The highly anticipated return of the series Mad Men finally pulled me in- the show is set in the early 60’s in the legendary era of the martini lunch. Set in a high-power ad agency, it reminds me of the Billy Wilder classic The Apartment, with the subversiveness of Douglas Sirk, and 20/20 hindsight of Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven. “Mad Men” was the self-imposed nickname that the Madison Avenue crew gave themselves, and they live up to the title.
The series concentrates on Donald Draper, a top ad executive working in New York City in the early 60’s. The show has gotten many accolades for its realism in recreating the look and feel of the era, from the skinny ties and slim suits to the well-coiffed women in office and home. Everyone smokes and drinks like mad, office liaisons are commonplace, every man is a cad with a piece on the side, and woman chafe at the societal boundaries that still corral them.
Don is in his mid-30’s and has younger men nipping at his heels, but he is still the big dog; though he often lies tortured on the couch before getting a brainstorm that comes up with the perfect ad campaign. The ad industry was just on the cusp of using known psychological concepts to market products as a lifestyle, and Don rejects it, though when he comes up with concepts on his own, they are certainly crafted as if by a head shrinker; he just doesn’t link the two yet.
What reminded me of the excellent Todd Haynes film Far From Heaven was not only the technicolor look of the show, but the update to Douglas Sirk’s brilliant subversiveness. In Sirk’s classics All That Heaven Allows, Rock Hudson is the artistic and freethinking bachelor who Jane Wyman falls in love with, to the disdain of society and even her own children; in his remake of Imitation of Life, two single women, one black and one white, meet and manage to succeed; the black woman’s daughter passes for white and is ashamed of her mother. He skirted what was considered acceptable and there was always the suggestion of things still labeled taboo; in Far From Heaven, Haynes goes that extra step and lets us see what Sirk might have done, unfettered.
In “Mad Men,” society still has taut reins of conformity around its neck, and we see even the paragon of 60’s manhood Don Draper (Jon Hamm) chomping at the bit, though he hides it quite well. The women are more fascinating than the men, in how they consolidate what little power is left to be had. Joan (Christina Hendricks) the office manager, a buxom redhead with wits to match her … wiles, is the de facto alpha female; Peggy (Elizabeth Moss), the newcomer in the first episode, has clawed her way into copywriting by the beginning of season two, after some trials and tribulations I’ll leave you to discover. The men have their own problems; they live hard and it affects their home life. Super-cad Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) doesn’t think he makes enough to support a child yet, and his new wife is tortured by the bouncing babies throughout their social circle.
“Mad Men” is able to show us a side of the mythical 50’s and 60’s that even Sirk couldn’t allude to, and it makes for riveting viewing. The first season is available On Demand with some cable providers (even in HD) and the show plays Sunday nights at 10pm EST for the DVR-deprived.