Saturday, July 3, 2010

The main man - Jon Hamm - of Mad Men.

I've been catching up recently with the second season of Mad Men, that Obama-era ode to sexism, the early 60's, and cigarettes. Like a lot of people, I've gotten hooked on its sleek surface, its subtle but overpowering style statement - indeed, after returning each disc to Netflix I'm soon itchy for my next visual fix.

But excepting the seductions of its stunning art direction, I'd have to say this is one of the strangest TV series ever made - right up there with Twin Peaks, frankly.

And why?

To me the reason seems obvious, but you have to be of a certain age to perceive it. And to be honest, I'm not quite the age I'm talking about - I was only a toddler during the opening days of Mad Men, although I remember quite clearly events, like the arrival of the Beatles, that should be figuring in coming episodes, and have strong memories of the major events that followed.

And that's what makes this series so bizarre to me. It is simply impossible to connect its vision of early 60's society with what I remember came just a year or two later. Admittedly, the culture changed course much, much more quickly back then than it does today (oddly, globalization and the Internet have sped up the economy, but slowed down what's left of the culture). Still, I can't shake a pervasive sense of cognitive dissonance while watching this series - precisely because on its surface it's so exquisitely observed. This is absolutely gorgeous, I keep telling myself, but this isn't what it felt like at all, not at all.

Of course younger fans of the series can't know that, because they weren't alive back then. The millennials who have made the program a hit have no actual, lived connection with its period to complicate their subconscious awareness that Mad Men, in the end, is entirely about them.

I had much the same impression of the film Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe's hit from several years ago, which purported to be a kind of time capsule of pop culture from the early 70's. Everyone I knew of my own age - who had been adolescents in the movie's time frame, which again was lovingly recreated in every detail - found its gently blissed-out tone utterly synthetic and false. Things were more troubling, less stable, angrier and darker in the early 70's than Almost Famous ever let on. The picture was entertaining, in its own facile way - but no, this wasn't how it was, not at all, not at all.

I wonder now if every generation has felt that way about the period movies devoted to it - but somehow I don't think so. I can remember the generation just a bit older than mine reveling in the 50's flava of American Graffiti - a "period piece" that was actually set only a dozen years or so in the past (but those dozen years included the huge chasm of the 60's!). Likewise my parents nodded along approvingly with The Godfather and Chinatown.

But then George Lucas, director of American Graffiti, had been a teenager himself in the late 50's and early 60's. And Francis Ford Coppola as a child would certainly have been a guest at the kind of 40's Italian wedding that kicks off The Godfather; the scenery and costumes in that epic don't feel rendered, they feel remembered. Likewise Roman Polanski must have had powerful childhood recollections of the thirties (albeit in Europe, not L.A. - which perhaps explains the continental mood of Chinatown); indeed, Faye Dunaway's stylized make-up was reportedly copied from the "look" of Polanski's own mother.

It's worth noting, then, that Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, was born in 1965 - five years after the starting date of his hit series. And he was born into a Jewish household - although Mad Men takes place almost entirely among Protestants and Catholics.

And he never even lived in New York.

In short, this is not his milieu, and never was. Not at all, not at all.

Could this disjuncture be behind the oddly distanced tone of the series? Because what we're looking at here could actually be considered a form of "outsider art" - imagine Francis Ford Coppola trying to make a masterpiece about the Irish, and you have roughly the feel of Mad Men. Oh, the exterior world of the series is superbly rendered - thanks to brilliant art direction - but the denizens of said world come off as droids stuck in some sort of time warp.

Although this, to be honest, may be precisely the idea. Just about everybody in Mad Men seems to be negotiating a culture they find alien because, in fact, they're operating as avatars of their millennial viewers, moving about in a lushly-recreated 60's version of "Second Life." You can feel this even in the dialogue - the writers try to eschew any up-to-the-minute millennial slang, but they slip up constantly; the men and women of Mad Men often say things to each other like "That was a-mazing," and "What is with you?" that clash with the period accuracy of their skirts and shoes. More importantly, the characters draw no real sustenance from the culture in which they move; lead "mad man" Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is literally inhabiting an identity not his own, and copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) registers constant, if subdued, shock at sexist behaviors which anyone alive in 1961 would have expected, and even accepted.

The emotional estrangement of the two leads is reflected in the supporting roles: Peggy's family "communicates" in pregnant pauses and strange silences, and Don's wife is actually a kind of Grace Kelly clone - she's an avatar within an avatar, if you will - who registers micro-beats of emotion with a curious self-consciousness. Indeed, there's a constant sense that characters are processing their predicaments on personal blogs on some future "cloud" before making their next move - everything's "awkward," just as it is today! In fact there's only one character in Mad Men who seems to actually belong (and even revel) in the period - Robert Morse's ad agency mogul, a Republican nutjob with a jones for things "Oriental" and a mania for Ayn Rand. The researched detail larded into the character is wicked, sure - but it's really Morse who makes it work, perhaps because he has an innate sense of how it should work, and how to make it fun; after all, he was starring in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 1961!

Even more striking about the series is its insistent use of conscious stereotypes (like Grace Kelly). The Princeton grad in the office wears a goatee and smokes a pipe, likes jazz, and even dates an African-American (!). Meanwhile the closeted gay guy is dark and artistic, and is in love with the blonde stud down the hall. And it goes without saying that the girl with the big bust is over-sexed, while the avatars of Old Dutch New York are sweet but sterile. What else do you expect from "Second Life"?

And while I'm sure there's a great deal of truth in the series' vision of the sexism and bigotry (and perhaps even the constant smoking) rampant on Madison Avenue in the 60's, on the domestic front, the series gets a lot of stuff wrong. In Mad Men, people confidently slap their neighbors' kids full in the face (??), and children make cocktails for their parents (!!) - who at the same time wring their hands over spanking them. This was all news to me.

Now don't think this makes you happy - it makes you sad.

What was also news was how relentlessly depressing the early 60's apparently were. Admittedly, Mad Men is set in a largely Republican, conservative set - but it still gives no sense of the kicky energies that were already disrupting life everywhere in the Kennedy years. I remember the decade as a rollercoaster, sometimes frightening, and even horrifying, but more often just plain wild fun. But in Mad Men, nothing is breaking out, or blowing up. What's really strange is how the series sets up a world in which people drink freely, smoke at will, and get to have sex in the office (above), yet never seem to crack a smile. In other words, even though they got to do then what we can't do now, they still weren't happy. Not really. Hmmmm. Do I believe that? In a word, no.

But clearly the series has its appeal as a form of smug critique - and indirect self-justification. And that may be what's troubling about it. Period films and series have always been to some degree about the period of their creation, rather than the period of their re-creation; they usually mixed into their baths of nostalgia an insightful analysis of the shortcomings of their own day. The Godfather, for instance, reflected a longing for the conservative verities of family life, even crime-family life, in the frighteningly disrupted social landscape of the 70's.

What's strange about Mad Men is how it operates as anti-nostalgia. Yeah, sure, it whispers to our young, millennial Puritans: the Mad Men could do all the stuff in the 60's that you'd like to do now, but they weren't any happier. In fact, they were more depressed - you're better off now because you know not to oppress minorities! The series seems to have no actual grip on the down side of 2010. It's a kind of sad-sack valentine to the progressives of the present day, and seemingly unconscious of the fact that the alienation it traces in 1961 is actually being teleported back in time from 2010. These Mad Men are sad because they're from the millennium! The real ones were probably happy as clams.

But then again, there are all those great cars and Dior gowns and coolly beautiful Mies van der Rohe interiors to ogle.

I can't wait for my next disc.