Thursday, March 06, 2008

Mad Men: back to the future

When men were men, women were women and cigarettes were just about to start killing you, the Madison Avenue ad agencies directed America's behaviour. (La plus ça change...) The fifties promised a revolution in technology, a brighter future after the war years, so what else can a former Sopranos writer do but undermine this?

Matthew Weiner, an alumnus of the David Chase school, has harked back to an era which must be all but mythical to most of his audience. Weiner can thus grasp the style of the fifties - thin ties (back again), Lucky Strikes (still here), drinking at work (come back) - while evoking both contemporary and eternal concerns. How do you sell cigarettes?

Since I've only seen the first episode, it is hard to make too far-reaching a judgement, but we at least have sufficient characters for drama: sensitive war hero ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm); his rivalrous upstart Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser); new secretary Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss); and a full collection of associates, lovers and clients. Tensions are clear and troubles (in love and business) are lining up beyond the Coronamatic.

What impressed me was the subtle(ish) way we are led in - instead of the screaming dramatics which would be so out of place in the fifties tv show but are perfect fodder for Wisteria Lane - things are clearly going to have to build. Insecurities are hinted at as layers of atmosphere and place are created. Instead of screaming out 'racism!', it's acknowledged in behaviour; a closeted gay man tries too hard; the mores of marriage are inferred by the viewer.

The opening credits are also revealing. Parodying the style and values of James Bond, a man of shadow falls off a tall building, past glamorous women in full colour, drinking and laughing. We are not going to be in the simplicity of our imagined fifties - it looks like Mad Men will be selling us drama for some time to come.

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