Mad Men

There’s a moment in Apollo 13 where Tom Hanks is giving a tour of NASA to some visiting dignitaries. He takes them past a room that is filled with the components of a computer. “Look,” he says, “this computer now only takes up an entire room!”1

It’s a cloying line. It’s not the type of thing that would have been said back then. Rather, it was something that the screenwriter put in the mouth of Hanks because he knew it would amuse a modern audience, most of whom probably had more powerful computers sitting atop the engines of their cars, let alone their office desktops. It’s a look into the eyes of the audience, winking, and saying, “Look how backwards things were then!”

Which brings me to Mad Men, the new series on AMC that I was eagerly awaiting. It had a lot of things going for it, I thought. Naturally, as an ad man myself, I thought the show worth checking out. Involved in the project was an executive producer from The Sopranos, a show I have recently come to admire during its rerun on A & E. Most of all, the decision was made to set the show in 1960 – the golden age of advertising, when Madison Avenue could do no wrong, and the men who wrote copy were gods.

And how annoying, then, that the first episode of the show was littered with those winks to the audience to show how backwards and unenlightened we were back in 1960. Start with all of the lines about cigarettes, which were just coming out of a period when four out of five doctors recommended one brand over another. It’s a shame, too, because there was one great moment that said everything that needed to be said about cigarettes in 1960. In the scene, the members of the ad agency meet with tobacco company honchos to discuss what to do now that they can no longer say that cigarettes are good for you. The tobacco baron lights up a cigarette, which is immediately followed by a flare of lighters and puffs of smoke that fill the room, making the rounds like a burning fuse, until the air is thick with haze. That was probably the best moment in the program.

Similarly, the attitudes toward women were so overdone that the liquid boiled off and the remaining gooey mess stuck to the inside of the pot. We’re not so much reminded of the fact that men were all chauvinist pigs as we are bludgeoned.

Then there’s the moment when the Creative Director is asked if he’s decided to take the account of a young presidential candidate who served in the Navy and it turns out to be, ho, ho, Richard Nixon! This would have been a great bit if it had been written a little differently, but I was so tired of the winks at the audience by then that I just rolled my eyes.

I guess my big problem is that I had high expectations for the show. I saw a documentary about how it was created and staged, and painstaking attention was spent on getting details right, from hairstyles to the kinds of toys and appliances that appeared in homes. Why, then, wasn’t the same attention paid to the writing, which to me was filled with tin-eared references for us denizens of the twenty-first century to point and laugh at.

Better to stick with more natural sounding dialogue and let the audience judge the irony of the “complicated machine” that turns out to be an IBM Selectric typewriter. Nyuk, nyuk. I could almost feel the writer jabbing in the ribs on that one.

So Mad Men didn’t make a real good first impression on me. There were a couple of things they did do right, like the drinking, that wasn’t as over the top, and the use of a stripper who was a Marilyn Monroe size 8 as opposed to an anorexic Kate Moss size 0 was a nice detail. I didn’t like it that much, but I might be willing to give it another episode or two before writing it off. After all, there’s only so many other things from that time period that they can point out for us to laugh at… right?

He got a home improvement loan to build a…. FALLOUT SHELTER! Hilarious!

Hmmm. Well, maybe not.

Listening: “Karn Evil 9” – Emerson, Lake and Palmer (Return of the Manticore)

  1. There’s a similar clunker in one of my favorite movies, Almost Famous: “It’s called a Mojo. It sends pages by telephone and it ONLY TAKES SEVEN MINUTES A PAGE!” Chortle!

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