'Mad Men' Gets It Right: Booze, Sex, Secrets

' Mad Men,' accurate and compelling, tackles the JFK assassination this season.

October 2, 2009, 3:40 PM

Oct. 5, 2009— -- It's 1960, and new research suggests that smoking is dangerous. Richard Nixon is running for president, and the best minds at Sterling Cooper ad agency struggle to sell Lucky Strikes.

"Advertising is based on one thing, happiness," says Don Draper, the brilliant, enigmatic, booze-swilling creative director in AMC's wildly successful "Mad Men" series.

Tobacco may be poisonous, but Draper suggests these cigarettes are "toasted."

In reality, Lucky Strikes launched that slogan in 1917 to tout its unique drying method.

"They play fast and loose with some things," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television, Radio and Film at Syracuse University. "But who cares?"

"It's exquisitely written and acted, and just so beautiful to look at," said Thompson. "Every square inch of it has been thought over and lovingly caressed before the cameras."

The episode "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" takes only one of a handful of liberties in the otherwise historically accurate television series created by Matt Weiner, who was one of the writers on "The Sopranos."

Known for his attention to detail, Weiner changed a script that called for Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm, and art director Sal Romano, played by Bryan Batt, to fly to Baltimore on Eastern Airlines after it was discovered the now-defunct airline didn't fly that route.

Now in its third season, "Mad Men" is reeling toward the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy and the symbolic end of innocence before the social and political upheaval that's come to emblematize the latter part of the decade.

"It looks like the world we live in, but it is so vastly different," said Thompson. "We forget what a couple of generations can do when it encompasses the '60s and '70s -- the way women are treated in the office, the machismo, the smoking and drinking. It's the last big generation that is unenlightened by what came to be called political correctness."

The show is a nostalgic touchstone for the buttoned-up executives who caroused their way through the workday and their dutiful stay-at-home wives.

But it also resonates with their children -- the Sallys and Bobbys -- the baby boomers -- who transformed the times.

Creator Matt Weiner told Boston's WBUR that each season has a theme: "To me, this one is about chaos."

"It's about how people respond to change," he said. "And we're in a period of great change in 1963, and right now. And I wanted to sort of show that the culture is in a reaction, where some people are just digging in so deep and they're so terrified. And some people are saying, 'Here it comes. Let me have it.'

The Appeal of 'Mad Men' Across Age Groups

"Mad Men" also speaks to a younger generation, who see today's world spinning toward a new kind of chaos: sexual identity politics, escalating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, threats against a young, new president.

"One day you're on top of the world, and the next day you're run over by a tractor," says Joan, Sterling Cooper's voluptuous head of the secretarial pool, in the recent episode "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency."

After all, January Jones, who plays the stoic trophy wife Betty Draper, who is burdened with her husband's infidelities and a newborn, is only 31 herself.

"I'm not at all like Betty, and I don't have any role models that I can draw from," Jones told ABCNews.com. "I get most of my inspiration from the writing.

"There is such a great difference between the generations," she said. "It's fun to watch people go through drinking and smoking. It's entertaining and beautifully shot. I think it's fun and interesting for young people to care.

"And I do see the parallels a bit between the Kennedy era and the era of Barack Obama," said Jones. "We feel a little scared, but hopeful."

Cory Kern, a retired middle-school teacher from Bloomfield, Conn., knows the Don Draper character, as her father kept his own dark secrets while raising his family in the 1960s in a Boston suburb filled with aspiring executives.

Kern's mother, who married at 17, spent her waking hours cleaning and being "the perfect wife."

Today, Kern's mother refuses to watch the show. "I lived it," she told her daughter.

Kern's father, a mechanical engineer, never finished high school and fabricated a college degree. "He was brilliant but very troubled," said Kern, now 57.

"He wanted to be successful, wear nice suits and have beautiful secretaries, the well-paying job and the trophy wife and good kids," she said. "He wanted to be the Don Draper type but couldn't figure out how to play the game seamlessly."

Her father's life ended at the age of 39, when he crashed the small plane he was piloting, taking with him the life of her 18-year-old brother.

'Mad Men' Burn Out Keeping a Secret

""He was in extreme despair and not getting help, she said. "My theory was he was creating an illusion. He just realized he couldn't masquerade any longer as a successful middle-class guy. He didn't know how to do it."

Kern also identifies with young Sally, who is sensitive to the weaknesses of those around her and yet rebels by stealing money from her grandfather.

"I think Sally is going to have the benefit of the late '60s and 7'0s," said Kern. "This season is a perfect time for her to start exploring not being perfect instead of playing the role everyone expects of her."

Dick Joslin was a "Mad" man taking a job right after college in 1964 as a trainee copywriter for BBDO, one of the big, flashy Madison Avenue firms. There he worked for 12 years.

His first flashback while watching "Mad Men" was the sight of a Remington typewriter.

"The total look of the offices, the windows, the cubicle dividers, private offices, colors and furniture were right," said Joslin, now 66 and retired, living in Lawrenceville, N.J.

"Everything was so merit-based, they didn't' care what your background is if you are creative," he said.

The "multi-drink, lush lunch" was de rigueur for many, said Joslin. "That was more of a perk for senior executives with expense accounts."

He was married, but many of the executives went on to marry their secretaries. Being able to rise up and be a copywriter "happened a lot," said Joslin.

"When an assignment was tossed out to a creative group, someone who was not actually a copywriter could contribute -- everybody got a shot," he said. Peggy Olson, Sterling Cooper's copywriter, "was quite typical. They were pretty feisty people."

Judy Darnell, a 59-year-old from Felton, Calif., is fascinated to see the "conformities" of her parents' generation playing out on her TV screen.

"Think of how much brighter we'd all be if our parents weren't chain smokers and drinkers," she said. "Perhaps it's why our generation is so screwed up."

Darnell's father, an executive, was not so different from Draper -- "good-looking, debonair and a social butterfly."

"I think the show is absolutely historical, and it gives me the creeps," said Darnell, now a state public policy director. "Sometimes it's painful to watch."

Though her parents were not big drinkers, their social circle included many who were "functioning alcoholics."

When Darnell's father died and she inherited his furniture, she remembered the lingering smell of smoke. "We spent weeks getting the nicotine out," she said. "My parents smoked Camel filters."

"Mad Men" also reminds her of the shame of divorce. When the Drapers separate, Betty tells her children that their father is on a long business trip, even as they visit him in a hotel suite.

"I can remember in the seventh grade keeping that a secret a long time," said Darnell. "Then you felt ashamed and felt responsible, like it was something you did."

Her mother was more liberated like the ambitious copywriter Peggy, but still she advised her daughter to "learn how to type and you can be a secretary on the way up."

Darnell became one of the first female insurance company executives in the 1970s, when sexual harassment was openly alive and well. She wore a gray wool "cocktail dress" with white gloves to her first job interview in 1972.

"The affairs and sleeping around of businessmen in the show is very right on," she said. "Women being used as sexual objects and the perfect wife at home with the kids was still going on in the corporate world of the '70s."

"It took decades to change," she said. "It took me 20 years to find myself because I felt I had grown up in two worlds.

Those worlds -- of postwar America and the social revolution of the 1970s -- created a cultural tension that began in 1963, according to Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz, author of "Bob Dylan in America."

That year the civil rights movement was in full swing, and murdered Mississippi civil rights activist Medgar Evers appears in Betty Draper's twilight sleep as she gives birth to baby Gene.

That movement was "a cultural resonance gripping the country," said Wilentz, as the '50s beat generation gave way to folk singers like Dylan, who set the stage for hippies.

With five episodes left before the close of the third season, JFK's assassination looms large. Viewers have already seen the wedding announcement date -- Nov. 22, 1963 -- for Roger Sterling's daughter.One can only imagine what follows.

"Suddenly Kennedy is killed, and everything is blown away culturally," said Wilentz. "It had a profound effect on everything. It was the most important event in the second half of the 20th century, and only now are we taking full measure of how it affected the nation, not just politically but socially."

And now, viewers have a front row seat as history unfolds, in a way that was impossible on the "boob tube" of the era when shows like "Leave it Beaver" and "Father Knows Best" showed a "sanitary" version of how lives were lived.

"It's a brilliant idea," said Syracuse University's Thompson.

"What's so fascinating about this period between the lingering post-war Eisenhower era and the total chaos of the late 1960s is that in a matter of just a few years, it gets completely annihilated on a fundamental level," he said.

"The definition of a woman gets changed, race gets changed and so far, 'Mad Men' has been able to do this in a way that's not preachy," said Thompson.

And, said Thompson, who watches television for a living, "Tell a really good story really well and generation be damned. Everyone will like it."

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