If you didn’t already know that Mad Men was created by a producer of The Sopranos, you might be able to guess it by now. Like The Sopranos, it has a gift for making its world seem utterly hellish and utterly seductive at the same time. The casual sexism and racism and the highly cultivated cynicism. The smartly dressed men and women enjoying cocktails and cigarettes. The despair! The scotch!
This show pays loving, almost fetishistic attention to small gestures of style and courtesy–a server cracking an egg into a Caesar salad bowl–and to details down to the bananas (the crew sought out smaller, and thus period-appropriate, pieces of fruit as props). An enlightened 21st-century man will feel a twinge of guilt for so enjoying the show’s lavish pictures of the trappings of midcentury white-male hegemony, but damn! what good-looking hegemons they were!
Another element the show shares with The Sopranos now: therapy. But in Mad Men, understandably, it’s a woman having the panic attacks. Episode 2, “Ladies’ Room,” was self-consciously structured around the plight of its main female characters–chased by wolves as single girls (Peggy), captive and insecure as wives (Betty), or pursuing a tenuous brand of freedom (Midge). The structure could have been a little less overt; my main complaint about the show so far is that it’s too in-your-face with its themes, not just with the this-is-what-it-was-like jokes (here, the admittedly funny bit about letting the daughter play with the drycleaning bag). The plight-of-women theme was unavoidable already; on top of that, the woman weeping in the bathroom and the divorcee lugging a heavy box alone were two blows of the hammer too many.
What saves Mad Men for me is that its dialogue, mainly, isn’t too obvious, and it’s well-played. As quiet and acquiescing as Betty is, January Jones gives us the sense that five things are going on in her head at once; she knows that she’s trapped, even if she can’t quite articulate how or find the way out; she’s conscious that she needs help but can’t insist on seeing a shrink without further distancing Don, the source of her anxiety to begin with. (And she’s more trapped than she knows, as Don ends up getting a report–”She’s a very anxious young woman”–from her doctor; modern science in the service of old-fashioned paternalism.)
And what is Don hiding, anyway? Ironically, the one place where Mad Men’s self-consciousness doesn’t bother me is in the office scenes. Yes, Don and his writers talk overtly about the zeitgeist–but that’s what ad creatives do, or at least the ones I’ve talked to. It’s natural, for instance, that Paul would describe the aerosol can as “nothing less than space age. It’s steel, it has exhaust, it’s even shaped like a rocket.” And Don’s objection suggests some dark things going on in that head that he doesn’t like to let anyone into. “Some people think of the future and it upsets them. They see a rocket and they start building bomb shelters… I don’t think it’s ridiculous to assume that we’re looking for other planets because this one will end.”
There’s the big hidden period detail of Mad Men: Don is an existentialist, or at least a nihilist. Life is absurd, people give you no loyalty nor deserve any, someday the world will end and there will be nothing but an aerosol cloud in space.
In the meantime, have another old-fashioned.