THE BACK PAGES

Why we can’t be mad at ’Mad Men’

Its creator wants to teach us a lesson about bad behaviour. It doesn’t seem to be working.

JAIME J. WEINMAN August 4 2008
THE BACK PAGES

Why we can’t be mad at ’Mad Men’

Its creator wants to teach us a lesson about bad behaviour. It doesn’t seem to be working.

JAIME J. WEINMAN August 4 2008

Why we can’t be mad at ’Mad Men’

tv

Its creator wants to teach us a lesson about bad behaviour. It doesn’t seem to be working.

JAIME J. WEINMAN

Is AMC’s Mad Men an indictment of the early ’60s American male, who smoked, drank, and sexually harassed women? Or is it a fun visit to a time when drinking, smoking and sexual harassment were normal? Matthew Weiner, the former Sopranos writer who created Mad Men (which was just nominated for 16 Emmy awards, including Best Drama), is out to teach us a lesson about how not to behave—he told a recent Television Critics Association panel that the first season was “grimy and gritty” and that the second season, beginning July 27, will make the first look “innocent” by comparison. But, unwittingly, he’s also tapped into a vein of nostalgia for exactly the things he condemns on the show. And if Mad Men ever becomes a mainstream success, it may be because people ignore its message and just enjoy the cool, sexist fun.

Weiner is famous for his obsession with getting every early ’60s detail right, from the clothes to the hairstyles to the language (this is the only current show where you can hear people say “swell”); he once had his crew replace the apples in a market scene with fruit that looked like it was grown in the ’60s. Weiner admitted to critics that part of his show’s appeal is due to the glamour of the accurate settings and fashions. But he added that he also wants to convey the dark side of great suits and bouffant hairdos: “We are always trying to put a poison into it also. We are always trying to show the snagged material in the clothing and the wrinkles and the sweat stains.” Every moment of every episode of Mad Men has something to remind us that early ’60s glamour comes at a high price. The heavy-smoking characters mutter about the new knowledge that smoking can kill you, while women have to accept sexist remarks (“All the meat’s in the tail”) from their coworkers. The lead character, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), turns out to be an imposter who stole a dead man’s name, in case we didn’t get the message that everybody is pretending to be something they’re not, while his trophy wife, Betty (January Jones), is full of repressed rage at the life of an early ’60s housewife, and can vent only by grabbing a BB gun and shooting the neighbour’s pigeons. Mad Men constantly reminds us that it’s an antidote to nostalgia. The question is, do its viewers really see it that way?

Susannah Breslin, a freelance writer who blogs at reversecowgirl.blogspot.com, thinks not. She created some controversy when she wrote that “Mad Men is man porn,” and in an interview with Maclean’s, she adds that the show “fetishizes the era before the advent of political correctness, offering up a fantasy of a time when men were men, women were women, and politically incorrect fantasies weren’t only permissible but livable.” In this view, the audience of Mad Men isn’t really interested in what Matthew Weiner wants to tell them about the evils of sexism and repression. Instead, they get to see a character like Don living out their shameful dreams.

You could say that this makes Mad Men the logical successor to The Sopranos, even if HBO didn’t see it that way (they turned Mad Men down). The Sopranos had the same kind of double-edged appeal to it, making the mob life seem glamorous and macho even while it kept reminding us how bad Tony Soprano’s life really was. Breslin thinks that these shows “include a kind of distancing technique—time in the case of Mad Men, or culture in the case of The Sopranos—so as to diminish the guilt for the male viewer.” You can also throw in other cable cult favourites like Deadwood, where our enjoyment of the frontier lifestyle was tempered by constant reminders that that lifestyle was unpleasant. These shows are like those Hollywood Biblical epics in which we get to enjoy a pagan orgy followed by a lecture on why orgies are bad. Don Draper may live a lie, but if we didn’t enjoy that lie, we wouldn’t be watching.

Since AMC wants to get more viewers for Mad Men—the first season was reasonably successful, but not enough to qualify as a hit—its publicity people are pushing the idea that the show is a cool ’60s throwback; they’re putting up retro-looking billboards and handing out martini glasses as tie-ins. Even the DVD of the first season is in a box that looks like a cigarette lighter. Maybe the publicists are right about what can attract people to Mad Men. As Angela Valdez wrote in the Washington City Paper about watching it with an actual man: “I could see my boyfriend salivating at the idea of home-cooked meals and a fifth in his desk drawer.” M