Mad Men

     He personifies cool and plays nobody’s fool.

     He drinks and smokes with abandon, catches the eye of glamorous women, gets sought out by the rich and powerful and creates the kind of marvelous jingles that swung through Madison Avenue‘s advertising jungle in 1960s New York.

     These were different times, too, and the show provides a microscope and petri dish to gaze back.      Women cooked, cleaned and vacuumed and men paid the bills brought home the bacon. Blacks were relegated to roles as maids and elevator jockeys and Chinese were the butt of cruel (but funny for the times) jokes.      In a Season One episode, Pete Campbell’s buddies at Sterling Cooper hire an Asian family to camp out in the office of Campbell, who took time off to get married. When he comes back to work and opens his door, a Chinese family — eating a meal with his family — is told, sternly, to get out. Later, Campbell remarks that, had the Chinese family stayed, he may have wanted to toss them out again and hour later, a play on the old joke about being hungry again an hour later after eating Chinese food.
     Jews, whose companies figure prominently in the ad lineup at Sterling Cooper, are similarly held in low esteem
     It’s Don Draper/Dick Whitman (Draper apparently took the persona of a fellow soldier, Whitman, who was killed in the war), or Jon Hamm in real life, and he lights up every size of screen on AMC’s “Mad Men,” the best television show. Period. Nothing else comes close. You’ve got to go back to “All in the Family” or “The Sopranos” to find something comparable. That the show’s crew sharpened their teeth for years on HBO’s famous mob show should come as no surprise.
     But “Mad Men” is deeper. And it takes you back to those wonderful product lines:

  • “Take it off… take it all off with Noxema Medicated Shave” (The really clean shave).
  • “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin” (The nerdy grocery clerk was great, too).
  • “I’d walk a mile for a Camel” (Remember the white pack, with the brown camel in the middle?).
  • “The Pepsi Generation.”
  • “Let your fingers do the walking” (Yellow Pages).

     And there were many more. Their creators, both men and women, lived in excess, drinking, smoking and carousing. And loving every moment.
     These forever coughing and inebriated ad experts help us harken back to a time rarely explored in network television, or anywhere else, for that matter. It was “Draper” himself, in fact, who coins the phrase, “You can’t frame a phone call,” during a brainstorming session for the timelessness of a Western Union telegraph.
     For me, the best part of “Mad Men” is that I can watch it with my dad, who was (and still is) working for Playboy, which is referenced often in the show. In the wedding episode of Season One, a man on a commuter train tells Draper/Whitman that he’s from Waltham, Mass., my dad’s hometown. In another scene on the train, we see a VW Beatle ad with the word “Lemon” below — from a copy of Playboy. So, it’s easy to identify with “Mad Men.”
     The show also gives us a glimpse of key moments in history, such as the Kennedy assassination, the Cuban missile crisis and even Marilyn Monroe’s death. The missile crisis scenes were especially eerie, as this was a time when school and work were suspended in some cases and people fretted about an end-of-the-world scenario.      Similarly, the episode about the JFK killing was spooky. I recall returning home from school and telling my mom that “the president has been shot.” No, my mom said, you’re thinking of Abraham Lincoln. It’s the current president, I corrected, eliciting an equally unimpressed gaze.

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