Friday, December 16, 2011

Mad Men

The soundtrack begins with descending strings playing as a graphic shows a man in a dark suit looking at the corner of an office. Close up: silhouette of shoes stepping into frame and a briefcase being set on the floor. The wall art falls away, the chairs melt and fall away, and then the man himself begins his fall, descending in apparent helplessness past all the sensual imagery of his ephemeral world of glamour and glitz. Like a cat with nine lives he ends up seated in a position of suave cool, arm stretched over the back of a couch, facing forward. So begins the introductory sequence that is Mad Men, the sophisticated award-winning TV drama featuring ad agency exec Don Draper in early Sixties New York.

The haunting music and intro sequence is perfectly executed and thought-provoking. It's classy, smart and essentially tells the whole story. It makes a fitting touchstone to begin each episode.

So what's this show's appeal? Why such high ratings by critics and viewers? First off, the stories are well crafted to give an inside glimpse of not only the lifestyle of Madison Avenue, but of the Sixties itself. For example, what better vehicle for discussing the public relations issues of the Kennedy-Nixon campaign than through the ad agency that represents one of them.

The first four seasons give viewers plenty to work with as the agency's activities take place against the backdrop of the JFK year during which women's issues, race issues, Viet Nam, the Cold War, Cuba relations and more all came to the fore. We see, too, the impact of advertising and the ethical issues agencies deal with.

The story itself, like the show's intro, features creative director Don Draper, a complicated man in the midst of this complicated time. The supporting cast includes the young, ambitious sleazeball Campbell, secretaries, and the partners at the top. Almost none of these characters can be considered role models, and when I watched the first few episodes it was like fingernails on a blackboard at times. The sexist attitudes, the devious agency politics, moral bankruptcy of some of these characters could easily make one uncomfortable. But the show is not about creating role models. These were the real attitudes in many places, and continue to this day though we're more aware of their unacceptability today.

Amongst its fans, the show shines because of the writing, the attention to detail and the broad range of understanding of everything from the fashion scene to the political scene, from dog food to soul food.

There are so many good lines, all delivered in the midst of ordinary conversations as agency execs meet with clients in boardrooms and restaurants, or wait in taxis down on the street. Here's one I scribbled down last week: “Nobody knows what’s wrong with themselves. And everyone else can see it right away.”

In another episode, Joan lays it on the line with, "I'm not a solution to your problem. I'm another problem."

In a somewhat hilarious scene in which there is an accident in the office involving a client from England, I believe: "That's life. One minute you're on top of the world and the next minute some secretary is running you over with a lawnmower."

Through the course of time the characters change, grow together, grow apart, take on more responsibilities experience heartaches, and at times reveal our own lives here in various parts of the American scene. If you need a show with guns and violence, this is not really for you. If you like something thoughtful, it's something to consider. And even Campbell isn't all bad, just as the heroes aren't all good. It's a slice of life.

Enjoy your weekend and get your Christmas presents wrapped. The 25th will be here before you know it.

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