It’s the season premiere of Mad Men! I’m in my Brooks Brothers suit with a rye whiskey, an unlit Lucky, a dead man’s Purple Heart in my pocket — took some poking around the vintage stores for that one, let me tell you. After Mad Men caught on everyone wanted one, I guess. My wife is wearing a sharp form-fitting dress, and she’s wearing Peggy-style season-1 bangs, and as soon as the show starts we’ll turn off the lamp — the one where the lamp base is a ceramic cat with a long neck — and settle in for the first show in a year and a half.
That’s how you’re supposed to do it, right? Cosplay for web designers? Dress-up fun for adults who want to act like, well, adult adults. Perhaps. Not for me. Please. It’s like watching Twin Peaks with a bunch of people carrying logs or dressed in FBI black, telling each other they’d like a damn fine piece of pie. (Or “Eip fo eceip inef nmad a,” if you’re short and walking funny.) That sounded like hell, too.
When a show becomes an object of cultish adoration, and the fans assemble to worship together, there’s always that moment when it’s just . . . not as good as you expected. Or hoped. Or remembered. Something’s off; they’re straining to connect with the things they once did with ease. You realize you’re just there for the clichés: a Don Draper Line of Insight (TM), a Roger Sterling moment of nonchalant dissipation. Peggy being the Smartest Bestest Person in the Business, as well as an obtuse and humorless drip. Hey, maybe Sal will come back from the bushes. Maybe Betty will do something so unexpected she turns into an interesting character.
Maybe it’ll even be about advertising again. All right, be back in two hours.
Nothing happened. Nothing usually does; that’s life. This isn’t a complaint. The soap-opera elements of the show — divorce! infidelity! pregnancy! — aren’t the reasons people watch it. People watch it to see Roger Sterling breeze into the room and announce that the lobby is full of Negroes. Also the clothes.
- Pete is is all itch; Don is all scratch. Roger is bored and amusing. Bert is old. Lane is struggling to repress buried thoughts of strange women’s ankles. Peggy is an unknowable chunk. Joan has had a sass infusion. Don’s daughter is growing up to sound like Rose Marie. Life goes on, except now the colors are different and the dresses are made of a single regrettable pattern.
- It did not begin promisingly: Young & Rubicam copywriters who have a Goldwater sign in their office throw water bombs on the heads of civil rights protestors. Did this happen? While Matthew Weiner, the show’s auteur, says it’s based on this incident, you wonder if the miscreants at Y&R really did have a “Goldwater ’68” sign in their office, or if that’s just to underscore some meta-truth about Those People.
- It’s nice to be back in the office, but it sounds like they hooked up all the typewriters to amplifiers.
- Peggy has a disastrous pitch about a bean ballet: “There’s a splash of mouth-watering sauce as each one lands. It puts beans on their mind.” Absurd as it sounds, this is where TV would go. But not yet. The Heinz exec replies: “(Beans) look like bloody organs, and not just to guys like me who served in Korea.” A line no one ever spoke.
- Half an hour in, you think: Pete cares too much. Don cares too little. Together, they solve crimes! That would be the network version, perhaps.
- The Birthday Party scene will be picked over and frame-grabbed for a week; you can bet someone’s already turned Peggy’s little dance into an animated gif. (Update: didn’t take long; said animated gif appears above.) It needs Henry Gibson in a clerical collar to be a complete nod to Laugh-In, but not even Goldie Hawn did anything as cringey as the “Zou Bisou Bisou” number. At this point you expect Fonzie on water-skis to fly through the apartment window, but hello: Don’s embarrassed too. So it’s supposed to be something we can enjoy for its badness, its Laura-Petrie-Gone-Wild vibe, its sign of changing times, and all that. This show works on so many levels! So does an elevator operator, but never mind.
- Roger Sterling smokes like he thinks the cigarette is holding something back from him.
If you were a fan of the show, it worked. If you were indifferent or annoyed by it, you probably had every preconception reinforced. I was waiting to get permission not to care whether it was good, frankly. It’s almost a relief when you can just tune into a show and not worry whether it’s The Best Thing on TV, an exquisitely crafted masterwork — even though in retrospect you can’t see yourself sitting through a season ever again, as you might with The Wire or Rome. But if season 5 has the same look-and-feel as the premiere, it’ll be better than the sodden murk of Don’s Apartment Exile or his late-night moments of misery in the suburban kitchen.
You also sense something else: Don may understand the sixties, but there’s no way he’s going to get sideburns.
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The first Mad Men episode made people reel back in surprise: The unapologetic and luxurious appreciation of the joys of smoking. The drinking on the job. If you’d set it in 1975 it would have been orange and plastic and soaked in malaise and polyester, but this was the end of the long postwar boom, the heart of the cultural imperium of Manhattan. A long loving look at the trailing edge of the Greatest Generation, a world of adults corseted by rules and expectations. A brilliant premise.
And a pretty good first show, too, even if it did screw up the scene where Don pulls the new Lucky Strike slogan out of his back pocket at the last moment. (“It’s Toasted” was Lucky’s slogan for decades.) Early on the show set up Don’s false identity, which turned its charismatic main character into a dark and duplicitous person. Again, a pretty good idea: sensing that the audience might want to like Don Draper despite of what he does, you have a better understanding of the people he betrays. Except that you’re on his side in the end, not theirs.
See also, Soprano, Tony.
As the seasons went on, Mad Men seemed to be less about advertising, and more about some soap opera characters who worked in an advertising agency. If you’d polled die-hard viewers, and asked “Which would you like, more of the ad-agency early 60s culture with lots of period detail, or Don having an affair with a school teacher?” Most people would say “we can get the school-teacher stuff elsewhere. Furniture and drinkware pls thnx.” The last season ended like Dallas: Joan is pregnant! Pete is uncertain! Don proposed!
Yes, yes, yes. But what about the Samsonite account? Not to say the show should skip drama — but its drama worked best when it handled the moments of life that aren’t Big Drama Points, and if the first show of season 5 is any indication we’ll see more of that. Oh, Pete will slip up. Lane will make a fool of himself over a woman. Megan will get pregnant. But in the end it will come down to those men, standing in the hallway, trying to make money by turning beans into gold.