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Mad Men's Retro Charm | The Nation

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Mad Men's Retro Charm

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Unashamed indulgence in bad habits, bad attitudes and alarming gender roles are all part of Mad Men's retro charm.

About the Author

Anna McCarthy
Anna McCarthy teaches cinema studies at NYU and co-edits the journal Social Text

"I love smoking," a painfully deferential black cocktail waiter tells a chain-smoking white advertising executive in the opening scene of Mad Men, the new, critically acclaimed AMC series. That line--along with the character's subservience--establishes an important theme of the show's dramatic formula and liberal politics: namely, that the recent past is a different world. One may yearn for or frown on its passionate vices and casual inequalities, but they are plainly of the old order.

Set in 1960, at a moment when admen represented all that was glamorous--and corrupt--about postwar American consumer culture, Mad Men follows the personal and professional lives of the men (and women) of Sterling Cooper, a slick Madison Avenue advertising agency. Created by Matthew Weiner, formerly an executive producer and writer for The Sopranos, Mad Men is part soap opera and part history lesson. As such, it bears a striking resemblance to Weiner's last production, a show that thrived on potent combinations of melodrama and cultural anthropology. Weiner's depiction of postwar midtown Manhattan is a lot like his vision of millennial mafia-run northern New Jersey. Both are alien and amoral worlds in which people do terrible things, and both shows draw us in by exposing the vulnerability of the monster. Much like the gangsters in The Sopranos, Mad Men's brilliantined, philandering admen and their caged-in, taffeta-bound wives--epitomized by the show's handsome, cheating protagonist, Don Draper, and his loyal, naïve wife, Betsy--are products of their culture. We are never allowed to forget their humanity, nor their circumstances. People back then may not have been liberated or self-aware, the show suggests, but their passions and conflicts are timeless.

Sometimes, Mad Men's references to The Sopranos are shameless. Most blatantly, an early episode has Betsy Draper seeking help from a psychiatrist after experiencing alarming episodes of psychosomatic paralysis. As this piece of cribbery might suggest, it's not the melodrama that makes Mad Men enjoyable and innovative; it's the sense of historical detail. This was a time, the show tells us, when fatal, dirty habits were considered fun. Everyone, including visibly pregnant women, smoked and drank hard liquor--although they didn't say "drunk"; they said "stoned." They had weird ideas about food too. Back then, you ordered tomato juice as an appetizer, and some people were crazy enough to eat raw eggs. (In one deliciously sensuous scene, Don and Betsy sip martinis on a plush leather banquette while a waiter expertly puts together a caesar salad at their table, the glossy yolk plopping fatly into the bowl.)

It's hard to tell if Mad Men's celebration of smoking, drinking and culinary excess is moralistic or nostalgic for these bad old days, or both. Then again, the prominent product placement for cigarette brands suggests that this may not be the right question to ask. It's very clear that the show is going for a "cracks in the facade" depiction of suburban life. Baby boomer childhood, it tells us, was not a nonstop parade of deadly allergenic peanut butter sandwiches and helmetless bike-riding. There was polio to worry about, not to mention adults. A sense of casual violence percolates through the suburban complacency. In one scene, interestingly downplayed, one of Don's neighbors disciplines another man's rambunctious little boy with a slap in the face. Small touches like this inject a sense of fear, hatred and spite into the history of middle-class WASP life that the show seems keen to convey.

Perhaps most obvious, given the interest in masculinity announced in the show's title, Mad Men is concerned with demonstrating the progress we've made in gender relations since the alienated years before the women's movement. The disaffection of midcentury suburbia's "lonely crowd" and the oppressive expectations of the feminine mystique are dramatized by the introduction of Helen, a self-assured divorcee who is shunned by her desperate-housewife neighbors as a husband-stealing invader whose arrival will surely bring down property values. (It seems, however, that a change is going to come: At the time of writing, Helen is working to enlist Betsy as a Kennedy campaign volunteer, while Don's agency has taken on the Nixon account.) Such story lines are not terribly original, but Mad Men tells them well, with a rich and evocative visual style. The suburban domain of the wives is unbearably tasteless and baroque, in sharp contrast to the sleek Modernism of the offices in which the men spend their days. The female cast members are not so much dressed as encased in costumes, although cone-shaped bras and poodle skirts cannot conceal their anachronistic, Pilates-toned bodies.

Mad Men does not shy away from other examples of the hatefulness of conformist WASP culture. Anti-Semitism abounds and is only mildly frowned upon. Homosexuals stay well in the closet (although there are unmistakable signs that the door is going to swing wide open later in the season). And the 1960 middle-class world is so segregated that the only black people on the show are waiters and powder-room attendants. (They are allowed the occasional mordant aside, but no more than that.) Put together, these details seem to add up to some kind of perspective on the past--although they may be more revealing as a window onto the present, exposing what "cutting-edge" popular entertainment considers the cultural gains and losses of the past fifty years.

But ultimately, I think the sequence that reveals the most about Mad Men's relationship to the era it claims to document is the animation accompanying the opening credits. Silhouettes of businessmen free-fall in slow motion past glass skyscrapers emblazoned with advertising slogans and images. On the soundtrack we hear strings vaguely reminiscent of Bernard Hermann's Hitchcock scores, updated with an electronic beat. The pacing and the skyscraper motif signal a debt to the opening titles of North by Northwest, but the first time I saw it I could think of nothing else but the terrible images of people falling from the burning World Trade Center towers.

Making this connection, it strikes me that the nostalgia that permeates Mad Men is not, in the end, a nostalgia for a past in which it was possible to smoke, drink and consume large amounts of cholesterol without feeling any guilt. Maybe, and perhaps wholly unconsciously, Mad Men signals a desire to return to a time when advertising, and the consumer culture it helped sustain, represented the vitality of Western democracy and the deeper moral meanings of capitalism. The perception that consumption is patriotic is still around, part of the arsenal of ideas used to gain support for the "war on terror," but it's becoming increasingly hard to stomach, especially as bankruptcy and foreclosure rates rise. Automobile ownership, planned obsolescence and the pure plastic perfection of Tupperware were once part of a battle against totalitarianism, American weapons of containment in the cold war. Nowadays, they are part of a global image problem, one that all the President's admen may be powerless to fix.

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