July 20, 2008

Are you watching Mad Men? [Karl]

AMC's Mad Men

Yesterday, the Television Critics Association named AMC’s Mad Men – a period piece about the world of advertising set in New York in the early 1960s — the program of the year, the outstanding new program and the year’s best drama.  It received 16 Emmy nominations last week.  The show and lead actor Jon Hamm both won Golden Globes.  It was the recent subject of an in-depth piece in The New York Times Magazine.  And Ed Driscoll interviewed James Lileks about the show for PajamasMedia and XM satellite radio, in part because of the fictional ad agency’s involvement with the Nixon-Kennedy race (though Lileks also discusses the art direction of the show, as well as its depiction of parenting).

However, this highly- and justly-acclaimed show only averaged 900,000 viewers in its first season.

For those unfamiliar with the show, Mad Men is easily the most politically incorrect drama on television in some time, featuring a steady stream of drinking, smoking, and most every -ism, particularly sexism and sexual harassment.  And for the most part, neither condemns nor excuses any of it.  Creator Matt Weiner (formerly a writer and executive producer for The Sopranos) and the show’s other writers have suggested in interviews that the show is about how much has changed and how much has not — but that a piece set in 1960 allows the characters to say and do things that otherwise might not be acceptable on television.  Like The Sopranos, it has tended to spark debate over whether it unduly glamorizes a very flawed culture.

Season 2 starts next Sunday.  AMC is running a Season 1 marathon today starting at Noon Eastern/11 Central.  Season 1 is also on DVD and available on demand for most cable subscribers.  You can also watch the pilot online, along with all sorts of supplementary video.

Posted by Karl @ 7:50am

Comments (69)

  1. I honestly don’t think 900,000 viewers is such a small number these days. The show may or may not have more in the years to come, but it’s being given a chance since dvd sales are a good incentive for networks (even the small ones) to let shows develop, and the critics like it too. I really don’t watch any primetime shows anymore, since there’s absolutely zero urgency when it will all be available soon enough in a packaged set without ads (though I imagine they’ll throw those in soon.) The only thing I watch “live” or “broadcast” is sports, and not often.

    There are still plenty of people who do watch television at the time it is on, but the numbers are getting offset by those who buy The Office and stuff on dvd or online. There’s a future in all media, but there’s a lot of money to be made selling people like me Season One of Rat Patrol on dvd. And it inspires other sectors of the economy, since I now want to modify my jeep to be open to the air, hold a lot of jerry cans, and have a 50 caliber gun on top. Beats a thumpin’ woofer anyday.

  2. I have watched a couple episodes and found both very heavy handed. I also thought the depiction of the old boy’s network and the “Machiavellian” attitudes of some of the principle characters were both way over the top.

    It doesn’t help — in my opinion — that such depictions are tied to the very stylized shooting and set dressing: the whole show seems horribly contrived; but then, I’ve always been a fan of realism and naturalism, which is why I’d take, say, The Exorcist over anything Argento could ever do.

  3. I’ve never watched it before and just watched the pilot. I grew up in that era, so the clothes, furniture, music etc invokes a weird nostalgia.

    Granted, I am the daughter of an ad man of that era, too, though West Coast and a corporate ad man rather than an agency executive, but I have to say, like JeffG, I find some of the heavy, blatant sexism closer to charicature rather than realism. The story is well-written enough without having to make it “oooo…look how these people acted” front and center. I think only people under 40 would buy that a man could say to a woman in a business meeting “I don’t have to take that kind of talk from a woman” and get away with it…even in that era. Social, maybe, but not in a business meeting.

    That said, pilots are usually over the top and a bit rough around the edges because actors haven’t really had time to live in their characters enough to flesh them out. So despite my criticisms, I liked it.

    Yes, everybody smoked as much as depicted (though, I don’t buy the doctor smoking in the exam room…I never saw that) but the boozing at the office was way overdone.

  4. Horribly contrived?

    Ummmmmm, no.

    I worked in the late ’80s/early 90s in a largish, very successful company that was right out of 1962, down to the large sailfish in the President’s office, the furniture, and the mindset. The unwritten policy was that the men sold and did the engineering and the women were secretaries or, if they could add and subtract, work in accounting, and they were good looking women to boot.

    The President’s executive assitant, an Australian woman in her mid-50s, said to me in passing – “I’ll have to talk to the employment agency again, they sent us another dark one.” referring to the ethnicity of a secretarial candidate. The Machiavellian crap was par for the course. The drinking stuff was part of the outside sales mindset too. The VP of sales told me the policy – more than three drinks during a client lunch and take a half day vacation. He also told me that if I developed a drinking problem to drink vodka, because he didn’t want to know about it. Company car, two gas cards, insurance paid for, good expense account, hot secretaries who dated for status, no out of pocket vehicle expenses … it didn’t suck, except for the long hours, productivity requirements, potential for rehab … et cetera. It was the only place I could think of where a guy in his late twenties/early thirties could smoke a pipe and not be ridiculed. The company ended up being sold once the owner turned 65 and the division I worked in was sold off. I opted to not move.

    Which is, you know, anecdotal, and all.

    But, fwiw, I find the set design, wardrobe, and attitudes of Mad Men not only plausible, but reminiscent.

    The former television series “Bull” is sort-of equivalent with the office setting being in the mid-90s. If you didn’t catch that show, here’s the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cc1V1onDVv0

  5. My main concern with “Mad Men” is going to be the whole backstory/identity issue.

    This has the potential *really* take this show into “Lifetime” territory.

    Not to genderize the eschaton. Or anything.

  6. I would say that the pilot is more heavy-handed than most of the episodes, probably for the reasons Darleen suggests. But I would also say that the overall tone is “in your face” enough times that I can see Jeff’s point, given his stated stylistic preferences.

    My take on that aspect is four-fold. First, not having been an adult in that era (and certainly not in the ad biz), I cannot speak as to how over-the-top it is. Second, I presume that it is somewhat over-the-top because the writers probably figure they won’t get another chance to be this Non-PC on television again. Third, I would take issue with Jeff’s claim that the sets are overly stylized; Lileks — who did grow up in the period — addresses that in the linked podcast. Fourth, the way that it is shot is stylized, though this is only in relationship to modern camera tech; the cinemtographers made a choice to shoot on traditional dollies, rather than go with the steadicam style you see so much in other places. Going with steadicams would have been an interesting choice. Much of the John Adams mini-series was shot that way, which I thought worked well some of the time, but was overdone in parts.

  7. But, fwiw, I find the set design, wardrobe, and attitudes of Mad Men not only plausible, but reminiscent.

    I gotta tell you, it is weird to understand that a lot of people around you watch this show as a “historical” set piece when one actually lived that era.

  8. BumperStickerist,

    It will be interesting to see if that identity issue comes back; it might have been resolved at the end of Season 1, though I suspect not.

  9. Nostalgia alert:

    My grandparents lived in Glendale, and civilizing me and my sister included taking us to a fine restaurant – linen table cloths, multiple spoons and forks in the table setting. I recall the leather bound menus, low lighting, dark-red leather booths ala the set pieces in MAD men

    And looky, my restaurant is still around and looking almost unchanged from 1964. (I GOTTA do a field trip)

  10. My concern is that the identity issues is going to turn into Don Draper having bouts of self-doubt or self-examinatinon rather than his reaction to the ‘I know who you are’ bit. Sure, the clips have the “I only live my life moving forward” bit, but that could be a feint.

    Unlike, say, “Burn Notice” which is that perfect admixture of MacGwyver, Magnun, PI, The Fugitive, Bruce Campbell, and Gabrielle Anwar.


  11. I think only people under 40 would buy that a man could say to a woman in a business meeting “I don’t have to take that kind of talk from a woman” and get away with it…even in that era. Social, maybe, but not in a business meeting.

    oooh…I don’t know about that. I worked for a Big 8 accounting firm in the late 80’s. The managing partner of my office told me at a business gathering that if he’d known I was so hot, he wouldn’t have given me the transfer I’d requested (when I was leaving to get married!). He was “joking” of course, but still.

    At our training facility, the partners regularly hit on the younger professional women. The wedding ring tan lines were always in evidence. There was a lot of heavy-handed stuff going on that would never fly now.

    That’s why I can’t take the whinings of the feministes of the world.

  12. ps. I love those dresses in the picture. love.

  13. I’m not saying that the set dressing isn’t accurate, understand. It might very well be — and given that I was a fan of I Dream of Genie and Bewitched, I have some idea of the period’s decor.

    My complaint is, I guess, that it seems to be trying too hard to be accurate, to the point where it becomes almost artificial in its attempts to capture quintessence. The lighting and the cinematography is, I understand, an aesthetic choice, intended, I’d bet, to mirror the glitz and superficial polish of the subject matter and the characters. But the consequences of that choice is that, as I said upthread, the whole thing, taken as a package, seems to be trying really hard for a kind of aesthetic that it carries off beaufully — but at the expense of it seeming, to me at least, like a show that has managed to pull off its aesthetic. Which, for me, draws attention to itself in a way I find contrived, and so reminds me that what I’m watching are people acting, and acting in a contemporary imagining of a period piece. Which, for a serious show not meant to break that third (or is it fourth?) wall, just doesn’t work.

    Of course, I’ve only seen a couple of shows. And I went in wanting to like it. But it’s got that whole Far From Heaven kind of vibe.

    For the sake of comparison, I like shows like “Californication” (which takes itself seriously) and “Psych” (which doesn’t) — and “Burn Notice,” which fall somewhere in between, and is aided by a stellar cast.

  14. MayBee

    Maybe I wasn’t clear. Flirting within an office is entirely plausible, and it still happens even today (though much more circumspect and always with a feeling of flying without a net). I meant no one would have gotten away with that in a meeting with a [potential] client.

  15. I just don’t agree, Darleen. It wasn’t flirting, it was an attitude. It was pervasive.

  16. Ha! I just listened to the Lileks podcast and he brings up something I totally forgot … “middle-brow culture” … something almost entirely gone in contemporary culture. Lileks specifically mentions “Reader’s Digest Books” ..and yes indeedy my parents got a lot of them, read them and so did I (as well as Reader’s Digest magazine, Saturday Evening Post, Life and the afternoon newspaper – the Examiner)

  17. Watching the supplemenatry video at AMC makes clear that they do have an obsession with the aesthetic. But that doesn’t bother me as much as it has Jeff, as the acting and writing eventually pulled me in. Given that Jeff is a creative writer with very set opinions on his stylistic preferences (which is as it should be), I can get why he might not dig it as much as I do.

    I have not watched Burn Notice, but like Bruce Campbell and (iirc) my Dad is a fan of the show. So I may have to catch up. I recently linked to some interviews with Campbell about the show and the upcoming season that intrigued me.

  18. Maybee

    In the 70’s I worked as an exec secretary in finance, then moved to a defense contractor as an engineering assistant .. yep, lots of “hitting on”, flirting, double entendre’s, etc. AND as a woman, you were much more respected if you gave back as good as you got (either saying something that embarrassed the bore or cut him down to size). So, I will agree that the “cry wolf, get me a lawyer” feminist doesn’t get a whole lot of respect from me.

  19. totally agree with your #18, Darleen.

  20. Which, for a serious show not meant to break that third (or is it fourth?) wall, just doesn’t work.

    Agreed, Jeff. I haven’t seen more than the pilot so I would hope that maybe everybody just relaxes into the piece.

    Apollo 13 pulls the era off perfectly, IMHO. The scenes with family and friends watching the newscasts made me feel as if I was just walked through a door and was 15 again.

  21. Which, for me [Jeff G.],draws attention to itself in a way I find contrived, and so reminds me that what I’m watching are people acting, and acting in a contemporary imagining of a period piece.

    I don’t get that ‘watching people acting’ vibe off the show, but then I have middle-brow taste. Or as the German’s say a taste which is einAugenbrauederwederzuhochoderzuniedrig

  22. gadzooks

    test: gadzooks!

  23. ” Lileks specifically mentions “Reader’s Digest Books” ..and yes indeedy my parents got a lot of them, read them and so did I (as well as Reader’s Digest magazine, Saturday Evening Post, Life and the afternoon newspaper – the Examiner)”

    In my house it was the Phila. Bulletin, the National Geographic, Reader’s Digest and the S. E. Post.

    I could read before I started school.

  24. Uh, no. Not watching it, and never have. The concept never had much of a draw for me since I’m not the nostalgic, backwards-looking type.


  25. The one episode of Burn Notice that I caught before it disappeared was excellent.

    Netflix has Season 1 available; I’m looking forward to watching the whole thing.

  26. Burn Notice – Gabrielle Anwar !!!! If only they would have had Julia Ormond as a guest star ;-)

  27. JD wants to drill in Anwar.

  28. Ah, I see that Burn Notice has been renewed this year.

    Almost enough to make me wish I hadn’t gotten rid of the cable.

  29. Since I am a totally harmless misanthrope, I would prolly like this show ;-)

  30. Brava, MayBee !!!!

    I would like to drill in ANWAR and drill Anwar. That was a most excellent play on words, MayBee.

  31. And here I thought that all cultures were equal.

    Hard to keep up with the latest newspeak with all the cognitive dissonance floating around.

  32. Hah! I thought that smokin’ hot redhead looked familiar. She played Saffron in a few episodes of Firefly.

  33. I haven’t watched anything (but the occasional DVD) since the season finale of “American Idol.”

    Which, of course, makes it impossible for me to be some sort of tv-snob. I’ve just been uninspired by tv. BSg. Lost. That’s about it that gets me excited.

  34. Thanks for linking to my interview with Lileks–it actually took me several episodes to warm up to Mad Men; here’s my initial take on the show last year for Pajamas.

    Part of the problem was that the pilot had so many threads bouncing around, it may have made the series producers’ intentions look worse than they actually were. I watched the last couple episodes of the first season on DVD last week, and they were surprisingly potent, and at times moving.

  35. BSg. Lost

    yeah, I’ve been kinda lost since the last bit of BSG won’t be shown until next year.

  36. Hi Ed

    Yes, MAD men marathon has started here, PDST and I have it on in the background. Caught that bit Lileks talked about with the kids bouncing around in the back of the car, no seatbelts.

    Made me laugh because I remember that … stuff we took for granted would have CPS swooping down and seizing kids nowadays.

  37. BSG features smokin’ hot biker chicks. And there’s video.

  38. Jeff, I feel the same way when a movie tries to make kids look in style, in a quirky way and yet everything they wear is brand new, perfect and ironed. And let me guess, every 50’s era car is brand new and polished to a shine?

  39. I would also echo Ed (who is welcome, natch) that it gets better as you get further along.

  40. stuff we took for granted would have CPS swooping down and seizing kids nowadays.

    Yeah, my school had bare grass under the swings. When the administration noticed that we were wearing ruts that would fill up with water when it rained, they poured the ruts full of concrete.

    Same with the landing zone for the slide and the area around the merry-go-round.

  41. MamaAJ,

    The office has that feel, as it should — but other sets and props not really. The type of obsessiveness here is one where Weiner has apples replaced in a fruit bowl because they were never that big in 1960. However, I should add that in other spots, the show is careful to show a pre-1960 look as well, as obvs not everything changes all at once.

  42. Nitpic alert:

    If there is only one thing I find slightly annoying is the assumption is that fidelity in marriage is some sort of female scam. I understand that having the main character with a city mistress and a ‘burbs wife sets up some nice compare/contrast pieces, it’s just it gets old after a while that no one on tv is allowed a normal, non-cheating, marriage.

  43. Darleen,

    I won’t spoil anything, but the cheating takes some interesting turns along the way. I take your general point, however.

  44. Also: January Jones in foundation garments? Rawr.

  45. it’s just it gets old after a while that no one on tv is allowed a normal, non-cheating, marriage.

    because watching people sitting on the couch watching tv every night is exciting. ;D

    or as RTO always says, “they never report when the barn doesn’t burn down”

  46. I may have mangled that.

  47. maggie,

    True, but there is a lot of cheating in Mad Men.

  48. “Rat Patrol” is on DVD?

    Hot damn! I gotta get me one of them players!

  49. Really? A lot? Eh. That dampens my enthusiasm.

  50. maggie


    But you know, The Cosby Show and others were plenty funny/dramatic without having the “hero” bedhopping.

  51. MayBee,

    Not to spoil anything, but the cheating usually does not turn out well.

  52. Darleen,

    You don’t find much cheating in sitcoms because it’s generally not funny (ceratinly not in the context of an ongoing series where you’re supposed to like the leads).

  53. BumperStickerist wrote: “(The boss) also told me that if I developed a drinking problem to drink vodka, because he didn’t want to know about it.”

    I have to plead ignorance here: I don’t get it. Lil’ help?

  54. Jonas,

    Vodka is among the more odorless liquors.

  55. Hmm. I have been drinking for a quarter century (yes, that means I’m really frikking trashed at this point), and even tended bar for two years in college. And I have never picked up on this little piece of common wisdom. Interesting!

  56. FUCK MADMEN!***

    .. and I’m still waiting for HBO to bring back Carnivale..

    (**OK, I havent actually seen it cause I’ve been working may way through Weeds.. still waiting to find the really funny and unique part I keep hearing about..)

  57. .. which reminds me,, FUCK WEEDS.. I haven’t seen Deadwood Season III yet.. What am I thinking? I’ve got a serious har… uh..um.. attraction.. for Alma…

  58. Never saw the show before until this evening. My wife was watching an episode and recognized the actress who plays the wacky checkout girl in the Progressive insurance ads. Stephanie Courtney. I had no idea she’d done more than those ads, but then again I’d always had the feeling I ought to have been seeing her before. I wasn’t, but I could have.

    Now — anybody know who the unibrow girl is in the Planters Nuts ad?

  59. Hell, just watch ‘The Apartment’ with Jack Lemmon and Shirley McLaine…..

  60. The Two Coreys is a fuckin’ trainwreck. Good Allah. And I do not care how Gleenwaldian this makes me sound, Justin Timberlake is doing a sensational job hosting the ESPY’s.

  61. ahem,

    There is a Mad Men episode in which “The Apartment” plays a role.

  62. I was told to write Mr Driscoll a while back to ask about getting Dem convention credentials. Have heard nothing back from him.

    Maybe if I link an interview he did with Rowdy Roddy Piper…?

  63. Friday Night Lights caught the challenges of marriage — it’s the little things more often that not. Still plenty dramatic.

    900K IS very small. Gossip Girl got barely renewed at 2 million, and that just won’t cut it. Heck CW might be closed down and the smaller cable outlets like AMC are going to find the death of the Niche market. With a recession and spending on only essentials driving advertising.

  64. Its gooooood. I mean goooood. Incredible production design. Kids running around with plastic bags over their heads with the tacit approval of the parents. Smoking and drinking in every scene. Gynecologists flatly warning women not to be whores before writing birth-control prescriptions (while smoking of course). Affairs and their consequences. Very little cheap FX-style plot-juicing or thrusting asses. Good stuff.

  65. Oh, and what the hell exactly does ‘overdone’ mean?

  66. I saw a couple of early episodes they had for free on one of the HD preview stations, and I really, really liked the look of it. Whether it’s accurate or not is not all that important to me. I get my history from books and DVD classes.

  67. I’m a “John From Cincinnati” guy myself. That worked out well.