I got to see the first episode of Mad Men last night. It’s a new AMC series from Matthew Weiner. It stars Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, and Christina Hendricks, and runs Thursday nights at 10:00.
Most things about this show are engaging, from its magnificent opening sequence to the casting, music, sets, dialog, and plot lines.
Ah, plot lines. Remember when these were the same as sight lines? We grasped them at a glance, a world made perfectly proportioned and intelligible. Happily, several of the plot lines in Mad Men are not at all like sight lines. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Weiner and director Alan Taylor do not telegraph what’s going to happen. Our intelligence is respected. Our participation is invited.
But there is one plot line that works exactly like a sight line. It is central idea of this series that the ad executive in 1960 was craven, soulless manipulator. In this first episode, Don Draper, creative director of the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency, is trying to find a way to sell a product he knows to be dangerous. But of course he does find a way, because, you see, he is an ad man, and the stereotype tells us that ad men in the post war period were deeply complicit in the enterprise to enlist Americans in a cargo cult of materialism and dumb down American culture.
Matthew Weiner takes aim at many of the horrors of this period, women treated in a manner that was highhanded, diminishing and abusive, anti-Semitism both casual and ubiquitous, gay men obliged to conceal their sexual identities, executives who never escaped the Frat house mentality that shaped them in college.
But he missed one stereotype completely: that ad men prayed upon culture and consumers. Bad luck, old chum, otherwise Man Men is great television.
The AMC webpage for Mad Men is here.
For another view of the advertising man in this period, see my own poor effort:
McCracken, Grant. 2007. When Cars Could Fly. Pp. 54-90, In Culture and Consumption II: markets, meanings, and brand management. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
The dialog is pretty wonderful. Don Draper is taking the advice of the agency head of research, a German trained Freudian psychologist who stands in, one guesses, for Hans Dichter. Dr. Gutmann says that no health claims may be made on behalf of a cigarette brand, on pain of government intervention.
"We must police ourselves."
The art director says,
"There’s your slogan."