So, yeah, here’s how it rolls. Get to the office, light up, boys from down the hall gather for a meeting, light up and pour a stiff one (meetings!). Lunch? Sure, make it a three martini deal, linger over cigarettes. Afternoon meeting — let’s smoke the time away. Post-meeting meeting? Two fingers of whiskey. Minimum.
And dinner? Well, sure, the wife’s at home cooking up something that starts with casserole and ends with cholesterol, but there’s this girl here and it’s the city and why not? Stay in town, drink until walking isn’t an option — though driving, that’s another question — and break most of the major wedding vows.
Mad Men, an AMC original series, is like a glimpse into a past I almost know. Like my peers, I grew up with a pastel-tinted view of “history” — Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley. The 50s were a rockin’, rollin’ time, but, oh boy!, nothing really bad happened. Mr. Cunningham was eternally faithful to Mrs. Cunningham. Even as the series edged into the 60s, there were no worries. As long as the Fonz was the worst kid in town, nothing bad could happen.
Mad Men is set in 1960 and it’s a time of wonder and magic. Nixon and Kennedy are duking it out for President — though nobody can imagine the brash, bold Kennedy overcoming the statesmanlike dullness of Nixon. Sexual freedom is embraced by young women, though they are somehow expected to be easy and pure simultaneously. Men, naturally, don’t realize they’re hypocrites.
The show is visually stunning. The settings, from the loving shots of claustrophobic ceilings to era-perfect dinner tables, are eerily familiar yet achingly distant. When Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) covers her typewriter, you almost do a double-take. It wasn’t so long ago that the electric typewriter was the height of office efficiency. And still you think, did we really live like that?
Even more visually stunning are the characters. Or rather, the character actions. Betty Draper — the wife of series lead Don Draper — has a close female friend. Said female friend is your typical pregnant suburban matron. And she’s smoking like a fiend. It’s almost uncomfortable, watching her light up. Anne Dudek as Francine Hanson plays her character, taboos and all, with amazing nonchalance. How many years of social conditioning is she fighting as she puffs away, hand resting on burgeoning belly?
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is sympathetic, maddening, and mysterious. Like Dudek, he plays his character as if born to a time when smoking, drinking, and sleeping with sundry women was a right, not a reason for guilt. Don, an advertising genius, is not part of the privileged upper crust old boys advertising network. He comes from dirt poor stock, a background that the writers use to contrast with his upstart rival, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser). Campbell, though he throws punches, simply can’t get the win when it comes to Draper. His slimy jealousy and almost pathetic personal life makes him a classic villain. He’s bad, but you know where he’s coming from. So refreshing in these days of random serial killers without decent backstory.
While the story ostensibly revolves around the employees and family of a mid-tier New York advertising agency, it’s really about changing society. Betty (January Jones) tries to find peace in her role as a housewife and mother, but she’s really trying to find peace in herself. The life she has isn’t the life she wants — as evidenced by her fascination/revulsion with the divorcee down the street. Remember when a single woman moving into a suburban neighborhood was grounds for a coffee klatch?
Yeah, me neither, but once upon a time, in certain worlds, it was near-scandal.
In addition to the changing role of women, the series — with a deliberately white cast — highlights our not-to-distant issues with segregation. Black characters are shown in subservient roles that modern television and film rarely portrays. Today’s politically correct producers give non-white characters voice and position that often bely the reality of the era. The racism of this so-called more innocent time is crystal clear in the near-invisibility of these characters. As with the smoking pregnant character, there is no softening of the fact that race informed how our parents treated other people.
While the show has missteps (the character of Midge Daniels, Draper’s favorite sex buddy, always feels a bit off — she’s too self-consciously bohemian in a cast that seems to inhabit the era), it’s a must-see in my book. Start at the beginning — and by that I mean the retro silhouette opening sequence — and stay through the end of every episode.
And while I couldn’t work it gracefully into this post, I’d like to give a shout-out to Christina Hendricks as Joan Holloway. Not only do I wish I could wear those dresses, but I really love watching her onscreen. As Peggy finally realizes when Joan is giving her advice, Joan is, in her own way, just trying to be helpful. Her approach, however, is the stuff that makes for great characterization.