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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Mad for it

My TV feature on Mad Men series 3 in today's Weekend magazine in the Irish Independent

In the Pulitzer Prize winning novel American Pastoral, Philip Roth writes about an all-American hero whose perfect, picture-book existence is slowly destroyed in, and by, the 1960s. Roth yanks his leading man out of an idyllic post-WWII existence, plunging him into the “American berserk”, a counter-cultural movement characterised by “fury, violence and desperation”.

Similarly, the leading characters of the multi-award winning TV series Mad Men are also heading into “the berserk”. Set in the 1960s at a fictional New York advertising firm named Sterling-Cooper, the show’s deliberately playful title serves as a reference to the Madison Avenue ad men at the core of the plot, as well as providing a telling insight into their growing psychological and existential despair.

Now in its third series, which has just started on RTE1 and BBC4, Mad Men has quickly and firmly established itself as one of modern American television’s greatest artistic achievements, winning two consecutive Emmy awards for Best Drama Series.

On the surface level alone, the show is awesomely beautiful to watch, oozing classy and classic style in everything from its Hitchcockian opening credits to its ‘60s fashion and cultural references, not to mention its meticulous attention to period production detail.

The series is the brainchild of Matthew Weiner, a one-time staff scribe on The Sopranos, who originally wrote the pilot episode on spec, seemingly influenced by Billy Wilder’s classic movie The Apartment. Mad Men was turned down by TV giants HBO and Showtime, before being snapped up the small cable channel AMC. Ever since, Mad Men has struggled to make a serious impact in the ratings in the US and abroad, its survival being largely contingent on its immense critical kudos.

At the heart - if that’s the right word – of the show is Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm), a dashing, successful, square-jawed exec with movie star looks but a murky past. He’s married to Betty (January Jones, who continues to find impressive new depths to her character), a young housewife and stay-at-home mother of three, whose glacial, Grace Kelly-esque beauty can barely conceal the slow-burn nervous breakdown smouldering away inside her.

The Drapers are the perfect couple from the outside, but behind closed doors their marriage has been wracked – perhaps irrevocably – by his affairs and secretive nature, and her own quiet despair.

Meanwhile, the Sterling Cooper agency is staffed by some of television’s most intriguing characters: slimy, ruthless upstart Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), closeted art director Sal Romano (Bryan Batt), and wealthy, charming senior partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery)

Best of all, there are the ‘Mad Women’: prim, ambitious secretary-cum-copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), and Joan Harris (nee Holloway), the office manager played by the sublime Christina Hendricks, whose curvy, buxom figure has become a much-admired fixture of style and fashion pages in magazines the world over.

Through the prism of these characters, Mad Men explores the issues and fissures that have convulsed American society since the 1960s: sexism, sexuality, politics, feminism, and race. The beauty of the show is that it has the benefit of (some) historical distance to approach those themes with a knowing, deftly ironic wink of the eye. For instance, the ad men chain-smoke in the office, bars and restaurants, while every meeting and conversation is lubricated by copious amounts of whiskey and scotch regardless of the time of day.

Most prominently, the sexism shown towards women is truly jaw-dropping to behold (sample quote from season one, said from one female character to another: “It's a typewriter. It looks complicated, but they made it easy enough for even a woman to use”). For this reason, the arcs of the show’s female characters are the most interesting to watch: season two, in many respects, was all about Betty, Peggy and Joan, three archetypes of womanhood that continue to provide the show with its soul.

Season three of the show opens in March 1963, some five months after the gripping Cuban Missile Crisis-themed finale of season two. The less said the better, but throughout the season, Don’s mysterious past life comes back to further haunt him. The series concludes at the end of 1963 amidst the backdrop of JFK’s assassination as the characters – and, by extension, American society - edge ever closer to the abyss.

Though it may be fiction, elements of Mad Men certainly ring true for some of the people who worked in the industry in the 1960s. RTE Lyric FM broadcaster Donald Helme – a very Mad Men name if every there was one - is a former owner of his own ad agency, who started out in the business in Dublin in 1965.

“When I joined the agency, R. Wilson Young, Madison Avenue was the place for advertising; the very name meant advertising,” Donald recalls.

“Honestly, we thought the people on Madison Avenue were very old-fashioned in many ways. They were very institutionalised and they didn’t have much flexibility.”

What about all the drinking and socialising conducted in the name of - and sometimes in lieu of - business on Mad Men? “We certainly weren’t drinking like that every day,” Donald laughs. “Smoking was endemic everywhere of course, but not drinking.

“That said, one of the clients I remember dealing with was Castor. They would send a senior delegation over to us from the UK every two months. They would arrive in the morning, and then we’d take them for lunch in The Goat in Goatstown, where we’d have two, maybe three gin and tonics before lunch.

“You’d then have a very good lunch with all the trimmings before Holy Hour when the pub had to close. To get around that we used to decamp to a ‘bona fide’ in Stillorgan for a jar, and then go back to The Goat for a couple more. Then we put them back on a plane. That was a day’s work.”

As for sexism, Donald agrees that there were “glass ceilings” for women, but argues that advertising was one of the first places where women could gain a foothold (reflected in the show by the promotion of Peggy Olson). “Shortly after the period in which the show is set there was a very substantial breakthrough for women in advertising,” says Donald. “In fact, today most people would argue that the industry is very much female-dominated.”

At the start of series three of Mad Men, the Sterling Cooper agency is sold to a British company, which alters and upsets the internal dynamics and relationships within the organisation. In Donald Helme’s opinion, the influence of the British created a golden age of advertising from the late ‘60s and into the ‘70s.

“A completely new way of doing advertising came out of London,” Donald says. “The Americans were stunned by this new creativity, and some of the more enlightened Madison Avenue agencies turned to London and hired the very people that were making these waves. They dragged American advertising into the modern era, which I don’t think the Americans were able to do by themselves. The show is very accurate in that regard.”

*Mad Men, Monday, RTE1, 11.30pm; BBC4, Thursday. The first two series, as well as each weekly episode of series three, can be watched online on RTE Player. See

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