Lippert Critiques ‘Mad Men’


I caught up with the entire first season of Mad Men this weekend by watching the DVD. The four-disc set for AMC’s first original series starts with a JWT ad, which I found shocking. Oh, it looks great — more of an opening graphic, really, which is silent and smart, beautifully designed, and similar in style to the genius, Saul Bass-like opening sequence for the series itself. (In the hyper-stylized Mad Men opening credits, a dark-suited businessman jumps out of a skyscraper window, and in slow motion falls past the skins of the city buildings, on which are silhouetted ads for scotch and hosiery. It slyly mixes references to subliminal seduction, Alfred Hitchcock, Andy Warhol and the whole American cultural nervous breakdown to come.)

I watched off and on in the first season, and loved everything about the look and sound of it (the smoke, the tight-fitting clothing, the lacquered-down hair, the clink of the ice in the cocktails, the music). Still, I couldn’t get past the outrageous womanizing and brutality of the story line. It was too painful to watch. So, no matter how graphically attuned with the opening credits that the JWT ad looked, I saw it as an amazingly boneheaded move. Why would a modern agency want to align itself with this depiction of advertising — to show that they are as backward seeming and generally ethics-free as the ad “boys” on the show? Way to go, JWT!
Of course, the concept of Mad Men is super-smart: to use the advertising of the early ’60s as a prism through which to examine the last 50 years of American history. I guess what bothered me was that in light of the social revolution that was to come just a few years down the road, these characters seemed so dim and cruel. (Not everyone could have been so highly misogynistic. After all, David Ogilvy famously said, “The consumer is not an idiot. She is your wife.”)

Another dampener for me was that I became obsessed with pointing out anachronisms. Not that I was around in ad offices then, but I’ve read the gospel from George, David, Jerry and Mary, so I thought I knew a thing or two. Nothing got by me, from the smallest period detail — there were no IBM Selectrics in 1960! — to the bigger story lines, which seemed to steal from those books but also mix up their examples with ad lore from the 1940s and the late ’70s, ’80s and even today. (Some of the language also struck me as too contemporary. Did people say, “What’s up?” in 1960?)

I guess it’s harder to accept someone else’s made-up version of the relatively recent past. You think your own (made-up) version is better. So it took me until Season 2, which debuted this past Sunday, to see that my obsessive view was in fact making me the dim one. The first show of the new season was the best ever, setting up psychologically intricate story arcs that will play out all year in grandly satisfyingly Sopranos-like fashion. The creator, Matthew Weiner, has also has moved the time forward to 1962, so that John F. Kennedy is in the White House, and change (not to mention, hope) is in the air.

The episode opens on Valentine’s Day (a wholly marketing-based holiday) and Roger Sterling is back from his heart attack. After hitting on what seemed like the entire female population of Manhattan (including the agency’s office manager), he seems to be rededicating himself to his family. Our main character, Don Draper, also appears chastened (he goes for an insurance checkup and is warned by his doctor about “living too hard”).

The moment that a Xerox machine gets wheeled into Sterling Cooper and takes over, like some lumbering, irradiated sea monster, was so funny that I didn’t even Google to see when the company’s copiers actually came into use in offices.

And the outside-the-office party, thrown by the bearded, pipe-smoking, would-be beatnik copywriter, also rang much truer and seemed a lot less stilted than the “way-out” party Don inadvertently attended last season at the bohemian loft of his artist-mistress Midge. (I think one of the counterculture guys at that party even called Don a “square,” Daddy-O!)

The steely new account guy, “Duck” (perfect name!), insists on bringing in some younger staff to shake things up, and Don ends up interviewing one of those new-fangled copywriter-art director teams. Now, despite so much improvement on the other fronts, this did seem off to me, like it came out of 1994. The fact that these teams are joined at the hip today, sharing an office and sometimes even a salary, was way in the future.

One of the guys was European and wearing a sweater. In 1962, there was almost no TV advertising in Europe. Later on, all the agencies there that wanted to be modern were studying (and hiring from) DDB in New York. Helmut Krone was a star at DDB, and German-born, yes, but he was also a guy who focused his lapidary genius on print ads. He refused to work on TV. So it’s not like the leading lights of change at the time were wearing fisherman sweaters and from Denmark. In fairness, the next under-25 team they brought in was “from DDB.”

The show this season opened with cuts of various characters getting dressed. And it struck me that one of the benefits of this pre-computerized, pre-PDA world is that men had a lot more time to be dapper and women needed all that time to load the heavy machinery they wore for underwear.

Peggy, the secretary-turned-copywriter, has gotten a raise and two accounts to work on. Now she’s treating the secretaries as high-handedly as she was treated. She’s full of fury, hubris and determination, and her future story arc is golden.

Now that we know why Don Draper changed his identity (parents dead, raised as a “whore child”), it makes his desperate, grasping relationships more understandable. He’s the blank-slate outsider (the Jesus figure, even) through which the sheer struggle of being human is recorded. And it seems from the first two episodes (the one coming up this Sunday is the best yet, by far) that the more he tries to straighten out, the more his wife starts to lie.

He has much to overcome from his extremely cruel upbringing. One of the continuing themes of the first season was that American business seems to be rigged in favor of those with a family pedigree. The creative revolution changed most of that in advertising.  

At one point, while missing a meeting (a man out of time), Draper is shown at a bar, watching a less corporate-type guy read Frank O’Hara’s Meditations on an Emergency. These are gorgeous, intellectual, existential poems; he buys the book, an acknowledgement that he can’t live only with his carefully constructed surface — he’s got to start feeling, too. Later, he even voices some of the lines in the last scene, as he walks through his staid suburban neighborhood, just another corporate dad who can’t relax.

It’s a smart and powerful way to imply not only the social and cultural changes ahead, but also how hard it is to be a full and functioning human being.

Maybe those JWT people aren’t so dumb, after all.