Monday, May 18, 2015

Farewell to Mad Men

I don't talk about it often, but 2008 was one of the lowest points of my life. At work I had been temporarily reassigned to what was considered the worst department in which to work. My stress level increased and I was eventually diagnosed with what is known as an adjustment disorder. My absolute lowest point that year came on July 19 2008. I had gone to see The Dark Knight with my best friend. While I thoroughly enjoyed the film, I got sick to my stomach while at the theatre. In other words, not only was I stressed out and suffering from an adjustment disorder, but I had also contracted  a severe case of the norovirus.

Fortunately, the next day AMC was airing a marathon of the first season of Mad Men in anticipation of the start of its second season. I had seen the last few episodes of the first season, but missed all of its earlier episodes. Fortunately, lying in bed and recovering from what was the worst stomach bug I had ever had, I had nothing better to do but get caught up on Mad Men. Before the end of the day I was hooked. I would be a loyal viewer of Mad Men ever since. While I cannot say it is my favourite show of all time, it is my favourite show of the modern era.

Mad Men made my life a lot more bearable in 2008. In many respects it was the perfect show for me. The Sixties has always been my favourite decade, particularly the early to mid-Sixties. I love the music, the fashions, the movies, and TV shows from that era. And I have always been fascinated by advertising. Even before Mad Men debuted I was familiar with its history. Leo Burnett and  David Ogilvy number among my heroes to this day. I probably would have liked Mad Men even if it had not been very good. Fortunately it would turn out to be one of the greatest television dramas of all time.

For those of you who don't remember or are too young to remember, in the Naughts television was still dominated by the broadcast networks and HBO. The broadcast networks had the audience, their viewing numbers dwarfing those of even the most successful basic cable channels. HBO didn't have the audience, but they did have acclaim. It was not unusual for HBO to take home several Emmy Awards each year. While original programming had existed on the basic cable channels since the Eighties, the shows on basic cable were always overlooked in favour of the networks and HBO's shows. Eventually shows such as Monk on the USA Network and The Closer on TNT would prove very successful and develop cult followings. Even then, however, their audiences were dwarfed by the shows on the broadcast networks and they never received the acclaim that the shows on HBO did. Mad Men changed all that. While it never had an audience as large as shows on the broadcast networks (in fact, its audience was smaller than that of the recently cancelled Constantine), it received as much acclaim, if not more, than HBO's shows. Mad Men proved that basic cable channels could create quality dramas. It would pave the way for such cable dramas as Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, and Fargo. And while its audience was dwarfed by the shows on the broadcast networks,  Mad Men developed a fiercely loyal following.

Of course, there should be little wonder that Mad Men should not only receive widespread acclaim, but develop a cult following as well. The show was both very well written and very much a character driven show. Unlike many shows of the modern era, Mad Men happened to be somewhat slow paced. The first season of 13 episodes spanned only from March 1960 to November 1960. This afforded the show a lot more time in which to develop both its characters and its subplots. What is more, Mad Men captured the look and feel of the late Fifties and early Sixties with very little in the way of anachronisms. At the same time the many cultural references made during the series, everything from the movie Gidget to Planet of the Apes, never felt forced. I have to suspect much of the success of Mad Men stems from the fact that its creator Matthew Weiner sought to capture the milieu of the Sixties as realistically as possible.

That is not to say Mad Men was perfect. While they were rare, anachronisms did occasionally slip through. In fact, perhaps the most glaring one occurred in the very first episode, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes".  Don Draper pitches to Lucky Strikes the slogan, "It's toasted", a slogan that had been used for the brand since 1917!  A better slogan to have been pitched 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." In the fourth season episode "Public Relations" Don watched an NFL game aired in primetime on television in 1964, when in reality NFL football would not have aired in primetime until 1970. Scattered throughout the series were various anachronisms, although they were surprisingly few when compared to other period pieces and often not easy to spot.

As to how accurately Mad Men depicted the world of advertising in the Sixties, that probably depends upon whom one asks. In a recent article in Time, Jane Maas (one time creative director at Ogilvy & Mather and Wells Rich Greene, and president of Earle Palmer Brown) wrote, "Mad Men gets a lot right." She also said that she didn't "...think men were hitting on women so overtly," but notes, "There was a lot of adultery and sex going on, in the office, at night when people were working late, and in hotel rooms near the agency." Jerry Della Femina, a copywriter of the Sixties who 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." On the other hand, Allen Rosenshine, one time CEO of BBDO in The 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 have to wonder if drinking and the treatment of women did not vary a lot from agency to agency.  Mad Men may be an accurate portrait of some ad agencies in the Sixties, but not others.

From purely a story point of view, in my humble opinion I do think Matthew Weiner made a mistake in skipping most of the year 1964. Never mind it would have been interesting to see the characters' reaction to Beatlemania (I can't see Don being a Beatles fan), it was in September of that year that the notorious "Daisy" commercial  for the campaign for Lyndon B. Johnson aired. It was a monumental event in the history of political advertising, the first time a political advert had been made using Madison Avenue techniques. While the commercial was referenced on the show later, it would have been interesting to see the characters' reactions to it immediately after it had aired. I also think Mad Men faltered slightly in its fifth season, with far too much time devoted to Megan Draper (who, if she isn't the most unbearable character in the show's history, is definitely in the top five). Fortunately the show did recover and, even at its worst, Mad Men was better than many other shows at their best.

The shortcomings of Mad Men were ultimately very few. In fact, so well written was Mad Men that its characters changed and grew (or failed to grow) over time. As a result a viewer's feelings towards various characters could change over time as well. As hard as it is to believe, I really did not care for Joan in the first season. She seemed a bit too catty, a bit cross towards the secretaries, and downright mean to Peggy (then as now my favourite character). As time passed, however, I grew to like Joan, to the point that she would become one of my favourite characters. My feelings towards Betty would be a bit more complex. I started out basically liking Betty, only to grow to dislike her as she became more abusive towards her children and Henry (her second husband), only to start liking her somewhat towards the end of the series' run.

Of course, it is one of the signs of the brilliance of Mad Men that one can often like characters against one's better judgement. In real life I would want to have nothing to do with the womanising, hard drinking Don Draper, yet he is one of my favourite characters. Harry Crane has always been a bit smarmy and, I suspect, not particularly talented, yet I have always liked him too. And then there are my favourite characters, the ones with whom I think I would get along in real life. Peggy was always my favourite character, and one of the characters with whom I could identify (if I were a woman I would like to think I would be like Peggy). One of my all time favourite characters was Sterling Cooper's art director Sal Romano. He was one of the few truly good, truly honest characters on the show, someone with whom I would not mind working in real life. Sadly, he was written out of the show in the third season. And then there was Dr. Faye Miller, the psychologist with whom Don had an affair. I have to admit I had a crush on her and was flabbergasted when Don threw her over for Megan (possibly my least favourite character on the show). I mean, Faye was intelligent, beautiful, and a psychologist (my minor in college was in that subject).

Of course, Mad Men is one of those shows that has always generated a strong response in its viewers, to the point that criticising the favourite character of another Mad Men fan can be fighting words. The show certainly developed a fiercely loyal following, so that despite its low ratings there is a tonne of Mad Men merchandise to be had. There are several different books (from The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook to Sterling's Gold: Wit and Wisdom of an Ad Man--the memoirs of Roger Sterling), coffee mugs, T-shirts, notebooks, pinback buttons, laptop skins, and even clothing lines. For Mad Men fans there is no shortage of Mad Men gear.

Not only did some fans want Mad Men merchandise, there were many who had to insert themselves into the show after a fashion. Many fans created their own Twitter accounts for various characters, tweeting in character. Almost no character was overlooked, not even Betty Draper's fainting couch. The various Mad Men Twitter accounts would even roleplay various events, such as the Great Blackout of 1965 and a funeral for Lane Pryce (I actually took part in that one--more on that in a bit).

I never created a fake Twitter account for a Mad Men character, although in my head I did develop my own Mad Men persona. For me this started with AMC's Mad Men Yourself avatar maker, which allows one to create his or her own Mad Men avatar. AMC came out with Mad Men Yourself to celebrate the show's third season in 2009. I created my Mad Men avatar right away and updated his look every year. Of course, in my head I created my own backstory for him. He was a copywriter at Sterling Cooper who had previously worked in television in the Fifties, writing scripts for some lesser known shows. When Harry Crane was appointed Head of Media in the third season, my character found himself working under him, writing commercials and eventually directing them. Unfortunately, with Harry Crane as my character's boss, his career was pretty much stalled. When McCann Erickson absorbed SDP, then, I figure my character took the chance to make his escape and moved onto J. Walter Thompson. He would stay there a few years before founding his own agency (Olson, Rizzo, and Towles has a nice ring to it). Along the way he would have married Dr. Faye Miller, the psychologist with whom Don Draper had an affair (and the one Mad Men character I actually had a crush upon). I never created a Twitter account for my Mad Men character, although I did take part in the funeral for Lane Pryce, tweeting in character. That was fun.

In the end I think the success of Mad Men can be chalked up to a number of factors. Certainly the fact that it featured realistic characters in realistic situations was one of them. Another was the fact that it recreated the milieu of the Sixties, even those parts of the Sixties that we would like to forget, somewhat realistically. I have to suspect that much of the show's appeal was also probably due to nostalgia for the era, particularly for those of us were children in the Sixties. Once the show got to the late Sixties (at which time I was old enough to have clear memories) there were many things mentioned that I could remember myself.

Watching that Mad Men marathon in July 2008 and then the second season of the show made life a little more bearable in what was in many ways a very bad year for me. Fortunately, my life would improve during the year. I got  out of the department at work that I hated so much and my stress level would go down as a result. No longer stressed out I made a full recovery from my adjustment disorder. Of course, I continued to watch Mad Men even as my life improved and I watched until the very end. Now I plan to watch the show again from the very beginning on Netflix. I will certainly miss seeing new episodes of the show. I would like to know what becomes of Peggy, Don, Joan, Roger, and the other characters throughout the Seventies. Mad Men was a singular show for me, one of the few modern shows I liked as much as the classics from the Fifties and Sixties. I don't know that I will care as much for another show for a long time to come. 


KC said...

The avatar thing started in 2009? Wow. Mine has been my Facebook avatar for a loooong time then. Guess that shows how into FB I am! Nice recap. I may have to revisit the show from the beginning myself. They all grew so much over the years.

Paula said...

Great history and context of the show, Terry, thanks for this. I'm glad things are better for you. "Mad Men" affected a great many people (I think mostly for the better). I and nearly everyone I know refer to the characters as if they were real people, and it's difficult to think of any other show where a relatively minor character (in terms of screen time) got a real-life Twitter funeral.