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May 20, 2008

Mad Men is probably the best television drama I've ever seen - and best of all a conservative can unambiguously enjoy it, says Richard D. North: Matthew Weiner's Mad Men

Posted by Richard D. North

Mad Men, 2008
Produced and written by Matthew Weiner
BBC4 and BBC2

Don't worry if you're not yet watching Mad Men. You'll soon be able to pick up series one on DVD and watch it back-to-back in a shameless catch-up. I do believe you will marvel as Donald Draper, a hard ad-man, and a hard man to hate, finds comfort in a couple of affairs which amount to a walk on the wild side for this buttoned-down, free-wheeling master of Madison Avenue.

He graduates (as it were) from a tough easy-going beatnik chick to a daddy's girl Jewess business woman - but we understand that either way he is pushing himself out of his comfort zone. Some comfort zone. He is superb in his trade, but he is wondering how to ride the changes he can smell. His wife is a gorgeous troubled blonde who keeps surprising us. We suppose she'll stand by her man, but she can't succour and may surprise him.

Everyone in this show is beyond well-drawn. They are marvels of interest, with the great merit of always pointing us at Draper.

Mad Men is probably the best television drama I've ever seen. That's saying something, since we are in a Golden Age of television drama.

What's more, we are in a Golden Age of American TV drama. Yes, the Brits have Gavin and Stacey and Love Soup, and they are very good. But they are low-key treasures. And yes, the recent Bleak House had an inventiveness that no-one in the States can touch. But Bleak House doesn't altogether count since its genius was to let Dickens's story romp on to the screen in its full Dickensiness. Mad Men, like The West Wing or The Sopranos, is an all-round TV product. It's home grown.

Best of all, a conservative can unambiguously enjoy Mad Men. The West Wing was a hagiography of liberalism. The Sopranos required one to savour the misdeeds of anti-social people. But Mad Men is a subtle, powerful, grown-up account of the great cultural transition of our time. It is the story of the unease felt by the generation which preceded the Baby Boomers. It is the story of a generation which were pretty sure they were really, really "it". But they hear distant thunder.

We know a lot about this crisis of confidence. We know how the Rat Pack ethos of cool hated the Dylan ethic of commitment. We note that Sinatra never quite understood Mia. True, it was detachment fearing the onslaught of involvement. It was aristocrat France eating cake whilst the revolutionaries sharpened the guillotine. But it was also the confusion of people who had fought for freedom and prosperity in an epic struggle which freedom and prosperity won, only to be told that they practically represented evil.

Of course this was a debate that was all mangled up. The Baby Boomers hated the uptight bourgeoisie just as the bourgeoisie was loosening up quite nicely. This wasn't a clash of Titans so much as a collision of clichés. And of course, cool and freedom and prosperity weren't vanquished. There was no outbreak of left-wing government, let alone of radicalism. Indeed, the young voted for the Vietnam War more than the old did, and they did so late in the game when no-one could have believed it was so.

Donald Draper lives all this, and we are with him. In a recent episode, he was watching TV ads for Kennedy and Nixon. There were no Baby Boomer voters. Camelot had not been coined. Draper's boss has volunteered to work on Nixon's campaign. Draper knows that Kennedy's got the smarts. He's sold like soap-powder. Even the dirt won't stick. Someone in the room suggests that Nixon go negative on Kennedy's womanising. Draper, the adman, knows that would make women like Kennedy the more. But what really sticks in his craw is the way Kennedy's image is Teflon (long before Teflon, of course).

Kennedy is a silver-spoon politician who is having the election bought for him by daddy and his friends. Nixon is a talented guy who made it happen for himself. Nixon is the true American, but Americans are flocking to the imposter. That's the big "how come?". (This is a narrative which is attracting more interest now, as The Economist suggests in its review of Rick Perlstein's new book, Nixonland.)

It is the adman in Draper who rebels. How come the truth can't be sold? He realises that Nixon is too serious, has messages too ponderous, for such frivolous times. Draper is a youngish man on the make, but he feels old. He made a monster and it's eating him.

This drama comes from the Soprano stable, and there are tropes which Mad Men shares with the Mafia-fest. The main one is a wounded tough guy at the heart of the piece. He has charisma and there's a wheel off his wagon. Like Tony, Don has lieutenants. Unlike Tony, he has a boss.

This character - Roger - is the head of the agency (apparently based on a real firm). He's an aristocrat by American standards: smooth, whip-like, disdainful. He's a womaniser. He lives fast. An heroic US Navy officer from the war, he knows he's lived life wastefully, "like a twenty year shore leave". He admires Draper as a coming man, and likes him. But the point of Roger is that we see two quite separate reactions from our man. Draper knows how shallow as well as tough his boss is. And Draper knows that Roger has an icy savoir faire that no farm boy war hero like him will ever quite have. Draper can imitate cool, but he's on a slow burn.

And now we come to the women. The senior secretary in the ad-house is Joan, a bosomy girl - a serious piece of ass - who runs the other girls as a coven. It is also a sort of henhouse, of the kind Playboy used to like to write about. She's a broad in an age when the Earth Mother is about to be imagined. The women know they are merchandise, though they are also queens. They are forward and yet curiously respectful. The women who work for the admen are in a meat market and on the whole believe - rightly - that they sell themselves quite a bit too cheaply. But what the hell, it's Manhattan out there, and sex is only sex, and they're living a sort of freedom.

Mad Men supposes that most American women would then have given their eye-teeth for the deal these secretaries had struck. It's action on the office sofa or domesticity in the suburbs. It's the bar stool for now and the baby sick's for later. In Joan's case, she is more or less the boss's moll, but she is more widely available as well.

Mad Men deliberately strikes notes of reality. It's only a show, but it purports (accurately, I'd say) to show the real world which lurked behind the movies of Shirley MacLaine and Doris Day. One episode of Mad Men used The Apartment, the Neil Simon movie, to jerk everyone forward. Joan is challenged by a much older man (with whom she has not fooled around) that all her fooling around with older men is throwing away her youth. And then, quite unconsciously, he parodies The Apartment by having Joan do the MacLaine bit in the elevator. She's very far from stupid and she gets it.

Joan is a college girl who doesn't believe in frightening men any more than she seriously kowtows to them. She plays them. Peggy, on the other hand, is cut from broader, older cloth. Like Draper, she comes from the sticks. She is Peggy Olsen, so one senses a prairie Madonna made modern. She's beamy and serious. She's clever and starts to write copy. She's dignified and gracious and almost in love with a particularly confused and clever young man, married, who's a copy-writer cum account director. He's had her on the sofa, and whimpered a bit in her direction. But he's a shit as well as weak. He's done beautifully, but he is no more than a meteorite in the piece compared to her. She is a whole planet, and beautifully wrought.

You might say that I have fallen for the doomy post modern angst of the piece. But these people are having fun and they are gamesters. Well, Draper isn't - but the rest are. We don't share the laughs, or rather we shudder at lots of them. There isn't a lot to wallow in here, but there's a lot to delight in.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.


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