I know that talking about Mad Men has become sort of a cliché. But after reaching the latest episode two days ago, after a couple of months of watching the entire four seasons plus 8 episodes of the 5th, I felt I should write a post about it because I do like it. A lot. And it fits this blog.
Like with most great series, such as Seven Feet Under, I was a late bloomer. I always take a step back when things are massively popular, I mean, hey, shows like America’s Got Talent have huge popularity, but they suck big time and are everything but talented. I was afraid Mad Men was about pretty faces, but it’s not. And I’m human, if you know what I mean. I didn’t want to fall into that trap. They work well, they make it interesting and pleasing to the eye, but what I like about this show is its the characters, the way it is shot, the story, of course, set design and art direction.
My favorite characters, both in film and TV, have been lonely. Let’s forget Seinfeld for a moment and focus on TV drama. The (scary?) fact that I always relate to them on an intrinsic level, makes me carry on following them. So far it has, of course, unlike Don Draper (who has apparently become a verb all of a sudden, and why I don’t like to discuss TV series that much), I haven’t been to an actual war, or lost my parents in odd ways, or even lived on a farm, or been poor. But good narrative and screenwriting is all about it – or any piece of good writing for that matter – you can make a story universal by the emotions you give your characters. There are many reasons for loneliness and pain, but in the end loneliness shall be loneliness, and pain shall be pain. He is a pained man, and if we are, even if a little, we will relate. In fact, all characters, despite those who people call “jackasses” and so on, are good. People would say otherwise only because they refuse to read the characters that are presented to them once a week as human beings; they are intricate. No one is entirely bad, there’s a reason for every behavior, and if you pay attention to all they say and all their reactions, you’ll see the “mommy issues”, “daddy issues”, war traumas, and all that comes with life.
I was checking some videos on YouTube about this show, and I found this interesting video, which I shall post on the blog, about some technical/artistic sides of Mad Men. The fact that they chose not to use steadycam or handheld camera shots is fantastic. If the show is set in the early-60s (now mid), why use technologies that didn’t exist at the time? It works so well and gives the show an identity. Of course, some people may think shots on tripods and tracks are easy and simple, and this is a TV show. Well, first try to lay a track, and then things do not need to be oversophisticated to create the best effect. I also love how you manage to perceive, despite the following of the whole aesthetics of the show and certain rules that prevail to make it an entire piece, the different directors’ styles as they change from episode to episode. You see the cuts, the angles, suddenly a voiceover. I like that, it gives some value from a filmmaking point of view. It also makes us agree that, as far as mainstream American drama goes, much more is being made by the Hollywood Television industry, if such a thing exists, than by its film counterpart. The other point is, it doesn’t feel mainstream, and that’s important. It makes you think, if you want, of course.
Maybe because I was born during a crossover between times, I’m neither digital nor analogue. I don’t find the differences portrayed on Mad Men that appalling or hearthbreaking. I find them, like most people, endearing. It is different, and it’s interesting to realize how people are becoming retro because of a TV show, that perhaps they don’t even watch. It’s a level of sophistication, and when suddenly, after a decade of putting men on creams and trying to get them to shave and become metrosexuals, women are craving for what was the men who look like men, and men for women who look like women. I don’t find it right or wrong, but curious. And I would like to know how many people don’t feel like grabbing that cigarette pack and smoke one, free of any guilt, and if you’re a woman, holding it between your fingers, with style and red painted nails. Now, more interesting, as we reach 1966 and the start of the social movements that occurred, and culture spinning, how audiences will react as well. Will brands start creating clothes like those of the counterculture time? Will we be wearing Sgt. Pepper coats in two years? If I were 15, at the height of my Beatlemania, I would find it superb. It seems to me that, at times when everything is getting dispersed, we are craving for some old stability, or reassurance that stuff is possible. At a time when America’s place in the world is changing, we are looking back to when the eagle was flying at its highest. It’s like that syndrome that Woody Allen portrayed so well in Midnight in Paris, that despite all the things we disagree (women earning less, being treated in an inferior manner, blacks not having the same rights, etc.) or find politically incorrect to disagree (such as tobacco), there’s some aura about that past that is comfortable and we see as better. In a way, and being the 60s a past way too close to us that we think we can touch and feel it, we look at those characters and all the glamour surrounding them and we feel “that was us”. At the same time, music was happening, people were moving and things were happening, without computers, social media or even cell phones. I wonder, had we had all these tools, would the events of the 60s happened? I don’t know. I’m diverging from the point of this blog, I know. But all these questions… it’s what good drama does, and I don’t want to go to all the meanings and questions Mad Men creates. It would be another blog, a thesis, and I bet several people around the world are having a ball doing their MAs or PhDs about this show.
Last point: set design and art direction. It is so, so important to this show, that it becomes almost ridiculous to mention it. One of the scenes I noticed it the most, in an odd, and unimportant way, was when the British fella is run over by the John Deere lawn mower and goes to the hospital. As they’re waiting to hear some news about him, they decide to have a coke (or Pepsi-Cola actually) and use the vendor machine. That vendor machine set me in a time and place; it made me go “awww-why-didn’t-I-ever-use-one-of-those” (and here we go to the previous paragraph). The glass bottles, the opener inserted in the machine…magical. And it all goes with stationary, magazines, appliances, every detail of those sets, and they start changing as time passes by, but not too abruptly because most people do not have decorators. It’s interesting to see that we are basically assisting to an entire decade passing by again through a show.
It is also a show pretty much contained on sets. It’s in a sense “walled” the entire time, sometimes claustrophobic, and while it’s all shot in LA, we really feel like we’re on Madison Avenue, or in a house in the suburbs. We feel as stiff as Don Draper feels inside his own head.
Let’s wait for the next episode and see where it takes us.