Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Mad Men

I'm predisposed to love this show.

People I like tell me it's great.

Plus, my dad was an ad man in the 50s and 60s. He wasn't a Madison Avenue type. His office was on Peel Street in Montreal. He worked his way up from copywriter through the executive ranks until he was running the Canadian branch of a big American agency. So we saw some fringes of the world that the series is about and lived through the Canadian version of the same scene.

The pilot episode of Mad Men is entitled Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and was written by series creator Matthew Weiner. You remember his writing credit from The Sopranos.

It is not a premise pilot. It doesn't set up the world. Although it's Peggy's first day at the firm, it doesn't show us the world through her eyes. The main characters are just going about their ordinary business and we have no problem jumping right into the story with them.

The stakes aren't high and there isn't a whole lot of forward momentum in the story. The curtains aren't big turn arounds or cliff hangers.

It's a character study. An exploration of a world and a theme.

The show has fabulous art direction and it looks fantastic.

Plus the writing is incredibly skilled. Weiner is particularly adept with his theme. He recreates the 60s flawlessly and his characters are unusually complex. My only complaint is that I failed to find an emotional connection with the characters.

But the fact that they left me cold might just be an expression of theme.

Advertizing boils it all down to a digestible message.

Which is kind of like what we as television writers sometimes do with our characters. We simplify them, reduce them to a few adjectives or a simple world view. Their clearly defined needs guide their actions. The audience understands why they do what they do and can even predict their next move. Or at the very least, recognize it as logical.

The characters of Mad Men are not predictable or logical.

Check out DMc's post. The character turns left him scratching his head.

Don Draper, the ad man who fronts the cast of characters, asks Midge, the smart, independent and sexually available career woman to marry him. He likes smart women, we conclude.

Then he dises Miss Menkin, the smart, independent and possibly sexually available business woman saying "I'm not going to sit here and let a woman talk to me this way." We must have been wrong. Don hates smart women.

Later, Draper goes home to his sexually available babe of a wife and a child he adores.

Huh?

He's a devoted husband and father?! But he asked Midge to marry him.

The character is a bundle of contradictions. You don't know what he's going to do next.

He refuses to be simplified into a neat, digestible message.

He's messy and complicated and conflicted. Like real people.

Like the world.

Not simple and digestible. Not "healthier" or "toasted" or "finger licking good" like advertizers would have us believe.

This is Matthew Weiner weaving theme deftly into every element of his show.

What is his theme? I thought of Isaac Ho's theory that theme is expressly stated in a pilot's third act at approximately the 30 minute mark. So I went back to the 30 minute mark.

It's the scene at the Lucky Strike pitch meeting. Draper has been struggling with the campaign throughout the episode and here is the big pitch meeting. Draper's dry. He's got nothing. Pete, the upstart kid who's after his job, is at least in there throwing out ideas even they do fall flat. The client gets up to leave. Suddenly Draper has an idea. He pitches a slogan, the client is intrigued but unsure.

Then, at 32:11, he has this speech:

DRAPER
Advertizing is based on one thing. Happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing it's okay. You are okay.


Weiner thinks we are not okay. His characters are not happy or free from fear, but they are desperately clinging to the hope that they are okay.

Advertizing is based on one thing. Happiness.



Look at the opening titles sequence -- the first thing you see in this teaserless pilot. An executive walks into his office, puts down his briefcase, his window is open.

Suddenly, he is falling and falling and falling down the side of the skyscraper. Advertizing images are reflected in the windows as he falls toward certain death.

Did he jump? Was he pushed? Is he dreaming?

He doesn't hit the ground. He's sitting comfortably -- king of the world -- in his big executive chair.

(My dad had a chair just like that, by the way. And his office on Peel, looked an awful lot like Draper's.)

This isn't a show about happiness. It's about how advertizing's framing of our world makes us unhappy. It's about illusion and image and deception. And how nothing is as simple as advertizing.

Not Weiner's characters nor the relationships between them.

Other characters are as illusive as Draper.

I had no idea what Peggy the secretary was thinking as she settled into her new job. She's passive in most of the scenes. When the kid is crude in her presence, she says nothing. Joan, who runs the secretarial pool, tells her to put a paper bag over herself, examine naked self in the mirror and be brutally honest. And she says, "I always try to be honest." Then she goes out and gets herself a prescription for the Pill.

Huh? Where's the pattern? Who is she? Why isn't Weiner simplifying her for me so I can digest her nice and easily? Oh shit, I think he wants me to think.

The relationships also refused to lay down neatly into expected patterns.

Don chews Pete for mistreating Peggy, warning him that if he acts like that no one will like him. A scene or two later Pete admits that Don is right about him and asks him to be his mentor.

In any other pilot, there would be a handshake and a bonding of the characters we're going to follow for the series.

Instead, Don refuses to shake and as Pete heads down the hall he mutters "fuck you" under his breath.

Boss and secretary don't have a heart-warming, we're-going-to-be-a-family-for-the-run-of-the-series moment either. Don both chews her out and rebuffs her sexual advances.

This isn't neat commercial story telling. This is complicated, messy and unexpected. The antithesis of the reductionism of advertizing. And the most of formulaic of network television shows.

I think part of what attracts Denis and others to this show is the resonance of theme through it.

It's about something.

And the thing it's about is interesting and very relevant to our lives right now.

Weiner has something to say. And this pilot makes me want to keep listening.

2 comments:

Josh said...

Hmm. Interesting. I've been trying to digest my thoughts on the pilot for the last through days, but I keep finding that they're hard to pin down. To sound all writerly and stuff: "Elusive, like the characters themselves." My writing partner and I found ourselves intrigued, but consistently going "huh" over the actions of several of the main characters. I'm not sure I LIKE it yet, but it's definitely something I'll give at least a few more episodes to before making a decision.

Kazza said...

Love, love, love this new series. Finally a must see show now that The Sopranos is gone. I watched the first three episodes back to back, followed by "The Making of..." feature on ROD. Can't get enough. And, oh, do I want a cigarette and a scotch.