Monday, August 16, 2010

Why I Am a Little Disappointed in This Season of Mad Men

Warning: Here There Be Spoilers!!! If you have not yet seen the first few episodes of the 4th season of Mad Men, DO NOT READ THIS POST!!!

I think it is no secret that I love the TV series Mad Men. Not only is it my favourite show currently on the air, but it is one of my favourite shows of all time. This should be hardly surprising as the show is nearly a perfect fit for me. It is set in an advertising agency in the Sixties. What is more, it is one of the very few period pieces with almost no anachronisms. I am almost never disappointed in Mad Men, but I must say I was just a little disappointed in the start of the fourth season.

Those who know me may ask how I was disappointed in this season. After all, I have liked every episode so far. I cannot say I have been disappointed in how the episodes have unfolded. I certainly am not disappointed in any of the plot developments. So what am I disappointed in? Quite simply, this season began in November 1964, nearly eleven months after the end of the third season. In other words, Mad Men skipped most of 1964, one of the most interesting years of the Sixties.

Indeed, as any good Beatles fan knows, 1964 was the year that The Beatles invaded the United States. Given that Mad Men has followed the various cultural changes in the United States from the death of Marilyn Monroe to the assassination of JFK, I thought it would be interesting if the show had acknowledged the arrival of The Beatles. Indeed, I think it would have been interesting to have seen the reactions of the characters to the Fab Four. Would Don Draper have liked The Beatles (for all his coolness, I have a feeling he would not have). How would the reactions of the younger employees of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, such as Peggy, have been different from that of those of the older employees, such as Roger? I rather suspect that in skipping most of 1964, producer and creator Matt Weiner missed a great story opportunity.

Another story opportunity that was missed in skipping most of 1964 is that 1964 was a presidential election year. Now it is true that the series already covered one election year (1960), but the 1964 election of Lyndon B. Johnson versus Barry Goldwater was much more interesting. John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were at least somewhat in their campaigns. This was not the case with Messrs. Johnson and Goldwater, and the 1964 presidential election saw more mudslinging than ever before or since. In fact, the most controversial political commercial of all time (perhaps the most controversial commercial of all time, period) aired as part of Lyndon B. Johnson's campaign against Barry Goldwater. The official title of the commercial was "Peace, Little Girl," but it is better known by its informal name, "the Daisy Commercial." "The Daisy Commercial" was created by account executive James H. Graham, Sid Meyer, copywriter Stanley R. Lee, producer Aaron Erlich, and legendary sound archivist Tony Schwartz of the advertising firm of Doyle Dane Bernbach. It aired on Labour Day, September 7, 1964 during a showing of the biblical epic David and Bathsheba on NBC Monday Night at the Movies.

"The Daisy Commercial" was in many ways quite simple. It was also a very sophisticated exercise in extreme horror. Shot in black and white, the commercial began innocuously enough with a little girl in a meadow, birds chirping in the background, picking the petals off a black eyed Susan (not a daisy as so often assumed). As she picks the petals, she counts them off, although missing a few numbers. When the little girl reaches the number "9," a rather frightening sounding male voice is heard intoning a countdown, as when a missile is launched. The little girl then turns her head as if to look at something in the sky and the camera zooms into her pupil until it fills the whole of the screen. As the countdown reaches zero, the darkness of the little girl's pupil is filled with the explosion of a hydrogen bomb. It is then that a snippet of one of Lyndon B. Johnson's speeches comes on with the words, "These are the stakes! To make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die." The voice of sportscaster Chris Schenkel then comes on and says, "Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home."

LBJ 1964 Election Ad ( Daisy Girl )
Uploaded by DwightFrye. - Classic TV and last night's shows, online.

As political advertisements go, "The Daisy Commercial" was extremely effective. Although Barry Goldwater is never mentioned by name, the commercial clearly implies that he could start a nuclear war. This was a part of the overall strategy on the part of LBJ's camp, who wished to portray Mr. Goldwater as a potential hothead who would reckless use the Bomb. Made just two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, "The Daisy Commercial" was maximised to capitalise on people's fears regarding nuclear holocaust. Needless to say, it was immediately at the centre of controversy. Republican National Committee Chairman Dean Burch vowed to file a complaint against the advert with both the FCC and the Fair Campaign Practices Committee (FCPC). On September 11, 1964 he singled out "The Daisy Commercial" for attack while at the Sheraton Hotel in Washington D.C. with his Democratic counterpart, John Bailey, to sign a "fairness pledge" for the FCPC. He referred to the commercial as "...the most violent political lie that be told." He filed his complaint the following day, The same day Republican Minority Leader Senator Everett Dirksen wrote the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) alleging that the commercial violated the NAB code of ethics and was unfit for children as well. NAB simply replied that they did not did not consider applying its code of ethics to political advertising because of the uniqueness of the issues involved. Also on September 12, Idaho Governor Robert E. Smylie, Chairman of the Republican Governors Association, demanded the FCC ban "The Daisy Commercial" from ever airing again. Nothing really ever came of the complaints against the advert, not that it mattered. "The Daisy Commercial" never aired again. Its impact in 1964 alone can be demonstrated in that it was featured on the cover of the September 25, 1964 issue of Time, dedicated to nuclear weapons.

I suppose I have digressed a good deal here, but my point is that as Mad Men is set at an advertising agency in the Sixties,"The Daisy Commercial" could have provided grist for an entire subplot of an episode.  What would have been the reaction of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Would they have admired the work of Doyle Dane Bernbach? Would they have thought the commercial went too far, that it was potentially libellous? "The Daisy Commercial" was a landmark in the history of both television commercials and political advertising, a dubious one, but a landmark nonetheless. And, sadly, in skipping most of 1964, Mad Men missed it.

Another reason I would have liked to have seen Mad Men season four unfold over most of 1964 is that is is right in the middle of what I consider the Golden Age of Television Commercials. In 1962 Ajax introduced there "White Tornado" campaign. In 1963 Ajax introduced their even more successful "White Knight" campaign.This was the era of V8 Cocktail Vegetable Juice's "Climb Out of Your Rut" campaign, the "us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch" campaign, the "Things go better with Coke" campaign, and the Noxema "striptease" commercials. Now it is clear that SCDP has expanded a good deal into television. Don Draper even created a commercial for Johnson's Glo-Coat floor wax ("footprints are no longer a hanging offence..."). As someone who admires the commercials of the Sixties, however, I must say it would have been nice to have watched SCDP's conquest of the small screen.

Nineteen sixty four was also the year that New York City announced plans to build the World Trade Centre; the year African Americans and Puerto Ricans boycotted New York City schools in protest against discrimination; the year that 400-1000 students marched in Times Square in New York City and in other cities the first major protest against Times Square; Pacific Air Lines Flight 773 crashed outside San Ramon, California; the year that Gemini 1 orbited the Earth; and it was the year that Bewitched debuted (I think it would have been interesting to see the reaction of SCDP to a show about a fictional account executive married to a witch). Quite simply, even when one discounts the fact that it was the year The Beatles conquered America and the year of a presidential election, 1964 was a very interesting year.

Of course, I realise that if the fourth of  Mad Men had started in, say, February 1964, we would have to sit through the minutiae of Don's divorce (which would not have been pretty), but that is really the only real disadvantage I could see. Indeed, we could have watched SCDP go through its growing pains, as they scrambled to get new clients and continue their expansion into television. It could have provided very good fodder for some episodes. It is right now I really wish I was part of the writing staff of Mad Men, as I would have suggested to Matt Weiner that starting in February would be the path to go. As it is, I feel as if I have missed something.

Here I must point out I am only  a little disappointed in Mad Men because it skipped most of 1964. I am not overly angry they did. I am still very much in love with the show and eagerly await each new episode. While I do think Matt Weiner made a mistake in skipping most of 1964, I do believe that he probably had his reasons for doing so. And who knows? He might reveal how the characters reacted to The Beatles or "The Daisy Commercial" sometime (can anyone say "flashback" episode...). That having been said, now I just hope that when it rolls around, Mr. Weinder does not decide to skip most of 1967....


Anonymous said...

Interesting read, I just started watching mad men from season 1 it is such a great tv series, has
to be my favourite Drama. (I don't even think it airs here in Zealand anymore, unless its on a break..)


Terence Towles Canote said...

Zoe, with any luck Mad Men will air in New Zealand soon! It is absolutely my favourite show right now, and I hate for anyone to miss it!