It’s a Mad Mad Mad Men World

August 18, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 3 4 min read

In which the author spits into the ocean of hype over the new season of AMC’s Mad Men and emerges with a wholly original conclusion: the show is darn good.

It’s all around us; it’s everywhere we go; it’s everything we do. It’s Mad Men. At the coffee shop: “I’ll have a grande iced Mad Men with whole Mad Men please.” “You want that Mad Men?” “No thanks, I’ll add my own Mad Men.”

On the phone with the wife: “Can you take Mad Men to Mad Men practice at half past Mad Men this afternoon, honey?” “Well, I’ve got a Mad Men with the boss but it shouldn’t take more than a few Mad Men.” “Oh good, Mad Men will be so pleased.”

At the track: “I’ll take Mad Men to win in the fifth.” “Geez, buddy, that’s 50-1. You got some brass Mad Men, I’ll give you that.”

coverI Mad Men, er, watched the season premiere of Mad Men Sunday night. Had to travel to Brooklyn to do it. I invited myself over to my friend’s place and commandeered his cable TV. While I watched the premiere, he put on headphones and cozied up to a dvd on his computer – Mad Men. He’s still working his way through the season two dvd set, which is quite possibly (and on a meta level quite appropriately) the single most flogged product in the history of consumer culture going back at least to Slinky.

So much has been written about Mad Men that it’s hard to contribute anything really insightful to the raft of commentary. The show experienced a tipping point moment this summer in the run-up to the new season, resulting in a bumper crop of features and roundups that choked the pages of most if not all of the publications that I read regularly.

For the uninitiated, those who summer in relative isolation – on the international space station perhaps, or in Siberia – Mad Men is about the goings on at an advertising firm in Manhattan in the early 60s. John Hamm plays dapper Don Draper, head of the creative department and the maddest Mad Man on planet Mad Men. Well, he’s not mad exactly, rarely angry and definitely not insane, but he suffers from a certain existential ennui. Draper’s consummate insight into the psychology of the American consumer  makes him something like the man behind the curtain (duh, drapes) which is an apt metaphor since the life of this successful family man is steeped in secrets and mystery.

An episode of Mad Men contains requisite amounts of Draper being Draper: drinking, smoking, womanizing, looking good, and wowing his cohorts and clients with invariably spot-on ad ideas. Draper is big when the toadies at the firm act small, and if he doesn’t always do right by his wife, Betty (January Jones), his sins seem to be motivated more by a search for meaning in experience than by appetites alone. Draper without a double life just wouldn’t be Draper. After all, so we love the sinner. When he says “I don’t know, I, uh, go to a lot of places and I keep ending up someplace I’ve already been” to an attractive blond airline stewardess before she strips for him in his hotel room, we shiver with pleasure since we alone have a window into his inner life.

Secrets are at the heart of Mad Men. All of the principle characters harbor them. Sometimes they come out, and sometimes not. In keeping with this air of obfuscation, the writers have crafted a style of dialogue that is suitably obtuse, and occasionally impenetrable. I think part of the show’s popularity has to do with the fact that it demands such scrutiny if the viewer is going to pick up on all the nuances.

Another key ingredient was touched on in the Wall Street Journal’s profile of the mostly female writing team that crafts these nuanced story lines. The tug of war between the male and female characters gives the show its core conflict. The show’s architects have a keen command of symmetry in their approach to the interplay of sex and gender. Just when you’re used to the back-slapping old boy’s atmosphere at the Sterling Cooper offices, the writers flip the script, and the boys are upstaged by the industrious high-climbing copywriter, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), or the irrepressible bombshell office manager, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks).

Which brings me to my final point about Mad Men. Its early 60s setting proves to be incredibly fertile ground for these conflicts to be played out. Bees in the Sterling Cooper beehive don’t always recognize the changes that are taking place around them, though these are the forces that they are constantly trying to harness in their quest to sell things to people. I loved in season two when Draper and co. pitch an idea to a seller of ladies’ undergarments. The essence of the idea is that there are two kinds of women: you’re either a Marilyn or a Jackie O. The execs at the company are impressed, but they pass on the idea. Then Marilyn dies and, while the secretaries weep over the tragedy, the Mad Men quietly breathe a sigh of relief that the campaign died, too. Something tells me the other shoe will have to drop as the calendar turns over and season three gets going.

The one person who can usually parse the cultural forces and discern which way the wind is blowing without the help of a weatherman is Don Draper. One reason I believe Draper is so conflicted himself is that he recognizes how topsy-turvy American life is becoming. Values are evolving. Kids are growing up. There are major changes in the air, changes he can smell like ozone at the leading edge of a fast-moving front that promises to drop a deluge on the American cultural landscape. It’s easy for us to imagine that deluge, to see ourselves frolicking in the mud of Woodstock, say. But every deluge is predicated by that moment where the barometer drops, the wind picks up, lightening flashes,  and purple clouds descend. Something big is coming.

is a writer, musician, and amateur sportsman in Manhattan, living on the Harlem side of Morningside Park near Columbia, where he recently picked up a degree from the Journalism School.


  1. Don Draper sees the first cutting-edge ads coming out of other agencies and “can’t decide what he hates most about them.” I think he’s just as oblivious to the changing world around him as are the others at his firm; he’s a creature of 1963, but will be left behind in 1968.. This adds to the sadness – and suspense – of the program; there’s tragedy coming for Don, whether it’s a broken marriage, a past revealed, or the end of a career.

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