Wednesday, October 3, 2007
Welcome to the sixties?
I've always said one of my biggest regrets is that although I was alive during the 1960s, I wasn't old enough to enjoy them.
After watching the brilliant AMC television series "Mad Men," about a second-tier advertising agency in Manhattan at the beginning of the decade, let me amend that remark. I have no regrets that I wasn't old enough to be a woman in the work force in 1960. This is the sixties before they became "The Sixties."
I came to "Mad Men" late, after seven episodes had already aired. But through the wonders of a convenience Americans couldn't even fathom in 1960, I got caught up thanks to my DVR and an all-day marathon. And I'm glad I did, even though the blatant predjudice, the womanizing, the ever-present cigarettes and alcohol is almost too difficult to bear. But for some reason, I can't turn away.
I watch in horror as two young children bounce around in the family car like a couple of beach balls, and I think, of course, there were no seat belts back then! Dad forgets to pick up a cake for his daughter's birthday party, so a neighbor brings one over from her freezer. It's stone cold, and of course, you can't nuke it in the microwave! A divorced mother of two moves in down the street and of course, it's a scandal!
Every episode brings new revelations of what life was like in America in the waning days of the Eisenhower administration, before the New Frontier, the women's movement, the civil-rights movement and the Summer of Love. Not to mention before smoke-free workplaces, diversity and anti-harassment policies.
Yes, it was a different world back then, and "Mad Men" brings it to life in exacting detail. And apparently, adultery was as common as the three-martini lunch back then. Who knew?
The plot's interesting, focusing mostly on the senior executive Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm. Draper, clean-shaven and square-jawed, exudes a steely self-confidence. But we know there something mysterious in his background that haunts him.
And the roster of clients, including Richard Nixon and a cigarette manufacturer, touches on some of the era's most contentious events. (It was very cool to watch John Cullum play the tobacco executive a mere two months after I saw him on Broadway in "110 in the Shade" and met him at the stage door!)
Last week's episode showed the ad executives seated around a conference table watching television commercials for Nixon and Kennedy. The Kennedy ad has a theme song and a montage of campaign signs and ends with a photo of the very telegenic JFK, Jackie and Caroline. "It's light, it's catchy and it doesn't cloud your mind with, I don't know, issues," Draper remarks. By contract, Nixon is a talking head, perched on the edge of a desk against a dark background. "The president is a product, don't forget that," says one of Draper's colleagues.
To me, that scene epitomizes what's so compelling about "Mad Men." We're viewing America on the cusp of change, at a time when so many of our modern attitudes were being formed, when ad men were trailblazers and a presidential candidate was simply another product to be packaged and sold to the public.