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.

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