Costume Drama


Marketing has become the lifeblood of American culture—witness this election season’s theatrics, from photo-ops at Middle American diners, to balloon-saturated and laser-laced conventions, to the endless media coverage of media coverage. All the more appropriate, then, that one of the biggest television sensations of the past eighteen months—the addictive Emmy-winning drama Mad Men, which recently kicked off its second season on the cable channel AMC—revolves around the motif of salesmanship.

Lushly produced by a team headed by Matthew Weiner, executive producer of The Sopranos, Mad Men depicts the New York advertising world of the early 1960s. (The punning title refers, on one level, to Madison Avenue, the traditional home of ad firms.) Much of the action unspools in the gleaming offices of the fictional Sterling Cooper, a firm that employs a battalion of secretary-ogling, martini-guzzling WASPs, including the laconic, philandering creative director, Don Draper (Jon Hamm). Some of the fun of the series lies in the behind-the-scenes glimpses of hucksterism in the making, as Draper and his colleagues sculpt PR blitzes for a vibrator, a lipstick brand, an airline with a bad crash history, and other products in search of love. Draper in particular has a knack for discerning a brand’s potential romantic and spiritual pull—fathoming how the merry-go-round metaphor implicit in the term “carousel slide projector” might evoke misty-eyed nostalgia for childhood and lost happiness, for instance.

But the principal charm of Mad Men is the exoticism of the world it depicts. The time period, after all, is not that far in the past, and yet the behavior the show portrays can make a twenty-first-century viewer’s jaw drop. Draper works in an environment where political correctness is unknown; where feminism has yet to make inroads; where divorcées are borderline social outcasts; and where cigarette manufacturing is still a respectable industry. Mad Men characters smoke almost constantly, and they drink in the workplace (Sterling Cooper bigwigs keep liquor and glasses in their offices, which, like all the settings, have been given a pitch-perfect look by the show’s meticulous art directors). When Draper reaches his suburban home, which he shares with his gorgeous, depressed wife Betty (January Jones), he thinks nothing of instructing their young children to fix him a stiff one.

Just as flabbergasting (to our eyes) is the Draper circle’s rampant misogyny and proclivity for sexual harassment. Sterling Cooper’s male executives make lascivious quips with impunity as secretaries dutifully fetch coffee, type memos, and answer the phone. At a workplace party in Season 1, an employee blithely pulls up a secretary’s skirt to settle a bet over what color undergarments she is wearing.

In short, a riotous strangeness permeates Mad Men, as though our own reality had been caught in a funhouse mirror. The slightly spooky animated credits sequence nicely captures the vertiginous sensation the show induces. While the soundtrack reiterates a keening, descending cadence, a pale gray office dissolves, and its male occupant (vaguely reminiscent of the animated figures in James Bond credits sequences) tumbles past skyscrapers and advertising banners, as if he were plummeting down a rabbit hole.

The Alice in Wonderland quality in the Mad Men aesthetic lends richness and mystery to the narrative, with its absorbing mélange of professional crises and domestic soap opera. Real history figures into the mix, too, sometimes adding an element of bittersweet irony. In Season 1, Sterling Cooper works on behalf of Nixon in the 1960 presidential campaign (not one of the firm’s better efforts, obviously). In the inaugural episode of Season 2, the characters are fascinated by Jackie Kennedy’s celebrated televised tour of the White House. “It’s so important, the setting in which the president is presented to the world,” the First Lady observes softly, in a remark that highlights the pivotal role of image and marketing in civic life and international relations.

Nor is it only large-scale public discourse—politics, the commercial marketplace—that benefits from a touch of Madison Avenue-style snake oil, Mad Men reminds us. “I’m in the persuasion business, and frankly, I am disappointed by your presentation,” Sterling Cooper’s lone female copywriter, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), coldly announces to a would-be suitor.

Though Peggy has image problems of her own-her girlish attire and hairstyles cramp her professional and romantic aspirations—she is also able to offer marketing insights even to the church. In the Season 2 episode “Three Sundays,” the young priest Fr. Gill (Colin Hanks) asks her for some tips that might improve his Palm Sunday homily. A lapsed Catholic who only attends services when her mother pressures her, Peggy suggests a simple, user-friendly approach. “The sermon is the only part of Mass that’s in English-and it’s very hard to tell sometimes,” she says.

With such scenes, Mad Men almost seems to offer a new mythology of our cultural heritage—a glimpse back at a time when electronic marketing was carving out the niche it now occupies in the collective psyche. One day we’re smoking and sipping Scotch while watching a televised Jacqueline Kennedy stroll through Camelot; the next, we’re choosing our elected officials—and fine-tuning our own identities—with the help of blogs, podcasts, and Facebook.

Published in the 2008-10-10 issue: 

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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