Darren Stevens or Cary Grant?

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.

Immediate recognition moved audience units with the Sopranos; recognition coupled with deep style in sets, clothing, music and dialogue. The same phenomenon is at work with Mad Men. And New Yorkers have an even deeper cultural recognition – that’s our city a generation or so ago; those are our buildings, that’s our suburb. Hey, that’s my buddy’s dad writing catchy copy and hoisting that Lucky Strike.

Tonight’s episode, “Ladies Room,” is centered on the women of Mad Men, or so the previews will have us believe. So let’s settle in, shake those swizzle sticks and start making with the observations. Like Draper on his good days, I’m off to catch the 5:54 from Grand Central. We begin at 10.

As we get ready and grab the beverage of our choice, here’s a quick thought from marketing blogger Josh Morgan:

It’s full of stereotypes. It’s offensive. It’s brilliant. I may be jumping the gun in saying that, but after watching the first episode I’m hooked. If they can keep up the momentum it will be a great show and could become great watercooler (wow who says that anymore) fodder for those of us in marketing.

Well said, and here we go. Who likes those opening credits?

Hey, it’s the Stevens and the Tates – only there are no yucks and no wrinkled noses. I vaguely remember the kind of tableside restaurant service portrayed here.

“Stoned on martinis” doesn’t seem like whitebread 1960 executive dialogue to me, perhaps I’m wrong.

Two references in two weeks to black restaurant workers and their second class status.

OK, I found that rather inane – “who’s in there” to her sleeping husband. Thank God we’re back to the office where the real stuff happens.

And Dick Nixon. “An admission wrapped in an abstraction” – yeah, that was Nixon’s problem.

The frat pack isn’t terribly clever – but the sets are. Hitler youth indeed. Cartoons, they are. Best fill them out or they’ll kill the show. Loved the old coffee shop, though.

Ah, no seatbelts of course – another reminder of thos perilous times. That and how quickly a woman’s status can change. January Jones is a good actor, especially when she has no lame dialogue to deliver. Her character has real possibilities.

Throwing the television out of the window – ooooh, symbolism related to her lover’s well-being.

OK, a commercial – wanted to ask whether it’s apparent this show is having a tough time writing for women? I think so – at least, so far. The sexism is overbearing.

In her post today, Blue Girl tells the story of her own early agency days – though much later than the time period in question – when she found rampant sexism still in effect, during the Reagan Administration, shall we say.

…when men were real men and women were women who did feminine frilly womenly things.

I’ve been in advertising for more than 20 years. Not old enough to have been part of this wonderful industry’s glory days. So, I can only imagine what some of those womanly things were.

Seems a clear and certain gender split so far for Mad Men – women have a strong reaction against the second-class status their mothers and grandmothers faced on the job. Men are attracted to the stylish presentation and the dialogue.

The sickness in question here is paralelled by Don’s own post-traumatic stress disorder from the war. His hypocrisy is fairly sad, but so is his ignorance. (And yeah, it’s a Sopranos thing).

OK, there is – so far – no evidence of Don Draper’s brilliance in advertising. Rockets equal alien attacks equal survival of the species on far-off planets? C’mon! “Some myterious wish we’re ignoring.” Sheesh.

Another black food service worker who gets a single line. Three in two shows. We can get some depth for the black man, can’t we?

Now this is good – the ad industry does indeed run like that – or it did. Creative was just the sizzle on the steak; it was the ad buy that made the millions. Doesn’t work like that anymore.

“We live in troubling time” but “Who could not be happy with all this…?” There you have this series – too much happiness. Some greatest generation icon Don Draper turned out to be.

Blogger Grant McCracken writes that Mad Men has another stereotype to go along with the more obvious ones, the..

… central idea of this series that the ad executive in 1960 was craven, soulless manipulator. In this first episode, Don Draper, creative director of the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency, is trying to find a way to sell a product he knows to be dangerous. But of course he does find a way, because, you see, he is an ad man, and the stereotype tells us that ad men in the post war period were deeply complicit in the enterprise to enlist Americans in a cargo cult of materialism and dumb down American culture.

Matthew Weiner takes aim at many of the horrors of this period, women treated in a manner that was highhanded, diminishing and abusive, anti-Semitism both casual and ubiquitous, gay men obliged to conceal their sexual identities, executives who never escaped the Frat house mentality that shaped them in college.

But he missed one stereotype completely: that ad men prayed upon culture and consumers. Bad luck, old chum, otherwise Mad Men is great television.

But commenter Doyle Bernbach says MM’s period dialogue doesn’t always ring true, that modern parlance slips through, Deadwood-style. Let’s watch for that.

We need to learn more about Midge for her to be interesting. Village, easy sex, throwing televisions away, interest in art and “living for the moment” – well, we need more. Otherwise, she’s a cartoon.

Well that was awkward – and I do mean awkwardly written and way, way too obvious. “I’m from Bay Ridge, we have manners.” Sure.

Can somebody give January Jones (and what a name that is) some dialogue? “Can I smoke in here?”

Odd observation – the ancient pop references of the fake “young” guys on Studio 60 – which Lance always credits me for point out – almost touch the “contemporary” pop references of this show. The Merv Griffin Show was only two years away!

Alright folks, my quick take: a step down from the series premiere. Stylish, filled with fetishes. But the characters aren’t worth caring about yet. Also, 1960 was a year of change – let’s start seeing that change.

69 Replies to “Darren Stevens or Cary Grant?

  1. Although I haven’t seen the movie in a long time, the first episode reminded me of “The Best of Everything” starring Hope Lange and I believe, based on the Rona Jaffe book of the same name.

    I’ll also have to watch the first episode again because although the furniture was spot on, I don’t recall seeing the iconic Barcelona chair.

  2. Just checked out the first episode on iTunes, and I’m intrigued. The show definitely invokes the images of office life from those early ’60s movies Tom mentioned.

  3. I got in from the gym just in time for the beginning of the show and I’m sitting here all sticky. A nice thing about 1960 was you didn’t have to go to gyms.

  4. A major drop off from a promising start. Interesting coincidence (?): the founder of precision valve (aerosol spray king Bob Ablanalp)was a friend of Nixon’s

  5. There are so many cigarettes in this show I’m surprised Draper’s kids aren’t smoking. Nice to see Robert Morse, though, the one actor here who doesn’t seem to be barbituated.

  6. The wife’s nervous breakdown is an interesting subplot, and yes, all of the smoking is striking.

    Funny that Disney just banned smoking from all of their movies.

  7. Could the whole series by a subtle end-around by the tobacco industry, banned as it is from advertising their products on TV – huh, huh??

  8. The Cavemen did a pilot. I heard it sucked royally. It was based in Atlanta and apparently so bad that even Atlanta disowned it.

    (I’m from Atlanta, so that’s self-deprecation.

  9. “It pops right behind him.” Can the dialogue from the closeted gay guy be any more hackneyed?

  10. There was a TV movie based on that Mean Joe Greene Coke ad. So it’s not unprecedented.

    Second week with a Freud joke: what do women want?

  11. I do love the smoking…I was watching a Laugh-in re-run recently (don’t ask) and I was struck by all the smoking. Love it. I’m longing for a return to the heroic days of bad living in pop culture. Another reason I like Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab.:

  12. Finally! I’m able to comment. I thought TW banned me from newcritics.

    I’ve had technical difficulty.

    I need a drink. Maybe even a shrink.

  13. So far, from what I’ve seen….which is about 12 min because of my tech problems…the men seem too smart and women too dumb. It’s too exaggerated, kind of gets on my nerves.

    Nothing that a white gold small faced watch won’t cure though!

  14. I wonder if the Bray Brigade over at National Review are watching this and going, “Wow, life was cool back then!”

  15. I love the idea of this show–and not just because I grew up the son of an ad man in the 1960s–I’d love to see more period stuff on TV.

    But this is just too deliberate for me. All the stuff that is background, all the stuff we know was true of those days–the racism, the sexism, the times they are a-changin’ stuff, becomes facile foreground. I know detail is what helps keep writing real, but this kind of piling on of tangential detail just seems gratuitous.

  16. How many episodes are we guaranteed of this? Lots of threads tugged loose so far, and I’m looking for more beats and jazz and Castro and, oh there was the bomb just now. We have pictures in my mum’s attic that could be from these sets.

    Single malt tonight, a few rocks only cause its hot.

  17. Not to be a stuffy traditionalist and all, but I find myself missing a discernible storyline; instead, the social mores of the period are doing the heavy lifting, which is no way to advance a narrative. But it’s nice to watch a show where none of the characters are tattooed–absence of ink gives the skintones an even golden gleam.

  18. I didn’t see much of the show cuz of my stupid computer problems, but from what I did see — it is beautiful, but it’s so aggravating. To me, it’s so forced. Was it really like that back then?

    I agree with M.A. that it’s not charming at all. It makes me uncomfortable. Makes me kind of feel like I might have killed my husband in his sleep if I at that age and in that position back then.

  19. Yes, it’s so damned nice to look at I’ll give it another shot, at least. And invite you all back of course. But BG is right, it’s aggravating, and not just for the sexism – it’s too closed in, not enough of a sense of what’s going on. I mean, it’s New York in 1960. Show us that, don’t tell us that (Jason’s right about the gratuitous pop references – like a checklist). Put it into a greater context. The Sopranos did that.

  20. I missed this part…

    You know the guy who took the secretary on a tour and then kissed her later in the office?

    What is he? A copywriter?

  21. I mean, it’s New York in 1960. Show us that, don’t tell us that

    They can’t afford location shots. They’re cigarette budget is too huge!

  22. what sweater?

    and now I know why my Dad was a Gillette man. When he died he had 6 or 8 large cans of Right Guard in the linen closet. He always an early adopter.

  23. Y’know, the thing is Blue and Mrs Peel, you’re gonna see these attitudes in any movie or TV show from 1960 on back, not to mention the stories of John Cheever and books like Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, etc. So, yeah, I think it really was like that back then. I think it’s still like that in about half the country. Life sucked in many ways if you were a woman back then, and it sucked a hell of a lot more if you were not white.

    Of course life still sucks now but in different ways.

  24. Yeah, I was thinking about Revolutionary Road tonight. The whole too much happiness and suburban emptiness thing…this was no Yatesian tale though, as yet. There seems to be no discernable plot (well, except for Nixon).

  25. Yeah, Dan…but I get the feeling that the men are being portrayed the way men imagine and dream what men were. Not how they actually were.

    You might have one or two slick guys, but I imagine most weren’t so slick.

    But, again, I saw little of the show.

  26. Somebody help! Was the dork who kissed the girl a copywriter? Was he the gay one?

    I need to put him into context in my mind.

    What’s his story?!

  27. Nah, Blue, the gay dude was another guy, and yeah, I think the other dude is a copywriter. Although I don’t know who’s gayer, the gay dude or that sweater chick.

  28. Thank you, TW.

    No way is he being portrayed accurately. No way! I’ve worked with millions – millions! of copywriters and none have ever been that smooth.

    In your dreams, fellas!

  29. There is no story, BG, that’s the problem. Wolcott nailed it perfectly, period detail, social mores, and checklist of references have been left to do all the heavy lifting.

    And BG nailed it too–except I think the problem isn’t just that the writers don’t write women the way women think, speak, react, they don’t write men that way either.

  30. This show is live blogging gold, TW. It’s got it all — everything you could ever want to rip to shreds, yet you can’t stop watching.

    Gold, Jerry, gold!

  31. *Hitler youth indeed. Cartoons, they are.*

    Thanks for the insight, Yoda.

    *“Stoned on martinis” doesn’t seem like whitebread 1960 executive dialogue to me, perhaps I’m wrong.*

    I believe you are wrong. Anyone out there old enough to know for sure?

    * * *

    I enjoyed both episodes. Doesn’t quite strike me as true-to-life, more as satire disguised as true-to-life. But then, I thought that of the Sopranos, too.

    What I like best is: (i) the overdue de-mythologizing of the “Greatest Generation” and (ii) the even more overdue de-mythologizing of US society in the late 50s-early 60s. Conservatives, in particular, are guilty of suggesting people were so much better then. That always struck me as wrong: folks don’t change that much, and someone was responsible for raising all those Boomer brats.

    BTW, I t

  32. “’Stoned on martinis’ doesn’t seem like whitebread 1960 executive dialogue to me, perhaps I’m wrong.”

    “I believe you are wrong. Anyone out there old enough to know for sure?”

    I was in college during the time in question, but did flirt with majoring in advertising, since that was the only way a slightly creative, artistic person could succeed in those days–or so I thought.

    “Stoned” was occasionally used as a synonym for drunk, but mainly among the unhip and non-drugwise, so it probably fits here.

    My wife and I caught two other possible anachronisms: (1) to hit on, i.e., to make a sexual pass at; and (2)reference to a “play group”. I don’t recall play being so organized by parents then, but I went to a public school in the midwest, so what do I know?

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