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Mad Men is another intelligent drama series from America, with charismatic characters and a socially relevant story, illustrating that not everything has to be about cops or doctors. I caught some of the season 5 episodes recently and was hooked, so now I’m watching from the beginning, devouring the repeated first season.
Mad Men is set in the Madison Avenue of the 1960s and the first season opens in 1960. The creative force at Sterling Cooper advertising agency is Don Draper. He’s not who he says he is and watching flashbacks of his mysterious childhood reveals tantalising clues. He sells the American Dream at work whilst at home, his suburban kingdom is falling apart.
The men in the office swap banter about the attractiveness or otherwise of the women in the office and sometimes make direct remarks that would result in a sexual harassment lawsuit today. The casual racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny are jolting to us, the modern audience.
Advertising sells the perfect family. Don understands what his clients want and cleverly manipulates them. Behind the white picket fence at home, his wife Betty struggles to keep up appearances. While Don sells the American Dream and the easy life, she spectacularly fails to cope within her suburban prison.
No one is happy. The wives gossip and go to the grocery store and prune the roses and pretend that they’re not bored and not nostalgic for their younger selves, before they were just somebody’s wife; somebody’s mother. They don’t know who they are anymore. Making sure casino online dinner is on the table when their husbands return is their primary concern.
The women in the office serve the men, sitting behind their typewriters, providing a decorative distraction. The men would do something else if they could. They’re ambitious but they also yearn for their former selves. After all, they are creative people applying their minds to selling baked beans. They live on stories from their carefree, college days.
No one tells the truth. The consumerism boom of the 1950s and 1960s in America fed into people’s desires and images of themselves, but in contrast with today, there is nothing ironic about it. There is no truth in how the copywriters make their money or in their various affairs. Husbands and wives hide their disappointments from each other and the advertising industry continues the lie.
Don’s generation is an interesting one, caught between two generations – the WWII generation of their parents and the counter culture generation of the 1960s. In coming seasons, the cultural revolution will rage outside but Madison Avenue is slow to catch up. Don is more Frank Sinatra than longhairs playing guitar. It’s a shifting landscape of change. In season 1, Kennedy is trying to be President. As America is on the cusp of this revolution, the advertisers tell people what they want to hear. Within relationships, husbands and wives tell each other what they want to hear. Kennedy will tell the country uncomfortable truths that the WASPS (white Anglo-Saxon protestants) will clearly not want to hear. As a surreal counterpoint, Don has bizarre brushes with a bohemian lifestyle when he takes a mistress whose Beatnik friends disapprove of him.
And then there is Peggy Olson. Peggy represents women in transition. Her rise from secretary to copywriter is a big deal in these times and so is her sexual liberation. There is also account executive, Peter Campbell, a man struggling with his identity. He gets married and immediately knows he’s made a mistake. He wants a woman he can drag back to his cave, but he hasn’t got the energy to stop his wife getting her way and he’s in hock to his in-laws. Feeling emasculated, he buys a hunting rifle, only for his wife to demand he take it back to the store. Gender politics, class snobbery and race relations are always just below the surface of the smiling, nuclear family with 2.4 children and a dishwasher.
Visually, Mad Men is stunning. Essentially a period drama, the clothes, hairstyles and décor flavour the drama as well as representing a point in time. Music also plays an important part in the series. Each episode ends with a different piece of music. Crooners of the 1950s make way for The Beatles.
Selling the American Dream used to be easy for these boys. But what do you do when people begin to question it – when people start demanding the truth? What do you do when everyone starts dreaming a different dream?