TV History Lessons on Mad Men
Jon Hamm and January Jones in Mad Men by Carin Baer/AMC
Advertisers do not like controversy. Advertisers have thin skin. Just a few of the valuable observations to be taken from Sunday's rich episode of
, written by Matthew Weiner and Rick Cleveland, which provided a fascinating window into how the TV and ad business worked circa 1962 (and in some ways it hasn't changed that much since then).
One major subplot, with surprising personal and professional repercussions, hinged on a controversial episode of CBS's groundbreaking legal drama
, with a shockingly blunt abortion storyline that was causing sponsors to flee. Schlubby Harry Crane, disgruntled after inadvertently learning how much less he was being paid than colleague Ken Cosgrove ($200 a week to Ken's $300), brought the episode to his bosses' attention at Sterling Cooper- prompting a screening for lipstick client Belle Jolie, the idea being that women would likely seek this episode out, despite the controversy. (Peggy was on hand to help make this argument, a nicely symbolic touch given her own secret baby scandal. The fact that Harry's own wife is pregnant, and he wouldn't tell her what the episode is about, also rang very true.)
The lipstick ad client, the same guy who hit on Sal over dinner last season, was unsurprisingly horrified. "This show is troubling," he said. "This is not wholesome." (Imagine how he might have acted if the episode had discussed homosexuality.) "I don't want Belle Jolie to be part of this debate."
And such is the paradox of commercial television: much more so then, but hardly unheard of now. Bold storylines guaranteed to get people talking often pack too much heat for advertisers' comfort. They're afraid to stir the waters in fear of a backlash, preferring ennui instead.
I'm old enough to remember the firestorm over
's abortion storyline, and I covered the controversy surrounding
when it dared to show two men in bed, casually chatting after a tryst, and later the infamous launch of
, when many stations refused to air this cable-styled crime drama until it was clear it was a hit. I also remember when a wealthy activist targeted
Married With Children
, using her connections to hound CEOs with her gripes about its randy content, causing sponsors to bow out- but ironically boosting the show's ratings when her tactics made news.
Sterling Cooper's pitch for the
episode didn't fly, but Harry came out of it OK, maneuvering this situation into a promotion as a one-man "head of television" for the agency, with a smaller-than-wanted raise (to $225).
The other major storyline shedding light on how the business works introduced us to insult comic Jimmy Barrett, who's filming a goofy commercial for Utz potato chips when the head of the company shows up on set with his noticeably overweight wife. Buffalo and Hindenberg jokes ensue, the head of Utz is not amused, and Sterling Cooper is put on damage control to save the account and arrogant Jimmy's contract. As usual, Don Draper- who was playing hooky at a French film when things blew up- has to fix things, which puts him in uncomfortably erotic proximity to Jimmy's lusty manager/wife Bobbie (nicely played by the husky-voiced Melinda McGraw, most recently seen as Commissioner Gordon's endangered wife in
The Dark Knight
It all leads to a fancy dinner at Lutece, with Betty on Don's arm as a charming ornament: "I need you to be shiny and bright. I need a better half," he assures her, when she asks if this is one of those occasions she'll actually be allowed to talk. I laughed out loud as Jimmy first laid eyes on the gorgeous Drapers: "My God, are you two sold separately?" And then to Don: "By the way, I loved you in
." (Guess we're not the only ones to make that Gregory Peck comparison.) I gasped in shock as Don took Bobbie by force, threatening to ruin Jimmy if he didn't apologize to fat Mts. Utz, which he later did. Laughter again as Mrs. Utz declared, "I guess I just don't have the stomach" for Jimmy's brand of humor, causing Jimmy to clownishly bite his hand to keep from making a retort. All beautifully played.
Other favorite moments:
Betty's cynical side emerging when her married riding friend compares young riding student Arthur to Montgomery Clift, trying to better himself socially a la
A Place in the Sun
: "Somewhere there's a pregnant girl floating in a lake," Betty cracks. (More subtext for that abortion episode!)
Later, when an admiring Arthur describes Betty as "so profoundly sad," she counters, "No. It's just my people are Nordic." But she IS profoundly sad, even when she tearfully thanks Don after the Lutece dinner for letting her be a part of his life. "We make a great team." If only that were true.
Don firing his hopeless secretary Lois for once again dropping the ball. "I try to cover for you all the time," she whines. To which Don barks: "You do not cover for me. You manage people's expectations," before sending her back to the switchboard.
Sal sighing upon learning that poor Harry blurted his unhappy salary news to his wife. "You don't tell your wife," says Sal (who's keeping at least one big secret from his own), who also wisely notes: "Are you upset about getting caught [sneaking a peek at Ken's paycheck], or are you upset about what you saw?"
Bobbie's come-on to Don: "I like being bad, and then going home and being good." There's a lot of that going around in
For Adam's full recap, go