Now into the middle of the third season of “Mad Men” on Netflix, I continue to be bemused by the lofty critiques of the show in places like the London Review of Books and the journal that inspired it, the New York Review of Books. In the October 2008 LRB, Mark Greif complained:
Mad Men flatters us where we deserve to be scourged. As I see it, the whole spectacle has the bad faith of, say, an 18th-century American slaveholding society happily ridiculing a 17th-century Puritan society – ‘Look, they used to burn their witches!’ – while secretly envying the ease of a time when you could still tie uppity women to the stake. If we’ve managed to become less credulous about advertising, to make it more normal and the bearer of more reasonable expectations, perhaps in 50 years’ time viewers will look back on the silly self-congratulatory subtexts of Mad Men, shake their heads, and be grateful that gender and sexual tolerance have likewise been normalised.
In February 2011, Daniel Mendelsohn told NYR readers that the show was pretty much a load of crap:
The writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the acting is, almost without exception, bland and sometimes amateurish.
He also repeats Greif’s charge that the show maintains an ill-deserved superiority complex:
To my mind, the picture is too crude and the artist too pleased with himself. In Mad Men, everyone chain-smokes, every executive starts drinking before lunch, every man is a chauvinist pig, every male employee viciously competitive and jealous of his colleagues, every white person a reflexive racist (when not irritatingly patronizing). It’s not that you don’t know that, say, sexism was rampant in the workplace before the feminist movement; it’s just that, on the screen, the endless succession of leering junior execs and crude jokes and abusive behavior all meant to signal “sexism” doesn’t work—it’s wearying rather than illuminating.
When I first posted about Mad Men, after viewing the entire first season, I defended it against such charges, drawing upon my experiences at Metropolitan Life in 1968, on the very floor that served as a backdrop for Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment”. If you’ve seen “The Apartment”, you’ll recognize the similarities between it and “Mad Men” right off the bat. This is no accident since Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, counts this movie as one of his prime influences:
Billy Wilder wrote it with I. L. Diamond – this is like one of the great writing teams of all time, and just the cinema in it, the stuff that’s done…I’d like to claim a relationship to ‘Mad Men’ for that, too. Spoiler alert: Things like the champagne cork going off and you think it’s a suicide. The tennis racket. The compact with the crack in it. The restaurant with the drinks in it. How things are shaping up ‘cookie-wise.’ That’s a contemporary movie. People were seeing people that they knew. It was done in a very sort of classic kind of way. It’s masterful storytelling.
That’s my relationship to it: that it’s one of my favorite movies. I saw it and realized that it was the apex of a period that I had already been fascinated with. I loved the characters, and just writing-wise I always try and emulate that kind of storytelling, where the payoffs are visual and there’s a lot of misunderstanding, but they’re believable. And the bad guys have a reason for what they do. And casting. Do not forget who Fred MacMurray was when they put in that part. The grimiest guy that he had ever been was in ‘Double Indemnity.’ He was the schmuck in that. In this thing he was really a dark character.
If I was really a bit young to be a character in “Mad Men”, that can’t be said about my two old friends from Bard College I interviewed above. A good five years older than me, they are exactly the same age as the junior copywriters who would have worked under the lead character Don Draper.
Both of them had a connection to advertising, one brief and one fairly long term. Jeffrey Marlin’s first job was as a copywriter for a direct mail outfit. Trudging off to work in an office each day (one likely much smaller than Met Life) persuaded him to look for a gig that he could do at home. This led to a very long career with Xerox Learning Systems that ended a few years ago. I understand what went into this decision psychologically since I used to return home from Met Life each day wondering whether I would be able to do this for the rest of my life. Fortunately I found computer programming less of a drag, if not something akin to playing games, than just about any other corporate job.
Richard Greener’s long career in radio started off selling advertising but evolved into a management position, including serving as president of WAOK in Atlanta, a Black radio station that he helped to push in a progressive direction—including sympathetic reporting on Sandinista Nicaragua.
But a good friend of Richard and Jeffrey probably epitomized the “Mad Men” ethos a lot more than either of them. Leonard Leokum, who died about five years ago, was the son of acclaimed author Arkady Leokum and a figure without about the same clout in the advertising business as Don Draper. Although I never really knew Leonard, I used to get a chuckle out of Richard and Jeffrey referring to him as the brains behind the Juan Valdez coffee commercials. We differed on the “political correctness” of the ad, with my friends making the case that Juan Valdez was a subtle symbol of Latin American national aspirations.
In my interview with Jeffrey and Richard, they told me that they had no interest in the show with Richard adding that it would probably make him sick to watch it. After doing the interview, I reflected a bit on the show and what is probably its greatest failing, something not truly addressed in the LRB and the NYRB articles—namely the absence of any character working in the industry who saw through its bullshit.
“Mad Men” has a character or two who spout Marxish comments about advertising but are mainly portrayed as hypocrites whose leftist politics are disjoined from ethical lapses of one sort or another. There are also some characters who seem aware of the beat generation but again don’t truly “get it”. In Bob Dylan’s words:
Something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones
Well, there were people who knew what was happening, especially Jeffrey and Richard (and Leonard as well, I’m sure). At some point during my retirement, I plan to do a series of interviews with ex-SWP members who will be willing to share their experiences with the young activists of today, just as I benefited from conversations with George Novack back in 1967.
But I doubt that any conversation I have with them will be half as stimulating and as eye opening as that I had with Jeffrey and Richard.
By Jeffrey Marlin:
Jeffrey Marlin has also just released a 1300-page opus on Amazon Kindle. It’s entitled Tales of the Great Moral Symmetry, by J. Marlin, and includes five complete verse-novels: The Three Wicked Pigs; Jack and the Time Stalk; Boots: By Puss Possessed; The Outlaw Rumplestiltskin; and Snow White and the 7 Deadly Sins. You’ll find some more-or-less progressive social commentary around the edges, and whether or not it’s your idea of great literature, I can guarantee you’ve never read anything like it. Comrades with Kindles may want to have a look.
My review of Richard Greener’s “The Knowland Retribution: the Locator”: