Friday, September 25, 2020

Lighting Up the Tube with “Mad Men”

It’s a good thing cigarette smoke can’t emerge from television screens. Otherwise, viewers like me might be struggling now with lung cancer. When I was a kid (and among the first generation of regular TV watchers), I saw countless characters—parents, doctors, authority figures— lighting up. And, of course, I was bombarded with commercials sending the message that “You’ve got a lot to like with a Marlboro” and that “Winstons Taste Good Like a (clap clap) Cigarette Should.”  Growing up in a family of militant non-smokers, I never succumbed to the lure of nicotine. But watching the full run of Mad Men has reminded me how heavily smoking has figured in the advertising world, especially in the Sixties, the era portrayed so vividly in the series’ seven seasons.

 In Mad Men, both the characters who work in advertising and their spouses at home are constantly sucking on cigarettes. Of course, genuine tobacco products weren’t actually used on-camera, but I recall hearing that the producers, in organizing casting sessions, were screening out actors who had never smoked, because they wanted to populate their cast with  those who viscerally understood the lure of smoking . . . and the desperate need to reach for a cigarette in moments of agitation. Given how much happened in the course of the series—the times of tension and despair as well as the rowdy celebrations—naturally the air kept turning blue with smoke.

Of course there’s the fact that the show is set in an advertising agency, kept afloat for many years by its contract with Lucky Strike. When Sterling Cooper is unexpectedly cut loose from this lucrative account, Don Draper shrewdly makes lemonade out of lemons by circulating a large ad detailing the health risks of smoking, with Sterling Cooper congratulating itself for saying goodbye to the whole nasty business. Alas, this strategy backfires when other big tobacco firms begin to back away from Sterling Cooper. Soon the ad men are groveling once again for tobacco accounts –and smoking in the office goes on unchecked.

 In a way, Don’s whole troubled existence relates to smoking. We learn via a complicated flashback that Don’s discarded match on a Korean War battlefield is what accidentally dooms his commanding officer, a failing he’ll never entirely live down. And at the show’s end his beautiful but troubled ex-wife Betty is dying, much too young, from lung cancer. The daughter she’ll leave behind, a privileged but restless teenager, is by this point an experienced smoker too. Here’s hoping her mother’s sad example will scare Sally into quitting before it’s too late.

 Of all the characters on Mad Men, the one with whom the audience can best identify is Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), who is first seen as a ponytailed “everygirl” secretary, then slowly rises toward the coveted role of creative director with the help of brains, talent, and a determination to work harder than anyone else. Peggy, who initially lives at home with her stern Catholic mother, doesn’t start out as a smoker. But she desperately wants to fit in, and to prove herself one of the guys. Pretty soon she’s being made the point-person for a “lady’s cigarette” campaign. At the tail-end of the final season, when Sterling Cooper personnel are being swallowed up by a much bigger agency and she feels her authority threatened, Peggy nervously stays away from the new digs. Then, at last, she rallies. Entering McCann Erickson , she swaggers down the hall like the Terminator, with dark shades and a determined look on her face. And yes, a cigarette dangling from her lips.



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