Last month, the television show Mad Men won the Emmy Award in the United States for best drama series, putting it in the company of The Sopranos, Lost and 24. Like those other programmes, Mad Men has a long, unfolding storyline, costs millions of dollars per episode to make, and seems largely intended for home-recording or DVD viewers, who will trouble to watch it in sequence. It is on billboards and the sides of buses everywhere and the puff interviews are inescapable (its network, AMC, has never had a hit show to publicise before). The first series ran on BBC4 in March; the second series will be broadcast next year.
Mad Men is an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better. We watch and know better about male chauvinism, homophobia, anti-semitism, workplace harassment, housewives’ depression, nutrition and smoking. We wait for the show’s advertising men or their secretaries and wives to make another gaffe for us to snigger over. ‘Have we ever hired any Jews?’ – ‘Not on my watch.’ ‘Try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology; it looks complicated, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.’ It’s only a short further wait until a pregnant mother inhales a tumbler of whisky and lights up a Chesterfield; or a heart attack victim complains that he can’t understand what happened: ‘All these years I thought it would be the ulcer. Did everything they told me. Drank the cream, ate the butter. And I get hit by a coronary.’ We’re meant to save a little snort, too, for the ad agency’s closeted gay art director as he dismisses psychological research: ‘We’re supposed to believe that people are living one way, and secretly thinking the exact opposite? … Ridiculous!’ – a line delivered with a limp-wristed wave. Mad Men is currently said to be the best and ‘smartest’ show on American TV. We’re doomed.
Beneath the Now We Know Better is a whiff of Doesn’t That Look Good. The drinking, the cigarettes, the opportunity to slap your children! The actresses are beautiful, the Brilliantine in the men’s hair catches the light, and everyone and everything is photographed as if in stills for a fashion spread. The show’s ‘1950s’ is a strange period that seems to stretch from the end of World War Two to 1960, the year the action begins. The less you think about the plot the more you are free to luxuriate in the low sofas and Eames chairs, the gunmetal desks and geometric ceiling tiles and shiny IBM typewriters. Not to mention the lush costuming: party dresses, skinny brown ties, angora cardigans, vivid blue suits and ruffled peignoirs, captured in the pure dark hues and wide lighting ranges that Technicolor never committed to film.
Sooner or later, though, unless you watch the whole series with the sound off, you will have to face up to the story. At its centre is Don Draper, a ladykiller and champion ad man. (The name seems to recall Dick Diver, Tender Is the Night’s fallen hero.) His careless arm, draped over the back of a leather couch, seen from behind, forms Mad Men’s logo. Either he is surveying the immense territory over which he is lord and master, or he is pondering some facet of his existential dread. Don is supposed to be the profound one. Around him is ranged a toybox of tin stereotypes. The format of the show is to suspend a backstory and subplot from each diminutive stereotype, episode by episode, and sketch some quick pathos around the character to see if it can humanise him or her. There is the Older Mentor, a partner in the firm who, by his clothes, seems to represent the Roaring Twenties – evidently that was the last generation before the 1950s, in television’s way of remembering history. He looks like Faulkner and drinks just as heavily, regretting his lost youth. Don Draper also has a Stifled Wife, Betty, who is styled like Grace Kelly, and exhibits the twitchy anxiety of suburban housewives as described by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique before their liberation came via feminism; she is a child, and her mother has just died, leaving her at sea in a world of uncaring men. There are Assertive Women, too, who find Don Draper adulterously irresistible. The Bohemian Artist welcomes Don at any hour into her carefully dishevelled Village studio apartment. The Wealthy Jewess lures him back to her father’s department store to seduce him, against her solid judgment and her faith. A perverse aspect of the obsessive period detail of Mad Men emerges in these old-timey stereotypes which we have jettisoned, but the 1950s still possessed. My favourite is the Emasculating Lady Psychologist – a cross between Hannah Arendt and the Wicked Witch of the West – who heads the firm’s research department, appears in the first episode and then, alas, isn’t invited back to exhibit her horribly fake German accent until Episode 6. (‘Freud, you say,’ mocks Don Draper. ‘What agency is he with?’ – as he dumps her report in the trash.)
Great moments in the history of advertising are simply acted out, rather in the way Kraft Television Theater in its day might have dramatised scenes from the life of George Washington. All through the first episode, Draper, as creative director, is racking his brains for the right pitch to sell Lucky Strike cigarettes. Unable to bring even a single good idea into the meeting with his client, Draper asks the company president, who’s come all the way from Winston-Salem, to describe how tobacco is made. ‘We plant it in the South Carolina sunshine,’ the old man drawls, ‘cut it, cure it, toast it – ’ ‘There you go!’ Draper says, and writes: LUCKY STRIKE: IT’S TOASTED. All cigarette tobacco is toasted – but no rival has yet claimed it. Hence, advertising genius.
In fact Draper’s slogan was first used by Lucky Strike not in 1960 but in 1917. Claude Hopkins based a famous set of ads for Schlitz beer on a visit to the brewery, where he discovered that they washed and sanitised their bottles with steam. ‘His hosts assured him that every brewery did the same,’ as Martin Mayer recounts it in Madison Avenue, USA, an indispensable book written in 1958, but that didn’t stop Hopkins from running with his new slogan, SCHLITZ: WASHED WITH LIVE STEAM. When Don Draper pulls the stunt, you don’t know whether you’re supposed to be impressed or to feel that the whole advertising industry is unconscionable and stupid. What’s certain is that the dramatic process leading up to these bolts of insight – Draper writing on pads, Draper staring into space, Draper sending his secretary-cum-copywriter Peggy home with an electric weight-loss belt to see what it does (predictably, it’s a vibrator; the proposed slogan is ‘You’ll Love the Way It Makes You Feel’) – is desultory, and distracts only a little from the soap opera antics of bed-hopping and keeping secrets.
It was Eisenhower who in 1952 became the first American presidential candidate to use a television commercial. ‘To think that an old soldier should come to this!’ the former Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe moaned at the filming. By 1960, two long Eisenhower terms later, television and advertising had become essential to the modern electoral campaign. Everyone remembers the young and handsome John F. Kennedy’s triumph in televised debates with his rival Richard Nixon. According to legend, Nixon lost the 1960 election by his refusal to put on makeup before the broadcast. One of the more subtly interesting moments in Mad Men occurs when we see an actual Kennedy TV spot, pulled from the archives, screened in the boardroom of the show’s fictional Madison Avenue firm. (The firm, Sterling Cooper, is working for Nixon, just as they work on cigarette campaigns and everything else we know to be bad for you.) The Kennedy commercial gives one of the few genuine shocks of the series. ‘Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy!’ chirrups the jingle, set to a big band tune. Cartoon hands hold up ‘Kennedy’ signs in an arty collage that places the candidate’s chiselled face among celebrities, names of US states, doodles, and lines of eager voters.
This real commercial was pure ‘brand’ manipulation. It had nothing to say about policies or issues, or even about Kennedy’s personality, biography and character. We just don’t see political ads like this anymore. The shock, of course, is that advertising has become somewhat more modest across the span of fifty years. We no longer invest so much in mere association – it has at least been put in its place. John McCain may be launching ugly spots with increasingly crude and mendacious claims about his opponent; Barack Obama’s media teams will certainly spotlight their man’s high cheekbones and trim good looks, even when he’s talking up his tax plans. But cheerful decoration alone isn’t thought to sway the electorate as it did in 1960, and coded messages can’t make an end-run around the conscious mind to elicit audiences’ submerged opinions.
Advertisers in the 1950s and 1960s were for many reasons more eager to believe in a Svengali model of mass persuasion. The black-magic prestige of professional psychology was at its height. The field had been enhanced by the adoption of ‘applied psychology’ for wartime propaganda and intelligence operations, an expertise that was retrofitted, like so many disciplines after World War Two, for the new explosion of industrial productivity. Something had to be done, competitively, to try to sort the flood of identical products: Tide, Cheer, Duz, Dash, Cascade, Comet, Zest (all household soaps and cleansers). No one was more credulous than the ad impresarios themselves, with the exception of their angry detractors, who left us such cautionary documents as The Hidden Persuaders and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (whose eponymous antihero worked in PR). Emerging stars like David Ogilvy and Norman B. Norman publicised the ad man’s mystique of deep creative force, genius and restraint, as an up-to-date alternative to the old market barker’s persistence. Industry opened its purses to pay for strange approaches (Louis Cheskin’s Color Research Institute) and memorable accidental art (like that leisured, mustachioed man with an eyepatch, ‘the man in the Hathaway shirt’). Up swelled one of those colossal bubbles of pompous self-regard, enclosing account execs and art directors and copywriters, that leave their sticky residue on history.
It’s a commonplace that portrayal of the past can be used to criticise the present. What of those cases in which criticism of the past is used to congratulate the present? I suppose it does at least expose what’s most pompous and self-regarding in our own time: namely, an unearned pride in our supposed superiority when it comes to health and restraint, the condition of women, and the toleration of (some) difference in ethnicity and sexuality. Mad Men flatters us where we deserve to be scourged. As I see it, the whole spectacle has the bad faith of, say, an 18th-century American slaveholding society happily ridiculing a 17th-century Puritan society – ‘Look, they used to burn their witches!’ – while secretly envying the ease of a time when you could still tie uppity women to the stake. If we’ve managed to become less credulous about advertising, to make it more normal and the bearer of more reasonable expectations, perhaps in 50 years’ time viewers will look back on the silly self-congratulatory subtexts of Mad Men, shake their heads, and be grateful that gender and sexual tolerance have likewise been normalised. Advertising circa 1960 is genuinely interesting. Would that Mad Men had been genuinely interested in it.
It is a tribute to the show’s acting that despite the odds stacked against them, some of the characters do gain dimension. The Jewish love interest, played by the stage actress Maggie Siff, is mesmerising, self-possessed and unfazed by the strictures of ‘playing history’ even as she stays unusually true to the period. The apple-cheeked and boyishly malevolent Vincent Kartheiser, as Pete Campbell, Draper’s Younger Rival in the firm, manages to steal every scene he enters. They are, paradoxically, the two actors who would seem most at home in a real 1960s Hollywood movie, yet play their roles with the kind of commitment that lifts them out of time, escaping pastiche. The pretty Bohemian Artist, I’m sorry to say, holds her last marijuana party in Episode 8, though not before taking Don to a pre-Bob Dylan-era poetry club, where he has an inane debate with a Beatnik.
Whether one finds all of this claustrophobic and ludicrous or tightly wound and compelling depends very heavily on one’s opinion of Don Draper. Draper, as written, is a kind of social savant. He knows how to act in every emergency. He deploys strategic fits of temper to attain his ends. He’s catnip to women. As played by Jon Hamm, though, his manner hardly matches his activities. Hamm looks perpetually wimpy and underslept. His face is powdered and doughy. He lacks command. He is witless. The pose that he’s best at, interestingly, is leaning back in his chair; it ought to be from superiority, but it looks as though he is trying to dodge a blow. Draper is supposed to have a deep secret, but it would make sense only if that secret were his weakness – fearfulness or femininity – instead of the show’s anticlimactic revelation that his mother was a whore and he picked up another man’s identity on the battlefield in Korea: bizarre Gothicisms that belong to some other series. One never sees hunger or anger in Hamm’s eyes, only the misery of the hunted fox. Either he is playing the hero as a schlub in deference to a 21st-century idea of masculinity as fundamentally hollow and sham, or he’s completely underequipped to convey male menace.
The most necessary thing that he can’t do is to justify viscerally why strong women keep falling for him, or why the competitive males in his office accept him as an Alpha. In the classic Hollywood cinema, there was a name for the role Hamm should be playing: the Mug, who seems OK at first but in the end has to give up the girl to Cary Grant or Spencer Tracy. The Sopranos, the programme for which Mad Men’s creator Matthew Weiner worked as a writer before getting his own series, is often invoked by journalists as a godparent to the newer show. The two share a focus on the world of men, a primary relationship between an older, world-weary boss and a sneaky young turk, even a psychiatrist figure who pops up to allow a character to express what can’t be said at home. Unfortunately for Mad Men, the example of The Sopranos shows up all the possibilities of the medium that aren’t exploited in Weiner’s show. And unfortunately for Jon Hamm, James Gandolfini’s depiction of Tony Soprano shows the kind of man Don Draper might have been: someone in whom strength and weakness, allure and cruel cunning, were held in balance, through an alternation of authority, neediness and physical violence.
The only really moving parts of Mad Men, curiously, have to do with the further reaches of its most annoying feature: its knowingness about how everything right today was wrong back then, which could be expected to become most sanctimonious when it addresses sexual orientation. (The show barely considers race, perhaps because one can hardly say that there everything has turned out ‘all right’ in America over fifty years.) Every so often we get to see a gay or lesbian character begin to act on impulse, rather than suffering in silence or mouldering in confusion. The art director, Salvatore, meets a male client from out of town who takes him to drinks, then dinner, then offers to show him the darkened view of Central Park from his hotel room. The office sexpot, Joan Holloway, hears her old roommate confess a deep, non-Platonic love as they stand before a mirror in Joan’s bedroom: ‘Think of me as a boy,’ the woman begs. The roommate is rebuffed. The art director, too, goes away, but not before cueing us in to the fact that, though closeted, he is not utterly unaware: ‘I have thought about it. I know what I want. I know what I want to do – and that is nothing.’ ‘What are you afraid of?’ his suitor asks. Salvatore: ‘Are you joking?’ What had been condescending becomes, momentarily, tragic. Then another precisely dated song is played, and the credits roll, and we are back by the next episode to the historical-dramatic irony which is the most the show can treat us to and, finally, not enough.