A Rough Reality Beneath a Slick Surface

Jon Hamm as Don Draper, one of the handsome faces and narrow minds from AMC's
Jon Hamm as Don Draper, one of the handsome faces and narrow minds from AMC's "Mad Men." (Amc)
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By Robin Givhan
Sunday, July 27, 2008

It's no surprise that members of the fashion industry are enamored of the AMC series "Mad Men." It is a beautiful homage to early '60s style. The women are perfectly turned out in shirtwaist dresses, red lipstick and professionally set hair. The men are dapper in their business suits, French cuffs and pocket squares.

The designer Michael Kors of "Project Runway" fame is such a fan of the show -- which tells the story of advertising men at the end of the Eisenhower era and the women who must deal with them -- that he hosted an advance screening of the Season 2 debut last week.

The show, which airs tonight, strives to be authentic to the times, from the carbon paper used in the secretarial pool to the foundation garments worn by the women and the hat protocol observed by the men. In the name of historical accuracy, "Mad Men" is also racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-Semitic. And just for good measure, the characters are also dismissive of youth culture, judgmental of divorcees and convinced that children are second-class citizens.

Throughout the screening, the usual fashion suspects -- a multiethnic mix of gay and straight, male and female -- sipped wine, laughed and tittered at the bad behavior on the screen. The show is both offensive and fascinating. Funny and appalling. And everyone looks spectacular.

Those glossy good looks gin up nostalgia for a period when even the average person was a thousand times as glamorous as his or her counterpart today. Lead character Don Draper walks his dog in a balmacaan and a fedora. His wife, Betty, takes a riding lesson with her hair twisted into an elegant bun and a silk scarf tucked into her shirt collar. Even the couple's housekeeper keeps her hair in a French twist and wears a pristine day dress to oversee the children. Everything has such a sheen, it is irresistible.

The show balances the shiny facade with a core ugliness that is nonchalant and pervasive. An adman wonders if the firm has a Jewish employee who could sit in on a meeting to make a prospective client, who is Jewish, feel more comfortable. If the question itself isn't offensive enough, the answer -- of course not -- makes sure the viewer is horrified. When male account executives ask the secretaries for their opinion on a client's line of lipsticks, the men mostly dismiss the giggly feedback as if it were the ramblings of a 5-year-old. You hate the men for being demeaning. You hate the women for being clueless and helpless.

"Mad Men" isn't satire. You don't get the feeling that the show, in its willingness to relegate black characters to elevator operators and lunch cart attendants, is attempting to self-consciously ridicule this historic truth but merely to represent it accurately. When the men call the secretaries "girls" and the women respond, the moments aren't played for irony. Instead it's meant to be a glimpse of life through a time machine.

The show's depiction of this sort of prejudice isn't unique. But the tone is striking. Typically, popular culture depicts racists and sexists as evil characters in need of redemption: red-faced men with hick accents, pinch-faced women with cruel mouths, or sleazy lotharios who exude the hygiene of a petri dish. These men are handsome and charming. Even the ambitious Pete Campbell has his moments.

TV shows and movies have a tendency to explain these prejudices as arising from damaged souls. But these admen don't seem particularly damaged -- tough childhoods notwithstanding. They are not the victims of cultural attitudes; they are the perpetuators of them.

These men are not buffoons, either. It is not as if at the end of each episode their bad behavior leads to their comeuppance. There are no Archie Bunkers or George Jeffersons here. No one learns a lesson about acceptance or tolerance, which was the subtext of virtually every episode of "American Dreams," the television show about a family in the 1960s. There's no Tracy Turnblad to dance away racism. No "Nine to Five" victory lap.

Other shows, such as "I'll Fly Away," have dealt with that transitional time, that shift from cultural traditionalism to revolution, but always, it seems, with an apologetic point of view. It's not that the audience needs to be told that a particular behavior is unacceptable. It's more that the creators of the show need to reassure audiences that they don't condone it. They don't want to look like they're having too much fun. "Mad Men" isn't embarrassed to have a good time.

It's tempting to wish that "Mad Men" had engaged in a bit of colorblind casting. It would be good for the soul to see a black woman in the secretarial pool or to see a black actor getting to have one of those three-martini lunches. But the show is stubborn in its portrayal of the times. This is how it would have been. The one Italian American executive is akin to an exotic bird. (Perhaps, in an upcoming episode, the show will follow the elevator operator home. Or maybe viewers will learn a bit more about the Drapers' housekeeper. Where does she live? Is her life as hollow as that of the coddled Betty Draper?) The story is told from the perspective of an omniscient narrator, one whose perspective reflects the times. The narrator only really sees white people.

"Mad Men" revels in the glossy, well-groomed outer layers of the time. And it admits to the inequalities and the cruelties. What makes it so compelling -- and discomforting -- is that even with the ugly truth laid out so unflinchingly, it's hard to resist fantasizing about looking that good.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company