A version of this piece ran in the (now defunct) Boston Phoenix in August 2009:
Our Don Drapers, Ourselves
by Gustavo Turner
This Sunday is the premiere of the third season of Mad Men, the Emmy-winning show that made fans of good television have to figure out where AMC was on their basic cable schedules. Created and masterminded to an insane level of period accuracy and detail by former Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner, Mad Men follows outwardly dapper, innerly tormented ad man Don Draper as he makes his progress through the American sixties. The last we saw of him at the end of season 2, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Draper had returned from a purgatorial lost-weekend in California, outwitted a rival at work, and been allowed back home by long-suffering wife Betty, who informed him she was pregnant.
Such bare-bones plot summary, though, could make someone who hasn’t seen the show think that this is merely another period melodrama, a John Cheever knockoff for the small screen with touches of Peyton Place. That is not the case at all: “Mad Men” deliberately avoids all the tropes of generic TV melodrama (e.g., clichéed sentiment, easy moralizing, heartstring-pulling soundtracks) to deliver characters and situations full of vagueness and loaded silences. There’s something of Hitchcock’s upfront perversity about human relations in Weiner’s universe, and, for a few brief moments, the fundamental loneliness displayed harkens back to the best of Antonioni. What’s left unsaid to play and replay itself in the viewer’s imagination is *the* key element guiding the writing, the acting, and the nuanced direction and editing. As Weiner explained in an insightful profile in this month’s Vanity Fair, “I count on my subconscious to be consistent. And how that works I have no fucking idea, and I don’t even want to investigate it. Because if I lose that I have nothing to say.” (Paging Dr. Žižek...)
A telling, serendipitous juxtaposition when last season aired last Fall: one of the occasional commercial breaks cut to a trailer for Revolutionary Road, the big-budget, Oscar-baiting Sam Mendes adaptation of Richard Yates’ cult novel about a couple’s disintegration that roughly shares time, place, and many themes with Mad Men. Compared to the show it was interrupting, the Leonardo DiCaprio-Kate Winslett vehicle looked overblown and, well, melodramatic in the worst possible sense of the term. (It didn’t help things that DiCaprio still looks and sounds like a whiney boy, while Jon Hamm, who plays Don Draper, is a walking monument to troubled testosterone).
Quality television comes at a price, though: you, me, and everyone we know, to paraphrase Miranda July, watches, has watched, or intends to Netflick-queue Mad Men, Arrested Development, Battlestar Galactica, The Wire, etc. But you, me, and everyone we know are between 1 and 2 million viewers in a potential market that is much, much larger and that tends to reward with its ad-rate-setting eyeballs shows like the well-made but shallow CSI, the execrable Two and Half Men, and the current, debased generation of “reality” programs like Real Chance of Love 2, Megan Wants a a Millionaire, and anything featuring the callipygian daughters of OJ Simpson’s late attorney.
And not everyone who watches Mad Men necessarily gets its uniqueness and rare depth for the medium. It is clear by now that the show’s cultural impact has less to do with Weiner’s formidable research and lofty aims (the show is, among other things, a 21st century gloss on Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique). As the showrunner told Vanity Fair, his aim was to rescue the 1950s and early 1960s from “baby boomer propaganda,” that cast it as a period where everyone was “square and uptight and supposedly innocent, no one [was] having sex, or good sex anyway, except for maybe Frank Sinatra.” Mission accomplished, though for many potential advertisers (BMW, etc.), tie-in partners (Bloomingdales, Banana Republic), fashion editors (endless spreads currently in your newstands), and aging frat types and the girls who love them (check your local aspirational bar for Mad Men dress-up events), it is just an excuse to party like it’s 1962.
The irony of this misguided interest in the shiny, slick Mid-century Modern surfaces of the show (though, if you look closely, the sets are a little flimsy, basic-cable low-budget, Chesterfield smoke and mirrors) is that, it bears repeating, Don Draper is *not* a role model. Weiner is not himself a shrugging-Atlas demigod but a brainy, fidgety kind of fellow, and his core writing staff is female--the not-so-secret core of the show are the frustrations of cunning, undaunted Peggy, efficient, voluptuous Joan, and ticking-bomb, suburban Betty. But we should leave current-day ad men for luxury goods and party promoters their Tom Collins fantasies--we need all the support we can get to keep this fantastic show on the air, even if they’re two financial sector douchebags stumbling out of a trendy bar (true story) sharing their insight that “maybe exclusively drinking things we've seen on Mad Men wasn't such a good idea."