‘Mad Men’ Addictions, Failures

Bad decisions make for good stories. I read that somewhere on a screenwriting message board and thought, yeah, that’s very true. Think about the TV shows and movies that really grab you, and chances are the main characters have made ill-fated choices that turned their lives upside down. It’s not that we want to see our protagonists fail — I think we want to see them overcome obstacles and mistakes that we’re vulnerable to in our own true life stories.

This is why I’m loving the current season of Mad Men on AMC. Don Draper’s entire life is built on bad decisions… and yet, on the surface, he appears to have gotten everything he ever wanted. Money. Prestige. Women. The American Dream, in short. But he’s in advertising, so even he knows it’s all an illusion. In the past two seasons I kept wondering when the reality of his constant drinking and smoking would dent his shiny armor. This year, he hit bottom as a drunk, puking on himself. During another crisis, he couldn’t breathe and thought he was having a heart attack, possibly because of his smoking. Since this series is set in the 60s, I figured the emerging drug culture would also come into play sooner or later.

Last night’s episode brought the themes of failure and addiction together, beautifully. Don’s agency has lost their biggest account — a cigarette company. Other companies are wary of using them because there’s concern the agency will fold soon. At the same time, Don encounters a former mistress who tried to introduce him to the Beat culture that predated hippies and the 60s drug scene. She’s an artist who has gotten hooked on heroin. He asks why she doesn’t stop using… and of course, he knows the answer: it’s the same reason he can’t quit drinking, smoking or hooking up with random women. It’s our culture of addiction, which he is so skilled at selling.

What is great to watch though is you can see the wheels turning inside his head, and even if you find his actions morally repellent, it’s hard not to root for him to come up with a brilliant ad idea to save his agency — and himself — from ruin. The seeds for his breakthrough idea have been planted early by the Mad Men writers (Andre and Maria Jacquemetton, who I met at a University of Hawaii screenwriting workshop). The agency hopes to rebound by landing another cigarette brand aimed at women. I’m thinking it’s gotta be Virginia Slims, and it will be an ironic comment on how men are selling addiction to “modern” females under the guise of equality and women’s lib.

But no, the company cancels the meeting — Don doesn’t even get to pitch his ideas! In despair, he goes home and is about to toss out the abstract painting he “bought” from the junkie ex-mistress. He stops and stares at it.  Rips out his journal pages that he kept while trying to cut back on his drinking, and swimming to get back in shape. In his notebook, he writes an open letter about how it was time for his agency to quit tobacco because it was a bad habit that they shouldn’t be encouraging. It’s bull, of course — he’s putting a positive face on getting dumped by the cigarette company and trying to change the conversation. By running the “personal” letter as a big ad in the N.Y. Times, he does something that we’ll see big corporations do in the future: spin control. It opens the door to his agency doing biz with companies that are critical of Big Tobacco and other unhealthy vices…

It’s brilliant! And you expect his colleagues to slap him on the back when he struts into the office the next morning as everyone reads his seemingly heart-felt letter in the pages of the venerable newspaper. Except that’s not how his partners see it. To them, it’s corporate suicide. He’s doomed them all by biting the hand that fed them so well for all those years. It will make other companies nervous about giving their business to an ad man who would do something so risky and so public. But we, the audience, know better, right? It’s going to work out — his daring idea of turning their vice into a virtue with a page of words will save the agency!

Or will it? After guessing wrong on earlier plot set-ups, I’m hesitant to say… and that’s what keeps me addicted to Mad Men. Just when I think I know where it’s going, Don Draper will literally pull a left turn and go down some dark road that intersects with the real history of the American Dream in all its superficial glory and unspoken subtext. This is great writing and terrifically entertaining television.


Oh, another thing I enjoy is how they’ve made even the real commercials entertaining! Normally I DVR my favorite shows so I can fast forward through the ads. But AMC cleverly worked in factoids related to their advertisers that made me hit rewind so I could read the interesting tidbits of information. Then the sponsors created commercials that were made to look like ad men in the 60s doing brainstorming sessions for clients — it fooled me into thinking this was part of the Mad Men show.

In fact, I intend to steal that idea and use it for future factoids and commercials on my own Career Changers TV program for local station OC16 in Hawaii!

Got thoughts on Mad Men or creative advertising? Share your comments below!

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