When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer. Not just any kind of writer, I wanted to be an advertising writer. I’m not sure all of where I picked up the romance in the concept of being convincing. I know it predates my reading From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave Your Pearl Harbor, and I probably would’ve been about 11 at that time. I’m sure there are enough sitcoms I’ve watched where the ad guy came up with the humorous and unlikely but effective campaign that I saw it as a way to be creative. But it was a yearning, and from time to time I still come up with an ad campaign in my head that just needs a client and a product.
And so, Mad Men, the new AMC drama series built around Madison Avenue types in 1960. It’s the sort of era and setting that perhaps a smooth polished setting which one can present the rot that lies beneath (much as in, say, the film Far From Heaven.) The WASP business world it depicts is one in which the upward mobility for secretaries involved dressing sexy and snagging an executive husband, and where the steno pool was one the executives tried to take a dip in every day. I sometimes have to remind myself that those depictions in older fiction actually come from somewhere; if the thirteen week run of the series includes a drunken office Christmas party, then it will at least be living up to all my main images from business fiction of the time, and probably the fact.
The visuals of this series are great, all smooth and sleek with well-dressed, carefully-coiffed folks.
The path they take for a drama are perhaps a might too easy. What do the writers choose to depict the dark side of advertising? Cigarettes, of course. Yes, it’s a good villain, but in ways it is too obvious, too easy. Even a cigarette exec played by John Cullum (yay!) is one we know is in the wrong, and when the ad men make it clear (in sadly unsubtle manner) that they know these things kill, and don’t care to let that fact interrupt their efforts.
Let me point out one thing that makes aiming at cigarettes far too easy: AMC is taking no risk in depicting cigarettes as deadly and the industry as corrupt, because AMC has no cigarette advertising. They’re not allowed to take cigarette advertising. It’s kind of like doing a show picking on the Amish — you know they won’t see it, and if they do they won’t kick you, so how brave is that?
But I’m focusing too much on that under-polished part of the story. The acting is good. The look is good. The other plot, about the firm being ill-prepared to deal with a Jewish client, isn’t particularly more subtle, but feels more real to me. All in all, a strongly worthwhile start, very watchable, and so well made that it saddens me it’s not perfect. Definitely you should check it out.
AMC seems to be rerunning this thing throughout its schedule, so it shouldn’t be too hard to catch. My ReplayTV recording was from a wee hour if I recall, which may explain the ads for a product which, well, is similar enough to what many spam-advertised products claim to do that I fear mentioning it here lest it trigger some system’s filters. For some reason, that seemed hilarious during a show built around the shamelessness of advertising.
This show is, of course, an example of AMC doing something which has nothing to do with their supposed central job of being “American Movie Classics”, but then that’s always the case. I’ve heard it explained that the way one gets a new channel on cable system is by being a specialist station specializing in something that an audience once…. but once you get on the cable sytem, the way you get big is to do a more general set of programming. So AMC and ESPN have original fiction series. TVLand runs movies (and now such “classic” material as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition). And MTV ain’t exactly about the music any more. But at least AMC is doing something good with it… which isn’t that surprising since they started doing original fiction with the casual fun sitcom Remember WENN (still not on DVD, at least not legally, alas) back in ’96.