A blogpost from September 2, 2010 ·
Once there was a time. When men were men. And women were skirts. Is that a fairy tale worth returning to? I vote yea. If it is as beautiful and exhilarating as in the television show Mad Men? Hell yea. Last week the AMC hit series won the Emmy Award for Best Outstanding Drama for its third season, with which it scored a hattrick.
After years of reading lyrical reviews about the first three seasons, I decided to a little watching of my own. This turned into regular marathons in catching up on all three seasons. And frankly, they held me captive. In the early 1960s, Madison Avenue was synonymous for the quickly emerging advertising industry in the United States, which greatly influenced the daily lives of its citizens. With the emerging popularity of television, millions of households were reached and advertising saw the so-called Creative Revolution. This is background against which Mad Men is positioned. One of the major moments in this creative revolution, the legendary Volkswagen Lemon ad, is a recurrent feature throughout the seasons. Created by a competing agency, it embodies the fast changing world in which the central advertisement agency Sterling Cooper finds itself. It stands for the new approach advertising took, creating unexpected messages that were to make advertisements more tempting to consumer’s eyes. This trend is still of importance in today’s world of strategic marketing and advertisement.
In addition there is the, for twenty-first century viewer, at the very least remarkable treatment of women.The tone is set right away in the opening scene of the first episode, when the new secretary Peggy gets in the elevator with three of our mad men. On the sight of her, two of them respond, while leaning over to her by saying “23. Not right away. Can you take the long way up? I am really enjoying the view here.” Once they have reached their floor and the woman is out of sight, one of them remarks, “why did you do that for? She’ll probably be assigned to one of us.” The response of the others is, “then she knows what she is in for. Besides, you got to let them know what kind of guy you are, then they’ll know what kind of girl to be.” Got it? But behind this shallow surface of discrimination, the women turn out to be what the men are dependent on. Women didn’t burn their bra’s just yet, but over the seasons emancipation is on the verge of offering an alternative to the masculine world of advertising, where women sit behind type writers and men drink whiskey before noon. While the main character’s Don Draper’s work defines this new modern world, his signature drink is called an old-fashioned. This makes the contradiction of his professional reputation with his obscure past subtly tangible. Another example of this strategic development of his character is Draper’s recognition of Peggy’s unexpected talent for copy writing. Despite his usual not particularly friendly treatment of her, he promotes Peggy to the first female copywriter in the office.
Draper is not only the major man in advertising; he is also the ultimate ladies man. As the other men in the office cannot stop talk about women, Draper actually lives that life they are only dreaming of. While being married to the ultimate trophy wife and former model Betty Draper and secured of a household in Connecticut with two lovely children, he also has numerous acquainted women all over the city. In addition there is Draper’s past which he tries to keep secret from this new world he has created around himself. These several layers in his character gain increasing insight in the motives for Draper’s actions. Despite their mostly unsympathetic character, this interestingly enough makes you relate to him in quite a sympathetic way. When as a viewer, you don’t quite fully understand an action now, you most certainly will a few episodes later. It is all part of a greater scheme, in which there is enough room for surprising elements. One of these is the unexpected but very welcome humour of the new, older than Draper ever had, secretary Miss. Blankenship, This is one of the great findings of the latest seasons, which is aired in the US at the moment. While her part could have easily turned out to be as annoying as Jar Jar Binks in the similarly long expected Star Wars One, Miss. Blankenship is one of the surprises of Season Four. She carries an irony in her acting, which is a welcome counter balance to how serious the mad men take themselves.
The treatment of this show in the worldwide media is also amazing. For example in the Dutch opinion magazine de Groene Amsterdammer, the author of a review about the Dutch TV show In Therapy cannot keep himself from manoeuvring Mad Men into it. He compares one of the main Dutch characters Lara, whose therapy session features in the show, with the therapy sessions Betty Draper attends in Season One. Where Lara is an independent woman, on the verge of getting married, but in love with her therapist, Betty is an extremely complicated character. Where Lara tries to shock her therapist by her explicit word choice, Betty’s complexity is expressed in fewer words. Because we also see her off the sofa, her behaviour underlines the seemingly trivial things she talks about in the sessions. Also in this story line, Don Draper adds an extra layer to it. Unbelievable but true, Draper phones Betty’s therapist for regular updates on the progress of his wife. This provides not only an interesting insight in Betty’s mind, but also in that of both the men involved.
All in all, Mad Men is a great document of the time period in which many major moments are highlighted. There is the storyline in which Sterling Cooper works on the Nixon campaign as he is running against Kennedy. Their belief in Nixon’s victory is rock solid, but oh so endearing with our current knowledge. Similarly we look at the featuring of civil rights protests, the Kennedy murder, the rise of Bob Dylan and the development of space aviation for instance. This mix of history and drama is brilliantly translated into a visual language which is executed into every detail. That is the brilliant thing about Mad Men. The visual language and the way of acting tell us more than words could ever say. But in the end, it is still the men who rule the world, of both advertising and women. Which is just fine for now, let the Mad Men score all they want. At least another hattrick or two.