Mad Men is impeccable, but we already knew that. If the second series is less of a shock to the system than the first super-stylish and ultra-styled series one, it is only because this is establishing-the-characters time. The narrative may be slow, but it suits the pace of the editing, the music, even the cinematography and the colour scheme.
The first series introduced us to a world we have hardly ever seen on TV (at the movies it’s another matter – see Hitchcock’s Vertigo and North By Northwest for a start).
In fact, the closest the look of the images came to a visual reference was Hopper paintings and Erwin Olaf stills (see the retro-looking “Rain”, “Hope” and “Grief” series). The series pays homage to pin-up artists, as well as referencing Saul Bass’ work in the title sequence. It is a film lover’s paradise of visual quotations and homages.
As many of you will already know, it is set in NY in a fictional ad agency, Sterling Cooper, whose creative director Don Draper is the series’ protagonist.
The success of this opus says it all about our obsession with political correctness these days: it is woefully sexist and misogynist as well as slightly homophobic and racist, and the public has lapped it up. That is not to say that the show supports those attitudes, but rather it holds up a mirror in the face of the society of that time, early 1960s America on the cusp of a big change with the advent of Kennedy.
The attitude towards women at home and in the workplace is beautifully illustrated; they are merely decorative objects whose opinion is rarely asked for, and when it is, their voices are invariably gentle and subdued. We do see alternative types, and the reactions they cause in these strictly narrow-minded middle class circles are typically judgemental.
Mad Men does not promise to present a cross-section of typical American society in the 1960s; it’s set up in a very specific social milieu, and as such, the types who populate it are not representative of all layers of society.
In series two the contour characters get deeper. We see ultra-conservative Betty growing in strength and stature: Don’s beautiful and rarely-heard wife has to open her eyes at the reality of the relationships close to her (her marriage to Don and her family background).
Peggy, the secretary who has risen to the rank of copy-writer, continues her career path with sheer willpower, You won’t forget the moment she addresses Don Draper by his first name. Joan, the redhead office manager, is given more scenes and we get more insight into her private life and what her aspirations may be. Pete, the ambitious and not very likeable ad man is given more family dramas and career opportunities.
Some of the hitherto sketchy copywriters at the advertising agency reveal more of themselves, and – as a consequence – of the times they live in: one is a civil-rights activist in a mixed-race relationship, another a closeted gay man.
Every nuance is beautifully painted. The script does not attempt grand gestures or huge set pieces, letting the narrative loll gently along , and the shocks to be absorbed in a flicker of an eye. As with its set design, Mad Men is all about attention to the small details.
The moment in time is well defined: there are sub-plots involving Marilyn’s death, the Cuban missile crisis, the change of mass from Latin to English and, of course, cigarettes galore.
As far as Don goes, the protagonist gets a glimpse of a different lifestyle during a trip to LA, which also reminds us, lest we forget, that there is also a whole different 60s world out there, with a whole different set of moral rules and social mores.
We get more insight into who Don is, who he strives to be and the self he left behind. As his character continues to develop, so do we become more entranced in the whole saga, which continues to be scripted by Matthew Weiner, who brought us The Sopranos.
With series three currently on cable in the States, continue your style fix with this until the new series gets here.
The extras are good, especially the documentaries on the rise of feminism (Birth Of An Independent Woman) and another that gives us insight into the style and fashion of the 1960s. There are commentaries from Weiner and a couple of actors, as well as subtitles for the hard of hearing.
Mad Men Season 2 is out now.