Mad Men Blessedly Comes to a Conclusion

On Sunday, I watched an overlong, over-budget, exceedingly pretentious production about insensitive, inarticulate men in dark suits, fedoras and skinny ties whose upbringing left them unable to cope with the fast-changing urban milieu in which they toiled for their living.

But enough about the Blues Brothers movie, which I saw at the local Cinemark theater as their weekly revival showing. I think this was the first time I saw it on the big screen, after seeing it on TV a zillion times.

At two and a half hours long, The Blues Brothers was a huge, over-weighted Hindenburg of a film, but filled with terrific music numbers, a killer band, and in retrospect was the last great movie John Belushi made before substance abuse on a massive scale did him in.

As for Mad Men, having watched it religiously from its very first episode, it has been the most frustrating TV series I’ve ever consumed. Loved the concept, loved the setting, loved the production design, loved the costumes, and loved the cast, but the glacial pacing of the series and the missed opportunities have made it so painful to watch. With traditional TV fare, the writing and the series were inseparable. But I would have loved to have seen a series in which this cast and this setting were better employed.

Mad Men could have been the perfect show to comment on what drove the fast-paced radical change of the 1960s, just as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street explored the financial industry of the 1980s, but instead, producer / creator /primary writer Matthew Weiner was far more interested in the interpersonal relationship of his characters rather than social commentary. Which seems odd, since an ad agency by its nature would have to know what’s driving the changes in the media overculture in order to exploit the current trends with effective advertising for its customers.

But on Mad Men, particularly once the show left the comparatively cool and exotic early JFK-era ‘60s for the Beatles-era ‘60s that Boomers have made the history of the decade, what drove that era was virtually ignored.

Take the Beatles themselves. When they touched down in New York in early 1964, this Newsweek description summed up the conventional American wisdom of the times:

Visually they are a nightmare: tight, dandified, Edwardian-Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair. Musically they are a near-disaster: guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony, and melody. Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of "yeah, yeah, yeah!") are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments.

Inside the cocoon they quickly built to protect them from their crazed fans, the Beatles were four remarkably talented young musicians with an equally gifted record producer. They didn’t simply magically parachute in one day to then-newly-renamed JFK airport; as Kathy Shaidle recently noted, Capitol records spent “$50,000 in New York City alone to promote their first American visit — ten times the amount usually budgeted for new bands.” That’s the equivalent of $375,000 in today’s money, “which buys a lot of Beatle wigs and bobble heads.”

How significantly did Capitol get behind the Beatles? Mark Steyn tells the story of Nat “King” Cole, who helped put Capitol on the map as an American superstar in the 1950s, calling up his record label in 1964 and recoiling in disgust when the receptionist answered the phone, “Capitol Records, home of the Beatles.”

That would be a great advertising story, but instead, the Beatles and Stones simply magically begin to appear in the Mad Men universe once Kennedy is shot.

(And Kennedy’s Cold War assassination was the signature moment of the 1960s, which the series dealt with in surprisingly rote fashion with one of their most conventional episodes, instead of exploring the ripples of change and cognitive dissonance amongst America’s left his death at the hands of a Marxist true believer set in motion.)

Another advertising story never told occurs in one of the series’ last episodes, set in 1970, which revolves around Betty Draper learning that a neighbor’s son, who had a serious crush (and a seriously creepy one) on Betty in the show’s first season, is now of college age and about to serve in Vietnam.  The episode ends with Betty’s youngest son running through the kitchen playing with a plastic toy machine gun, which she grabs and throws into the garbage bin in anger and disgust. As a metaphor, that shot reflects the early political correctness that the toy industry was wrestling with at time -- knuckling to leftwing activists, Mattel stopped producing its toy version of the Army’s M-16 rifle. And while Hasbro’s GI Joe action figure got to keep his guns, the toy manufacturer recast him and his sidekicks from patriotic pro-American fighting men, to paramilitary adventurers and a rescue force largely absent from the battlefield, lest young children thought that helping President Nixon fight communism in Southeast Asia was a good thing.