The shock of the old

Pub date September 3, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionTrash

TV EYED A young lawyer friend recently told me about her most recent, insidious opponent in a courtroom: the otherwise friendly opposition would first ingratiate himself by complimenting her on some part of her presentation and then proceed to take apart every other element of her case, disassembling it and tossing it aside like so many useless Popsicle sticks.

AMC’s Mad Men reminds me of this charming shark — fraught with instant surface attraction, with chaser after chaser of insinuating dis-ease. The shell is handsome: its creamy, dreamy, often cool blue cinematography appears to be seamlessly lifted from the pages of an old Life magazine. The stylized art direction, perched between the mid-century moderne ’50s and the freewheeling ’60s, matches three-martini-lunch-ready, lustily deep-red banquettes with Eames-ish lines and steely spanking-new-skyscraper sleekness. The costuming is equally on point, outfitting every exec at the somewhat hermetically sealed Sterling Cooper ad agency in grey or darker suits — the phallic uniform of seeming masters of the universe. Meanwhile the female characters break down according to character: innocence calls for June Allyson Peter Pan collars; sexual experience, bombshell sheaths; surburbanite, Grace Kelly/CZ Guest flips; with the occasional beatnik looking forward to proto-hippie peasant blouses.

And then there’s the stylized and consistently excellent acting, varying from the eerie, almost polished-plastic, Lynchian figures like privileged account exec Pete Campbell, played as cluelessly out of his body and creepily semi-conscious by Vincent Kartheiser. It’s as if Pete were lost in an air-conditioned nightmare, waiting for the roiling ’60s to rouse him from his slumber. Mixing the artifice of the moment and the romance of a man who clearly has based his persona on cinematic iconography as well as the media imagery he helps to create, the remarkably nuanced Jon Hamm delivers protagonist Don Draper as the sexy dad with a killer smile that often betrays the gaping cracks beneath the stylish facade. Without saying much apart from his face and eyes, Hamm reveals his fear and angst about his hidden white trash background (or is he the stealth Jew in this WASPy, anti-Semitic realm?) and hidden girlfriends — Don has poured himself into this role as smoothly as he might a stiff drink, but will he be able to maintain control as the ’60s knock on Sterling Cooper’s door? Even seemingly minor characters like comedian wife-manager Bobbie Barrett (Melinda McGraw), who takes up with Don with proto-feminist vigor, make an indelible impression, as does the surprisingly good January Jones, portraying Betty, Don’s strangled-by-the-‘burbs wife. She’s too physically and psychologically fragile to truly mimic the era’s sensuously robust femme ideal Grace Kelly, plus she’s positively seething with rage — as season two progresses — at her husband’s infidelities, absences, and secrets. The urgency with which this at-first-cool blonde entreated her hubby to spank their son was genuinely shocking: how could this frail flower of American womanhood be so cruel?

Yet this sense of disjunction yields Mad Men‘s secret weapon: the way it matter-of-factly presents the casual sexism and racism of the pre- and early-’60s office (and otherwise) culture — as when the Sterling Cooper ad agency wolves blatantly ogle and rag on the all-female administrative staff, and when a Jewish department store heiress enters this anti-Semitic boy’s-club picture (the only known Jew and low-level employee in the firm must be hustled up to the meeting to make her comfortable). Here, the sole people of color are found operating the elevator or cleaning the office.

Your eyes widen when the otherwise supremely identifiable Draper calls up his wife’s therapist to get updates on her condition, and at the manner in which he puts the kibosh on her return to work as a model. The ugly extension of its dedication to retro cool, Mad Men‘s edge authentically emerges from the shock of the old, yesteryear’s culture colliding headlong with current values. Rather than sugar-coating the past à la Happy Days — or denuding and repurposing a throwback look simply for effect — creator-writer Matthew Weiner highlights the offhand, everyday brutality of pre-civil rights, pre-women’s lib American life, creating a subtle horror show that lightly dances with both seduction and repulsion. You’re constantly recoiling with fascination at the complacency and assumptions cast by these maddeningly entitled men creating advertising dreams in steel towers. There’s little of the overt action present in the last series Weiner wrote for, The Sopranos. Instead, the violence comes when our values brush up against those of the recent past. Regardless of what some conservatives would like, things have changed. And as the ad chauvinists of Mad Men huddle to discuss their plans for the Nixon campaign of 1960 — they picked a real winner there — they likely would never have imagined that they would be effectively sidelined as a woman and a black man would be duking it out for the Democratic presidential nomination less than 50 years later. (Kimberly Chun)