Monday, July 21, 2008

Mad Men

The second season of the TV series Mad Men on AMC debuts this coming Sunday. For anyone who hasn't seen it already, I urge them to do so. It is a rather remarkable show.

Part of what makes Mad Men so amazing is that it is such an incredible recreation of the advertising world of 1960. Indeed, the show has come under attack because both drinking and smoking is so prevalent. Here I must point out that this is entirely accurate. Cigarette sales reached their peak in the Sixties. And while Reader's Digest had the series of many articles attacking smoking, "Cancer by the Carton," as early as 1952, there was still not a lot of concern over the effects of cigarettes. As to the drinking, Jerry Della Femina, a copywriter of the Sixties and later founded his own agency, said of the show in The New York Post, "Picture a bunch of drunks talking to each other through a cloud of smoke--that's really what the '60s was." W. Watts Biggers, once an account executive at Dancer Fitzgerald Sample and creator of Underdog, let his sons read his book on the creation of Underdog, How Underdog Was Born. He said their only reaction was to ask how he survived all those martini lunches. I remember reading several years ago in a book of essays about the Fifties (I think it was published by Time/Life, but the title escapes me) one by a former executive who said that at the firm where he worked then the secretaries were largely hired for their looks, not their typing skills. And it was expected for one to try to seduce his secretary. Allen Rosenshine, one time CEO of BBDO in New York Post, said of Mad Men, "I won’t deny that there was drinking, but it was never like that. And if anybody talked to women the way these goons do, they’d have been out on their ass." I can only assume that perhaps, even in the Fifties, this was something that varied from firm to firm.

What is more remarkable is that for a period piece Mad Men is relatively free of anachronisms. There are exceptions. Although it is only 1960, the show features IBM Selectrics from 1961. The reason for this is simple. The Selectric was available to some businesses in 1960. The problem is that the production simply could not get enough of them. What few ones they could get simply did not work. Creator and producer Matt Weiner then simply went with the 1961 models, which are readily available and worked much better.

That having been said, I have caught two much more glaring anachronisms on the show. The first is a scene in which one of the character's daughters is caught playing with a dry cleaning bag and the character yells at her. This might have been acceptable if the show took place ten years earlier, but for a mother in 1960 to simply leave a dry cleaning bag lying around in easy access of children or for her not to have warned her children about dry cleaning bags is unrealistic. It was in the late Fifties that The Society of the Plastics Industry spent a large amount of money and time on a national campaign educating the public that plastic bags, particularly dry cleaning bags, present a danger to children. For a character in the show to have left a dry cleaning bag lying around, then seems unrealistic. A much more glaring anachronism appears when men from Sterling Cooper are making a new pitch to Lucky Strike cigarette executives. Faced with the fact that cigarettes are harmful for one's health filling the news, they pitch the slogan, "It's toasted." The problem is that "It's toasted" had been in use by Lucky Strike since 1917! A better choice would have been the slogan the brand had actually used in the early Sixties, "Lucky Strike separates the men from the boys...but not from the girls."

Mad Men is more than a remarkable recreation of both Madison Avenue in the Sixties and society in general in 1960. The series boasts some of the best writing in television today, not only examining the fictional Sterling Cooper advertising agency, but the impact working there has upon its employees. The majority of the characters are very well developed, from the Don Draper, the show's protagonist and a junior partner at Sterling Cooper with a mysterious past, to Pete Campbell, a junior account manager from a well placed family with too much ambition and too few ethics. These characters are brought to life by one of the best casts in television. Particularly standing out are Jon Hamm as Don Draper and Vincent Kartheiser as Pete Campbell.

Mad Men also benefits from good production values. Although produced on a cable series budget, the show looks much more expensive than it really is. This is greatly aided by talented directors, with experience ranging from The West Wing to House.

If you missed the first season, Mad Men is well worth the rental price to catch up on it on DVD. And by all means, if you enjoy quality television, you must not miss the second season.

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