Mad Men (2007)
Ah, the early 1960’s were a simpler time. A time where a room without wafting cigarette smoke was not worth going into, where scotch was considered a hearty breakfast and where woman were openly insulted in board meetings. Although this probably doesn’t sound like the ideal location for most people reading this, Mad Men (2007) manages to draw its viewers into a time that defies the conventions of our day and age in the most intriguing possible ways.
The series pilot, ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’, drops the viewer into the world of the self proclaimed ‘Mad Men’ of the most prestigious advertising firm in New York City.
Despite the fact that this is a product for television, it manages to take a rather cinematic approach to its presentation. From its alluring open sequence featuring the silhouette of a man falling past a series of billboards promoting the elements of an ideal 1950/60’s American life to its ambitious camera movements and shooting style, Mad Men’s cinematography gives the show a sophisticated feel that is very fitting to the subject matter. The stunning birds-eye-view shots depicting the busy New York street paired with the engaging tracking shots that expertly weave through the office’s hallways give the show a special high-budget cinematic feel.
In the maiden episode the viewer is introduced to the most powerful man in advertising, Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm.) Although Draper is portrayed as a decorated purple heart recipient and a committed lover, there is much more to learn about him.
Mad Men’s subject matter is one that almost seems to be an ever present taboo in today’s society: smoking. In a time where smoking advertisements are banned from broadcast, Mad Men is still able to explore the ways in which advertisers were able to sell death to the public while it pokes fun at the health issues that would later plague the industry. During Don Draper’s first meeting with the executives of the Lucky Strike tobacco company, a discussion of the many ways that health reports are hurting sales is interrupted by a coughing fit from every member of the meeting. While it manages to create a believable representation of the 1960’s corporate world, it still lands plenty of gags that only a modern day audience would understand. As well as providing the opportunity for humor, the cigarette also helps to convey the power that Draper and his fellow Mad Men have over the consumers. The statement I made earlier about rooms full of wafting smoke isn’t far from the truth in the confines of the show. Hardly a scene goes by where there isn’t smoke wafting around the room. Not only does it occur in the advertising firm’s office, but also it is more obvious in the swanky nightspots of New York. It is imagery like this that shows the audience just how powerful and influential advertisers like Draper are. Even though the viewer is often reminded that Draper is “the best in the business”, they are also visually convinced of this fact as they see the products that Draper is pedaling flood each scene.
Like smoking, the gender positioning of the characters is another topic that the show explores in its own setting while eliciting a response from the viewer. Don Draper’s interaction with females in the show differs greatly from the modes of interaction of our generation. During his board meeting with female company head of a Jewish chain store, Rachel Menken (played by Maggie Siff), Draper is openly insulting to her. It is scenes like this that are able to tackle issues such as gender positioning in a way that most shows could never attempt. The exploration of gender roles continued to be explored through the storylines of the firm’s female receptionists, taking focus on new recruit Peggy Olson (played by Elisabeth Moss.) The scenes featuring Peggy including her training sessions to her ‘unorthodox’ meeting with a doctor in the search for birth control makes for a rather shocking and astounding interaction that left me in disbelief as a member of a contemporary audience.
This particular episode closes with a rather static shot that is reminiscent of 1960’s advertisements. Although it depicts Draper in his family man persona, it also conveys the ‘too good to be true’ qualities that ads often hold. As the camera tracks backwards you almost expects a brand name to fill the screen. The dim, calculated lighting along with the still stage direction add to this illusion.
Although the show deals with some confronting issues, Mad Men offers a breath of fresh air to television drama. By offering a setting that is relatively untouched, the shows producers are able to create a compelling cinematic experience that fits nicely into a one-hour time slot.