Friday, July 20, 2007

Mad Men: Madison Avenue Revisited

In the beginning, there were men. Actual men, in a litany that includes N.W. Ayer, J. Walter Thompson, David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, John Orr Young & Raymond Rubicam, Mac Dane, Ned Doyle, & William Bernbach. As individuals they created an industry that is the epicenter of the American economy: advertising. Many of the classic advertising agencies have been subsumed into nameless conglomerates like Publicis, Interpublic Groups, and Omnicom. Orwell would have a field day with this.

But AMC’s new series Mad Men turns the clock back to the undisputed heyday of the business, the Madison Avenue of the 1960s, when men smoked, drank, and back-stabbed their way through the honest week’s work.

I don’t know how much time I will want to spent in this period piece, but I love the homage to Saul Bass in the opening credits: that distinctive falling body is reminiscent of the poster for Vertigo and his film title sequences. Bass was the advertising graphic designer of the AT&T Bell system logo who revolutionized film graphics. It’s a clever nod, and in a small example of vertical integration, the series premiere was preceded by Scorsese’s Goodfellas, which Bass also did the title sequence for. Someone at AMC is thinking like a mad man.

The premiere episode touches on every note one associates with the time: smoking, anti-Semitism lumped with Catholic slights, black America as waiters, Eames chairs, Reader’s Digest, the last gasp of the circle skirt.

But for me, it’s the characterization of women that makes me wonder if I will spend much time in this world. It may be historically accurate, but I don’t find it charming.

I came of age in the relatively privileged 1980s. The ‘70s Feminism was still wafting in the air, but the roots that had propelled it didn’t touch my sheltered life. I was always encouraged at home to strive for whatever I could attain, and I never worked as anyone’s assistant.

But this is the world of “Good morning girls” from Mr. Campbell and Mr. Draper, where the worldly secretary Joan says of the new electric typewriter, “It looks complicated, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.” The spectrum of women continues from dandy Don Draper’s mistress who owns her own business to his wife, tucked away in the suburbs, to the female owner of a Jewish store who voices the prescient dictum of people wanting to buy something because it costs more. It's true, these are not narrow portrayals, and we see that Mr. Draper, for all his power, suffers a fatalist's outlook: "You're born alone and die alone."

As television, it’s a powerful re-creation/evocation of a time and place by Matt Weiner, a writer and producer from The Sopranos. It’s clear that this era holds a fascination for Mr. Weiner, perhaps fueled by the celluloid slickness of The Sweet Smell of Success, See Sammy Run, maybe even Bewitched. There are nice flourishes, like the Bass opening and the myth of the napkin doodle, that show a true fan’s warmth toward his subject. Still, Mr. Weiner’s ad men are in a clearly defined Members Only club of their own, and whether it’s a compelling place to spend an hour each week is yet to be seen.

updated July 21, 2007