Mad Men's Style

by Benjamin Domenech on 11:39 am January 25, 2009

There’s no question that I really should like Mad Men, the critical darling which won the SAG award last night for best ensemble drama. I don’t watch a lot of television that falls outside the categories of “sporting event” or “cartoon”, but if they put it down on paper, I feel like I’d be the ideal target market for this one. Along with any under-thirty guy who damns John Kennedy for ending the life of the Fedora (actually, that’s an urban myth – the truth is much dorkier, and not at all fitting with JFK’s tousled appeal), and thinks the world would be a much better place if men behaved like Cary Grant and talked like C.C. Baxter, and the uniform of choice was still the the gray flannel suit.

Hell, there’s a bottle of rye sitting on my desk as I type this, next to a retro Colibri lighter in an ashtray. I should love this show. But I don’t. And it’s damn disappointing, because I wanted to like it.

There’s no question the design is fantastic, evoking with gusto the old New York of the golden age of advertising, as one might imagine it. It’s the stuff of the old magazines on the bottom shelf in your grandparent’s living room (or your parent’s basement if you’re a bit older). The whole thing reminds me of that famed advertising memo – I can’t remember who wrote it, someone email it to me – where the head of a firm requested that the men of the firm drink whiskey at lunch instead of vodka, because he’d prefer that their clients thought they were drunk, instead of stupid.

Sadly, the retro style is where the good stops. One of the reasons I never liked Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s work on The Sopranos was that my introduction to it came in the later phases, when I am told the show had a surplus of characters who were either powerfully unlikeable or completely incomprehensible as anything but the tool of a lazy writer.

In the case of Mad Men, I feel like it’s a different problem: this is Ally McBeal with guys. The situations swing between the obvious, the predictable, and the absurdly cliched. Oh, so now you’re going to play the normal 1960s show game of let’s cover gaps in our plot and make it seem like we’re being epic and ingenious by invoking a pop cultural event everybody knows about. Yes, that’s oh so new and creative. People were so uptight back then! And they had the social family drama of the upper crust as related via off-Broadway theatre! And the man feared emasculation! And there was sexual and racial tension! And they hated adoption! You learn something new every day.

No matter how talented the actors – Jon Hamm always reminds me of Mitt Romney, but he’s perfectly cast, and John Slattery is nearly as good – or the actresses (Lileks’ affection for Christina Hendrick’s Joan is totally understandable) are, they just can’t carry this drek. It’s either the stuff of bad Lifetime movies (there’s another kind?) or bad oversexed FX drama, not the kind of tautly written dramatic material any show depicting such an explosively creative period rightly deserves. Instead, the Sixties agency world is just another period for people to apply the same combination of broad strokes that make up typical TV storylines to a new canvas … and that’s not telling a story, it’s just playing games.

Or as Raymond Chandler once said: “This is what is vulgarly known as having God sit in your lap.”

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