AMC's new series Mad Men premiered this past Thursday night, and took the form of time travel, taking us all back to 1960. The urge to pour myself three fingers of single malt scotch was met and yielded to soon after the episode began. The the setting was that strong. (I still have a bit of a sore throat from all the imagined cigarette smoke.) Helping to set the scene were strong music choices, including classic tracks from Don Cherry and Vic Damone.
Sometimes when a new series starts, it's hard to know whether the music is playing a larger role then just setting the scene, and this is the case here. But since creator Matthew Weiner is a Sopranos vet, I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt. "Band of Gold" from Don Cherry kicked off the series, and it's that opening that set the tone for the show in so many ways. The song is about marriage, which may hint at the "surprise" ending, but it also suggests loyalty. This plays to "Mad Man" Don Draper's conversation with his African-American waiter Sam, who explains why he's loyal to his brand of cigarette (Old Gold, fittingly enough). I also believe "band of gold'" in this context refers to the filters that were being added to cigarettes at the time, as health risks began to come to light.
All this is just the backdrop, though, as the whole scene between Draper and Sam helps set the series up with a little bit of racism, sexism ("women sure love their magazines") and a lot of smoke. Even though there is some underlying racism in the setup of the conversation, Draper truly is interested in what Sam has to say, because when you're selling something, the only color that matters is green.
I can imagine many folks having a hard time with the misogyny, racism and anti-Semitism portrayed in the series, as it's initially shown here without a filter or background. Until you get to know the characters, some will find it difficult to stomach. Thank goodness for cable, because if Mad Men were on network television, I feel like we'd already have to start a letter writing campaign to insure it's survival. For example, a visit to the gynecologist produces several comments like this one:
The prescription [birth control pill] costs $11 a month. Don't go thinking you have to be the town pump just to get your money's worth.
And when the head of a Jewish department store comes for a meeting, they scramble to find a member of the tribe to put the client at ease. "Have we ever hired a Jew before?" asks the partner. "Not on my watch," deadpans Draper.
If there's worry about losing advertisers, I think this is one show that can get away with more. Not only is it about advertising, but they've also come up with a pretty good way to get folks to watch the ads instead of just forwarding/skipping through them: contextual placards of advertising trivia placed before each ad. For example, before a spot for Jack Daniels (one of the show's controversial sponsors) the text is "Oldest registered distillery in the U.S. - Jack Daniels." This sounds dull here, but these bits of text are done stylishly (more then the Coke-sponsored ones at the movie theaters) and I found myself not skipping through the ads as much, and it takes a lot to get me to not skip.
The song that plays through the surprise reveal that Draper is married with kids is Vic Damone's take on the My Fair Lady song "On The Street Where You Live". The sentiment of the song makes it feel like Draper adores his family, but is really just visiting them, and his real home is back in the city. And let's not forget that My Fair Lady is about a woman giving up her dreams of a career to marry an emotionally stunted rich man, something that the secretaries at the agency all seem to aspire to.
Playlist: Mad Men - Ep101
1. "Band Of Gold" - Don Cherry - Draper talks to waiter in bar
2. "Shangri-La" - Robert Maxwell - burlesque show
3. "Caravan" - Arthur Fiedler - men commute home to the suburbs
4. "On The Street Where You Live" - Vic Damone - Draper with wife and kids/credits
More: The theme of sexism and advertising around 1960 brings to mind another classic television show, Bewitched (1964.) Darrin, a "Mad Man" himself spent a lot of time and energy trying to keep Samantha from using her powers, and making sure she behaved as a normal housewife.