to dominate our culture so thoroughly that, at least in his copious interviews, neither Weiner nor his interviewers appear to notice many of the ironies of Mad Men.

As a social commentator, Weiner is on the winning side in the culture war. Yet, as an artist, he senses a void in the brave new America. While he may lack the vocabulary to articulate it, this longing helps give Mad Men its romantic aura that lifts it above its own soap operaish and soft porn tendencies.

Weiner, who has a wife and four sons, is at least aware, however, that he finds feminism a hoax. (This same heresy added interest to the 1980s television serial about the advertising business, thirtysomething, which was created by two otherwise liberal Jewish family men, Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz.)

Consider the interview in Variety in which Weiner is asked a standard question: “€œHow much of the show’s take on gender roles is rooted in your own upbringing as someone born in 1965?”€ In response, he wanders around for 867 words trying to explain, without being so lucid that gets himself Larry Summersized, that he’s learned”€”the hard way”€”that feminism is flapdoodle. In his strained verbiage, though, there’s one cogent sentence that explains much of Mad Men‘s appeal to contemporary women:

“€œWhat’s sexist in the office is fuel in the bedroom.”€


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