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Mad Men: stirred, about to be shaken

Mad Men’s Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) navigates the shoals of male egos and sexism at the Sterling Cooper advertising agency in the early 1960s.

AMC

Mad Men’s Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) navigates the shoals of male egos and sexism at the Sterling Cooper advertising agency in the early 1960s.

Grab your fedora hats and kitten heels people, the new season of Mad Men is about to begin. Add a Tom Collins or a scotch neat to get in the mood.

The AMC drama about life in the early 1960s is starting its fourth season tonight. Our flawed hero, Don Draper, is launching a new advertising agency with his old partners after events forced them to leave their cocooned world of Sterling Cooper. Gone are those bottomless expense accounts, though the bottomless office bar undoubtedly traveled with them.

I have been awaiting the beginning of the fourth season. I love the show's time capsule approach — part Helen Gurley Brown, part Good Housekeeping. Though I wasn't an instant fan, Mad Men insinuated itself into my life the way advertising subtly seduces people to want what they don't need.

At first I would shrug when friends recommended Mad Men. Why would I want to relive a time when women were secretaries, black men operated elevators, and male prerogative included philandering? But after watching a few episodes I was intrigued. First by the pitch-perfect sets and costumes, and then by the characters. Draper, played with sublime understatement by Jon Hamm, is as much an enigma to himself as to the viewer. He is a paragon of empty success where nothing in life is secure or more than momentarily fulfilling.

The veneer of perfection masking dysfunction is an old story line, but the show's creator, Matthew Weiner, brings a freshness to it by letting the vacuous Grace Kelly lookalike Betty Draper slowly discover that she is living a lie, married to a stranger — one born with hayseeds in his teeth.

Cheating on her with other women is one thing, but Betty could not countenance having a husband with a base pedigree. It would have destroyed her vision of herself as a wife of status. She's last seen getting out of the marriage.

The women are what make Mad Men so compelling. Their coming societal advances are well telegraphed: Betty's boredom at being a full-time mother. The talented and ambitious Peggy navigating the shoals of male egos and sexism. Carla, the black maid, watching the civil rights movement unfold in America's racist South even as her own life prospects in the North are constrained by race. Women secretaries using sexuality as power, because no other source is available.

Everyone is chafing against their cultural moorings, while on the cusp of an awakening. We know those ubiquitous cigarettes will soon disappear from offices along with the male clubhouse atmosphere, where the roue Roger Sterling feels free to quip, "Once they hit 30, it's like someone turns off a light" and "When God closes a door, he opens a dress."

Soon working will no longer be what women do until their boss dumps his wife, as Sterling did to wife Mona, or until their husband finishes medical training, a la Joan. Women will gain opportunities at the same time the American economy begins denying men the ability to solely support a middle-class family, shifting power within marriages and eroding sex roles.

Cigarettes are the series' great props. As much as the midcentury modern furnishings and the wet-head hair, they are what place the characters in a vintage time. I'm old enough to remember living in a cloud of smoke — at home, in the car, at a restaurant. If one peeked into the teachers' lounge at school, stale cigarettes is what you'd smell. Yuck.

There isn't much about the Mad Men era I'd take back. Certainly not the cultural mores, the blithe littering or all that inappropriate drinking. But I admit to some satisfaction in seeing Don and Betty not hover over their children. Maybe young people wouldn't be so entitled and self-absorbed if their parents enjoyed the adult realms of life without their children always being in tow. Could we have some of that back?

Okay gentlemen, start your cocktail shakers. I'll see all you Madders by the watercooler. Up-do hair and skinny ties optional.

Mad Men: stirred, about to be shaken 07/24/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 23, 2010 3:44pm]

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