The 'Mad Men' Of Madison Avenue

The second season of AMC's Mad Men kicked off on Sunday. The award-winning drama dives into the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, cut-throat advertising world of Madison Avenue during the 1960s. TV critic Mary McNamara discusses the show, which recently received 16 Emmy nominations.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

Right now, the second season of AMC's "Mad Men" kicked off last night. The award-winning drama takes us into the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, cutthroat advertising world of Madison Avenue during the 1960s. And it's unapologetic about the time period. Executives - all men, of course - wear their sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism right alongside their gold-inlaid tie clips and starch lapels without a second thought, while the women - almost all secretaries - clearly compete for the eligible bachelors in the office.

(Soundbite of TV show "Mad Men")

Ms. CHRISTINA HENDRICKS: (As Joan Holloway) I don't know what your goals are, but don't overdo it with perfume. Keep a fifth of something in your desk. Mr. Draper drinks rye. Also, invest in some aspirin, band-aids, and a needle and thread.

Ms. ELISABETH MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) Rye is Canadian, right?

Ms. HENDRICKS: (As Joan Holloway) You'd better find out. He may act like he wants a secretary, but most of the time, they're looking for something between a mother and a waitress.

NEARY: That was Joan Holloway, secretary manager at the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency. She was giving newbie Peggy Olson some advice about how to get by at the office. The show has already won two Golden Globes, and recently got a whopping 16 Emmy nominations, including one for Best Drama Series. So, what is the appeal of "Mad Men"?

If you're a woman, are you conflicted about liking a show that depicts women who are treated so poorly? Why do you keep watching? Our number here in Washington, 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org and you can comment on our blog. It's at npr.org/blogofthenation. And joining us now is Mary McNamara. She's a television critic at the Los Angeles Times, and she joins us know from the studio there at the Times. Thanks for being with us, Mary.

Ms. MARY MCNAMARA (Television Critic, Los Angeles Times): Sure. Thanks for having me.

NEARY: Now, I have to admit that I'm a newcomer to this series, you know, having gotten interested in it, like many people, after hearing that it had won so many Emmy nominations and hearing a lot of buzz about it.

Ms. MCNAMARA: Right, right.

NEARY: But I gather that those who followed it through the first series would have seen that the creator, Matt Weiner, is completely unapologetic about sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism. How does that play out?

Ms. MCNAMARA: Well, I mean, he's depicting a time period in which most people were, at some level, sexist, racist, homophobic. I mean, it's the 1960 - or I guess, season two now, we're in 1962, and so, he is portraying the way it was. And so, it comes across, of course, to modern audiences, as fairly shocking that people are saying the things and doing the things that they are doing. But I think for people who lived through these times, particularly women, it resonates very much.

NEARY: Yeah. What is the appeal now for a younger generation of people? Is this history to them or what?

Ms. MCNAMARA: Well, I remember when I saw the pilot last year, and I mean, we were all blown out of the water. I mean, it's so beautiful, so well-written, so well-acted, and unlike anything else on television, that, you know, at first, you're just, like, sort of stunned by the beauty of it. And then you sort of realize, you know, that he's turned, like, this idea - Matt Weiner has turned, like, this idea of, you know, the Golden Age on its head.

And so you see, you know, how gorgeous everyone looks, but underneath it all, is like this sort of, you know, these oppressive mores and oppressive undergarments. I mean, and so I think, when I wrote about it, first I said, you know, this is - like, everyone under the age of 50 should be forced to watch this show, because you realize how - this was only a generation ago. This was my mother.

I mean, I remember my mother talking about being in the office and being treated this way, and maybe, you know, being given some responsibility, but never getting the raise, never getting the title, always having to deal with men being very patronizing. There's a reason there was a women's movement in the 1960s and the early '70s, and this is a very good indication of why there was one.

NEARY: That's really interesting what you said about people under 50 should be watching this show, because somebody, when we were talking about it today, said, this is what my grandmother experienced. And I said, ah, I don't think it was your grandmother we're talking about, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: But it was much...

Ms. MCNAMARA: Well, I think...

NEARY: It's much closer that we realized that that's the way.

Ms. MCNAMARA: Absolutely. It's a generation ago. I mean, I'm in my early 40s. So, I guess if you're in your early 20s, it could be your grandmother. But it - you know, this was my mother and we hear - we did a panel with the cast and with Matt earlier this - in the early summer, and there were women in the audience who were in their 50s, maybe their early 60s, and they were saying, I worked at a New York ad agency and this is the way it was. You know, you had to deal with the hand on the butt. You had to deal with the patronizing comments. You had to deal with the fact that you were working twice as hard for half as much money.

Now, I mean, obviously, "Mad Men" is a television show, and it's a highly stylized television show, and so, you know, liberties are being taken. All of the characters are amped up, and so, you know, you have to - it's creative, you know, control. And so - but I mean, in terms of, you know, tuning in and talking to some younger people, and they're like, people are saying these things! And you're just like, yes! I mean, I remember when I was a child, people did say horrifyingly anti-Semitic or racist or homophobic things and nobody thought twice about it. That's the way people talked.

NEARY: You know, given that you mention that it's highly stylized, I mean, how seriously - this is not a reality series we are talking about here.

Ms. MCNAMARA: No, no. I mean, and that is the wonder of it, is that it is so gorgeous, and so, you know, you're sort of pulled in by this portrait. And then he, like - and the writers just then, they twist the knife just a little bit, and you realize, oh, yeah, everybody looks like Grace Kelly. But you know, they don't think gays should be allowed to, you know, be alive, much less get married.

NEARY: Then the men respond differently to the show, do you think?

Ms. MCNAMARA: You know, I think everybody - everyone I know is just entranced by it, because, you know, first of all, I mean, it's so nice to see a show about grownups. It's a very grownup show, and it's not trying in any way to, like, sort of pander to an audience of teenagers. And so, I think that, you know, for some of us, that's kind of a relief, that they're dealing with - it's - you know, there's no violence. There's no - it's a psycho drama, and it's also, like, sort of a sociological exploration, which is something that you don't usually see. I mean, even with "The Sopranos," for example, you know, I mean, that was also, like, a really great personality-driven, you know, psychodrama. But it also had, like, gang-line shootings.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MCNAMARA: You know, "Mad Men" doesn't have that. "Mad Men" is all about the people, and also the times, and what's going to happen. And I think one of your earlier questions about the sexism, I think, you know, the fact that I can watch it as a woman, and on the one hand, you know, I'm sort of grateful that my life is not like this, but I can also watch it with this sort of delicious anticipation, you know, that sort of like, OK guys, enjoy it while it lasts, because, you know, 20 years from now, you're going to be sitting through the sexual-harassment seminars like the rest of us, you know, those who haven't been fired for it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: We're talking about the show - the series, "Mad Men," with Los Angeles Times television critic, Mary McNamara. We're going to take a call from Patty. She is calling us from Bend, Oregon. Hi, Patty.

PATTY (Caller): Hi. Oh, this is a great show, because I've been trying to watch this show. But I am 70 years old now. I was a feminist. I was part of the women's movement and I can tolerate about 10 minutes of the show, and then I have to pull away from it, and then I'll go back, because it is a great adult show.

NEARY: Is it because - did you work in an office, say, in early '60s and does it bring back memories or...?

PATTY: Well, the memories - I worked in medicine. First, I was a nurse, and the sexist attitude of the physicians and when you talk about, you're between a waitress and - what was the other one she used last night? "You're somewhere between a waitress and a mother," and I thought, yeah! That was the way it was in working with physicians. But we all kept out mouth shut and shuffled our feet. But I've been fired more times than I can tell you because I couldn't keep my mouth shut.

NEARY: So, is it painful for you to watch this? Is that what you're saying?

PATTY: Yeah, yeah, yeah! Well, it's not as painful, but it makes my skin crawl, because I so remember. And when I got out of nursing school, I moved to California so that I did not have to conform. And I was a single mother of four kids when I did that. So, I think the show is very important, and I liked what your guest said about, you just wait, you guys, you're going to get it a few years!

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Patty.

PATTY: Thank you for the show. Bye-bye.

NEARY: All right, great. We're going to go now to Bill. And Bill is calling from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Hi, Bill.

BILL (Caller): Hello, ladies.

NEARY: Hi.

Ms. MCNAMARA: Hi.

BILL: Yeah, my comment on the show is - well, first of all, as a little background, I worked in advertising in the '60s in Manhattan for (unintelligible). I saw what was going on and this show is, like, a really gross exaggeration. You know, they take a little bit of the truth, and like the critic said, amp it way up for dramatic purposes. It wasn't anything like - anywhere near that pervasive when I was there in the '60s and early '70s.

NEARY: But were you there in the..

BILLY: Yeah, and I think the last lady who called made a good point, the sexism wasn't confined to advertising. But the advertising makes a sexier show, maybe. I don't know.

NEARY: Probably. One question I have for you, were you there in the early '60s? Because I think this show is set, like - and I was thinking about this, I want to talk Mary about this, that it's going to have the changes that goes with the '60s, because I think things - by the time it was late '60s or early '70s, I think things were very different.

BILLY: I don't know. I didn't really notice any change. I got out of it because it was - what I thought I was interesting about advertising was not the sexism or racism, but the serious belief in what people are doing, which were basically selling products that people didn't need and it was kind of like a fantasy land. And all these people took themselves so seriously about it. But that to me would be a more interesting and dramatic point to advertising. It was people buying into it, believing it.

NEARY: OK, thanks for your call, Bill.

BILL: Sure.

NEARY: Mary, do we see any of that, what Bill just mentioned? I mean, apart from the sort of - what we're talking about, that they create this time period when there was sexism, racism, and deal with it very forthrightly. Do you sort of - is there any social commentary on the business itself?

Ms. MCNAMARA: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you know, when the pilot opened, it was with them trying to figure out how they could continue to market cigarettes after, you know, a report had come out basically saying cigarettes cause cancer. And so, yes, I think, you know, Matt Weiner has talked about that, that he was drawn to advertising because, especially during this time period, it was such an unbelievable force, and obviously continues to be such a huge force.

And I mean, it is kind of, you know, in a way, telling. I mean, after World War II, advertising was used pretty heavily to get women back into the home, out of the workplace, where they had gone when the man had gone to war. And so there is, like, sort of that undercurrent, too, that a lot of this advertising is being directed specifically at women, and specifically to sort of, you know, harden the roles that society has in place for them, and the show deals with that.

NEARY: Mary McNamara is a television critic for the Los Angeles Times. And you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Mary, I wanted to just read this email from Mina. It says, as a woman, I can place the behavior in the show in context. I love the show because it portrays a moment in time at the cusp of a huge shift in society. We know what that shift brings now, but I love watching the characters, almost oblivious to the shifts they are about to witness, meander and maneuver to their lives. I love it.

And then I wanted to ask you about that, because if the show continues to be a success, if it stays on for a few years, they are going to have to take these people through some big shifts.

Ms. MCNAMARA: Right, when we're going to have "Mad Men" hit "Swingtown," which is, of course, "The '70s Show."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MCNAMARA: Yeah, well, I mean, I don't know how - what, you know, what their projection is. I mean, they sort of - the show opened, last season, in 1960. I think now we're in 1962, though, the beginning of 1962. So, I think we've jumped about 18 months, if I'm right. And of course, yes, I mean, you know, I - one of my questions was, how soon do we have to endure the Kennedy assassinations? I mean, you know, I mean, we know what's coming, and a lot of it isn't great.

And so, I think the pilot, which aired last night, you do sort of - it was a very, like, kind of gentle sort of return, and there is just sort of this feeling of unease, I think, among many of the characters, because we know, as viewers, that, you know, big things are about to happen. So, yeah, I don't know what their plans are in terms of how far they see the narrative of arc of these people. So, I mean, that's just something that we can sort of look forward to us viewers.

NEARY: Let's see a call from Celeste in Richmond in Indiana, I think.

CELESTE (Caller): Hello?

NEARY: Hi, Celeste. Go ahead.

CELESTE: Hi. I just wanted to say that I have a really hard time watching the show, because - well, I'm in my mid-20s, and it's really strange to watch a show like that, and I feel like - like I'd really fall in love with the character, and that they would say something that's so shocking and it'd make me really like not like them anymore. So...

NEARY: Do you keep watching it or you just stop of watching it?

CELESTE: I had to stop watching it. It just - I would watch the show and I would be really - have this irritated feeling afterwards, and I was really irritated with a lot of women and - more so in the show than the men (unintelligible).

NEARY: Why do women?

CELESTE: Just the way that some of them acted, I didn't agree with. Like the main girl, who's - oh, I forget her name, but the ways she acts towards the other women and towards the men I just really disagreed with.

NEARY: OK.

Ms. MCNAMARA: That's probably Joan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call, Celeste.

CELESTE: Thanks.

NEARY: And you know, as I said, I haven't really - didn't really watch the show in the first seasons. So, I just watched it last night, but I heard that from other people who watched the show, that it's, for women, it's frustrating to watch how the women sort of buy into the attitudes towards - these negative attitudes towards women.

Ms. MCNAMARA: Well, I mean, I think it's a historical show, and I think if - I mean, what would be, I think, more disturbing is if you had a show set during this time period in which there was a totally modern sensibility, you know, where you would be saying, well, women didn't act like that, obviously.

But you know, I think that probably what we're going to see this season, and which do we saw a little bit, you know, towards the end of last season, is some of the women, you know, thinking to themselves, you know, no, this is not OK. And I think of that's probably where some of the characters are going to go. At least I hope that's where some of the characters are going to go, because, yes, it is very sad to think of them just sort of trapped like that. Although, unfortunately, that's the way many women were.

NEARY: Now, let's take one more call from Lacy in Salt Lake City, Utah. Hi, Lacy.

LACY (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Hi. Go ahead.

LACY: I just wanted to comment, although I watch the show with my grandmother, who - and we both absolutely love it. But one thing that she commented on and one thing I agree with is even though the women are putting up with so much, it was such a different point in time in which divorce did not happen. Like, families stayed together. It was taboo, in a way, to get divorced.

And like, even though there's been so many wonderful things that have happened (unintelligible) the women's movement, it seems, like, plastered on the tabloids every day is just celebrities getting married and divorced, and married and divorced, and there just seems to be - nobody seems to put in the effort to really make it through a marriage, like they used to, through even some of the horrendous things.

NEARY: Mm-hm. That's interesting.

LACY: So, I've really, really like that aspect of it, even though it shows torture of the women and what they go through.

NEARY: OK.

LACY: I think it shows their strength.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for your call, Lacy.

LACY: Thanks.

NEARY: Interesting perspective, and she watches it with her grandmother, which is kind of fun.

Ms. MCNAMARA: That is nice.

NEARY: And we may - in fact, I would think, as this show proceeds along, it might not be surprising probably that somebody may get divorced one of these days.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: It could last long enough.

Ms. MCNAMARA: Right.

NEARY: Thanks so much for joining us today, Mary.

Ms. MCNAMARA: My pleasure.

NEARY: Mary McNamara is a television critic at the Los Angeles Times. She joins us today from studio - a studio there at the Times. And this is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

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