Maddening 'Mad Men' And Its Redemptive St. Joan The Emmy-darling AMC TV series devotes an almost fetishistic attention to style. But is there any substance beyond the surfaces? Critic-at-large John Powers goes looking — and comes back with one especially well-rounded answer.
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Maddening 'Mad Men' And Its Redemptive St. Joan

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Maddening 'Mad Men' And Its Redemptive St. Joan

Maddening 'Mad Men' And Its Redemptive St. Joan

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The AMC series "Mad Men" is a drama focused on the world of Madison Avenue advertising in the 1960s. Now in its third season, the show has won both a devoted cult audience and countless awards, recently winning its second consecutive Emmy as Best Dramatic Series.

Our critic-at-large John Powers says it's a good example of how to do a period show, and how not to.

JOHN POWERS: There are some TV shows you love and watch religiously. There are others that drive you crazy — you skip those. And then there's a teasing third category, shows that drive you crazy and you still watch religiously. For me such a show is "Mad Men."

The media just loves this series, which is centered on the Sterling Cooper ad agency in the early 1960s. The acclaim is easy to understand, for "Mad Men" goes out of its way to flaunt its importance. It all but laminates your eyeballs with its style. The show not only makes a fetish of period detail — Web sites ponder every song choice, every cigarette pack — but the relentlessly studied way it's shot and acted often turns its characters into design elements, which in a sense they are. Most of the characters are less three-dimensional human beings than concepts — even their darkest secrets feel schematic.

The hero, Don Draper, is a type - the disillusioned ad man who's fleeing his past. His spouse, Betty, is a suburban housewife who's going quietly mad. Peggy is a young copywriter who's battling sexism with history on her side — women are starting to rise in the workplace. There's the deluded bohemian Paul, the closeted gay Sal, and the agency's erstwhile boss, Roger Sterling, a privileged bon vivant who's being squeezed out by serious corporate types.

The same schematism shapes the show's vision of history. Like a CliffsNotes for the early '60s, "Mad Men" boldfaces passe attitudes, making it easy for us to notice — and feel superior to — the era's sexism, anti-semitism, racism and littering. Even worse, it tends to hit every historical touchstone like a gong. It's not enough for season three to be heading toward JFK's assassination. Roger's daughter has to plan her wedding for that very same weekend.

This would annoy me less were the show not so glum. But for some reason, creator Matthew Weiner has chosen to depict Kennedy administration America — renowned for its twist-and-shout optimism — as if it were the Antonioni administration. As one who lived through these years, I hope that young people don't actually think that "Mad Men" captures how things were really like back then. Here control freak Don returns home from work, joyless as ever, to find Betty, joyless as ever.

(Soundbite of the TV show, "Mad Men")

Mr. JON HAMM (Actor): (As Don Draper) What's wrong?

Ms. JANUARY JONES (Actor): (As Betty Draper) Roger Sterling called. He pretended to be calling for you and then he started on me about your contract.

Mr. HAMM: (As Don Draper) What?

Ms. JONES (Actor): (As Betty Draper) Your contract, Don? It was very uncomfortable. What are you doing?

Mr. HAMM: (As Don Draper) What do you think? I'm calling him.

Ms. JONES (Actor): (As Betty Draper) Don't.

Mr. HAMM: (As Don Draper) Betts, don't worry about my job.

Ms. JONES (Actor): (As Betty Draper) Why would I? I don't know anything about it? They offered you a contract and you didn't say a damn thing to me. I had to hear about it from him. And why the hell won't you sign it?

Mr. HAMM: (As Don Draper) It doesn't concern you. You're taken care of.

Ms. JONES (Actor): (As Betty Draper) Why won't you sign it?

Mr. HAMM: (As Don Draper) Let me explain something to you about business, since as usual you're turning this into something about yourself. No contract means I have all the power. They want me but they can't have me.

Ms. JONES (Actor): (As Betty Draper) You're right. Why would I think that has anything to do with me?

POWERS: So why do I keep watching? Not for the show's big ideas but for the unexpected tendrils of life that sprout between their cracks. The ambitious accounts man, Pete, giddily dancing with his wife; Sal doing his impersonation of Ann-Margret; a smarty-pants Brit getting run over by a tractor in the office; or the bedroom banter between Roger and the voluptuous office manager Joan, which actually does capture some of the Kennedy era's erotic brio.

And at its best, "Mad Men" gets to things that feel original. Nowhere is this clearer than in its portrait of Joan, a kind of female character I'm not sure I've ever encountered before, an impressive woman doomed to unhappiness because she's caught on the wrong side of history. Her fate is written on her flesh, the busty, full-hipped, Monroe-era body that fell out of fashion in the early 1960s and has yet to make a comeback.

Magnificently played by Christina Hendricks, Joan is smart, funny, sexually canny, and supremely competent. She can play "C'est Magnifique" on the accordion or save a man's life by applying a tourniquet as those around her are panicking. There's just one problem. Joan has perfected the traditional career girl strategy of getting a job, having some laughs, then landing a good husband — in her case a doctor. Then she discovers that her husband isn't what she dreamed, and even more unsettling, that the world is changing. Men will now hire women to do creative jobs in advertising. But because she played the sexy office manager so effectively, men will never hire her to do them, even if she's more talented than the men are.

Caught between the past and the future, Joan is the show's most complex and compelling figure. Warm and calculating, angry and ebullient, ravishingly sexy and distressingly backwards about race, she's no angel. But she is human.

With Joan, "Mad Men" comes closest to doing what it ought to do. It lets us understand how people actually lived and breathed during those years rather than merely telling us what their lives meant and how cool the whole thing looked.

GROSS: John Powers writes the Absolute Powers column at Vogue Daily online. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site,

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