For the past two days I've been drowning my sorrows in Season 1 of Mad Men, an experience that not only brought on a lot of heavy drinking and smoking, but made me cheat on my wife as well.
Season 2 begins Sunday night, and seeing as how it's received such enormous critical acclaim, I thought it best to jump on the bandwagon now, since I obviously missed it last summer when it first rolled down my street.
I actually started watching Mad Men last year, but opted out after two or three episodes. Exactly why is a mystery, since everything about the show seemed designed to hit my sweet spot. It's set in the early sixties, my absolute favorite epoch, when men were unrepentant adulterers, women were frustrated housewives, interiors were sleek, smoking was cool and happy hour was whatever time it happened to be. And it revolves around the intrigue and political machinations inside an advertising agency -- an industry I know all too well. And yet, I stopped watching. What I didn't know then is that Mad Men is like an office party, one that doesn't really get going until late into the evening.
Maybe the first eight episodes were busy setting up the characters and conflicts, because Mad Men didn't become truly funny and inappropriate until the last four. Sure, there were plenty of scenes with pregnant women drinking mai tais and smoking cigarettes in the beginning, but they paled in comparison to a character bringing a rifle to the office and not inciting panic, or the sight of a grown man riding through the executive suite on the back of a model wearing only a bra and panties.
I think that's one of the show's greatest charms, watching these characters say and do things that would bring down the wrath of the HR department in our more politically correct times.
It's also hilarious every time the characters talk about how hard they work, since it seems the bulk of their business day is taken up with smoking, drinking, womanizing and gossiping, with occasional breaks for long lunches and shopping excursions. Yeah, I know, Mad Men isn't supposed to be reality, no more than Carrie Bradshaw's fabulous lifestyle on a writer's salary was in Sex in the City.
And yet. From everything I've heard, advertising truly was a glamorous business once upon a time, one filled with travel to exotic lands, unlimited expense accounts and workplace tomfoolery, all of it in the name of manipulating the American public to buy things they didn't need with money they didn't have. Those must have been the days.
It's a different business now. Advertising agencies -- especially those lacking a firm grasp of the interactive disciplines -- are running scared. TV commercials, formally an agency's bread and butter and caviar and champagne, are a much smaller part of the business, since fewer people watch TV and most of those who are zap past the spots. Clients expect results, not just pretty pictures, snappy copy and catchy jingles. And, saddest of all, people work their asses off now, trying like hell to keep the boat they're in afloat and hoping like hell that another big ship will come in.
I miss the early sixties, even though I never experienced them. But, as my friend Jonathan keeps reminding me during every episode of Mad Men, "all those people are dead now." He's probably right. But at least back then they lived.