News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

May 11, 2010

STEPHANIE SALTER: There’s much more to ‘Mad Men’ than the cool clothes

TERRE HAUTE — Despite its trunk full of Emmys, Golden Globes and even a Peabody award, the AMC drama series “Mad Men” still elicits a lot of “What’s that?” from many television viewers. I keep telling people they don’t know what they’re missing, especially if they already have standard cable.

Unlike previous super-shows such as “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under,” “Deadwood” and “The Wire,” a premium cable package that includes HBO and Showtime isn’t necessary to see “Mad Men.”

Neither of those channels was interested in being home to a series set in the advertising world of New York City in the early 1960s. AMC swooped in and picked it up. The first episode aired in 2007. Three full seasons have been shown and all are now available on DVD to rent or buy. Season 4 kicks off in late July on Sunday night.

What AMC, most critics and millions of fans comprehend is that “Mad Men” is about a lot more than mid-20th-century advertising strategies. Episode after episode, I end up thinking the same thing: This is a big slice of history made easy.

You want to know how we got to be a country that lives and dies by the conspicuous consumption of goods and services? Watch this series.

Young women who wonder why the feminist movement of the late 1960s materialized need watch only a few episodes of Season 1 to understand. Same thing for people who know nothing about a modern America in which “Negroes” knew their place north and south of the Mason-Dixon line, and their segregation from mainstream politics and the economy was accepted by everyone concerned as part of the proper social order.

Anti-Semitism? Pervasive homophobia? Wanton disregard for the environment? Sexual hypocrisy? Health habits that made women widows in their 30s and elevated lung cancer to a common killer of adult males and females?

“Mad Men” tells the story.

If it sounds as though I’m peddling another baby boomer nostalgia trip, I’m not. This series isn’t about me or my generation. “Mad Men” opens in March 1960. I was in grade school like the few children portrayed in the series. I had no idea what was going on in big pockets of the adult world.

The grownups in “Mad Men” are part of the Greatest Generation, the term that has become a cliché to describe the people who survived the Great Depression, fought World War II and Korea, and built the largest, most comfortable middle class ever to anchor a nation. We all know about their triumphs. “Mad Men” reminds us they had human flaws. Many struggled with their moral compasses. They screwed up. They sometimes rewrote the rule book, even as they waved it about and convinced themselves they were following it to the letter.

The show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, has written: “Whenever we talk about other people’s moral issues, it’s very clear to us. But I think for ourselves there’s a lot of wavering, a lot of relative morality. Anybody who has a clear picture of what’s right and wrong uses it to judge other people. And a lot of times when we come to our personal situations we’re pretty loose. Or we just feel guilty and horrible about what we do.”

Weiner was a major part of the creative team the last two seasons of “The Sopranos,” and it shows in “Mad Men.” He knows how to make cinematic television, to write or enable the kind of dialogue that not only advances the plot and colors in characters, but often approaches classic prose. Weiner also understands that TV dramas, like life, are riddled with funny, ridiculous moments that get seared into the brain just as sharply as do those moments of pain and anguish.

For folks who do not know, “Mad Men” is, ostensibly, about a half-dozen main characters and dozens more supporting characters, who are connected by work or marriage to the advertising industry that coalesced after the war on Madison “Mad” Avenue in Manhattan. Thus the series title.

The center of this world is Don Draper, a World War II vet who is a metaphor for his country: Tall, good-looking, charming, in love with his work, adoring of his children, but deeply scarred in his relationships by the mixed messages of his past, which include a brutal, confusing upbringing in poverty and ignorance.

The drop-dead handsome actor Jon Hamm plays Don with a tight authenticity that makes his tender, yearning moments as believable as his reflexive lies and exploitative inclinations. Although Don has the era’s idea of a perfect wife — played by the equally gorgeous January Jones — neither she nor their perfect home are enough to fill the void within him. Nothing quells the existential fear and unease that perpetually gnaw at Don’s guts, no matter how much rye whiskey he drinks or how many packs of cigarettes he inhales.

About those cigarettes. They are one of the reasons “Mad Men” is shown at 10 p.m. on Sunday nights. As did the 1960s, the show exists in an ever-constant haze of tobacco smoke. The surgeon general’s warning was a few years down the road. Cigarettes were cheap. Doctors smoked during office exams. Pregnant women smoked (and drank) with impunity. The nonsmoker was the exception, forced to inhale secondhand smoke in every facet of public life, from the office conference room to the church social.

The other elements of the series that confine it to adult-hour viewing are rampant alcohol consumption — there’s much drunk driving with no seat belts — and a great deal of sex, the marital, premarital and adulterous kind. In nearly 40 episodes, there also has been one scene of two men, deeply closeted gays, making out.

“Mad Men” doesn’t celebrate the cigarettes, booze and illicit or promiscuous sex; it chronicles their place in an influential segment of American society on the eve of tremendous cultural change. Special features on the DVDs include good mini-documentaries on the civil rights and women’s movements, and even a historic look at “the relationship between Big Tobacco and Advertising.”

To my eye, this series shows us where we came from, what lessons we learned along the way, which ones we missed and — like it or not — how little difference exists between the individual fears, desires, ambiguities and strengths of previous generations and those that follow.

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or stephanie.salter@tribstar.com.   

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