My father saw one episode of Mad Men and refused to watch any more. “You don’t make great ads by drinking and screwing all day!” was his angry objection to a show that he felt insulted the work he’d given his best years to.
As creative director at the Detroit ad agency Campbell-Ewald during precisely the same years that Mad Men portrays, my father, Thomas Murray, had poured his heart into making better advertising for what was the biggest client in the world, General Motors.
And now some TV creeps were going to use all that as a stylish backdrop for a drama about decadence?
Over his dead body.
Since Dad died in 2009, I’ve been researching the contribution he and the other 1960s ad men made in the hopes of helping Mad Men fans learn what they missed by seeing that world through the filter of Don Draper’s preposterous drinking and casual sex. In a memoir I’m working on, I hope to commemorate the earnest, occasionally fierce, and almost moral devotion of 1960s advertising people to making more communicative, more candid, more human advertising for conservative corporate clients.
Yes, but what about all the interoffice grab-ass? Was it really like that?
I’d say no, except I’m the product of it—but of a version that also contrasts significantly with the portrayal in Mad Men, and connects more coherently with how we live and work today.
Read more. [Image courtesy of David Murray]
Our roundtable discusses the first episode of the seventh season.
Read more. [Image: AMC]
In 2010, The Guardian cleverly gave a name to an epidemic that was sweeping the Western world: “Madmenalaria.” According to an advice column published in November of that year, the key diagnosable symptom of Madmenalaria was an obsession with emulating the hairstyles and fashions worn on AMC’s Mad Men, then in its fourth season. In 2011, the outbreak of Madmenalaria worsened when Banana Republic launched its Mad Men line, which helped bring early-‘60s business wear—like tailored narrow suits, skinny ties, and fedoras for men, and scarves, pearls, belted dresses, and pencil skirts for women—back into vogue.
But after the credits roll on this coming Sunday’s premiere for the show’s seventh and final season, Madmenalaria may be eliminated forever.
Read more. [Image: AMC]
In different phases of his work on Mad Men, the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, has said he has come to identify with one or another of his characters. Now, as the final season nears its premiere, his heart is with Roger Sterling, the naughty ad man who gets all the best lines. Weiner is not a hound dog like Sterling (he is married to the mother of his four children). Unlike Sterling, he does not experiment with psychedelic drugs (“I don’t have the constitution for it,” he told me). He doesn’t look much like Sterling (Weiner is younger and shorter, and prefers L.A. casual to Madison Avenue dashing). And they aren’t temperamentally all that similar (Sterling is wry and aloof, Weiner focused and excitable). But they both have “very intense dreams,” Weiner says, that deeply color their everyday perceptions. And both are “interested in certain adventures,” which in Sterling’s case might mean an LSD trip or kinky sex in the office, and in Weiner’s means pushing the show’s central character, Don Draper, off a cliff and showing us how he lands.
When the first episode of Mad Men aired, in July 2007, Weiner’s hope was to have the show renewed for enough seasons to cover the entire decade of the ’60s. Since then, we’ve followed the characters from the suburban ennui of the early part of the decade through the turmoil of 1968, a span that includes the introduction of free love, Hare Krishna devotees, wide lapels, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. By now, Weiner has lived with these particular characters long enough to have the “meta-experience, if you go back and watch the first season, of nostalgia.”
Read more. [Image: John Cuneo]
Vanilla Ice is selling Kraft macaroni and cheese now. The dudes of Full House are selling Greek yogurt. Boyz II Men recently made a cameo on How I Met Your Mother. This year’s Super Bowl featured, of all people, Flea. We are having, in other words, a moment of ’90s nostalgia, one occasioned in part by millennials (or The Youths or Those Kids or whatever you want to call them) who are aging into adulthood and therefore eager to relive their childhoods.
Which leads to, among other things, Ice coming back—yet again—with a brand new invention. And he’s in good company, too. The boxed dinner he would like you to buy? Its noodles come in the shape of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Nostalgia, the copious literature on it suggests, comes in two basic forms. One is organic, the kind that washes over you when you see an old picture of yourself and your cousins, aged 7 and 9 and 10, giggling maniacally while innertubing on Lake Michigan. The kind that emergences unexpectedly, as a kind of pleasant pang—the stuff of sudden songs and serendipitous scents and sour-sweet Madeleines.
The other form—the form that may well feel most familiar to us at this point—is a media product. It’s the re-introduction of Uncle Joey or Dawson’s Creek'sJoey or Blossom's Joey, appropriated to arouse a vague sense that we have lost something as we’ve moved, inexorably, into our futures. This form of nostalgia is usually invoked, in one way or another, to sell us stuff. And you could, because of that, dismiss its validity (fauxstalgia?). But it will live on, inevitably, because media producers know exactly what advertisers have long understood: that nostalgia, like sex, sells.
The pep was palpable. As scenes from the 1960 presidential campaign flashed by during a screening of JFK hosted in partnership with The Atlantic, the addictive, saccharine soundtrack was mesmerizing. Political jingles cheerfully urged listeners to vote for Kennedy, then Johnson, then Nixon—men, each song manically assured, who could lead America. It felt like a rogue a cappella group had taken the auditorium hostage.
For some reason, today’s campaign songs don’t quite capture this quality—Springsteen and Kid Rock lack that special perkiness. To revive a little of our republic’s former campaigning joy, The Atlantic has dutifully assembled a sample of the political earworms unleashed on the unwitting American public in 1960.
That year’s master of the campaign song was, of course, John F. Kennedy. His famous friendship with Frank Sinatra helped him secure “High Hopes,” a 1959 hit that was tweaked a little to fit Kennedy’s campaign.
Read more. [Image: Kheel Center, Cornell University/flickr]
In a recent episode of HBO’s The Newsroom, Maggie, a young associate producer on the fictional cable show News Night, cut her long, blonde hair to a short, red pixie. This was foreshadowing. In a later episode, viewers found out why she cut her hair: She’d witnessed the death of Daniel, a little boy she made friends with, while reporting in Uganda. Cutting her hair was a way to express outwardly her inner trauma. She recalled a moment when Daniel touched her hair, during which the boy’s teacher told him that blonde hair was “nothing but trouble.” The connection between the memory and her decision doesn’t really make sense. If the blonde hair is a terrible reminder of the incident, the dye job would make sense, but not the cut. To make the chop all the more dramatic, emphasizing her emotional instability, Maggie cuts it off herself. Plenty of women cut their own bangs and trim their ends. Not many women try to cut a short, complex hairstyle themselves. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t look very good.
Maggie’s not the only TV heroine to chop off her hair in a moment of distress. At the end of the second season of another HBO show, Girls, Hannah Horvath cuts her hair off during a period of mental illness. In Season 4 of Mad Men, Sally Draper cuts her hair for reasons that may include a desire for her father’s attention, a desire for everyone’s attention, or a need to have some form of control over her life after her parents’ divorce.
The dramatic haircut has had mixed success.
Read more. [Image: HBO]
After successfully completing the flight that would make him the first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn gave a speech at his hometown high school. His old teachers, the astronaut joked, would be “very surprised” to learn, as news accounts had it, that he had “received straight A’s all through school.” His football teammates would be similarly shocked to learn that even while Glenn had sat on the bench, they had sought guidance from him about gaining “a few more yards.” The people who knew John Glenn, The Guy before he became John Glenn, The Astronaut, the newly minted hero suggested, must be amazed to read all the gushing accounts of their classmate’s various “prowesses.”
Glenn was poking fun at the inevitable trajectories of heroism: the wide-eyed exaggerations, the casual polishings, the careful erosions of inconvenient facts. But he was poking fun, more specifically, at a legal document: a contract between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Life magazine. One that sold the Mercury astronauts’ life stories to the media outlet, exclusively. In exchange for this, Life agreed to obtain NASA’s approval before publishing images of and/or writings about the astronauts. And it agreed to pay for the privilege — a sum that reportedly amounted to, in 1959 currency, some $25,000 per astronaut, per year. That’s hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s money.
Read more. [Image: Life]
Brett Martin has always been a magazine writer, not a TV critic. But after writing a behind-the-scenes companion to The Sopranos for HBO in 2007, he felt sure that something profound was happening in the world of television: Since the late 1990s, a wave of hour-long dramas had been scrapping the rules of traditional TV by introducing complicated characters and raising the quality—in terms of production, writing, and visuals—to a cinematic level.
In his new book, Difficult Men, Martin calls this era the “Third Golden Age” of TV (following its early days in the ’50s and the birth of network dramas in the ’80s).
According to Martin, The Sopranos' James Gandolfini was “the man on whose broad, burdened shoulders the Third Golden Age was borne into our lives.” Tony Soprano was the first in a line of male antiheroes—followed by several more of what Martin refers to as “difficult men,” like The Wire's Omar Little, Dexter's Dexter Morgan, Mad Men's Don Draper, Breaking Bad's Walter White, Boardwalk Empire's Nucky Thompson, and others—who challenged audiences' expectations of a main character. These were complicated male leads whose actions can be described as morally ambiguous at best. And not only have viewers tuned in to watch these men, but they actually root for them—questionable behavior and all.
Read more. [Image: HBO; AMC]