AMC’s period drama Mad Men portrays the 1960 glory days when dapper advertising executives wore crisp suits. They were sexist. They called themselves geniuses. They looked like GQ models. They used phrases such as, “You look like a hundred dollars” (instead of a million dollars) to put somebody down. Some would call those the glory days. Audiences will have to decide if the show is a nod to the Madison Avenue offices of old, or a comment on the ad executive’s insane behavior.
Mad Men’s creator Matthew Weiner wrote and executive produced The Sopranos before getting Mad Men picked up by AMC. And if you want more backstory, Mad Men’s sensual camera work and lighting is the result of another Sopranos veteran, Alan Taylor, who directs the show with panache. With two veterans from The Sopranos helming the reigns, Mad Men’s Madison Avenue executives may strike you as more gangster than creative. But are the two mutually exclusive? I can’t wait to find out.
In 1960, the U.S. had not yet entered Vietnam and Americans entertained themselves watching Psycho at the theater. They read Henry Wolf’s Bazaar. The Beatniks populated cafes. Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson’s Modernist Seagram building had been completed. It was acceptable to call customers morons. Smoking was safe, and women were on “the pill.” Women who had a nine to five desk job used high technology like a rotary phone and IBM typewriter. Not only would these ladies be introduced to carpal tunnel syndrome from so much typing, but they would also have to cope with their male colleagues flailing their tongues about with perverse come-ons such as, “it wouldn’t be a sin to see your legs” if she didn’t hem her skirt high enough. Watching the men joust over women is good for ratings, but seeing them climb the corporate tower of poweror what they perceive as powerreally showcases the menacing competition that agencies are about, whether that’s winning a big account like Lucky Strike or pulling rank over an underling. Such hierarchical battles seem akin to Tony Soprano maintaining Machiavellian order over his troops and goods. Mad Men and The Sopranos share creative insight, and both shows depict powerful men, who spend so much time under pressure and recovering from failure that they appear more human than godly.
All Images © 2007 AMC
I’ve seen previews of episode one“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”which amounts to romance, sexual harassment, male-to-male ego challenges, and lots and lots of bragging among Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper execs. Whew, all of that so-called hard work at the office means these geniuses will need to take many breaks, only you won’t see them make trips to the water cooler. It’s more like downing cocktails and inhaling cigarettes to help stir a healthy appetite for lunchor maybe an appetite for hoochie coochie with the administrative assistant.
Taken as a whole, Weiner and his production team capture the 1960s well, teaching you how to harass your female office staff and choose the right tie for a gray suit. It’s too early to tell, but I suspect the real pleasure will come from watching the ad-men fail, and fail badly. Despite the office soap operas that Mad Men will deliver, and the perfectly crafted hair, you won’t want to miss a classic boardroom flop when the agency fails to address the negative buzz about smoking. You will love to hate themjust like Tom Cruise.
Still, how much history will Weiner inject about the craft, pitch, and creative? Will we get background on the agencies of the day? Perhaps a George Lois likeness will make an appearance. Will we get to see the Guggenheim Museum opening? Will Sterling Cooper be on the cover of Communication Art’s first issue? And what is a good typeface for cigarette packaging? What about the advent of Letraset dry transfer lettering? Perhaps they’ll at least help clients with the four Ps: product characteristics, price structure, placement strategy, and promotional strategy. Please give us some heated creative direction or bickering by the copywriter. We need more than quips like “advertising is based on one thing, happiness.” Sure, it may be true, but it’s too simplified.
Weiner did a wonderful job on The Sopranos, and I expect good things to come from Mad Menor at least good reviews from those passionate for Sopranos-like tension and character development. I’ve heard rumors about ad execs getting death threats, and this show would be the perfect place to dramatize it given the material Weiner has worked with in the past. But when it comes to story telling, Martin Scorsese always delivers the technical side of things; audiences learn about the best way to dig a hole for a corpse, surprise an enemy, eat apple pie, or cook a meal when in prison. He shows the human side while informing us about the subculture and how work gets done. I would be surprised if Mad Men offers any of my aforementioned 1960s issues and influences. (But they must get Doyle Dane Bernbach or George Lois in there somehow.) Scorsese is one thing. Weiner is another. Design is one thing. Ratings are another. AMC will not win the ratings war with design history, and best as I can tell, this has nothing to do with Swiss Modernismalthough it’s concurrent with the show’s time period.
Despite my skepticism, Weiner uses the cultural norms of the 1960s to paint a realistic picture, and when combined with the luscious cinematography and tailored suits, it’s enough to make any man question when khakis became acceptable at the office. And don’t get me started on casual Fridays, which the Mad Men and their bourboned swagger woulddare I sayprobably use for casual sex with the administrative assistants (or clerk, even secretary, as it used to be called). Pessimists will write off Mad Men and its fast-talking, swindling execs “working” at the office as nothing more than a mash-up of The Godfather (fraternal mob men, who dress well, and always manage to stand in good lighting) and Roger Dodger (an advertising executive’s motor-mouth methods for picking up women, and treating them like sex toys) with a little Sopranos thrown in for good measure (yes, we’re powerful, but we’re human, we cry and see therapists). Let’s see how the show develops over time. People wrote off The Sopranos when it first hit HBO. Women supposedly adored Tony Soprano’s bullish good looks and take-charge attitude by the time the show reached the masses. Maybe Mad Men will make advertising executives appear just as adorable. Or just as bullish.
The Sterling Cooper executives occupy a time and culture that seems eerily corrupt compared to our current standards, unless you know advertising. I draw comparisons between Mad Men and my own agency experience: we smoked a lot, charged exorbitant fees, left by five or earlier every day to go drink, got a lot of free things, had expense accounts, had Hollywood dreams, looked excellent in no matter what we wore, and flirted with each other (men hitting on women, women hitting on men, and men hitting on menin some cases). It’s a cliché, and not much has changed since 1960except those exorbitant fees. They’re here to stay, and cigarette companies are still an agency’s cash cow, even though we’ve cut back on the smoking.
Tune into Speak Up after the show’s July 19th premier to read the full review that follows this preview.