Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Mad Men: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

There’s a point in this first episode of the series when the creators could have done something that would have made me love the show unconditionally. Instead, they took the route that is to be expected of character development in pilots.

From the opening credits, the show holds its protagonists up for ridicule. Some on-screen text announces, ‘Mad Men: A term coined in the late 1950s to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue.’ Pause. ‘They coined it.’ It captures the bravado wit and arrogance of the characters, but the post-script is a little wry smile. For all the ostentatious glamour of their world, these people are full of shit. The programme clearly wants us to know this. This is certainly necessary for a great show, but not entirely sufficient. The characters themselves should also know the worthlessness of their vocation, and drama ensues from their internal conflict.

Leading up to the crossroads moment I mentioned, we see the characters doing everything they can to dispel the notion that they are geniuses to be admired by the viewer. In the first scene, Don heroically rejects some vaguely racist undertones to seek inspiration from a black waiter. This ex-stasis moment leads our hero to the amazing slogan, ‘I Love Smoking’. In a lesser show, this obviously rubbish slogan would be celebrated as a triumph of clear thinking over marketing contrivances. In Mad Men, we know it’s ridiculous, Don knows it’s ridiculous, and it goes nowhere.

There’s no doubt that Don is a talented ad man, as he adroitly observes that their job is to sell a brand of cigarettes and not smoking itself. This perceptive talent made it all the sweeter to see him struggling to be creative, rather than analytical. Again, in a weaker show the moment when Don lies down and gazes at a fly buzzing around a light would have led to a creative breakthrough. Here, we all know the cliché and it is exposed as such.

As if intruding on the characters’ own moment of self-reflection was not clear enough for us, we also see the characters’ pretensions being directly mocked by others. Early on, Don’s mistress asks him, ‘Is this the part where I say Don Draper is the greatest ad man ever, and his big, strong brain will find a way to lead the sheep to the slaughterhouse?’ This is a wonderful pricking of both his potential pomposity and his contempt for those unlike him.

To complement our glimpses of Don’s world, we get a look at Pete too. In creative shorthand, I suppose Pete is who Don might have been 20 years ago had he not been at war. We don’t know whether this is true, but it’s enough that Pete imagines himself to be Don’s heir. We first see Pete dripping smarm down the phone as he tries to placate his fiancée while impressing his contempt for her upon his friends. When he smirks at them while telling his fiancée to take her mother out to lunch (and tell her it was his idea), we know that he is destined for a career in advertising that will soar or crash depending on whether he is ever found out.

This portrait of a man so comfortable around minions (telling the new girl ‘I’m working my way up’ after she was offended by his praise for her ankles) and so awkward around superiors (the unrequited handshake) was never less than credible and promises to be compelling. When he called Don ‘buddy’ and alluded to his military service, his obsequiousness was neatly punctured (‘Let’s take it a little slower; I don’t want to wake up pregnant’). Pete’s whispered ‘fuck you’ was then pitch perfect, as was his barely self-checked mania at the club.

On top of these rich characters, we were treated to some funny stuff. Obviously a show about advertisers lends itself to quick wits and quips, which is no bad thing. Sharp corporate backchat was plentiful, from the throwaway lines about not hiring any Jews on Don’s watch and the introduction of ‘our man in research’ who leaves with the comment ‘I’m sure it will be a quick one’ to the more ostentatiously scripted wit. The jokes about how people in the 1950s were different from people today (no photocopier, the typewriter, as well as the mores) fell flatter, and I hope it was just pilot scene setting that won’t recur. Slyer background jokes, like the random Jew moving to pour himself a drink and the introduction of Nixon as a Kennedy-like naval hero, are where I hope the show finds its humour in the future (of course alongside the verbal wit, like Don praising this obviously unknown guy as a rising star).

The humour and characterisation came together for the episode’s denouement, the pitch to the tobacco firm. Having everyone cough was perhaps heavy handed, but leaving us to decide whether the ad men were feigning or not was some great storytelling. It was equally strong not to take the easy narrative option and have Pete take all the plaudits after stealing the research. His proposed strategy would certainly appeal to modern generations, and so the outcome was never wholly clear to us, but it wouldn’t have been true to the time and would also have undermined our perception of Don’s judgement. The scene should have ended with Don watching the cigarette men leave, struggling in vain to have an idea.

Instead, he succumbed to the cliché and pulled it out of the bag at the last minute after the requisite dramatic pause. Now, it’s not a terrible thing to have your protagonist possess an uncanny sixth sense, but his idea here wasn’t that awe inspiring. It’s probably true to what a contemporary executive would have liked and again his analysis was convincing, but ‘It’s toasted’ doesn’t seem a very sophisticated slogan to a modern audience. His minor oratory (that happiness is ‘the smell of a new car, it’s freedom from fear, it’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing, it’s okay’) was also uninspiring.

His subsequent rendezvous with the department-store lady had at least some redeeming cynicism for Don’s grandeur. She, like us, is distinctly unimpressed with his assertion that, ‘What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.’ However, their later epiphany that they both saw the world through the same lens didn’t quite click. It wasn’t an impossible leap, but it was a quick one and quite unbefitting two guarded and wary characters.

This was when I slightly downgraded my hopes for the series, and when the usual pilot flaws became more irksome. I don’t think we needed the women setting the secretarial scene so explicitly; the comments about the new girl from the guys in the lift sufficed (although seeing more Kristen Schaal - Flight Of The Conchords: The Complete HBO First Season - won’t be a bad thing; ‘rude little thing’). The closeted gay also suffered from over exposition; the clues about this art director drawing a sexy man rather than a woman and complaining about people behaving one way and thinking the opposite were perfectly subtle, but his comment in the strip club was too unambiguous.

Equally, I hope the show smoothes over some of the brasher elements of Don’s character. It will be interesting to see whether the Don of future episodes would have stormed out of the department-store meeting. I hope he wouldn’t be so easily riled, as it just diminishes the impact of him losing his temper at more appropriate times, because he looks to be good company.
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