Thursday, June 25, 2009

Things Change

There are many aspects to publishing a book that I did not expect. Not that strange as it is my first, but in all that time imaging the process, there are a number of things that I did not foresee. Most disquieting is the constantly shifting finish line: much of that can be attributed to my neurotic "writerly" tendencies, which manages to hate giving up the text for review but can't wait for an opportunity to edit. As much as I love to cut and craft sentences of mine, I have endured a strange dislocation when turning in the manuscript (Finished!) only to be reminded that of the editorial process (Not so fast, bub!).

And thank God for that process. So far, it has resulted in correcting the following issues:

  • first editorial pass of the manuscript reveals more than a few tortured and convoluted sentences meant, I can only imagine, to impress people with my vocabulary and syntactical prowess, but that instead lead to confusion and frustration in the reader: also abandoned was my theory that the entire second season was a dream of Don Draper's ... and I really thought I was on to something
  • second editorial pass from the proofreader reveals my unfamiliarity with the Chicago Manual of Style, despite the presence of said tome next to my desk: in all fairness, it's a really big manual and I'm really lazy: upside is I learn the meaning and power of the word "stet" and wedge it into everyday conversation (for audience reaction, see "confusion and frustration" above)
  • third pass from the typesetter exposes a pathetic reliance on "typecasting" in the cast bios, as if that is the only spine on which to build the body of someone's life and work: I also discover that I have a bizarre reliance on the phrase "pop culture landscape", as if I am the Mercator of unauthorized television guides
Perhaps just as interesting to me (and possibly nobody else) is how the book has changed from pitch to publication. Notably, there are a few things I wanted to cover in the book that I didn't. They are almost all in the realm of literary reference and context, and I admit that I wish I'd had the time to cover Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and W.H. Auden's The Age of Anxiety (although the latter would have been quite a stretch, refracted through the title bestowed on the works of Richard Yates). I also didn't write a chapter on the Gaslight Cafe, as I felt it was too season one centered, and the same with a proposed chapter on the mainstream acceptance of psychoanalysis.

Oddly, the one thing that didn't change for me was the title of the book. Fortunately, it wasn't until well after writing the book that I realized how close the title was to an autobiography by advertising legend David Ogilvy. I'd like to say I was savvy enough to hope for accidental search engine hits, but that'd be a bald-faced lie.

I did craft a list of possible title alternatives. I think you'll agree I was right not to change it.

Madison Avenue Swells
The Show in the Gray Flannel Suit
Madison Avenue Freak-Out (for when the series hits the late sixties)
Ring-a-Ding-Ding: The Cool Cats & Kittens of "Mad Men"
How to Succeed in Advertising Without Really Mussing Your Hair
Kings of Madison Avenue, Princes of Sterling Cooper

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Matthew Weiner Spills Everything About "Mad Men Season 3" (not really)!

Rolling Stone has just posted an interview with show creator Matthew Weiner. Of course, it is more about summing up the previous two seasons than anything else, but in between the lines there is a sense of the upcoming direction of Mad Men.

I'm always struck by the big-picture take he has on American history, in particular his ability to separate the ironic aspect of the viewer to the present-tense take of the characters. He's right about personal drama superseding global tragedy: I remember on September 11th that I worried more about my mother trying to fly home from Mexico than just about anything else. Gloom regarding the horrific devastation settled in shortly on the 12th.

On a personal note, I'm glad to read Weiner's last comment about the end of "The Jet Set" episode, a point I make myself in Kings of Madison Avenue. Nyah!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Answering unasked questions.

There might be a few of these that you might have with regard to a book like Kings of Madison Avenue. In an act of supreme generosity (or is it hubris?), I have taken the liberty of asking and answering a few in one fell swoop.

I will have this Q&A take the form of me interviewing myself. It keeps things light and airy, plus I love the sound of my own voice.

JM: What lead you to write this book?

JM: Good question. Really, top notch.

JM: Why thank you. I spent a lot of time working on that lead question ... direct but chatty, nothing too heavy right out of the gate.

JM: Well, bravo. And nice shirt, by the way.

JM: The stripes, right? So slimming!

JM: I wrote the book first and foremost as a fan of Mad Men. It's a series that is written and directed quite elegantly, but is also chock full of historical and cultural references that demand further investigation. I grew tired of spending so much time looking in disparate places for the information I wanted, so I tried to find one book that might contain it all. When I couldn't find it, I wrote it.

JM: You know, I don't used the word 'brave' often ...

JM: But when the shoe fits ...

JM: Why an "unofficial" companion guide?

JM: It's sexier when you don't have permission, don't you think?

JM: Scamp!

JM: Guilty as charged! No, in truth it's a matter of speed and efficacy. The hoops one has to jump through to write an official version of this book would delay publication by years, even if it was actually approved. Also, there would be a great many more masters to serve with such a beast.

But here's the other thing: with an official book, you could look forward to an episode guide that is a recitation of plot and nothing else. When writing a book like mine that kind of thing is off limits, so what you get is more in-depth analysis of each episode. It's more work to be certain, but it leads to a greater reading experience.

JM: Genius.

JM: An overused word, but apt.

JM: Why Mad Men?

JM: I think I covered that quite well in the first question. I said that it is "written and directed quite elegantly" and I think that about covers it. Were you paying attention?

JM: All right, take it easy. I'm just trying to get a sense of you, the author.

JM: No personal questions.

JM: I'm just curious how you--

JM: No questions with the word "you" in them.

JM: How would ... one ... go about writing a book like ... one ... has?

JM: It's a calling. Such a book is an opportunity to utilize a personal history steeped in navigating the pop culture landscape and pair it with a lifelong yen for learning. As I believe most fans of the show are cut from a similar cloth, this book is a natural fit for a yawning void.

JM: Rapid fire portion of the interview. One word questions, one word answers. Ready?

JM: Hit me.

JM: Two words, disqualified. No points.

JM: Wait ... points?

JM: Hat?

JM: Fedora.

JM: Drink?

JM: Scotch.

JM: Purple?

JM: Vestments.

JM: Abbott?

JM: Lewis.

JM: Lightning round ends.

JM: How'd I do?

JM: (tallying score) I'll post it on the wall after final period.

JM: Nuts.

JM: Any last words to people you think might like your book?

JM: I'll go you one better. Not only is it a great read with terrific sidebar sojourns into the cultural and historial context of the show, it also makes a great gift for anyone you know who's a fan. So go out and buy two!

JM: You're a shameless whore.

JM: What happened to us? This started off so well ...

JM: You're like a steeping cup of green tea, McLean: you start well enough but always finish off bitter.

JM: Ouch. Accurate ... but ouch.

JM: Until we meet again.

Monday, June 15, 2009

AMC Takes Credit for an Easy Out

There was much ballyhoo when AMC announced that Mad Men would contain two more minutes of commercials in season three. The initial response from the faithful was one of shock and horror. Fans of canceled shows may have thought this a great problem to have, but two minutes less of a show known for it's languid pace could leave the devoted feeling shortchanged by the end of one of these brisker episodes. Of all the outcries, this one from go-to Mad Men blog Basket of Kisses summarizes the issue elegantly. Who would want to do without Don's Carousel speech just for more ad time? Not even Don, I would think.

This decision by AMC put show creator Matthew Weiner in an awkward position: certainly he would want to fight against efforts to curtail his show, but when that show is built on an appreciation for the best advertising has to offer, quarreling about greater ad content could come off as disingenuous at best and snide at worst.

Luckily, Weiner benefits again from airing his show outside of the major network structure. Certainly it was no surprise that AMC came up with a compromise that pleases everybody, and a good thing that they have the elastic airing schedule that allows them to simply let the show run past 11pm. Creator is happy, fans are happy, advertisers are happy. AMC emerges as the good guy. Right?

It is a decision that is easy for AMC to make and look good for making. But did they really have a choice? Negotiations for Weiner's return as show-runner took longer than expected (although, as Don tells Roger about the Cuban Missile Crisis: "We don't know what's really going on. You know that.") and while they may have played some political brinkmanship in an effort to get the best possible deal, there was never a real doubt that Weiner would sign to return. But from a PR perspective, is there anyway they could be seen as forcing the creator of their signature show into a position of artistic compromise?

The interesting thing about this move is that AMC gets to take credit as the great compromiser, all for a decision that major networks make anyway. Not that any of the Big Three (I still refuse to look at Fox as anything other than an upstart--call me old fashioned) let shows air past their scheduled run-time as a standing order, but it does happen. I can't tell how many times I've had difficulty programming one show on my ExpressVu receiver because the previous show's end-time is listed at one minute past the top of the hour. I can't help but see this as anything other than an attempt to stem the tide of switchovers from a strong lead-in to a fledgling show.

In the end, everyone is happy and we all get to enjoy Mad Men in it's full glory come August 16th. And I suppose that's enough to give AMC a pass on this one. But barely.

Friday, June 12, 2009

"Mad Men" Season Three Set Pic - Spoilers?

I don't think this shot will spoil the upcoming season too much, although it does give us a good sense of when the series picks up. Outside of any dream sequence/flashback excuse, I would guess we're looking at the middle of 1963. This leads me to believe that we'll see the JFK assassination well-covered this year. Some might think this a natural backdrop, but much of the history covered in the show so far is subtler (the Jamaica Bay plane crash) and less era-defining (the Cuban Missile Crisis notwithstanding).

Jon Hamm looks good 'n dapper (although with the JFK context in mind, there's a menace to his hat that reminds me of Jack Ruby), and January Jones looks like a dollop of pink meringue (if such a thing exists).

I don't know who the guy with the shades and Sharpie necklace is -- the Drapers new au pair boy?

Picture courtesy of by way of Buzzfeed where you can find more. Well, one more.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

AMC's "Mad Men" Continues TV's Legacy of Poorly Representing the Mentally Ill

An op-ed piece I wrote before realizing the show was actually set in the 1960s. How embarrassing.

To: AMC Exectives
Re: The oak-panelled asylum presented on your Mad Men television atrocity

Dear sirs (and I use that term lightly),

When will Hollywood's efforts to marginalize the mentally ill ever end? For too long have we suffered through representations that veer from the cuddly (My Name is Bill) to the demonic (I Am Sam). Now we are "treated" to a weekly excursion into the laughably ill-informed depiction of those who struggle with mental illness. Rampant sexism? African-American servants? Mental institutions are government run, gentlemen. None of those activities have happened in one since George Bush Sr. was in the White House. And I'm not even going to touch the whole smoking indoors thing.

This cavalier attitude is best displayed in your choice of title: Mad Men? Do you know how long the mentally ill have fought to elude this sort of label? Anyone with a mental health issue is suddenly "mad", like the inmates of a decrepit 18th century asylum. Is your take on this issue solely informed by Amadeus and Quills?

Have you gentlemen not learned your lesson from other films that have engaged in shameless "insanity" bashing (not to be confused with "Insanibash", my favorite bathroom cleanser)? Or have you forgotten what you should have learned from that movie? You know what I'm talking about. You've clearly seen it and cribbed from it without compunction, and I think it is well past time you admitted your plagiarism, a crime almost as craven as your treatment of the insane.

Yes. I'm talking about Crazy People starring Dudley Moore and Daryl Hannah. For shame.

It was released in 1990 and clearly held sway over a young Matthew Weiner when concocting his episodic travesty. Oh, you're going to play coy? A film about an advertising executive who has a nervous breakdown and only then starts authoring so-honest-it's-irresistible ad copy? Come on. The only different between Dudley Moore and Jon Hamm is about three feet. Otherwise, they're feathers from the same cuckoo bird. Which is I'm sure how you would put it.

The plot twist introduced later in the film also bears strongly on your inexplicably accolade-ridden show: Dudley Moore brings fellow inmates along with him to the advertising company and they all start writing bluntly honest copy. The only difference is that writer Mitch Markowitz and director Tony Bill thought to give each of these by-rote misfit characters their own issues; on your show, they all think they're stuck in the 1960s. At least the film had originality going for it.

I insist that you withdraw this loathsome show from your airwaves and put on something that takes on the issue of mental illness with more intelligence and tact, like Obsessed or Two and a Half Men.

The truly "mad men" of the world will thank you.

How to watch "Mad Men" like a Mad Man

No surprise that there is a difference watching a show for entertainment and for reference. Before Kings of Madison Avenue (heretofore referred to as KoMA), I watched the series by savoring each episode like a gourmet, luxuriating in each morsel before moving on to the next course.
However, With a looming deadline I switched to a ravenous gourmand, gorging on multiple plates at a time, stuffed and over-sated, trying to squeeze in just one more episode as it is only "wafer thin".

These are periods of my life that I now call pre- and post-KoMA, with the latter sometimes resulting in a KoMA-induced stupor. (Note to self: a real Mad Man would cringe before making that kind of "joke".)

The closest I came to enjoying Mad Men in a manner befitting the series was when I sat down at my PVR to watch the entire second season in one go. Excited at the prospect, and not a little daunted at having to produce a manuscript shortly thereafter, I hit upon an idea. I had just thrown a birthday party for my wife and found a good amount of alcohol left over from the fete. The bulk of this liquid joy was in the form of wine (as a child, you bring bottles of pop to a birthday party; as a grown-up, it's wine), but one good friend thought out of step with the rest and brought two mickeys of whiskey, one scotch and one irish. For this, I am eternally grateful. Not only because it provided a great context in which to watch my favorite show, but because wine gives me indigestion.

Careful to pace myself, I topped off a glass and sat down to a full day of viewing. Unfortunately, I'm not much of a drinker, so I had to cut the whiskey with Coke, an action that has moved the good friend who brought the whiskey to cease all communications in protest (damned purists).

With this in mind, and the third season just around the corner, I offer a few options on proper Mad Men-watching activities.

1. Drink up! If you're a real man/woman who can handle booze (this discounts me), I'd suggest you drink it Old Fashioned, just like Don Draper. I tried this at the outset of watching the second season, but by the time I came to everyone on screen was fretting about the Cuban Missile Crisis and I had to start again the following day.

2. Light up! Smoking seems a natural, but I cannot in good conscience recommend this. Most viewing rooms are tight, enclosed spaces and this would be awful for any roommates or partners who may not enjoy filling their lungs with tar. Either save it for the end of each episode (a perfect time and manner in which to reflect on what you've just seen) or, if you can't stem your craving for more than fifty-plus minutes, set up your television room in the backyard. Or a nearby park. Or a forest.

3. Dress up! Comfort is always key in watching television, but would it kill you to put a crease in those khakis? A nice, crisp white shirt would go a long way, to say nothing of a sweet skinny tie. Again, I got this wrong the first few times I watched the show, opting for a bathrobe and track pants. And given that I watched the majority of season one on the subway via iPod, this was not well received by
those around me.

4. Shut up! Seriously. The show is on. There will be plenty of time to talk after.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Bonus Chapter! (i.e. deemed unfit for publication!)

Well, maybe "unfit" is harsh; in truth, my intrepid editor suggested I exclude this as one of the "Recommended Viewing" chapters of the book. Why? Because I can't, in all good conscience, recommend the movie. The impact of Helen Gurley Brown and Sex and the Single Girl on Mad Men is impossible to dismiss. And yet it is quite easy to dismiss this wrongheaded attempt to adapt it for the big screen.

However, I am a fan of recycling (and I hate to waste writing), so please enjoy this excised chapter from Kings of Madison Avenue, both on its own and as a taste of what to expect in the book.

Sex and the Single Girl

The allure of an “unfilmable” best-seller is often too great for a movie studio to ignore, provided the sales are enough to warrant the effort. Helen Gurley Brown's risque magnum opus wouldn’t strike anyone as material too weighty to defy Hollywood adaptation (which explains no dramatic versions of Unsafe at Any Speed or The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich) but in an industry powered by the three act dramatic structure, a manual comprised of frothy vignettes does not offer a ready-made story arc that leads to a happy ending.

Pity the poor Hollywood screenwriter. Charged with the task of constructing a viable story whose only purpose is to make a movie that a studio can release with the same provocative title as a recent best-seller, it is no wonder that what unspools bears little of the kittenish empowerment found in Brown’s book. It is even less surprising that a story concocted by a seasoned television writer relies on mistaken identities, sledgehammer satire and a multi-vehicle chase-to-the-airport finale while missing the point of Brown’s French-tipped feminist manifesto by making the women characters look and sound like flibbertigibbety twits. And even less surprising is the complete failure of the film. Joseph Hoffman (Leave it to Beaver, My Three Sons, The Patty Duke Show) cast the die on the film by concocting a number of tissue-paper-thin characters involved in an increasingly frenetic number of crossed-purposes that is reminiscent of Shakespearean farce produced by a high school dramatic club, or a lazy episode of Love, American Style (to which he also contributed).

There are precisely two shocks in the entire enterprise: the caliber of talent involved in this weak pastel-coloured romp and how little of Helen Gurley Brown’s book (and actual biography) play in the final result.

No one would confuse director Richard Quine with a brilliant iconoclast like Billy Wilder (The Apartment, Sabrina) or suggest he had the same effortless touch as Stanley Donen (An American in Paris, Funny Face). But he distinguished himself as a reliable hired gun whose Shaker chair-style direction never intruded on enjoyable studio pictures that were representative of their time (Bell, Book and Candle, So This is Paris) but lacked the light touch or jaundiced eye that might have lifted Sex and the Single Girl to the level of a solid Rock Hudson/Doris Day programmer.

Screen legends Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall look profoundly uncomfortable as the older married couple presented to dramatize the troubles of married life. Although at least Bacall delivers some spicy dialogue that sounds right framed by her trademark husky voice; as a hosiery salesman too busy to even think about infidelity, Fonda walks through the film as if wearing a suit lined with asbestos. The less said about the starchy frug he unleashes on the dance floor the better, even if he is backed by the Count Basie Orchestra.

The strangest name attached to this endeavor is Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22 and noted jet-back satirist non paraliel. This film is one of Heller’s few screenwriting credits, along with the Frank Sinatra comedy-western Dirty Dingus McGee and an uncredited polish on the James Bond spoof Casino Royale, and even though the quality of these efforts fails to match the National Book Award-finalist level of his first novel, it does suggest that his ironic sensibility does not translate well to the screen. Although his suitability in scripting this big-screen sitcom might have a better antecedent in his first screen credit, an episode of McHale’s Navy.

The passing acquaintance the film has with the book and reality are quite astounding. In the film, Bob Weston (Tony Curtis) is the gleefully unscrupulous editor of gossip rag STOP magazine, which has recently published a salacious article on young female psychologist Dr. Helen Brown (Natalie Wood) recently catapulted to stardom through the publication of her book Sex and the Single Girl. Not only does the article attack her credibility as a reasoned voice on the subject of male-female relations, it also debunks the work she performs at the International Institute of Advanced Marital and Pre-Marital Studies (“Dr. Helen Brown: Juvenile or Delinquent?”). Weston suggests personally writing a follow-up article to tarnish her reputation further by asking the all-important question of whether or not she’s a virgin. To that end he sneaks into her office at the institute under the disguise of unhappy husband Henry Fonda, describing the man’s marital ills as his own so that he might catch the young Dr. Brown unawares and gobsmack her with his rakish charm and answer the question: does she or doesn’t she?

Identities are mixed. “Hilarity” ensues.

Now I hate to ruin a good story by casting a weary eye on the facts, but as this film isn’t within miles of a good story, I’ll continue. To wit:

1. Helen Gurley Brown was not a psychologist.

2. She did not work for any such institute.

3. She was forty years-old at the time of publication and no one’s idea of a "juvenile".

4. After reading her book, there was no doubt whether she did or didn’t.

The only thing the filmmakers got right was the cigarette holder Natalie Wood uses throughout. Otherwise, the character of Dr. Helen Brown is a fidgety, neurotic bundle of twine who, get this for irony, is just as loopy as the patients she treats! And despite a “happy” ending where inveterate womanizer Bob Weston changes his ways, against all logic and common sense, for the woman he loves, is the tacit argument that this upstart Dr. Brown and her nutty ideas on female emancipation are ruining it for swinging men everywhere. The filmmakers might mouth the argument of the original source material, but every female character in the film is half the Gurleyean girl: all definition of self through men with none of the independence.

This is no more evident than in Natalie Wood’s performance. A gifted actress with a knack for this sort of soufflĂ©, she suffers through what I can only call the inversion of the Oscar-bait acting gig: instead of assaying a real person to receive accolades for a brave and accurate portrayal, we have a caricature substituting for the real thing and looking pale by comparison. Inventions for a sex farce are one thing, but when a protagonist bears the name of a publically-known entity and is the antipathy of that person (weak where the other is strong, savvy where the other is bookish, foolish where the other is wise) then criticism is not only invited but expected.

The only redeeming quality, and one notable for the Mad Men fan, is the set design by Edward G. Boyle (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, The Thomas Crown Affair). His design for the offices of STOP Magazine is a knowing modification of his similar setting for Academy Award-winning Billy Wilder film The Apartment. Where that film's design explored the dehumanizing effect of fluorescent light banks and desk farms, the scope here is smaller and warmer without losing any of the sophistication; it looks as though Sterling Cooper could occupy the offices one floor above STOP Magazine.

But it is there that any comparison between Mad Men and Sex and the Single Girl halts.

Yes, it’s only a film. And if it were a good film, then all could be forgiven. But it is not a good film, so it is not forgiven.

Kings of Madison Avenue announced on the ECW Press website.

Kings of Madison Avenue available for pre-order!

Available September 1st. Order now!

Kings of Madison Avenue: The Unofficial Guide to Mad Men

A companion guide to the best show on television from ECW Press.

Reveling in the consumerist decadence of AMC’s infamous advertising house Sterling Cooper, this complimentary volume to the groundbreaking series Mad Men provides behind-the-scenes revelations, episode guides, cast biographies, and rich sidebar content, such as “How to Party Like the Mad Men.” Delving beneath the glitz and glamour to highlight the workings of a sophisticated modern classic, this definitive fan guide offers fascinating sociological context and cultural analysis. Included in the fascinating content is the detailing of historical ad campaigns that are woven into the show’s storylines—such as Volkswagen Beetle’s landmark “Think Small” campaign, the Nixon/Kennedy presidential push, and the creation of Lucky Strike’s “It’s toasted” slogan.

"Kings of Madison Avenue"

Contents:How the Kings Roll: What You Can Expect
Smoking, Drinking, Selling: It’s Don Draper’s World and We Just Live in It
Cast Biographies
Jon Hamm/”Don Draper”
Elizabeth Moss/”Peggy Olson”
John Slattery/”Roger Sterling”
Vincent Kartheiser/”Pete Campbell”
Christina Hendricks/”Joan Holloway”
January Jones/”Betty Draper”
Robert Morse/”Bertram Cooper”S
eason One - Detailed episode guides plus:
Context: Gender Politics, Helen Gurley Brown and "Sex and the Single Girl"
Context: Doyle Dane & Bernbach’s “Think Small” Campaign for Volkswagen
Sidebar: Money Part One—Inflation from 1960 to Now
Sidebar: What are they smoking?
Before Sterling Cooper—Recommended Viewing: "Lover Come Back"
Sidebar: How tall is the mayor?
Before Sterling Cooper—Recommended Reading: "The Feminine Mystique"
Before Sterling Cooper—Recommended Viewing: "The Apartment"
Context: Nixon, Kennedy and the Changing Face of American Politics
Season Two - Detailed episode guides plus:
Before Sterling Cooper — Recommended Viewing:" How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying"
Sidebar: Money Part Two — What They Made Then and What They Make Now
Recommended Reading: Richard Yates "Revolutionary Road" and "Disturbing the Peace"
Context: Civil Rights Movement—Dr. Howard Thurman’s "Jesus and the Disinherited" and its Influence on Dr. Martin Luther King
Sidebar: Guest Stars — I know that faceSidebar: Notable Writers and Directors from Mad Men
Before Sterling Cooper — Recommended Reading: "Meditations in an Emergency"
AppendixHow to Party Like the Mad Men
The Perfect Manhattan Rendezvous: An Itinerary for Touring Locations Highlighted in Mad Men.