April 13, 2010

One "Mad Man's" Meltdown


By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor

My m.o. almost never includes debating my Publisher in public. This is not the smartest thing for an essayist--let alone a former Madison Avenue creative hotshot from the 60s on up--to be doing. But Wendy McHale's take on the third installment of AMC's continuing Thursday night series, "Mad Men," doesn't fully come to grips with the increasingly creepy portrait of advertising and its Manhattan practitioners half a century ago.


Because the show is starting to deaden many people's perceptions of what was once a very exciting and evocative era in advertising, I want to add some clarification to your viewings of Matthew Weiner's project. His shabby show is fronted by the theme, "Where The Truth Lies," and the truth is what's so sorely missing in this 13-hour marathon.


"Mad Men" is steadily centering around the professional and personnel life of Don Draper, the agency's creative director. Weiner has owned up to having based Draper's name on Draper Daniels, who was a major (and hugely talented) creative agency head who also founded and ran his own successful shop in the 60s. I pointed this out in my review of the first show over three weeks ago. Don Draper bears no relation to the Draper Daniels I admired and in fact once met.


In the first two episodes, we watch Don, who always looks and dresses like a Van Heusen model, trying without success to noodle up an idea--any idea--for the agency's major cigarette account. He dumps the conclusions on smoking by his female research head--a cold and cynical satirization of Dr. Herta Herzog, the leading motivational researcher of the era. (Several readers have emailed me seconding their ire at Weiner's sour misrepresentation.) Don walks into his cigarette presentation without an idea in his head to present.


Although the show's layout of offices suggests a large and bustling agency, Don apparently has only one art director and a couple of copywriters reporting to him, and none of them are shown creating or discussing much work. The guy Don seems worried about is, of all people, a 26-year-old junior suit, who's just gotten married and seems far more interested in Don's new young secretary. Don's already given that youngster the once-over and maybe decided she's too young (but don't bet the rent he'll keep feeling that way).


In last week's third episode, Don's distracted on his train ride in from Ossining by a magazine open to Doyle Dane Bernbach's ground-breaking "Lemon" ad for Volkswagen. In a short meeting with his glum, unresponsive staff, DDB's "Lemon" and "Think Small" ads for VW are again referenced and bitterly dismissed. Although the connection is never made with the "Jewish agencies" that are sniffed at by Draper and his CEO, Doyle Dane was at that time building a world-class roster of retail and national clients that included Ohrbach's department store and Levy's Real Jewish Rye. By contrast, Don's group is moping around trying to think up lines for an OTC gastric relief product, which the creatives also seem to feel is beneath them.


Indeed, the mystery is why Don's new client, a smart and sophisticated Manhattan retailer who happens to be Jewish, would bring her business at all to a shop in which no one had taken any interest in even visiting. She's looking for an agency to re-position her father's business more toward the Bendel's shopper and away from the Ohrbach's crowd that DDB is handling so well. In the third episode, Don's again embarrassed in front of a client by his agency's lack of preparation, but he promises that everyone on the account will at least come over for a visit. Does Matthew Weiner really believe agencies ever worked like this?


And so Don pays a visit, and immediately after his tour, he quickly gathers his attractive client into a tentative embrace. This is following the not-so-warm embraces we've seen him being given by both his sultry, bored mistress and his white-bread blond wife (whose hands are starting to shake from perhaps some psychological trauma).


What the third episode of "Mad Men" is mostly devoted to is Don's meltdown in Ossining, during a long drunken Saturday at his young daughter's birthday party. Don spends the morning before the party putting together an outdoor playhouse, while he tears tabs and puts away a six-pack. Then he quietly switches to scotch-on-the-rocks, his usual choice at home, in restaurants, and from the fully-equipped bar in his office. Now the woman who's eying him is the attractive new divorcee in the neighborhood who joins the party late, quickly establishing herself as the one Ossining homemaker with a brain in her head. Don's been shooting the party with a hand-held 8mm camera, and after filming another couple kissing in the kitchen, he's thinking his own marriage may be unraveling. (Maybe he's toying through his boozy haze with making that divorcee the fourth trophy in his stable in just three program episodes.)


And then, alone, he starts out to pick up the birthday cake but winds up at the Ossining station, where he sits behind the wheel moodily staring at the train tracks. Finally he forgets the cake and buys an enormous dog for the birthday girl and his bewildered wife. Don, who hardly appears to be the smartest guy in the room at work, is starting to lose his slick personal edge, which is the only thing that's keeping him afloat. For that matter, a number of his soused male neighbors are joining him in Behaving Badly over the bourbon and the frozen Sara-Lee cake that the divorcee has helpfully brought over in Don's absence.


I started this essay calling "Mad Men" an increasingly creepy portrait of advertising denizens during the era. What's beginning to creep in, and what I want to alert you to, is a 1972 novel by Jack Dillon called "The Advertising Man." Dillon was a crackerjack senior writer at Doyle Dane during the 60s that Matthew Weiner is blundering through. Jack later became creative manager of DDB, writing the well-remembered Garner/Hartley campaign for Polaroid as well as memorable campaigns for accounts as varied as Avis and Winchester Rifles. He was part of Bill Bernbach's multi-ethnic A-team that included legends like Helmet Krone, Phyllis Robinson, Paula Green and Bob Levinson--some of the greatest talents in the history of the business. These men and women grew advertising's creative revolution of the 60s, while smarmy shops like Don Draper's self-absorbed snake pit languished in obscurity on the far sidelines.


Jack Dillon's novel, published by Harper's Magazine Press, is about the wheels falling off the career and marriage of a 48-year-old Mad Ave copy chief. I'm re-reading it as "Mad Men" lurches along, and you may want to dig up a copy on Abebooks.com and do the same. Dillon's novel is very tough and very focused on an insider's view of the ad business, during hours and after-hours. At this writing there were 36 copies of the novel available online through Abe dealers, starting at one dollar. If you want to know where the truthful divide between fact and fiction really lies, Jack Dillon's "Advertising Man” is the book to start after any of "Mad Men's" next episodes end.


What did you think? What was your favorite/worst scene? Click on MAD MEN SURVEY to vote and then click on MAD MEN RESULTS to review responses!

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