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.
This striving for verisimilitude serves another purpose: Weiner seems to hope that getting the vintage mitten clasps and IBM Selectrics right will help viewers believe that outrageously un-PC attitudes and behavior were as common as the series shows them to be. Mad Men is hailed for what The Times calls its “unflinching portrayal of Eisenhower/Kennedy–era sexism, racism, anti-Semitism,” and this unrelenting focus on the unenlightened aspects of the past is clearly central for Weiner and his writers. Most of the supplemental historical material in the DVD sets focuses on racial and gender issues and progressive politics, including a lengthy paean to the SDS’s gaseous Port Huron Statement. The takeaway is clear, as The Times approvingly quotes an academic who indulges in a rather Whiggish interpretation of history: “The show explains why the ’60s had to happen.”
But even if the portrayal were as “dead-on” as The Times assures us it is, that portrayal is hardly neutral. In describing a scene in which sexist badinage is exchanged at an account meeting, McLean correctly points out that “the series is critical of this limited view and is not afraid to spell [its criticism] out.” That stance—which amounts to a defiant indictment of sexism and racism, sins about which a rough moral consensus would now seem to have formed—militates against viewers’ inhabiting the alien world the show has so carefully constructed, because it’s constantly pressing them to condemn that world.
And that stance is responsible for the rare (and therefore especially grating) heavy-handed and patronizing touches in an otherwise nuanced drama. Must the only regular black characters be a noble and cool elevator operator, a noble and understanding housekeeper, and a perceptive and politicized supermarket clerk? Must said elevator operator, who goes unnoticed by the less sensitive characters, sagely say when discussing Marilyn Monroe’s death, “Some people just hide in plain sight”? Get it—he’s talking about himself. He’s invisible. Even worse, that stance evokes and encourages the condescension of posterity; just as insecure college students feel they must join the knowing hisses of the callow campus audience when a character in an old movie makes an un-PC comment, so Mad Men directs its audience to indulge in a most unlovely—because wholly unearned—smugness. As artistically mistaken as this stance is, it nonetheless helps account for the show’s success. We all like to congratulate ourselves, and as a group, Mad Men’s audience is probably particularly prone to the temptation.
Any period drama will have its share of slips, and most of Mad Men’s are inconsequential. (“The military-industrial complex,” coined by Eisenhower in his 1961 farewell address, finds itself on the lips of account manager Ken Cosgrove in 1960; if the pompous dilettante copywriter Paul Kinsey was a Freedom Rider—itself an implausible plot element, intended to signal that the times, they are a-changin’—he would have been going south to desegregate interstate transportation, not register black voters, as the show has it.) But other slips demonstrate an unsure grasp of the show’s setting and characters—and of the class differences that complicate the rather blunt stance the series takes. A supplement to the first season’s DVDs makes explicit what attentive viewers already understood: Mad Men deliberately shocks its audience by presenting as reasonable and commonplace behavior we now find appalling. This gambit, a signature feature of the show, can force the audience to viscerally experience the foreignness of the past, and when so used it can be a brilliant dramatic ploy—but only if the action portrayed is as de rigueur as the show suggests. At a child’s birthday party, for instance, a man hits a boy who has spilled a drink, and no one reacts, not even the boy’s father. The Draper family, in another case, drives away from the scene of a family picnic, nonchalantly leaving their trash on the ground where they were sitting. Yes, corporal punishment was more common then than now, and Iron Eyes Cody wouldn’t be tearing up on TV screens for another nine years. But Dr. Spock’s permissive parenting notions exercised a near-hegemonic sway over child-rearing practices in the bedroom communities of the Northeast’s professional class, and however one chose to correct one’s own children and whatever the state of America’s roadsides, the actions portrayed were simply not the done thing. Nice people—the educated and affluent—didn’t hit other people’s kids, and they didn’t, especially in front of their children, walk away from a pile of trash they had created.
Mad Men’s most egregious stumble—though seemingly a small one—involves Betty Draper’s college career, and it is generally emblematic of this extraordinarily accomplished show’s greatest weaknesses, and specifically emblematic of its confused approach to this poorly defined character. Betty, the show establishes, was in a sorority. So far, okay. Pretty, with a little-girl voice and a childlike, almost lobotomized affect; humorless; bland but at times creepily calculating (as when she seeks solace by manipulating her vulnerable friend into an affair); obsessed with appearances and therefore lacking in inner resources; a consistently cold and frequently vindictive mother; a daddy’s girl—Betty is written, and clumsily performed by model-turned-actress January Jones, as a clichéd shallow sorority sister. (Just as Don’s self-invented identity is Gatsby-like, so Betty, his wife, is a jejune ornament like Daisy, though without the voice full of money.) But she’s also a character deeply wronged by her serial-philanderer husband, and she’s hazily presented as a stultified victim of soulless postwar suburban ennui (now there’s a cliché). So, perhaps to bestow gravitas on her, or at least some upper-classiness, the show establishes that she went to Bryn Mawr. But of course Bryn Mawr has never had sororities. By far the brainiest of the Seven Sisters—cussed, straight-backed, high-minded, and feminist (its students, so the wags said, preferred the Ph.D. to the Mrs.)—Bryn Mawr was probably the least likely college that Betty Draper, given to such non-U genteelisms as “passed away,” would have attended. So much for satiric exactitude. In the pilot and through the early stages of the series’s development, Weiner had planned to show little of the Drapers’ home life, which might explain Betty’s woefully undeveloped character. The strength of the megamovie is that it can build complex characters over time—but the telling details it accumulates to serve that process work only if the writers are clear and consistent about what they are trying to say.
To watch this megamovie as it should be watched, as a 26-hour (and counting) cycle, and to read McLean’s dissection of its intricacies, is to grasp Mad Men’s triumph: its emotional intelligence—evident not only in its writing and acting but in its exquisite direction, lighting, and photography—overwhelms its mushy ideology and whatever Important Points it wants to make. At its best—and it usually hits that mark—its characters are true to themselves and therefore to their time and place. Thus in the pilot, Don—who is quickly established as a sophisticated adult, wry, not lacking in sensitivity, genuinely curious about the inner lives of women (after all, fathoming their aspirations and desires is the key to his professional success), sexually adventurous but intolerant of the lewd frat-boy behavior of the junior executives—sternly rebuffs a pitiful pass from the new girl, Peggy, an innocent from Brooklyn, whose observations of the office culture have led her to believe that she must offer herself to him. Peggy is obviously relieved, as are the viewers, whose faith in their hero has been rewarded. But just as the audience is luxuriating in his admirableness, Don tries to buck up Peggy, still quaking from the scolding he gave her, by telling her to “go home, put your curlers in …” It’s the kind of casually sexist remark that makes today’s viewers squirm. And it’s precisely what Don would say to Peggy—because she’s a woman, but not just because she’s a woman: she’s also a secretary, dowdy, and from an outer borough.
Don Draper is also consistently true to the past the writers have established for him. Some critics find his appealing unflappability implausible, and they fault the show for sacrificing its commitment to verisimilitude in the interest of maintaining the lead actor’s appeal. They fail to grasp that Don—whose entire identity is a fabrication—would have to possess preternatural cool. He’s always on. In the single most affecting scene of the entire series, Don pitches an advertising campaign to Kodak. He’s projecting slides of his children and his wife as he talks—tears welling, his voice slightly quivering—about the ache of memory. It’s a deeply poignant scene, made even more so by the modulation of Don’s emotions. And it’s a bravura performance by Hamm—of Don’s bravura performance (watch Don’s persona shift as he slips into the pitch). Viewers feel, and want to feel, that Don’s emotion is genuine—but they also know that Don is selling himself, and that it could all be an act. The series’s most chilling sequence follows Betty in the Draper house as she spends morning to night methodically searching suit pockets and papers and rifling through desk drawers to discover evidence of Don’s infidelity. Viewers are conditioned to know she’ll find it—what else would be the point of the sequence? And some are no doubt uncomfortable when they realize that, thanks to the way the directing and writing have built up the suspense, they’re rooting for the bad guy, as it were. As evening comes—the sequence nicely captures that yucky feeling at the close of a day spent shut up in the house—Betty has found … nothing. After a momentary surprise, the viewer realizes that of course Betty would find nothing, because—and it’s the same reason Don’s winning poise is entirely believable—like all great liars, Don never lets down his guard.
Today the megamovie is America’s most accomplished and vital mass entertainment, so it’s fitting that Mad Men, which is the most quintessentially American megamovie made to date, explores a peculiarly American theme and exploits a peculiarly American asset. Leave it to a show that famously employs an unusually high number of women writers to capture—more vividly than anything I’ve encountered save Norman Mailer’s short story “The Language of Men” and, obliquely, John O’Hara’s “Graven Image”—the unrelenting, low-level competition and consequent posing, the miscues and jarringness, the monotonous lack of intimacy that characterize a good deal of the conversation among middle-class American males. And leave it to television to enshrine correct Americanese.
Weiner’s policy of not allowing British actors to play American characters stems from his eminently reasonable logic that his show “is so American, it should be played by Americans.” And, unusual for a megamovie, its characters aren’t (as they say) “ethnic,” and they’re not cops, criminals, or the downtrodden. Rather, they’re predominantly well-educated, articulate WASPs. So verisimilitude doesn’t demand that the characters shave ts and drop g’s. Unlike so many fancy American TV dramas, Mad Men doesn’t require the viewer to pause and replay the DVD to make out what’s being said. Rather, the actors deliver their often fizzy but (because it’s guarded or reflective) never fast-talking dialogue with the clear, relaxed enunciation of casually elegant American speech. Unlike performers in most naturalistic American productions—theatrical, cinematic, or on television—who can only gesture at meaning with the fragmented language with which they’re supplied, the Mad Men actors are given precise words and whole, often clever and grammatically complex sentences to work with.
The cognoscenti, though, have largely ignored this quiet virtue while extolling what are really the show’s considerable flaws. Ah, the media juggernaut. If Mad Men were half as good as the hype would have it, the show would be one of the best ever produced for American television. It’s both.