Why So Sad, Mad Men?

Someone halfway clever has probably already written the following end-of-the-year column: Donald Draper’s Review of the Year in Advertising for 1963 and Preview of 1964. Probably it will have “Draper” employing the favored trick of the pretend provocateurs: he declares the “death” of something (radio perhaps?), possibly as the title of the piece. He will call out the nice work for IBM and Westinghouse by Paul Rand, and probably sniff at Doyle Dane Bernbach. He will go on to acknowledge the rapid, no, unprecedented rate of change in the trade. And he will embrace this change — applaud the ruthless destruction of the dinosaurs — because it is only good positioning to declare everyone else feeble and effete and fat, especially if you happen to be starting a new firm. And for an extra helping of irony, Draper will declare New York to be the eternal city of U.S. advertising; he will condescend to Chicago, utterly ignoring Los Angeles and San Francisco, let alone Minneapolis, Portland and Richmond.
 
To write that column, though, you would really have to know your Mad Men. You would have to have watched it, a lot. You probably would even have to like watching it.
 
I personally find the show unbearable. It is for me a 48-minute period of depression.
 
This reaction goes beyond the “busman’s holiday” excuse, although really it is a bit hard to kick back when you hear the phrase repeated a half-dozen times to a half-dozen characters: “McCann-Erickson has purchased PPL . . . “ 
 
I try to watch the show. I put myself through the ordeal several times a season. How can you not try when seemingly everyone who has basic cable and a dim awareness you’re in a similar line of work as the fictional characters asks you, with a look that invites confessions of glamorous HR violations: “Do you watch Mad Men?”  
 
Because of a TV show, people you barely know are prepared to find you both less respectable and more interesting.  
 
Now, I will grant the show what everyone else does: it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful in the way the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago are beautiful. The atmosphere of Mad Men is also almost as claustrophobic. And as airless. And as void of real life.
 
I’ll also admit that the clothes are fun to see again outside of the photographs of one’s own parents. Most of the attention has been paid to the women’s clothing: did sex slaves ever dress so well? But Brooks Brothers has tried to interest today’s men in the hottest Kennedy administration’s fashions by introducing the “Mad Men Edition Suit.” Two-button jacket, narrow lapels, hacking pockets, in gray wool sharkskin. Nine hundred dollars — and you get the show logo in your lining. (This may be the worst thing done to a Brooks Brothers suit since Lincoln was shot in one.)
 
The trouble with Mad Men is that there’s no one to like. No one. The show features the unhappiest group of people since . . . well, what was the last soap opera you saw? 
 
It’s Cheever without the mercy. Or the wit.
 
Fifty years have passed between then and now, but was advertising ever really this grim a business? Was the atmosphere ever really so poisonous? Were advertising people ever really so humorless and stunted and self-important?

 
Where is the play? Where is the fun? In the world of Mad Men, an advertising presentation has the gravity and tension of a lecture in bomb disposal.
 
The characters on the show are so encumbered with their tortured biographies (infidelities, stolen identities, suppressed sexual preferences, alcoholism, unplanned pregnancies, ceaseless calculation, bottomless grievance) that they are hard to be around for 48 minutes at a go. And how little they resemble their real-life counterparts. 
 
The truth is we’ve all worked with people who have handled half the matters above — sometimes in a single person — but who were nonetheless delightful to work with. They were funny and charming and brilliant and (something the characters on Mad Men never are) self-deprecating. 
 
Of course, no one pretends that a TV drama is truth. But with Mad Men the solemnity of the presentation, along with the obsessive accuracy about small things, invites the discussion. Was it like that?
 
People Who Were There issue contradictory reports on the era. These fall under the following headings:  a) it was true and it was sexy; b) it was true but thank god for progress; c) it was false and the goons would have been tossed.
 
But your own sense tells you c) is probably closer to the truth. (Your own parents weren’t completely abominable, were they?) The business was sexist but never that sexist, racist but never that racist, corrupt but never that corrupt.
 
Even as people in the real modern day industry appear to embrace the show with conferences entitled “The Real Mad Men,” the message of the show seems to be: You are all liars and schemers and cheats. You are beautiful. You don’t like anyone you work with and no one likes you. But you are beautiful. Season three now available on iTunes. 
 
Steve Simpson is copywriter, creative director and partner at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. He can be reached at steve_simpson@gspsf.com.