February, 1962

It is particularly tempting for me to relish the details of style and fact embedded in the non-drama that unfolds Sunday evenings as Mad Men, particularly in this new second season launch tonight. The ad boys return on Valentine’s Day, 1962 – exactly a week before my arrival in the New York suburbs of that period. Details are worthy. Stylish costumes and sets can hold the eye for a bit. But I do think this series – so praised by critics and prize committees – needs to introduce a narrative that goes beyond middle class self-loathing, drinking, philandering, and bad copywriting.

But indulge me for a moment in my 1962 worship. That particular week is fertile territory that I’m sure the writers will explore. On the 14th, Jackie Kennedy gave a television tour of the White House that has become an iconic piece of black and white footage. On the 20th, John Glenn made his historic flight in orbit of the earth. The next day, the first New York Mets reported for training camp – and I reported for duty at Lawrence Hospital in Bronxville. It snowed buckets, as it did that Valentine’s Day (see how obsessed Matthew Weiner really is by checking the weather on tonight’s episode). There were a bunch of ’62 babies with names you may know: Darryl Strawberry and Jodie Foster, Roger Clemens and Axl Rose, Jim Carrey and Tom Cruise, Jon Stewart and Sheryl Crow, Ralph Fiennes and Jon Bon Jovi.

Lance Mannion suggests that Mad Men is not about the time it’s set in, that “all the attention to period detail is a trick.” But I’m afraid Weiner and his crew – portrayed as accuracy-obsessed in the Times magazineare trying too say something about the mythical Camelot years in New York, and failing. As Lance suggests, the inclusion of all the “fads of the time are meant to place us in an alien world.” And to this New Yorker, it is alien; that is to say, outside of the costumes, Mad Men doesn’t look like the New York of the 60s. They’re trying a bit more this year: promotional pictures have Don Draper in the real Grand Central Terminal (not Station, as so many Hollywood writers mistakenly describe it – Grand Central Station is the subway stop below the grand and glorious terminal). I found myself on the Times Square shuttle this morning, and it’s all decked out in Mad Men promotional decals: ersatz 1962 Grand Central in the subway in Grand Central – makes the marketing mind spin. Robert Morse’s Bert Cooper would never have greenlighted the campaign.

Over at Basket of Kisses, the best of the obsessive Mad Men blogs, the tea leaves for Season Two have sprawled naked in the bottom of the cup for months. And the proprietors don’t like our house theory of Mad Men, either. “Deb and I are a little sick of hearing how this is a show where nothing happens,” wrote Roberta Lipp. And may be she’s right – stuff does happen. Accounts are won and lost. Affairs stir, fire, and fizzle. Health erodes. The elevators run up and down. Here’s the complete list, a real service for those who need reminding.

Still, as my Mad Men blogging partner M.A. Peel argues, “it’s still the perfect summer fare, and the sixties are the place to be.” That’s why we’re here! We may think it’s a plot-starved train wreck of a drama – but it’s a damned good-looking plot-starved train wreck of a drama, and we enjoy the critical company. “How many times can you watch the show’s star, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), furrow his brow, smoke an herbal cigarette while pretending to smoke a real one, and take a long, pensive pull on a fake alcoholic drink, and convince yourself that this is real drama as opposed to a televised version of an interior decoration magazine?” asks Brendan Bernhard in the Sun [via Jim Wolcott].

Here at newcritics, the answer is clear: all season long.

So let’s get back to February, 1962. The Beatles have signed with Brian Epstein three weeks earlier and are playing the Cavern. Bob Feller and Jackie Robinson have just been elected to the Hall of Fame. There are 500 military advisers in Vietnam. Gene Chandler’s Duke of Earl is the big single. And there’s trouble – of some sort – at Sterling Cooper.

Live-Blogging Mad Men: the Final Chapter

In October, 1960 in New York, at the annual Al Smith dinner at the Waldorf – the traditional gathering of politicos and Catholics – Senators Richard Nixon and John Kennedy wore formal white ties and made jokes, as is the custom. Here’s a taste of JFK’s monologue:

Cardinal Spellman is the only man so widely respected in American politics that he could bring together amicably, at the same banquet table, for the first time in this campaign, two political leaders who are increasingly apprehensive about the November election [laughter] who have long eyed each other suspiciously, and who have disagreed so strongly, both publicly and privately, Vice President Nixon and Governor Rockefeller [laughter].

Mr. Nixon, like the rest of us, has had his troubles in this campaign. At one point even the Wall Street Journal was criticizing his tactics. That is like the Observatore Romano criticizing the Pope. [Laughter.]

But I think the worst news for the Republicans this week was that Casey Stengel has been fired. [Laughter.] It must show that perhaps experience does not count. [Laughter and applause.]

On this matter of experience, I had announced earlier this year that if successful I would not consider campaign contributions as a substitute for experience in appointing ambassadors. Ever since I made that statement I have not received one single cent from my father. [Laughter and applause.]

BullwinkleKennedy was the lighter side of 1960 politics, the playboy Democrat – but Mad Men‘s creators chose the dour Republican who, though of the same WWII generation, clearly represented the dark side, and not just in retrospect. Nixon is the one for Sterling Cooper and it’s a choice that informs the whole series, which concludes its first run tonight. History records 1960 as a bright, forward-looking year, a time of optimism and possibility. Despite the Soviet fears and our own internal struggles over race, the dawn of the 60s was a time of sleek design, bright colors, consumer culture.

How ironic that an iconic show about Madison Avenue – the ground zero of this bright consumerism – is so dreary and dark and filled with death and failure and loathing. Why did they choose the darkness – which could have, in surer hands, been more interesting – and why did they create a 1960 ad agency with no bright ideas, populated by hacks and frat boy towel-snappers?

Tonight, Mad Men hits Thanksgiving, post-election, post office orgy, post-heart attack, post-suicide, post cowardly sniffling by the unmanly Don Draper. While those big balloons floating down Central Park West change the mood? Back soon to find out.

And here we go…

As Jim Wolcott notes: “Since the series has been renewed for a second season, tonight’s homemade popcorn party will be able to unwind without any valedictory notes muting the festivities, and the program is being presented without any commercial interruptions so that the actors on screen can squeeze in an extra smoke or two.”

Will there be a Harvest of Shame reference? Edward R. Murrow’s famed TV documentary on working conditions of migrant workers aired Thanksgiving weekend, 1960.

I remember my grandfather bringing out those carousel slide holders on Thanksgiving and showing al the grandkids pics from his travels. I still have some stored away.

Geez, Glen lost a tooth.

The shunning of flesh and blood, Don passes his curse of ambition to Peggy (via Ayn Rand).

Live-Blogging Mad Men: Some Things Don’t Change

Castro 1960Last week, I just missed Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad up at Columbia, but I did dodge the motorcades and frozen zones around the United Nations, and undergo the requisite pat-down at the Clinton Global Initiative. What a wild week in New York, and it reminded by a little bit of 1960, the year of our blogging discontent.

A year after Cary Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill dodged assassins under the gaze of Hitchcock at the UN in the clearest stylistic model for Mad Men, Cuba’s Fidel Castro hit the streets of New York and the right-wingers in the press went wild. Castro spoke to the UN the last week of September, 1960 – by my estimation a month or so after the current episodes are taking place (I’m going by the comparison of the Nixon and Kennedy ads post-convention).

Castro went a bit north of Morningside Heights, staying in Harlem at the Theresa Hotel, where he held court for notables from Malcolm X to Langston Hughes. Ahmadinejad didn’t speak in Harlem, but he did mix things up at Columbia, bringing the tabloid fangs down on the University, much as they descended on the entire Harlem community in 1960.

I wonder if the writers will work in a Castro/New York reference in one of the final three episodes of this first run like they’ve felt compelled to cram in every 1960 pop signpost – “hey, how about that Psycho, huh?” Tonight, Sterling Cooper deals with the near-fatal heart attack of a partner and tries to hold on to its clients. The agency feels like it’s in a spiral right out of Vertigo, and man, that’s not a great vibe for the canyons of midtown, believe me. Back shortly – we commence at 10, and tonight I’ll keep my thoughts strictly in the comments section. Just easier that way.

Live-Blogging Mad Men: Here Is New York?

Earlier today on another blog far, far away Blue Girl suggested that the last episode of Man Men (the best in my opinion) reminded her of far away New York and made her wish she was here. I didn’t see it – even the famed “New Amsterdam” episode (the only other one I actively enjoyed, outside of this blogging crowd) didn’t quite get there in terms of its Gothamicity. The whole thing seems confined to studio sets, and a bit too clean for an active represenation.

Then too, the accents don’t work because they’re basically not there. Not is the stance, the attitude, the posture. Any episode of, say, Sesame Street seems much more New Yawkish than Mad Men. Bugs Bunny too. And then there are all the TV shows gone before that were set in New York and its environs: The Odd Couple, the Dick Van Dyke Show, All in the Family (and Maude and The Jeffersons), Car 54, Seinfeld, The Cosby Show, I Love Lucy and the Honeymooners. Some filmed in studios here, most filmed in studios there – meaning California. And yet evocative.

Mad Men is too laconic for New York, too Steve McQueen and not enough Archie Bunker – who, after all, sat first in his chair in Queens just a decade later. Ironic, of course, that the rabid anti-Semitism portrayed in 1960 New York shuts its place-in-time cultural consciousness off from the dominant Jewish-inflected humor of the city. It’s a loss.
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Live-Blogging Mad Men: The Nixon Men

According to the previews, tonight’s episode brings the Nixon account to the fore at Sterling Cooper – the account being the 1960 presidential campaign of Richard Milhous Nixon, the bright young Vice-President from California. Widely viewed as the first mass media election in U.S. history, the Kennedy-Nixon race was fought on television and on a national scale, filled with advertising and slogans and images.

Nixon’s crew had some Mad Men in it, most notably the driven advance man H.R. Haldeman, a World War II vet and Californian who worked for J. Walter Thompson for 20 years. He failed Dick Nixon in 1960 but was widely credited for pushing Nixon over the top eight years later – and he later did 18 months in Federal prison for his role in Watergate.

A model for our man Don Draper? Perhaps, but Haldeman had moregoing for him than the dour and strange Draper. He had ambition, he had plans, he had moxie – even if he was a famed Republican felon in the end. The stiffs in Mad Men have none of it. They’re old men before their time, slumping through their days on booze and pathetic jokes.
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Live-Blogging Mad Men: The Debt to Cary Grant

Mad Men

“With Summer TV this Good, Who Needs Fall?” asks the TV Addict. And I’d answer: me. I’m looking forward to the new season, and hoping against hope that House will be less formulaic. I think the summer season is vastly overrated – I’m don’t care for John from Cincy, except to see old Deadwood actors gainfully employed. Damages? Army Wives? The Closer? Nah, parting gifts for all, Johnny Olson.

But Mad Men…well, it’s held our interest. And I do mean “our.” I’d have checked out halfway into week two without the crowd on this lovely blog. (I’ll admit it here: The Bronx is Burning is better than I originally gave it credit for). But I must admit, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about George Blandings.

Now, Mr. Blandings was first and foremost an advertising executive, before he tried to be a general contractor on a fixer-upper in Connecticut – a good 60 years before Flip this House hit cable. I’ve also thought a lot about Mrs. Blandings. that would be Myrna Loy, but it’s for a whole other reason, and really a bit prurient for this post, I’d think. Myrna Loy. Well.

But back to Cary Grant’s George Blandings. A dullard really, with good comic timing – and not much of an ad man besides. Sort of like Don Draper – except for the comic timing. Don’s a dullard, a lousy ad man, and he’s no fun at parties. Can’t do the pratfall. No self-deprecation in his bag of tricks. No, Blandings was the better character. And his slogans were better than Draper’s:

Compare the price – Compare the slice. Take our advice: “Buy Wham!”

If you’d buy better ham, you’d better buy Wham!

This little piggy went to market,
as meek and as mild as a lamb.
He smiled in his tracks when they slipped him the axe –
He knew he’d turn out to be
Wham!

Beats the hell out of the Bethlehem Steel work, that’s certain. Amazingly, Cary Grant played not one but two crucial ad men on the screen: Blandings and Roger O. Thornhill from North by Northwest. Both careers were merely foils, silly little pursuits that set up situations the directors could exploit – comedic or dramatic, or both. Continue reading

Live-Blogging Mad Men – Chain-Smoking Tough Guys

Mad Men

Once upon a time in the west – and in gritty noir backlots – rough and ready men carried guns, drank hard liquor, and made violence a part of their daily lot. That’s the way they were portrayed, at least. And the idea of “real men” inhabiting a cushy mid-town Manhattan office building was a ludicrous as, say, Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill being a secret agent in North by Northwest.

See, Hitchcock got the joke.

But as David Hinckley points out in today’s Daily News, our idea of tough guys has changed.

“Mad Men” also reflects something else that’s been brewing on TV for quite a while, however: a long-term shift in the professions to which we look for swagger.

Once upon a time, American swagger was largely defined by physical guys like cowboys, G-men, explorers and soldiers. Think John Wayne.

Sure, there’s always been swagger in other fields of endeavor. While Wild Bill Hickok was galloping through the West, robber barons like Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan were accumulating insane levels of wealth simply because there was no one to stop them.

But in general, swagger once had a blue-collar aura, reflected in the Westerns that dominated early television.

Live-blogging of the frustrating and fascinating Mad Men continues tonight. [Note: our hosts at Yahoo appear to be on the slow side tonight, so bear with us and dump that crappy YHOO stock.]

Live-blogging has moved here.

Live-Blogging Mad Men – Darren Stevens or Cary Grant?

Mad Men episode 2
Tonight is the second episode of what has already become something of a touchstone series this summer, AMC’s Mad Men. To be sure, what has drawn viewers and thoughtful critics – like our own M.A. Peel – is the pure style of the thing. Matthew Weiner’s vision comes as an onslaught of slim-cut suits, deep colors, Barcelona chairs, panelled walls and office chic. It’s just a thing of beauty to look at.

And really, isn’t there just as rich a vein in our television and film consciousness about exactly this group of people – the same depth of cultural experience that both informed and propelled The Sopranos? Not mobsters, of course, but the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), North by Northwest (1959), The Apartment (1960), and Bewitched (1964). We knew Tony Soprano so well because we knew Michael Corleone and Jimmy Conway; we know Don Draper because we knew Roger O. Thornhill and Darren Stevens.
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