By Bruce Handy
The thumbnail history of Hollywood goes something like this: Once upon a time, the studios reigned supreme. They bulldozed geniuses and turned out dreck, but in applying Henry Ford discipline and efficiencies to filmmaking they also gave us The Lady Eve, Casablanca, and Singin’ in the Rain. By the 1960s, however, the factory system began to give way, power shifted to directors and stars, and a new generation of independent-minded auteurs crafted sometimes indulgent but often original and even brilliant films such as Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, and Apocalypse Now. Then, another turn: studios got the upper hand back, or learned to share it grudgingly with a handful of superstars and A-list directors. But without the old assembly-line rigor the result has too often been big, bloated dreck, like the films of Michael Bay, or the gaseous Oscar bait that bubbles up every fall—the worst of all movie worlds.
But, ah, television. Its great accomplishment over the past decade has been to give us the best of all movie worlds, to meld personal filmmaking, or series-making, with something like the craft and discipline, the crank-’em-out urgency, of the old studio system. I’m thinking first and foremost of The Sopranos, which debuted in 1999 and sadly departed in 2007. This strange and entertaining series, as individual a work as anything by Hitchcock or Scorsese, was the creation of David Chase, and it paved the way for The Wire, Deadwood, Rescue Me, Damages, and its successor as the best drama on television, the equally strange and entertaining Mad Men, which will launch its third season on AMC August 16.
Set in an advertising agency in the early 1960s, Mad Men debuted two summers ago and right off the bat earned itself two Golden Globes and a Peabody Award, and was nominated for 16 Emmys, becoming the first basic-cable series to win for outstanding drama. Its second season, no sophomore slump, has been nominated for another 16 Emmys, including best drama and four out of five possible writing nominations. A more interesting measure of the show’s impact is the fact that its title has become a kind of shorthand: you can now talk about a Mad Men skirt or lampshade or pickup line where once you might have used “space age” or “Kennedy era” or “Neanderthal.” But while the show, like its subject, has many surface pleasures—period design, period bad behavior (if you like high modernism, narrow lapels, bullet bras, smoking, heavy drinking at lunch, good hotel sex, and bad office sex, this is the series for you)—at its core Mad Men is a moving and sometimes profound meditation on the deceptive allure of surface, and on the deeper mysteries of identity. The dialogue is almost invariably witty, but the silences, of which there are many, speak loudest: Mad Men is a series in which an episode’s most memorable scene can be a single shot of a woman at the end of her day, rubbing the sore shoulder where a bra strap has been digging in. There’s really nothing else like it on television.
The central character is Don Draper, the cool and commanding creative director of the fictional Sterling Cooper agency. He’s a man in flight from his own past, a Gatsby-esque figure without the romance of a Daisy; or rather, he seems to be looking for a Daisy everywhere but his home in the suburbs, where his beautiful, bored, emotionally stunted wife, Betty, is stranded in what feels at times like an improbably compelling adaptation of The Feminine Mystique. Played in an instantly iconic performance by Jon Hamm, Don is a man whose emotions are in lockdown—a man as sleek and handsome and seemingly invulnerable as a hood ornament. But in the show’s central irony he is able to plumb human needs and desires with an artist’s intuition: if Mad Men ever approaches shtick, it’s when Don gets a faraway look in his eyes and somehow pulls a psychologically barbed selling point out of his own inner ether (a trope wonderfully parodied on Saturday Night Live last fall, when Hamm was hosting). In short, Don Draper is an advertising Mozart, or at least he’s the best Sterling Cooper has to offer, for another of the show’s ironies is that Don and his colleagues are dinosaurs not just in terms of the impending social revolutions of the 1960s but also in terms of the creative revolution that would roil advertising that decade. As in Hitchcock, the characters are unaware of shocks that the audience knows all too well lie ahead, whether they be the Kennedy assassination and women’s lib or long sideburns and the lasting influence of Doyle Dane Bernbach’s witty, self-deprecating “Lemon” ad for Volkswagen, which Don dismisses with the words “I don’t know what I hate about it the most.”
All in all, that’s a lot to pack into a mere 47 minutes of TV, one night a week—astonishing, really, considering that each episode of Mad Men, with its scrupulous period detail, is shot in just seven days on a budget that, at an average $2.8 million an episode this season, even a lot of indie-film producers would scoff at. But who knows? Going back to my original point, if Heaven’s Gate had been a 13-episode series with a hard-and-fast airdate, the last 30 years of Hollywood history might have been different, and Michael Cimino something other than the butt of a cautionary tale.
“I’m of the persuasion that budget contraints are very, very good for creativity. I think people having unlimited amounts of money makes you really lazy. And I will be quoted on that, believe it or not.” The speaker turning his back on decades of Hollywood wisdom was Matthew Weiner, 44, the auteur behind Mad Men, who also has a Sopranos pedigree, having written for that series during its final three seasons. As Mad Men’s creator and show-runner—the industry term for whoever has ultimate creative responsibility for a series, typically a writer- producer—he has imbued his own series with a similarly novelistic richness, scope, and meticulous sense of craft. He talks about “training the audience” to learn how to read the show, and says things like “It’s been a process for the audience to trust the show on some level, to think that we’re thinking about it as much as they hope we are.”
They are, all right. They’re thinking about it as much as even the most Mad Men–obsessed shut-in blogger could hope. You can glean this from watching the show, with its precise, even exacting style of acting and shooting—on Mad Men, the perfect prop can be the equivalent of a well-placed comma—but I had no real idea until I had a chance to visit the Mad Men offices and soundstages, which, aptly, are in a studio on the edge of downtown Los Angeles which was converted from a steel-and-glass Mad Men–era office building. A scene-setting anecdote everyone in the Mad Men orbit tells is how Weiner came onto the set one day and focused on some pieces of fruit he said were too large and shiny and perfectly formed; produce in the early 60s—period produce—wasn’t pumped up. Get smaller, dumpier fruit, he ordered. (Depending on who was telling me the story, from cast members to network executives, the offending produce morphed from apples to oranges to bananas, but Amy Wells, the set decorator, said definitively: it was apples.) In a similar vein, the show’s prop masters have been plagued by the steroidal dimensions of contemporary American pastry whenever a Sterling Cooper secretary needs to pick up a Danish from the coffee cart.