ABC’s drama ‘Mad Men’ uncovers truths about life today in the lies of the ad biz back in 1960
(AP)-NEW YORK As “Mad Men” nears the midpoint of its 13-episode first season, this brilliant AMC drama has met and exceeded its initial rich promise.
The series concept, as originally set forth by creator Matthew Weiner, was ambitious enough: To re-imagine the Manhattan advertising world of 1960 and, through that cultural prism, shine some light on life in 2007.
But “Mad Men” (which airs Thursday at 10 p.m. EDT) didn’t stop there. With wit, savvy and a luster somehow befitting that bygone era, the series is restoring a distant moment to us, as if it were our own.
Which, of course, it always was. “Mad Men” vividly reminds us that the many pronounced differences between then and now are only exceeded by similarities we all grapple with.
Like what it means to be a grown-up.
“Kids today, they have no one to look up to,” Don Draper stated on a recent episode. “`Cause they’re looking up to us.”
The linchpin of “Mad Men,” Draper is creative director of the Sterling Cooper ad agency. As played by Jon Hamm (“We Were Soldiers”), he is smooth, droll and cynical. And, at 32, he presides as an adult even while haunted by self-doubt that he qualifies.
He may also worry that the image of adulthood he modeled himself on is about to go through an unsettling reversal.
“Mad Men” is lodged on the portentous overlap of the 1950s’ epic cautiousness and the so-called 1960s, when the times (as everybody found out) would be a-changin’.
Even so, in 1960 “Mad Men’s” patriarchy of white-collar WASP career men remains largely intact. Women (meaning “girls”) make do with a secondary role in the system. Blacks and Jews aren’t really welcome. Cigarettes, booze and extramarital affairs are always welcome.
And seniority trumps youth. But not for much longer.
On a future episode, Sterling Cooper execs discuss the pros and cons of accepting Richard Nixon as a client for his presidential race.
Elderly founding partner Bertram Cooper (played by Robert Morse) doesn’t care for Nixon’s probable Democratic rival, John F. Kennedy. He’s just a kid, immature.
“He doesn’t even wear a hat,” says Coop.
But account executive Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), who’s 26, pipes up with a warning.
“You know who else doesn’t wear a hat?” he says. “Elvis. That’s what we’re dealing with.”
Coop’s 50-ish partner, Roger Sterling (John Slattery), isn’t ready to buy it.
“Now,” he sneers to the group, “if the ADULTS can weigh in …”
They can, and will, at least a bit longer. But in 1960 the sacred order is imperiled.
“Don’t trust anyone over 30″ would be the chant heard not only in the streets, but all across society, within a few years. Even people over 30 would, on some level, stop trusting themselves as they began to look toward youngsters for cues on how to get along.
Soon a real-life ad agency would hatch a jingle that, like much advertising, says nothing, but everything: “Now, it’s Pepsi, for those who think young.” The younger generation was about to become the driving force of pop culture. Nearly a half-century later, even with the population significantly aging, youth would still reign.
Can Draper (and the agency he works for) adapt?
On this week’s episode, he allows himself to get dragged by his independent-minded girlfriend to a Greenwich Village coffee house for a poetry reading.
With his sharply tailored suit and skimmed-back hair, Draper looks out of place, to say the least. No wonder a shaggy, bearded Beat artist starts baiting him about his corrupt Madison Avenue values.
“What a gas! Perpetuating the lie! How do you sleep at night?”
“On a bed made of money,” Draper coolly replies.
“You hucksters in your tower created the religion of mass consumption.”
“People want to be told what to do so badly that they’ll listen to anyone,” counters Draper, who wants nothing more than to get his girlfriend back to her apartment and in bed.
Earlier in the episode, we find Draper in bed with his wife in their comfortable Westchester home.
Lovely marginalized wife-and-mother Betty (January Jones) is tender, playful and a little unhinged as the scene unfolds. It’s Mother’s Day, and she misses her own deceased mother.
“Mourning is just extended self-pity,” Don cautions her.
Then things turn flirtatious. They swap silly banter about lovemaking scholarship.
Don: “How are your studies advancing in that?”
Betty: “Completed. I got an A, actually.”
“I flunked the whole thing,” Don says with a laugh.
“Well,” she teases him, “that’s because you got caught cheating.”
Don (and the viewers) freeze for an instant. Betty has hit closer to the truth than she knows.
This is a typical moment on “Mad Men”: The flash of truth when no one is prepared or even wants it. It’s fun watching “Mad Men” in 2007, to see if we’re ready now.