"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Mad Men: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

If there's any justice in this TV land, I'll be hearing a lot about Mad Men at this time next year. The television landscape is filled with a lot of shows that are just the same as other shows on other networks. Even when I say "there's nothing else like this on TV right now," it's usually not true. Mad Men is one show I can truly say is rather original. Of course, it's original by being retro. It's New York City, 1960. The world of Madison Avenue advertising men. And it is men, as most of the women are in the secretarial pool or gum chewing telephone operators.

But the women have power too, in ways the men don't see.

The setting is the Sterling Cooper advertising agency. New girl Peggy starts the day as Don Draper's new secretary. She's nervous, afraid of the new technology (electric typewriters!), but she also goes to the doctor to get birth control because she knows that sleeping her way to the top might be part of the job description. The other girls pretty much confirm that.

Draper is having trouble coming up with a new ad campaign for Lucky Strikes because medical professionals and Reader's Digest have begun examining the health effects of smoking. How can he come up with an ad slogan that will be successful in such a changing world? But Draper is actually the one who has the shades of a conscience (more than others anyway - all the other guys are drinking and cheating and pretty much those type of jerks I know), even when he's trying to sell us cigarettes. He doesn't want anything to do with Peggy, even though she comes on to him, and he even apologizes to the female head of a company, a woman he insulted in a meeting. He knows the world is changing, and he's trying to adapt.

There are a couple of questions I have about the plot developments. Would Jews really be talked about that way in the business world of 1960 New York City?

This is a great show, and I'm just as surprised that 1.) it's a summer show, and 2.) it's on AMC. But there is something so glorious and meaty about this show. It's for adults, and not in the same way that, say, Deadwood is for adults. This is glossy, old-fashioned entertainment, a show more about characters and social morals and the way the 1950s became the 1960s. I have to pay attention. And that worries me a bit. I can imagine people tuning into this, not knowing what to think, and finding it "slow going." There's nothing slam-bang about this show. It's all about the acting and the writing and the mood and the style and the look and feel of 1960 NYC.

Oh, the look. This show gets everything so beautifully right. The way everyone is smoking, the cut of the suits, the haircuts, the way the characters talk, the cars, the dresses. Even small touches, like clocks on a wall or curtains in a office and the new electric typewriters the girls use, it's all done so well that the sets are characters themselves (and not in that obviously kitschy way that modern movies usually depict the late 50s/early 60s - this is closer to L.A. Confidential than Happy Days). This isn't is a show I'll just "watch every week," it's a world I want to live in.

The cast is uniformly great, from Hamm to boss John Slattery to new secretary Moss to creepy suckup Pete , who is getting married but still wants to dip his pen in company ink. This is juicy, intelligent soap opera stuff, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Mad Men is like a movie in the sense that it's just really well shot, like some glorious Technicolor flick of the 1950s, filling the screen with detail and life, and a respect for the audience. Anyway, check it out, because...well, as I said, there's nothing else like it on television.

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