Mad for ‘Mad Men’

by Devender Sellars

Three years ago I got rid of cable.

It was just too expensive, and I never watched a ton of television. Throughout my twenties, I missed quite a bit of programming. Most of the time I didn’t mind. I was thankfully encouraged to pick up the AMC show “Mad Men,” which premiered in 2007.

“Mad Men” centers around Don Draper, a creative director at a New York advertising agency on Madison Avenue the early 1960s. It chronicles a family set firmly in 1950s ideals of white, male dominance and family-oriented life. The ensemble cast deals with the crumbling of such ideals as the civil rights era, Kennedy assassination and other changes taking place in American society.

Even the opening credits mirror this disillusion — featuring a silhouetted man falling through buildings, his office falling apart. Advertising icons are displayed across the buildings as the everyman falls through space.

The series opens up with the quote displayed in large type — “Mad Men: a term coined in the late 1950s to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue… They coined it.” And they sure lived it. Constantly smoking and drinking and philandering. I have never watched anything that made me want to smoke cigarettes or wear skinny ties so much. Visually and culturally, the show taps into basic ideals that are at once so appealing, and so repulsive. There is something primal about seeing such bedrock American ideals on display, and how they never really shaped up the way we envision them in our head.

The show focuses on the changing face of advertising as the ’60s move forward. In the first episode of the show, the agency deals with how to cope with a Reader’s Digest article proclaiming cigarettes are hazardous to your health. A large client, North Carolina’s own Lucky Strike, is first taken aback but then buys into the idea of an emotional connection to wanting to smoke — healthy or not. This is part of the real change that happened in that time period, with advertising creating desire. And seeing people as consumers principally. As a designer, I am fascinated to see some of the birth of modern advertising. And how some of these ideas came into being, and how the monolith we experience everyday was born. Don Draper bluntly says, “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.”

It is remarkable that a television show takes on such heavy issues without being overly didactic, and remarkably realistic. A scene of the Drapers’ black maid, Carla, watching Martin Luther King Jr. give a speech in 1962, features a long, slow zoom towards her emotional but still reserved reaction. The television is quickly turned off when the matron, Betty Draper, walks into the room. I have read various critiques of “Mad Men”’s lack of dealing with race directly. But I think this treatment is so much more powerful in showing how a woman like Carla had to keep such momentous and amazing events secret. Even while those changes were unfolding publicly, in suburban America such things were not discussed or dealt with in the open.

A show like “Mad Men,” set in a such a dramatic and changing time in our history, has the potential to go in so many different directions as the decade moves forward. Will the Draper daughter fully reject the family’s ideals and embrace the hippie lifestyle? Will designers and account reps attempt to take advertising in new places, and be affected by the changes around them, or become more emboldened to defend the status quo?

The careful way executive producer Matthew Weiner, who worked as a writer and producer on “The Sopranos,” recreates this world is nothing short of stunning. The three seasons of the show have proven adept and engaging at creating a feeling of that time and believable characters whose struggles are relatable while their experiences and decisions are often despicable.

The new season of the award-winning drama starts this Sunday, and I cannot wait to see where the show goes from a dramatic shakeup of Season 3’s finale. Such a show rarely comes around that is so entirely engaging on so many levels. And I will be enjoying the new season unfold on Sunday night, whiskey in hand.