The old ad age

mad men

A 1960s advertising agency is the setting for one of the best new dramas of the year. Mad Men comes to the UAE.

‘Advertising is based on one thing – happiness,’ says Don Draper, the advertising executive at the centre of new drama Mad Men. ‘Happiness is the smell of a new car, it’s freedom from fear, it’s a billboard on the side of a road, it’s dreams with the assurance that whatever you’re doing, it’s OK… you’re OK.’

That’s always been the same – ad men selling the idea that happiness is a consumer purchase away. But back in the late 1950s to early 60s the methods used were changing. The title of Mad Men comes from a term coined to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue, and this period drama follows the social change of the era through the prism of one such agency. It’s not just advertising either.

Gender roles in society were shifting too, and the world was waking up to the biggest ever decade of social revolution. It’s set in 1960, the year when President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act, the oral contraceptive pill was approved, and US Senator John F. Kennedy was nominated for President. At Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency the changes are more subtle, but no less a cause for fervent concern, and that’s the basis for this excellent series. ‘We’re no longer allowed to advertise that Lucky Strikes are safe,’ bemoans one panicking client as Draper and the executives from Lucky Strike are planning their next ad campaign. ‘What are we going to do? We’ve already funded our own tobacco research centre to put this whole rumour to rest.’ Some may point out that if you swap tobacco barons with the US Republican party and cigarettes with global warming, then there’s a nice allegory about the timeless battle between economics versus the public good. Nevertheless, it all plays out with a gentle nostalgia in juxtaposition to a portrayal of life in the 60s, minus the rose-tinted glasses.

Jon Hamm is slick and charming in the lead role of Don Draper, and instead of beating you over the head with the social and political mores of the time, he leads the cast gently though grey areas and moral dilemmas. Unlike thrillers such as Prison Break or 24, there’s no supercharged-cliffhangers to keep you salivating for another episode – it’s smoother, like a fine malt whisky next to the erupting champagne bottle of most high-concept dramas.

The wonderfully shot scenes and slow-burning pace is no coincidence given that it’s devised and written by Matthew Weiner, directed by Alan Taylor, and one of the two directors of photography is Phil Abraham. The names aren’t famous, but the series they’ve all come from is; The Sopranos. Like the modern-day mobsters, the characters here (played by largely unknown actors) are powerful and confused people that are shaping and fighting against their changing environment. While Tony Soprano bemoaned the demise of ‘real men’, so we see the traditional masculine identity being tested as the counterculture looms on the horizon.

The idea that ‘love is invented by guys like me to sell nylons’ and ‘you gotta let them know what kind of guy you are so they know what kind of gal to be’, are among the little bon mots thrown out in the office among the general misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia. But it feels organic rather than shocking, and with a verisimilitude that extends to a gynaecologist performing an examination and then lighting up a cigarette while still talking to the patient. Nothing is really made of it, it just goes on, which is how the casual prejudice and sexual manipulation are also portrayed. No signposted good and bad, right or wrong, just how it is. The new secretary Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) squirms at the attention she receives on her first day, but is encouraged by other women to show more leg, and before day two, she’s thrown herself at the boss to curry favour.

The script is great, but it all works so well because it looks just beautiful, from the Eames chairs to the bullet bras and fedoras. The term ‘period drama’ usually puts you in mind of Sense & Sensibility or Pride & Prejudice, but this recreation of New York in 1960 is rendered in nearly faultless detail.

Only pedantic journalist nerds would spot that the IBM Selectric typewriters the secretaries use weren’t actually introduced until a year later. Much in the same way that George Clooney and Cate Blanchett looked immaculately ‘of the time’ in Steven Soderbergh’s film The Good German (while Toby Maguire looked like a modern actor dressing up), so the cast here look just right, with slicked hair and permanent cigarettes for the men, and pearls, glasses and period-accurate dresses on the women. It boasts big-film values with an almost Hitchcock feel to it, and creates an ambiance that sets the show apart from anything else on television.

The AMC Network that originally created this series was, until around 2003, just a film channel targeted at the baby boomer generation, but are now shifting towards more original programming. This series will hit their demographic like a Buick, but it’s also a wonderful statement of intent. They’re also developing a remake of the 1960s British TV series The Prisoner to come out early next year.

And, it’s great to see MBC, here in the UAE, getting some excellent original programming for the region rather than relying on series that have already been on Showtime or Orbit months or even years earlier. It’s a real win-win situation, as smoking men with slicked hair used to say.•

Mad Men starts October 21, on MBC4, at 12 midnight.

For Time Out, October 2007

For original PDF, click here – MAD MEN

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