Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Mad Men and the Second Age of Carter

By Bernie Quigley

- for The Hill on 9/06/09

The definitive detail might be the scene in Charade where Audrey Hepburn snaps the filter off her cigarette with disgust. Only the weak or inauthentic smoked filters. That day has made a comeback with Mad Men. Everyone smokes, but real men smoke Luckies. Some have reported that it is the best TV show ever, at a time when TV writing – The Sopranos, House, Lost – transcends movies in skill and imagination.

I made the point in the first essay I had published, an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer back in 1977 when the anti-smoking crusade had taken on all of the umbrage of a Gandhi hunger strike – that smoking was bad for you but quitting was worse as it formed self-righteousness and pretension and the sense that you were doing something when you weren’t doing anything. That may be why there is such freshness to a story about the hard working and hard playing in the days when drinking started at four in the afternoon. Earlier for top executives. Soon after it passed they – Jimmy Carter – would tax the lunch-time martinis.

People drank then. They drank like Russians. But they drank better and some – some of the very best – drank all of the time. Possibly thinking was more subtle and complex. Certainly the writing was better.

Mad Men’s main character Don Draper looks a little like Mitt Romney, although Romney would have been doing his mission in Paris at the time and has likely never smoked a cigarette. I take it that it is not entirely by accident. I noticed because during the 2008 race when I wrote about Romney I’d receive letters in the chronic commenter/stalker range that complained about his looks; the devo way he dressed, the way he combed his hair. Now it is all the rage.

“I love to go to work and put on that suit,” said Don Draper’s man, Jon Hamm, in a TV interview. “I makes you feel like a million bucks.”

It was a day of warrior individualism – Truman Capote, Jackson Pollock, Audrey Hepburn, Miles Davis, Jackie Kennedy. Of intensely focused zen with D.T. Suzuki and depth psychology with C.G. Jung. A day in Brooklyn as Pete Hamill once phrased it (before he quit drinking) when Jewish girls read Dostoyevsky in their lit rooms at night and Irish boys coming home from the celibacy of the Irish bars, longed for them without luck.

Mad Men brings a change from the Seventies redux of the last year or so – the Second Age of Jimmy Carter – Saturday Night Live yet again but not funny this time, the easy irony and titters in the night scornful of genius as being subtle, insidious and unfair. The post-Woodstock venue yet again, where the big questions asked are not about the banality of evil as Hannah Arendt, cigarette in hand, posed it but, “will Letterman apologize?”

The first Age of Carter was a time of reprieve and rest. A human need perhaps, to fall fallow for a season. But the public spell broke back then with the rise of the TV show Dallas which not by coincidence accompanied a new cycle of power, prestige, good will and prosperity in our country and brought the post-war period to its peak. Maybe we are at the edge of that again. Maybe Mad Men is the new Dallas.