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19 March 2008

The Mad World of Ads and Cads

As part of an experiment designed to teach me (or, at least, remind me) what it feels like to actually watch a TV show, week in, week out, I've started watching Mad Men vaguely in synch with the actual broadcast schedule on the BBC. I think we do have the BBC 3 (3 viewers, that is) or whichever channel it is on but on Sunday nights I'm usually sheltering in my room for warmth rather than risk the frosty living room, so I've been watching via iPlayer, which is actually fairly adequate (it beats BitTorrent and most other of the streaming sites linked from Sidereel), not least because I can choose when I want to watch the show rather than being constrained to Sundays-at-ten.

I picked Mad Men as my first almost foray into TV-watching because my dad, the adman, recommended it. The show follows the loves, lives and lies of a group of men at a Madison Avenue ad agency in the early 1960s. Apparently not much changed in ten years because according to my dad, the agency depicted is just like the London company that became his first employer; indeed, his first boss was interviewed on Radio 4 to provide an insider's insight as to whether the show was at all realistic. Although my dad has moved from advertising to brand strategy he does look back wistfully on those early days as a junior account planner.

The protagonist of Mad Men is Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who thinks he is (and is seen to be) Don Juan. He's proclaimed as a creative genius and is handsome, charming and confident. He knows exactly what to say to whom, especially if it means he will win the pitch. It's somewhat telling that first time he is shown cavorting (sorry; "brain-storming ideas for a pitch") with a woman, it is with Female Stereotype #1, AKA Midge (Rosemarie Dewitt). She is an independent, sexy, brash illustrator living on her lonesome in a sweet little apartment. Oh, and she saves Don's bacon early on so she must be Real Smart.

As the first episode rolls out, we are introduced to a range of other cardboard cut-out characters. Take Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), the Sweet and Naive New Secretary who, following advice from her office manager, goes on the pill within about a day of starting work. She wears ugly clothes and has hideous hair and is clearly desperate to receive approval and validation from the men at work, including Don, who is her boss, although she's not really his type so he doesn't pay much attention.

Then there's Joan (Christina Hendricks), the Feisty, Knowing Office Manager (and yes, she does have red hair, just in case the feistiness doesn't come across well enough). She gets off on bullying Peggy (in an elder sisterly way) and showing off how much more savvy she is than her latest minion. Oh, and of course, she likes pushing the junior executives around too, although isn't brave enough to dare try anything on Don.

Finally, Don's wife (yes!) Betty (January Jones) appears on the scene. Betty, playing the role of Perfect Blonde Wife, is somewhat reminiscent of the character of Naomi Watts's Betty in Mulholland Drive--they have the name, the blonde bob, the beaming smile that is obviously masking something darker and the utter deference to the role of PBW. Both MM and MD clearly got their inspiration from the comic book, although neither bothered with a Veronica. This Betty seems to have it all: the perfect handsome husband, the perfect cute kids, the perfect suburban home and yet somehow, she is not a happy bunny. She tries to brush away these doubts but her anxiety leaves her with hands that shake so badly and so uncontrollably that she ends up crashing the car (which reminds me of this great Harry Enfield sketch) and after the doctors fail to find anything wrong with her, she ends up going to therapy. How terribly modern. What's more shocking is that somehow, January Jones manages to look much older than 27; I think it's those frumpy housewife dresses she has to wear.

There are plenty more female stereotypes to come, though. Lest we think that all women in this universe are silly secretaries, wussy wives or freak-of-nature "lone women," enter Bright, Sexy Businesswoman, Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), AKA The Client (obviously, she couldn't be in charge of something serious like cigarettes or cereal, so she is the daughter of the owner of a Fifth Avenue department store that sounds a lot like Henri Bendel). Big error occurs early on when the Ad Lads get in a guy from the Jewish deli to show the client they're in touch with their Hebrew sides, only for one of the Lads to assume that this new guy is in fact Mr Menken, when, of course, the Menken in the room is a Ms (or, at least, a Miss, if Ms hadn't been invented then; when was the sexual revolution again?). Obviously, there is some serious sexual tension between The Client and Don Juan, which we know can't end well. For now, though, The Client is the most likeable character of the lot of them.

Actually, though, for all of his failings, Don is remarkably likable; how much of this is due to his charisma and silver tongue is another matter, but as a representative of his time and of his industry, he doesn't seem so bad at all. Yes, he's smooth but he comes across as more classy than sleazy, unlike his underlings, all of whom look up to him and who think of him as The Man To Be. Methinks that with a set-up like this, some downfall is inevitable, even if only a temporary one; the question is just when--and how.

In fact, the non-major characters are rather like the ensemble cast of Grease. You have Donny's boys who are full of bravado and one-upmanship and who spend their time showing off to any ladies present; then there are Betty's Pink Ladies who all wear their nice house-coats and are terribly gossipy--they aren't so far away from a less fashionable version of Desperate Housewives. I forgot one final stereotypical female: The Single Mom. You know she's going to be trouble because she turns up to a kiddie party wearing trousers; not only that but she walks around a lot- and not even to go someplace, just because she likes walking! Still, The Single Mom seems to be popular with the men, which only leads the Pink Ladies to bitch more.

Everyone smokes--everywhere--even the heavily pregnant Pink Lady who is both smoking and drinking mint juleps in her third trimester. Nice! Good luck raising that deformed child! Smoking seems to be a recurring theme--and not just because of the sexual chemistry Don Juan evokes. His first big pitch is to a tobacco company, where he has to try to keep the business in the face of all these recent, new-fangled, scientific studies that apparently say that smoking's bad for you; imagine that! The characters all get terribly excited by a deodorant--in an aerosol can! How modern!

In any case, Don et al. are a pretty fun bunch and so long as I remember to keep watching the damn thing, I will almost certainly make it through the end of the series, by which point, I hope that Gossip Girl will be back on the air. There isn't much time left before my interest wanes, although both MM and GG are good NYC mood-setters. Not as much as Serendipity (big time cheese, I know, but who wouldn't fall in love when in NYC? With the city if not with anyone else...), Breakfast at Tiffany's or The Apartment but they'll do.

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