Our rating: 2 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
The most popular cable series on AMC happens to be Mad Men, a throwback to a much more innocent time... or is it? Through a guise of advertising and office liaisons, it convinces us that the "good old days" were not so good after all, at least not on Madison Avenue.
The most notorious advertising man in the business is Donald Draper (Jon Hamm). He can take a struggling campaign and rejuvenate it with a breath of fresh air. There's a reason he's the most respected man in the industry and it has nothing to do with his personal life. Married to the beautiful Betty (January Jones), a former model who spends her days looking after his two children, Don also has a mistress on the side who is more interested in art and culture than serious things. He has just obtained a new secretary, Peggy (Elizabeth Moss), and new "meat" in the office means one thing -- the sharks are circling. Peggy is shy and naive, making her an easy target for amusement, but the most aggressive of the aspiring partners is Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser). Days away from his wedding, he cannot seem to help an unavoidable attraction to the new girl. While Peggy struggles through learning to type, hold her own with the boys, and entertains notions of writing ad copy, she is taken under the protective wing of the executive secretary, Joan Halloway (Christina Hendricks).
Recent studies have come out showing cigarettes to be dangerous to your health and Don is saddled with the responsibility of working around that and still managing to appeal to the public. His tremendous ad campaign draws the attention of other struggling businesses and work floods into the office -- bringing with it the anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism rampant in New York in the 1960's. But the big campaign that all of them want has nothing to do with department stores, laxatives, or selling vacuum cleaners to housewives... they want the Nixon presidential run. He's head to head with Kennedy and the agency is hoping to turn his close race into a landslide -- as much for their business sense as their political preferences. In the meantime, there are adulterous affairs to deal with, clients that are less than pleased with their artwork, and Peggy learning what is in and out, while putting on a few unwanted pounds thanks to frequent nights out and too many sandwiches from the food cart.
Mad Men has nothing moral going for it. That was apparent ten minutes into the premiere when Don went into the arms of his mistress knowing full well his wife was waiting at home for him. It is a series that takes pride in being not what you expect and does it convincingly. These were the days before sexual harassment lawsuits, before feminism set in (so the women just take the insults and implications with a smile that suggests they like it), and before political correctness became the norm. So what do we wind up with? The implication that everyone was immoral and pretended not to be (around their wives, anyway... the men all know the truth), that drinking five martini lunches was normal, and that everyone smoked incessantly. And that may very well have been the truth among secular society families, although it certainly was not the case in the small town where my father grew up. The positive things are that this is a brilliant look into the world of advertising during that particular era. The costuming and make-up department have paid particular attention to the styles and so what you see on the screen is authentic to what your grandmother would have worn or how she would have done her hair. It's a connection to the past that we find absorbing even if the farce of it all repulses us.
The cast is terrific and play their roles well. The writing is tight most of the time (there are instances when dialogue falls flat or the audience has no idea of the meaning behind certain actions) and explores the double-sided standards contained within society during the time. It's shocking to see racism, sexism, and other impolite viewpoints on rampant display but at the same time is a resounding throwback to a much different time. The series won a slew of awards and I can see why, because it's clever, addictive, and takes chances. It also has the distinction of being one of the few programs on primetime that involves an actress who is not a size zero. Most of the girls involved are "normal" and that's refreshing. The theme song is also especially catchy. Unfortunately, overall I cannot recommend the series due to its immoral content and implications. No one has morals. No one. There is not a single man in the office we can respect or look up to. Everyone who is involved with anyone else is engaged in some sort of adulterous tryst. Joan is sleeping with the head of the firm. Peggy becomes involved with Pete -- before and after his honeymoon. Other secretaries have things going on with their bosses. Don has a hippie mistress and when she leaves him, moves on to a Jewish client. Married and single men put the moves on married women -- knowing they are married. Girls seem to have no problem flattering and kissing married men. It's all a game for them.
Several of the episodes contain partial nudity (we see a girl a strip bar wearing only pasties and underwear; several times girls' bare backs and portions of their sides are seen; we see a woman topless from the side as she gets dressed). Frequently, we see girls in various stages of undress. Almost all the episodes contain adulterous sexual content in some form (passionate kissing and making out, usually with the guy pushing up the girl's skirt). There are two graphic (clothed) sex scenes and many other implications. Homosexuality is explored in two different episodes, when a woman comes on to another woman, and when a man comes on to a man over lunch. (In each instance, they are rejected.) Other indelicate things include a little boy intentionally walking in on his babysitter while she's on the toilet (his behavior is never explained, but one can gather that he hoped to "see" something), and asking her for a lock of her hair later on (this raises a few eyebrows and upsets his mother when she finds out). Peggy is asked to write up copy for an "exercise belt" that is actually an early version of a vibrator. It's implied that Betty is turned on by leaning against the washing machine; she fantasizes about making love to the salesman that came to the door the previous afternoon. Rampant derogatory remarks about the girls in the office abound; there is some obvious sexual harassment and lifting of skirts.
Violence is limited to a gruesome scene in which a man in a flashback removes a pair of dog tags from a badly burned and mutilated, gooey corpse. Language is not frequent but does include a dozen abuses of Jesus' name. There is an enormous amount of smoking and drinking -- followed by bad behavior (drunk driving, for example). It's easy to see why it is such a popular show because it manages to grab your attention and hold it even as you find yourself insulted by its values. I couldn't help thinking what a tremendous program it could have been with a bit more restraint in that area, because it really does have some wonderful moments that emphasize the importance of family as well as show a profound glimpse into the world of vintage advertising. Some of the men do fight to hang on to their marriages, and we get to know each of the characters just enough to have empathy with them whenever something goes badly, but it's hard to root for, or even like, men who are habitually unfaithful to their wives. Mad Men is enticing but teaches us nothing about good behavior. It might even distort your view of what life was really like during the Kennedy years. If you're not willing to put up with mass adultery, don't start it -- because once you're hooked, like one of their Lucky Light cigarettes, you just can't stop.