Where We’ve Already Been
In 1929, the American Tobacco Corporation (owner of Lucky Strike) realized there was a vast untapped market for their product. As a general rule, women didn't smoke. It was culturally unacceptable and in some places, illegal. American Tobacco wanted to bend public perception to suit their bottom line but weren't sure how to go about it. Enter Edward Bernays.
Bernays had worked with the US government to develop a propaganda campaign during WWI. At 27, he had traveled to the Peace Summit in Paris with Woodrow Wilson to help "Make the World Safe For Democracy." He was quite good at his job. He also happened to be the nephew of Sigmund Freud. In thinking about how best to solve American Tobacco's problem, Bernays approached AA Brill, a prominent psychoanalyst and disciple of his uncle. Bernays posed to him this question, "What do cigarettes mean to women?" Brill's short answer: Cock. He told Bernays, if one could present cigarettes as a challenge to male power, women would smoke. A lot.
So Bernays rounded up a bunch of young socialites and convinced them to hide packs of Lucky Strike under their skirts before joining in New York City's annual Easter parade. At a pre-determined location, they were to pull out a cigarette and light up. Bernays then called all the newspapers and told them he'd heard rumor a group of suffragettes were going to stage a protest during the Easter parade by wielding "torches of freedom."
And the rest, as they say, is an episode of "Mad Men."
Season three premiered last night with "Out of Town," written by creator Matthew Weiner. It was a solid episode that delivered what fans have come to expect. The Boozehound wrote a lovely and respectful introduction to the show in his review of the Season Two premiere. If you haven't seen "Mad Men," I recommend reading it, because this is not that. I am quite conflicted about the show and this review, such as it is, will reflect that.
I bring up Eddie Bernays because it is only in the context of what he wrought, as the father of public relations and pusher of Uncle Siggy's theories, that I find a compelling argument for "Mad Men" as "brilliant" television, a title it's been given by many a critic. Weiner and Co. have passionately committed to the exploration of Bernays's shtick. He was the first to espouse the idea that the best way to sell shit is to link products to emotional desires. This was the way, he believed, to collectively move us from a "Need" to a "Want" society and it was only through this shift that capitalism could survive. (He was later responsible for a large scale PR campaign that forever conflated capitalism and democracy. A brilliant, possibly evil move that we're still hamstrung by today.) Considering our current cultural and economic state, it seems a prime time to revisit these ideas. "Mad Men" confronts them on both a macro and micro level, exploring them through character and culture. If you're into such things, the approach makes for compelling television. But do away with the sweeping thematics of identity politics and the cultural shift of the 1960s and really, all you're left with is an insanely beautiful but slow moving soap opera. I don't mean that as a slag. "Days of Our Lives" is an all time fave, but no one claims "Days..." to be at the forefront of all that is great in TV story telling.
A lot of people love "Mad Men." OK, not a lot. Next to no one watches it. But those who do, love it. And when I say love, I mean Bellagio-like fountains of jizz. A quick scan of reviews calls to mind the final five minutes of "Behind the Green Door." Emmy voters saw fit to nominate Matthew Weiner for four of the five dramatic television writing slots available this year. "Mad Men" is good, quality television and by far and away the best-looking thing ever to hit the tubes, but four out of five nominations in the writing category? That's just insane. Especially considering (all together now) "The Wire" never got so much as a nod in any direction. I know, that's a hackneyed argument and one I should probably force myself to abandon. Who cares about awards really, right? So, hooray, I guess, for "Mad Men" and its critical success.
And yet, I cannot make it through an episode, almost all of which I've enjoyed, with out this feeling of discontent, of "What the fuck?" of "You've got to be kidding me." Because for all the story telling risks they take with their willfully obtuse plotting, dropping the audience into the middle of a story and expecting them to figure out where the toilets are on their own (a tact I applaud, by the by), the scripts seem consistently written from a place of fear that we won't get just how fucking smart their show is. They cannot resist floating the subtext, whether cultural or character based, to the surface of each scene. In short, they do not trust their audience. Then again, considering it's a show about a bunch of liars, maybe I should cut them some slack. This is the rub with "Mad Men," it's possible its imperfections are what make it worthwhile.
There were a number of examples of this in last night's premiere. From the scene in which Bertram Cooper and new Brit in charge, Lane Pryce admire a newly acquired piece of art work: The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife ...
Pryce: Remarkable Cooper: I picked it for its sensuality. But it also, in some way, reminds me of our business. Who is the man who imagined her ecstasy? Pryce: Who indeed?
Cooper: We were just talking about you.
That there's a beat worthy of "Family Matters." Just in case we couldn't connect the dots ourselves, Weiner hands Cooper a bright red crayon to draw the lines for us. Their job as ad men is to channel sexual desires into wants for goods and services and no one's better at unleashing that desire than Don motherfucking Draper. Got it? Are we clear? I don't take issue with the placement of the painting as metaphor. I think it's a smart choice. Not to mention a visually arresting one. What bugs the fuck out of me is that they deny us the experience of processing the choice on our own. What if the scene had unfolded thusly?
Pryce: Remarkable Cooper: I picked it for its sensuality. (beat) Who is the man who imagined her ecstasy? Pryce: Who indeed?
Beat. Enter Don.
I think we all would have gotten what game was afoot here. And if not, if folks aren't smart enough or quick enough to get it, well then tough shit. But the writers won't take that chance. They do the heavy lifting for us. That way, everyone gets to feel smart. I don't think this tendency of theirs would get under my craw so if the show wasn't covered in critical cum. But it is. Thus I'm annoyed.
Another example ... During the restaurant scene with Don, Sal, the stewardesses and the pilot, there was one line that clanged like a cowbell at Christmastime. It's a perfectly good line and a nice distillation of Don's core conflict but Weiner makes a three point turn in the middle of the scene in an attempt to back into it, as though it came to him in the shower independent of anything concrete and he had to find a way to shoe horn it in. Here's the end of the scene, in which Don and Sal tell tall tales to their dinner companions:
Don: You ever heard of James Hoffa?
Stewardess: Now I don't just throw away newspapers every day. I also read them.
Don: There is a lot of money missing.
Sal: And they don't really keep receipts.
Pilot: So you're a couple of G Men?
Don: No, we're accountants.
A waitress takes their plates.
Stewardess: Isn't the service exquisite? I'm based in NY. I'd always rather be there. But it's my job to be out of town.
Don: I don't know I uh... keep going a lot of places and ending up somewhere I've already been.
Screeeeeeeech. I'm sorry. What was this scene about? Even if he'd found a more artful way to build to this line and earned the moment of reflection, we don't need to be told this. We've seen it. For all of Don's west coast soul searching at the end of last season, here he is, out of town, lying about his identity, one gimlet away from fucking a stewardess while his wife sits elsewhere, making a home. But we can't just steep in this reality as viewers, Don has to point it out. To a nattering ninny, none the less, who in past episodes he likely would have asked to stop talking as he ripped off her blouse. Naturally, every critic I've read has quoted it as though it were genius gifted us by Shakespeare returned, and in an interview he gave to Alan Sepinwall, Weiner pointed it out as his favorite line in the episode. But this is not good writing. It's a hallmark card for critics to make it easier for them to do their jobs. They are clearly grateful for the gift.
It's scenes like these that compel me to keep "Mad Men" at arms length. It's not a show I'm willing to evangelize. It's good. It's often smart. It's damn pretty to look at and fucking hell if I didn't wish I had Christina Hendricks' body, one way or the other, but I don't see how the story telling and character work holds up on its own. There are fleeting moments of pathos (Next to Joan's rape last season, Sal's first homosexual encounter last night was by far the most emotionally involved I've yet been in the series), but for the most part, the show lives in the land of the cerebral, fealty to theme and concept above all else. So if you're not already prone to cultural navel gazing (and I am), I don't know what this show has to offer you.
"Mad Men" plays to our narcissism, our insatiable desire to feel smart, well heeled, classy and interesting. It is the TV show version of Don Draper, creating a want for something we don't need and looking fucking great doing it. I must admit, I have a lot of respect for this feat. Like an Escher painting or a Rubix cube, it's impressive. But is it excellent television? First-class story telling? I honestly don't know.
Angelina Burnett (formerly Beckyloo) is a television writer. She lives in Los Angeles and blogs at If a TV Falls in the Woods.