Once upon a time the cable channel American Movie Classics (AMC) never seemed to air a film made after 1975. After all, a movie made too recently would be hard-pressed to earn the title of "classic." Yet, just as there are almost no music videos on MTV and VH1 anymore, no arts on A%amp%E, and no educational programming on The Learning Channel, AMC has moved away from its core mission in search of viewers. This week, some of those iconic, classic American movies on AMC's schedule include Halloween 4, Raising Helen, and Marked for Death. And now, with the introduction of "Mad Men," a television show about Madison Avenue advertising executives in 1960, AMC is offering a foray into original programming.
Created, produced, and written by Matthew Weiner, a writer and executive producer for the most iconic and definitively American television show in recent history, "The Sopranos," "Mad Men" has garnered a huge amount of critical praise. (Buzz that AMC was counting on, it seems: "I think those reviews were 90 percent of the business plan," Weiner told The New York Times. Gee, that's 90 percent of the business plan for my great American novel, too--good reviews. No sweat.) But, where sex and violence were splashed liberally throughout "The Sopranos," the lustful, simmering anger of "Mad Men" lurks behind closed doors and under the thick, shellacked veneer of those who care an awful lot about what other people are thinking. And, despite high praise from the Times, People, and the Los Angeles Times ("The pilot of AMC's new original series 'Mad Men' is not so much a pilot as an hourlong seduction"), "Mad Men" is ultimately as self-indulgent and annoying as its terminally repressed characters.
Much has been made of "Mad Men"'s incredible production values. Filmed in rich whiskey hues with excruciating attention to detail--every lampshade, scotch glass, and ashtray looks teleported from that era--the show is highly stylized and even beautiful, more reminiscent of a movie than any television show. Take the scene where the main character, Don Draper, man among men and ad exec extraordinaire, tries to wash his hands in the powder room of his home. After being assaulted by a barrage of bubblegum-pink tchotchkes, including a porcelain hand holding an artfully sculpted bar of fuchsia soap and a miniature floral hand-towel set perched on a towel tree, Draper thinks better of touching anything and wipes his hands on his shirt. You can practically smell the deep rose-scented air-freshening stick that is surely stuck behind the toilet.
It's a terrific backdrop. The problem is that it's not treated as such. The objects on set are not just props, but mini-characters that become the center of attention by screaming, Look how authentic I am! When Draper emerges from the room, he and his wife even have a little chat about it--beginning with Betty Draper teasing gratingly, "You didn't use the powder room did you?" and ending a few moments later with a knowing Aren't men silly? look that could have come straight from a sitcom of that same era. The entire exchange is apropos of nothing. One can't help but feel that the set designer scored some super neat-o bathroom accessories and Weiner was keen to show them off.
Most reviewers seem to find this just delectable. As The New York Times noted, "To a style aficionado, 'Mad Men' is that rare TV show in which an ashtray, a lipstick or an aerosol tin gets star treatment, and is a protagonist in its own right." I, on the other hand, found it insufferable.
Throughout "Mad Men," corny references to the show's moment in time come thudding down on the viewer, alive with self-consciousness. The head secretary practically winks at the audience before telling the "new girl" not to be intimidated by the "technology" as she reveals a boxy, avocado-green electric typewriter. Draper chastises a subordinate for stealing a report from his trash, which he knows must have been the case because it's not like there's "some magic copying machine" around the office. And after being shown a mock-up of a space-themed advertisement, he riffs on how ridiculous it is to think that we would ever go to space. Then there are so many references to how none of the characters--even pregnant women--seriously believe cigarettes are bad for them (insert annoying "we know better now" coughing fit here), it's maddening. I get it: It's 1960! Now move on.
But they don't move on. Or rather, they have nowhere to go. "Mad Men," it turns out, is all ambience and no action. For all the effort put into making the sets as vivid as possible, the show sorely lacks for character development. Like a bad soap opera, the only plot seems to be a mind-numbingly slow march toward sex. That and a barrage of sexual harassment, which is as equally literal as the rest of the show. In one episode two different scenes include two different jokes about how stupid wives are (e.g., Your wife and your lawyer are drowning. Who do you save? Neither!): Get it? Marriage itself is a joke. Ah so, Weiner San. In the man's world of the '60s, having a mistress is no big deal, prowling the secretary pool like Clarence Thomas is the norm, and treating your wife like a lackey with privileges is par for the course. The new secretary, Peggy, is sent by a co-worker to a special doctor to get on the pill, is slobbered over like fresh meat by every man in the office, throws herself at Draper, and then sleeps with the junior executive she previously found most loathsome. And that's just her first day on the job. The next day she cries after one too many lascivious leers.
Sometimes it seems that what Weiner wants you to get is that we were dumb as rocks in 1960. When Betty Draper notices her daughter running around the house with a plastic dry-cleaning bag over her head, she chastises the child for removing the clothes--not for endangering herself. I guess we didn't have suffocation back in 1960. We didn't have walking either: Weiner's gossipy neighborhood queens are outright perplexed by the newly arrived divorcee's penchant for taking walks. Never mind that taking an evening constitutional is as old as the hills and that strolling certainly pre-dated the '60s. Finally, no one recognizes that the gay guy is gay. But I knew he was gay, because he takes every moment to say things like: Boy do I love women. I sure can't wait to see a naked woman. I just want to be alone with a naked woman. Yes siree. For all of the realism the set provides, the human elements of the show seem like dim-witted caricatures.
Ultimately, "Mad Men" seems to be attempting satire without a plan. The mood is serious, not campy, and there aren't laugh-out-loud moments, just a lot of groaners--at which point, the show simply becomes a reflection of its characters: depressing. It turns out that watching moody, cruel men and unsatisfied, put-upon women for an hour just isn't that much fun.
Correction: This article has been changed from the original to reflect that "Mad Men" is not AMC's first original program. We regret the error.
By Sacha Zimmerman