MAD MEN AT MIDSEASON

I am so woefully behind in my blogging that I am only now getting around to subjects that weeks or months old! However, if the thought has survived rattling around in my head all this time, I suppose it deserves recording.

532f31451379d1442812bd08_mad-men-7-full-cast-tableauLike many people, I was happy with the final episode of Mad Men‘s demi-season. Don survived a plot against him, enriched his partners, relocated his rapport with Peggy, and signed off with Megan sadly but maturely. Roger asserted himself. Bert Cooper signed off with a song. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Don, Peggy and Pete ended the show as the model workplace family, sharing dinner at Burger Chef. What could go wrong?

Well, given that Matthew Weiner has to bring everybody back for another half season, the answer, potentially, is a lot. One could see the series ending on a lift of sorts, but I don’t think that would appeal to Professor Weiner’s view of that era. One senses a tragedy in the offing. Sally swept up in drugs, or a Kent State-like shooting? Megan meeting Manson on the wrong side of a blade? I kind of doubt it. Peggy and Joan on the upswing? Yes, incrementally. The only fate I feel I see for sure is that of Pete Campbell, who I believe is destined for a significant post at the Committee to Re-Elect the President. As for Don? It’s hard to say. What happened to America after the sixties?

MAD AT MAD MEN

Mad-Men-Season-6-350x241As an early and excited fan of Mad Men (Okay, I realize that this doesn’t make me the first man on the moon, but I was there), it saddens me to say that I was pretty disappointed in this past season. I know others disagree–Troy Patterson in Slate called it the show’s best season ever–but I felt let down.

When Mad Men debuted, among the many things that was so brilliant the show was who the show was about–though set in 1960, it was about us. It was about us in two ways: first, it showed the birth of what may be called `our era’–the birth of a fully integrated America, the birth of women in the work force, the birth of a sexually freer country, the birth of more psychologically aware country. Second, it was about us, the people who were living in the first years of the 21st century, the years when the good days were ending and a crack-up loomed over the horizon. The show, of course, was about other things, notably the tortured soul of Don Draper. But lets face it: there’s only so much tortured soul crap we take from our friends and loved ones, and I believe I speak for most of us when say that my tolerance for it among my favorite fictional characters is even less. Megan Draper may have to put up with Don coming home ever night half in the bag, but I don’t, not unless he and Roger Sterling and Freddie Rumson have gone to an after-hours gambling joint and punched Jimmy Barrett in the jaw first. That’s the Don I like, the Don who, however deplorable, is always able to out wit the Ducks on the world.

In this season, set in 1968, Matthew Weiner and his creative team treated all these imperatives with a lot of literalness. We followed Don into a season-long descent into alienation, witnessing a sadistic relationshipo with his mistress, general meanness to his colleagues, neglect of his his wife and children (what’s new?) and a trip to the drunk tank, although in the final episode we were given a flickering indication that a turnaround might be in order. We also experienced the turbulent events of 1968 with at once a surface literalness (seeing the riots on TV) and a theatrical surrealism, like the elderly black woman thief or the Chevy account as Mad Men‘s Vietnam (see Slate‘s very smart deconstruction). This is an exercise in not very entertaining intellectual masturbation, a dog whistle that went over most of the audience’s head. Weiner, moreover, began to repeat himself, with another mysterious liar in Bob Benson and another Pete Campbell parent being lost in transit. Would it have been a challenge for one of the characters to have been caught up in street turmoil at Columbia or the Chicago convention? Almost certainly–you see things like that all time in inferior programs so frequently that it becomes a cliche. But presented with the challenge to elevate this moment, the writers punted. The reality of the era was played for decoration, for surfaces. Abe’s radicalism was revealed to be careerism, a bourgois boomer wrapped in a lefty taco. Ginzberg and Rizzo and Megan were shown to be liberals with no bottom. Megan spouted anit-war bromides, but never did anything. The attitudes were a superficial as the buttons pinned to Glenn’s pea coat. None of them went to a rally, none of them went to a meeting, none of them did any pro bono work, none of them marched. But some of those people would have. During the whole year, Betty was the only who actually saw something face to face. This was a huge swing and a miss for what had been the Mantle of TV shows.

By the way, what ever happened to Mad Men‘s Republicans? I was delighted to see that in the final episode, the bar where Don met the evangelist had for some reason two political posters hanging on the wall: a vintage Nixon’s the One poster, and one for Roy Goodman, who was the Republcan state senator for the Upper East Side of Manhattan from 1969 to 2002, a liberal Rockefeller Republican whose kind we just don’t see anymore. I thought that one of the most original Mad Men insights was that Cooper and Sterling were Republicans, that the firm worked for Nixon in 1960, that Bert Cooper was part of old money, board-sitting Manhattan Republican establishment. The advent of Henry Francis kept this going. but as the show lost interest in Betty it lost interest in Henry, and a whole fruitful dramatic path was back-burnered. Remember, we think of the sixties as a period when things went to hell, but they didn’t go to hell for everybody: Nixon won, and he won with the help of Haldeman and Ehrlihman and Roger Ailes and Ron Ziegler, all of them products of the Mad Men milieu. I’m sorry Weiner has let this story line slacken. I had hoped that by the end of the final season, as 1969 drew to a close, we would be seeing Pete Campbell taking the first steps that would eventually lead him to his indictment in the Watergate conspiracy.

ZOO BE ZOO BE ZOO!

The fifth season of Mad Men got off to a fast start, and although a lot was happening, the episode will likely go down as the `Zoo Be Zoo Be Zoo’ episode, after the song that Jessica, Don’s young wife, performed for him at the birthday party she threw for him.

As Lauren Streib reports in The Daily Beast, the song is actually called `Zou Bisou Bisou’. “The original version was recorded by Gillian Hills, a Brigitte Bardot lookalike who found fame as a French yé-yé girl—one of a handful of young, female European singers who catapulted yé-yé music into an international movement, popular among teens during the era. (“Yé-yé” refers to exclamations of “yeah yeah!” during rock and roll.) Roughly translated, “zou” is a casual exclamation and “bisou” is a sweet kiss—a peck on the cheek to say hello and goodbye. So the lyrics hash out to: Oh! Kiss kiss / My God, they are sweet! / …Oh! Kiss kiss / the sound of kisses /…Oh! Kiss kiss /…That means, I confess / But yes, I love only you!”

The song was performed by Sophia Loren in the 1960 film The Millionairess, co-starring Peter Sellers. “Loren sang an English version, Zoo Be Zoo Be Zoo. Loren’s version uses the same tune, but the lyrics and delivery swell with a bit more sophistication. The movie was a hit in the U.K., though the American response was lukewarm.”

CANADIAN HAM

Occasioned by the premiere of The Playboy Club on NBC and Pan Am on ABC, the folks at the Canadian Broadcasting Company thought they wanted to talk about the sudden burst of nostalgia for the sixties, and invited me to appear on their prime time talk show Connect with Mark Kelly, to, ah, connect my thoughts to Mark Kelly’s. I was a little downbeat, I think, but I really didn’t agree with the premise of the segment. I don’t think there’s a sudden burst of nostalgia for the sixties. I think there’s an ongoing flood of copycatism. If one show about the cool sixties can be a success, why can’t another one–a stupider one, for that matter–also be a hit? Why not, indeed? But I kind of doubt anybody’s going to watch these shows. They seem to be all about the past; Mad Men, of course, is all about the present. (Thanks to Ken Smith for snagging the video from the CBC websitea.)

JMal CBC from Kenneth B Smith on Vimeo.

WORST MAGAZINE COVER . . . EVER?

Visitors to the offices of Jann Wenner on Sixth Avenue and 51st Street will be treated to the sight of the many National Magazine Awards the magazines of Wenner Media have collected over the years, many of them quite justifiably for the art direction of Rolling Stone. Well, they won’t be winning any art direction awards this year, and they’ll be lucky if ASME doesn’t try to claw some back. Rolling Stone has just produced a hideous magazine featuring four of the stars of Mad Men, four people who, one would think could not be made to look bad, but who look collectively wretched in this picture. We’re guessing that the four performers were photographed separately or nearly so, and then the four pics were photo-shopped together, with other techniques to enhance the image and give it the look of a single picture. Fair enough–we’ve seen Time and GQ and others do that recently. But here the processes were astonishingly, amateurishly botched. The facial expressions on Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks and January Jones look Botoxed. Only Elisabeth Moss looks natural, or reasonably so, but she has her own problems, having been dramatically hourglassed in post-production, and, like Jones, become the recipient of snake legs. Moss’s left leg is–where, exactly? Jones’ right leg seems to be extending as though it was made of Silly Putty, and her left arm just melds, Siamese Twin-like, with Hamm’s oddly-shadowless right arm. With him holding a drink in that hand, it makes you wonder if Jones’ where Jones’ hand is–delicately slipped into the rock glass, perhaps?

LOIS MISSES ON MAD MEN

Before George Lois went to work at Esquire and became a giant of the magazine industry, he was a giant of the advertising industry. Thus it makes sense that for its August issue, Playboy would turn to Lois for some comments on Mad Men, which begins its fourth season on Sunday. Now, this does not mark Lois’s first opinions on the series; he’s spoken about it before, and he doesn’t like it. He thinks it shortchanges ethnics, the Jews and Italians (and Greeks, like Lois) who were transforming the industry with audacious and creative campaigns. He is also sore that the show shortchanges art directors (of which he is among the most brilliant) in favor of copywriters. “Mad Men has given the world the perception that the scatology of the Sterling Cooper workplace was industry wide. In theor advertising, the show’s creators have the balls to proclaim that “Mad Men explores the Golden Age of advertising,” but surely they know that they are shoveling shit. Their show is nothing more than soap opera set in a glamorous office where stylish fools hump their appreciative, coiffured secretaries, suck up their martinis, and smoke themselves to death as they produce dumb, lifeless advertising. . . .The more I think and wrote about Mad Men, the more I take the show as a personal insult. So fuck you, Mad Men, you phony gray-flannel-suit, amle chauvinist, no-talent, WASP, white-shirted, racist, anti-Semitic Republican SOBs.”

Well, far be it from me to take issue with one of my heroes. And with a genius. And with a guy man who on the scene while I was literally in short pants. Still, I think Lois is taking the show entirely too personally. For one thing, all those years that he was involved in making ads that ran on Bonanza, did he think, “Yes, this is it, this is exactly what cowboy life was really like.” When his ads ran on that earlier show that involved an advertising agency, Bewitched, did he say, “Boy, you have to admire the documentary qualities of this show about a suburban witch.”  The truth is, Mad Men is brilliant not because it is about advertising, or even about the sixties. It’s about us–about people who are so sure of everything who are in the process of discovering that everything they’re sure of is falling apart. That in a nutshell was the experience of the sixties, and it has been the hugely uncomfortable experience of the last two years. I’m sorry, Mr. Lois, you’re looking at the show through the wrong side of the lens. How Mad Men handles the facts is irrelevant; its vision is brilliant.

PEACOCKS: MEN AND CLOTHES

The topic of this article is supposed to be Why Men Don’t Like to Dress Up, but I’m having some difficulty with it, because the premise is obviously untrue.  Men love to dress up.

If you have any doubts, go to a football game—NFL, NCAA. Look in the stands. You’ll see tens of thousands of men who have taken enormous care with their day’s wardrobe, starting next to the skin with the luckiest of their lucky T-shirts and building to the regulation team parkas. They will wear the official jersey of a current star, or the throwback jersey of a retired idol in order to help draw the mystic power of mighty ancestors into the day’s conflict. They will top off the ensemble with a well-chosen cap, or imitation leather helmet, or plastic pig snout, or styrofoam cheese head, and they will feel that they have dressed perfectly for the occasion.

And they will not be alone in their sartorial exactitude. Civil War reenactors in blue and gray will scour the hinterlands to find the precise regimental button to wear to their mock conflagrations.  Star Trek devotees will never be caught wearing items from their Deluxe Captain Kirk Uniform Packages from the original series when they meant to be wearing Gold Kirk Uniform Shirts from the 2009 film. A yachtsman will have his special windbreaker and a golfer will have his special sweater and slacks, and many a tennis player will continue to sport his short McEnroe-ish tennis shorts long after his slender McEnroe-ish figure has joined John in retirement. One need look no further than the example of Mr. Elmer Fudd, who always wears the same cap with the side flaps snapped together at the crown whenever he hunts that cwazy wabbit.

What most men do less and less, and what many men no longer do at all, is dress up for work. There was a time, as we see on Mad Men, when men were expected to dress for the office, and that the more successful you were, the better you were expected to dress. None of this came to anyone as a shock, since the world was still governed by a relatively small elite, and they mandated fashion and taste. Appearances mattered, often too much: men who had the right look often rose higher than men of greater ability who didn’t.  And even those who challenged the powers that be—Martin Luther King Jr., Lenny Bruce, Chuck Berry—wore versions of the suit and tie. They wanted to change, challenge, join the power structure, not destroy it, and their clothes demonstrated that.

But as Mad Men shows, not all men take to a suit and tie. Don Draper looks great and takes pleasure in the power that his appearance brings him. But Pete Campbell, young and unformed, doesn’t so much wear his suit as is worn by it; the suit is like the outline of a drawing that he is filling in. And for poor Harry Crane, deskbound and thickening, wearing a suit is a yoke of servitude, another obligation that society, family, marriage imposes upon him.

The sixties, of course, changed everything.  The new fashion freedom men enjoyed  fell on peacocks and drones alike. But over the years, the easygoing spirit of Casual Friday took over, and in many places became Sloppy Whenever. “Suits’’ became a synonym for executive power that was clueless and stodgy. Instead of the Don Drapers pulling the Harry Cranes to dress up, the Cranes pulled the Drapers down.  “The only people in Los Angeles who wear a tie,’’ a friend from the television business recently noted, “are the agents.’’

“It’s appalling how men dress today,’’ Tim Gunn, the creative director of Liz Claiborne said to me in a recent phone call. “More and more, I’m meeting men who have attained some professional stature, who not only don’t wear a tie, but who don’t know how to tie a tie.  I’m flabbergasted. It’s like they’re wearing a sign that says `I have arrested development.’ What are they signifying?’’

What indeed.  Back in 2005, the current chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank Ben Bernanke gave a speech in which he answered that very question. “The biggest downside of my current job is that I have to wear a suit to work,’’ the former scholar and researcher told his audience. “Wearing uncomfortable clothes on purpose is an example of what. . .Nobel Prize winner Michael Spence taught economists to call ‘signalling.’ You have to do it to show that you take your official responsibilities seriously.’’

Bernanke’s right (although you’d think a guy who’s able to understand credit default swaps could find himself a comfortable suit.) Men should be as willing to demonstrate their pride in their families and their professions as they do in their teams. And don’t forget: a lot more people are going to admire the way you look in a suit and tie than the way you rock a cheese head.

This article originally appeared in BG, the magazine of Bergdorf Goodman.