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 magazine – are 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.