Sunday, September 6, 2009

Smoke and Mirrors

I've been watching Mad Men. A little late but with the zeal of the newly converted. The show has just started its third season in the US, but the first two have already been shown on BBC4 over here so apologies for the untimely nature of this post. Also, in proper TV critic fashion I should say that the following gives the game away on certain storylines so if you haven't been watching it and intend to be warned. I'm just saying....

There is a chi-chi shop called Mid Century Modern near my house which sells 1950's and '60's furniture. The term mid-century modern has become synonymous with a sense of ineffable stylishness, an aura of unimpeachable good taste.

At first glance Mad Men could be mistaken for being yet another example of this '60's genuflection. Its characters seem too familiar and its sets a little too chic, as if the show is simply uncritically in love with the era it depicts. As it turns out though Mad Men is obsessed with surface qualities and appearances but in a very interesting way.

Being set in a time and milieu so overcoded by previous films and TV shows allows Mad Men to subtly deconstruct these stereotypes as we watch. Like the collapsing Manhattan office of the title sequence - itself a homage to Hitchcock's North by Northwest - the familiar certainties of character begin to dissolve in front of us as the series progresses.

Mad Men reflects an ambiguous relationship with modernity*. It is in love with the slick grids and shiny surfaces of early '60's design. It also reveals the particular brand of modernism that dominated post-war US corporate culture. Modernism then was associated with money and power rather then the social egalitarianism of its European roots. Mad Men's modernism is the architecture of Philip Johnson and the novels of Ayn Rand. In fact Rand is name checked continuously in the show as a kind of intellectual cheerleader for the ferociously ambitious admen.

Mad Men revolves around a fictional Madison Avenue ad agency called Sterling Cooper. The agencies boss has a Mark Rothko painting hanging in his office, a reference to the way in which modernism (in the form of abstract expressionism) was absorbed into high style by the moneyed American classes. The arrival of this painting forms a central storyline to one of the episodes where its monetary value and artistic worth are eagerly discussed. Its aura is reinforced by its inaccessibility and the young copy writers have to break into the boss's office to finally see it.

The camera may pan lovingly up the steel mullions of curtain walled office blocks or track across the agency's open plan offices, but the show is concerned with the minute hierarchies and power plays of the people that inhabit them. The shiny surfaces and implacable grids of modernist architecture are also aligned with the smoke and mirror effects of advertising itself. Advertising is not just the background setting for the show but an important thematic concern.

Mad Men's central character is Donald Draper, the urbane and sophisticated creative director of Sterling Cooper. Draper's identity is a fabrication though. He is a hick from the sticks, a character with a murky past who has reinvented himself as a dapper ad man. His persona is analogous to the brand identities he dreams up, a clever piece of self-promotion. Interestingly, Draper is in many ways the show's most honest character. He may be a phony but he's also - as Truman Capote said about Marilyn Monroe - a real phony.

Draper's real phoniness is central to Mad Men's interest in the construction of personal identity. Towards the end of season two his life begins to unravel. He takes a trip to LA where he ends up staying with a mysterious group of idle hedonists in Richard Neutra's Kaufman House. Standing by the pool with his trilby he looks like early Connery era James Bond about to indulge in some guilt free casual sex. And yet the louche sophistication of the setting becomes a backdrop for Draper's spiraling loss of identity. The Kaufman house's lack of solidity and ambiguous reflections are contrasted with the gloomy solidity of his own home in the suburbs of New York.

Modernity - the show suggests - comes at a cost. The price being the previous certainties of life. The shifting attitudes and nascent social revolution of the early '60's permeates Mad Men. Everyone is unsure of where they stand. Interestingly too, given the tendency to view the early '60's as a period of effortless cool, the show doesn't pretend that everyone was a Kennedy voting beatnik. Sterling Cooper's admen are automatically pro-Nixon and some of the most telling scenes show them bewildered by Kennedy's hip, populist appeal.

One of the most important characters in the show is Peggy, an intensely ambitious young secretary who is quickly promoted to junior copywriter. For the other female characters this is an inexplicable achievement. Peggy's success is particularly galling for Joan, an old fashioned office manager used to getting her way within a prescribed set of rules. Peggy consistently dismisses Joan's double edged advice to dress in a more feminine way in order to achieve success. In doing so she implicitly realises that Joan's canny playing of the game is actually a trap and the exploitation of her sexuality can only bring limited success.

In a later episode we see Joan's ambitions thwarted as she tries to achieve a different kind of recognition as a TV script reader within the agency. Later on, at home, she rubs the sores on her shoulders from the straps of her bra, a reminder of the efforts she puts in her to achieve her own identity.

The show is made with an obsessive attention to period detail. What could be an overly dry authenticity actually allows the social mores of the '60's to be explored. There is a fabulous sequence for instance where Don takes his family for a picnic. The scene is saturated in cliche; Betty, the perfect blond wife, sipping coke through a straw, the children playing on the picnic rug and Don himself lying back with a can of beer. As they leave Betty shakes the rug out, scattering food wrappers, drinks cans and rubbish across the grass. She makes no attempt to pick any of it up and they drive off.

In another perfectly judged scene a new photocopier arrives in the office. This vast piece of state of the art equipment has no natural home and the characters idly speculate on where it should go as a kind of background chatter to the main story. This is mainly played for laughs until someone uses it to photocopy Joan's ID revealing that she has lied about her age. The copier is quickly utilised as a new weapon in the same old power battles.

Similarly the incessant drinking and smoking becomes a knowingly absurd device, an endlessly recurring trope that ceases to be in any way aspirational or cool. Losing it, or dissolving into complete dipsomania, is an ever present possibility. At one point a character oversteps the line, pissing himself unwittingly during a meeting. Later, swilling whiskies from huge tumblers, the agency bosses shamelessly conspire to give him the boot.

Mad Men is set at the start of an era of massive social change. It is also an era that has passed into popular folklore as a signifier of effortless cool and stylishness. The programme pulls the rug from under this gloss, showing it instead as a period of anxiety and uncertainty, more similar to ours than we would like to admit. The corporate modernism of Sterling Cooper's office suggests an allusion of egalitarian transparency but actually harbours the same old dark spaces of the mind.

* There are good photos of the empty set here, ironically enough together with some tips on how to recreate the style.