Editor's Choice November 2009

Mad About Mad Men

What’s wrong—and what’s gloriously right—with AMC’s hit show
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Carin Baer/AMC

For more than 10 years, the intricate, multiseason narrative TV drama has exercised a dominant cultural sway over well-educated, well-off adults. Just as urbanish professionals in the 1950s could be counted on to collectively coo and argue over the latest Salinger short story, so that set in the 2000s has been most intellectually, emotionally, and aesthetically engaged not by fiction, the theater, or the cinema but by The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield, Big Love.

After watching videos of The Sopranos 13-hour first season, the film critic Vincent Canby discerned that this new genre—owing to its “cohesive dramatic arc,” the quality of its production values and ensemble performances, and the sophistication of its writing—amounted to a “megamovie” rather than merely a tarted-up TV miniseries. And he bestowed on it a fairly exalted pedigree, tracing it not just to Dennis Potter’s English production The Singing Detective (1986) and Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) but even to Erich von Stroheim’s lost silent masterpiece, the nine-and-a-half-hour Greed (1924).

Such claims were a tad much—as are, in a similar vein, The New York Times Virginia Heffernan’s avowals that The Sopranos premiere was “like the publication of Ulysses” and that the series “may have required more patience and effort from the lead characters than drama ever had, from Euripides to Artaud to Stoppard.” Still, the megamovies have warranted, and received, careful analysis—at least 20 books have taken on The Sopranos, and now we have Kings of Madison Avenue, by Jesse McLean, a companion volume to the megamovie of the moment, Mad Men, a series set in a New York advertising agency in the early 1960s. The book, at a well-padded 231 pages (complete with the inevitable cocktail recipes), is pretty slight, but its detailed, often observant exegeses of the first 26 episodes—and the release of the DVDs of the same, which include audio commentaries of every show and supplemental documentaries on the stylistic achievements and historical context of the series—prompt readers and viewers to undertake the considered appraisal that this deeply textured, painstakingly crafted drama deserves.




Video: Benjamin Schwarz deconstructs scenes from Mad Men that reveal Don Draper’s vulnerable side

Some elements of Mad Men’s appeal have been nicely explained by Charlie Rose (who can always be counted on to embrace the conventional wisdom) in that inimitably sycophantic, answering-his-own-question-that-isn’t-even-a-question way of his: “Why has this so resonated, especially with critics and people who like smart writing and tightly drawn characters?” he pronounced in an interview with the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, and two of its male stars, Jon Hamm and John Slattery. The writing—and the direction, photography, and (with one important exception) acting—is superlative, the show is dramatically compelling. Moreover, as Rose’s customarily reverential invocation of the critics suggests, not just Rose but also Mad Men’s affluent, with-it target audience are particularly susceptible to liking what TheNew York Times’ Arts and Style sections tell them to like (30-plus articles in two years!). Add to this the meticulous, lush styling and art direction, which make the series eye candy for its (again) target audience, already in thrall to the so-called mid-century-modern aesthetic—an appeal that’s now further fueled by the slimline suit/pencil skirt marketing tie-in with Banana Republic, that canny purveyor of upper-mass-market urbanity. Then there is the miraculous Hamm, playing the lead character, Don Draper. Here is an actor who at once projects sexual mastery and ironic intelligence, poise and vulnerability. That alchemy has created the greatest male stars, from Gable to Grant to Bogart to McQueen to Clooney, because it wins for them both the desire of women and the fondness of men. So the show’s white-hotness was all but predetermined.

Finally, there’s another factor, one that cuts both ways and thereby contributes to Mad Men’s inner tension: the peculiar emotional chord the show’s setting strikes with viewers over 30. Critics invariably discuss how the series echoes John Cheever’s stories, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road (a novel Weiner says he hadn’t read when he created the show). But for every audience member familiar with gin-soaked Shady Hill, there are dozens whose notions of the glamour of adult life, of Manhattan, and of “creative” careers were shaped by endless reruns of three sitcoms with concrete ties to Mad Men’s particular milieu: The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, and That Girl. The key to television success, Don Draper tosses off, is to offer “derivative with a twist.” Mad Men is those shows grown up, grown hard, and—in ways that flatter its writers’ and viewers’ images of themselves—grown wise.

Canby wrote that a defining characteristic of the megamovie—a genre whose leisurely pace allows for an almost novelistic vividness and accretion of detail—was its commitment to observing its “time and place … with satiric exactitude.” Outwardly, Weiner, who was an executive producer and writer on The Sopranos, seems to have taken that comment to heart. Keen observers, he and his staff understand that suits were sackier in 1960 than in 1963; that a department-store heiress in 1960 would wear a dress that had been featured in, say, Vogue in that year, and that she could have her hair done daily, while a secretary’s wardrobe in 1960 might include a new sweater from Klein’s but also a dress that had been in style in 1958, and her hairdo would degrade as the workweek ground on; that a suburban kitchen was far more likely to be decorated ersatz colonial than space-age; that clothes have to fit the performers as they did in 1960 or 1962; that actresses must be trussed up in period-accurate foundation garments, because otherwise the characters’ bearing will be anachronistic—and they understand that bearing reflects and informs temperament and behavior. At its best, this fetishistic attention to period accuracy succeeds in summoning an alien world in which characters move, fidget, and even kiss differently. Weiner, though, seeks a goal beyond that. He wants to achieve something like the satiric exactitude Canby spoke of: “The story is told in the detail, and those details have their own life,” he told The Times.

By this standard, though, Weiner’s exercise is unavoidably sterile. The pattern of a necktie, the club frequented, the restaurant patronized, the shopping bag carried, the prep school attended, together with a thousand other details, signify minute social distinctions, and reveal and even define character. But crucially, the telling details from a lost world can’t tell today (even if the club, restaurant, store, and school still exist, they can’t connote now what they did then), which perforce means that Mad Men is something of a costume drama.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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