Tribute to mad admen

Telly review

Tribute to mad admen

If ever there is a show that will translate poorly across cultures and international borders, this is it.

Set in the Golden Age of New York advertising, the 1960s, AMC’s Mad Men deals with the lives and travails of the executives of a rising advertising agency, their wives, their office girls, the clients and all the sins of the ’60s which made the decade so glamorous, yet so appalling.

Created by Mathew Weiner, previously of HBO’s The Sopranos, the series revolves around the central character of Don Draper (think ‘dapper’; played by Jon Hamm), the suave, winning creative director of the Sterling Cooper ad agency. He is a ‘Mad Man’ incarnate — that true-to-life, self-congratulatory sobriquet for the ad executives of Madison Avenue, whose intellectual inventiveness made household names out of Pan Am, Kodak, Cadillac and Lucky Strike.

In Draper’s world, the men joke mirthlessly about the opposite sex and keep the booze flowing. It is a world where racism and anti-Semitism are commonplace; where cigarette smoke weaves romantic circles in the air. It is also a world where women don’t mind being called ‘girls’ and consider a pat on the fanny as a fine form of flattery.

Draper’s reason for existence is advertising, which he describes as a business involved in selling happiness. But he faces a crisis. The agency’s biggest client is Lucky Strike Tobacco, and cigarettes, Reader’s Digest says, will kill you. When an in-house researcher, a stern Germanic woman of about 55, says that cigarettes are indeed injurious to health, Draper drops the report into the waste basket. In retrospect, he should have read it. If anyone knows research, it’s the Germans. 

But reality and the inconsistencies of his profession are just of two Draper’s problems. A decorated combat veteran, Draper is a symbol of the American dream. The transition has not come easily. Like Huck Finn and Jay Gatsby, it has required a metamorphosis, a reinvention of character from a lowly farm boy to a self-made man — a wooden, Ayn Rand ideal (she is frequently mentioned in the series), hailed by modern-day Teabaggers as American as apple pie. But as with displays of great wealth, which often hide a great debt, Draper is a façade. His wartime career is pure fraud. Partly domesticated, he is married to the angelic Betty, a Grace Kelly-lookalike (January Jones), but keeps a mistress in the city and hungers after a second in the form of a brand store heiress. In the office, he faces the machinations of slimy junior executives, who covet his job and his handsome corner office. Their appetites, when summed up, are insatiable, but the show seemingly wants us to marvel at them as though they are a glamorous component of a vintage world. After all, the America of Mad Men is a country fresh from justifiable battlefield victories, on a social and economic high, still free from the guilt of excess, Vietnam and counterculture confusion — offering the Schadenfreude message that the country, however bleak, will always persevere.

The image is convincing, enabled through deft acting and an economy of dialogue, which smacks of Hemingway’s iceberg theory. But even if the show is more melodrama than high drama, it hits close to home with its exploration of the human condition: the petty office intrigues, lost love, the trappings of domesticity; the inescapable gilded cage of those born to an eminent line. Weiner once said that he created the show to give people a chance to experience what it felt like to see the world change around you. The great danger is that audiences may only see Mad Men’s stylish glow while ignoring Weiner’s underlying tale of caution.

The show’s compelling power is rooted in its examination of a by-gone, white-collar American life. But, is it suited for eastern audiences? If you watched the first episode and came back for seconds, it might just be for you.

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