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Book Review: Taschen's "Mad Men" Box-Set Revives the World of Don Draper

Taschen is renowned for its series of massive, landscape-shaped albums on directors such as Kubrick, Bergman, Almodóvar, and Chaplin. Benedikt Taschen, a passionate film buff, chooses subjects he himself adores, and he talked with Matthew Weiner about publishing a tribute to "Mad Men" during the third season in 2009. Emerging two years after the show ended, this elegant box-set of two volumes will revive for devotees the world of Don Draper and his colleagues in the Madison Avenue ad agency of the 1950s and 1960s.

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In one of the book's many long and penetrating interviews, the show's pivotal actor, Jon Hamm, reflects that “we are loving in a golden age of serialized television.” It's a paradoxical statement, because throughout the Western world, young people are reading fewer and fewer books, and watching less and less TV, hooked as they are on video games and social media. It's also an ironic comment, as during the early years of the "Mad Men" period (late 1950s), live TV reached a level it has never quite aspired to in the intervening decades. Today, however, everyone can access a show like Matthew Weiner's in a holistic way. I, for one, travelling a lot and missing weekly instalments, preferred to buy the DVD (and later Blu-ray) version of each season, watching it not as a sitcom but rather as a serial, in which the characters mutate and mature.

Weiner found the 1950s beguiling, “because there was a lot of maturity and idealism in the American culture, intellectual idealism.” Ad men “were totally admired and kind of became the rock stars of the period. They were creative to a certain extent, and that brought them money." "Mad Men" is a series suffused with nostalgia for a time when all the world was young, when colors were bold and primary, when every ad agency executive believed, like Voltaire's Candide, in “the best of all possible worlds”; and when liquor and cigarettes were indulged throughout the day.

The book contains an interview with Janie Bryant, who designed the period costume, and who notes that while Don Draper retains the same sensibility towards his attire throughout the story, a character like Harry Crane dresses according to the stages in his career. Dan Bishop, the production designer, speaks of “a large textural difference between the two decades. The lines are relatively clean in one [the 1950s] and more chaotic in the other one [the 1960s].” The look of the series remained consistent throughout its eight-year run, and has left its mark on Hollywood. A recent film like Ewan McGregor's "American Pastoral" features virtually the same hats and cars that epitomize the 1950s in "Mad Men."

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Matthew Weiner had conceived of the central character when he had completed film school and had no work. He wrote a script called The Horseshoe, describing a character like Jay Gatsby who had achieved social status by changing his identity. He completed the script for the pilot of "Mad Men" in 1999, while writing four episodes of "Becker." Then David Chase asked him to join the team at "The Sopranos," and Weiner would write 12 episodes between 2004 and 2007, while toiling on "Mad Men" in the late evenings. Then came the roller-coaster ride, from 2007 to 2015. During these years Weiner wrote or co-wrote 73 of the 92 episodes. His fellow-scribes saw every draft that he completed, sometimes the very next morning. Much influenced by the stories of John Cheever (and perhaps "The Ice Storm"?), Weiner created that Ossining commuter milieu in which Don Draper could play out his imperfect life with Betty and the children. Of all the compliments showered on the show, Weiner delights most in "'Mad Men' feels like Woody Allen and David Lynch had a baby.”

Don, like Walter White in "Breaking Bad" or Tony in "The Sopranos," is at once the most reprehensible and the most charismatic of personalities. Infidelity for this handsome, prosperous guy is nothing more than a transient urge. Don seeks in the arms of successive women a deep, dreamless sleep from which he need never awaken. In Season 2 there is a revealing moment when Don says, “I have been watching my life. It's right there. And I keep scratching at it trying to get into it. But I can't.”

Fault-lines run through each of the principal characters in "Mad Men." For example, we should be hissing at Pete Campbell, after he's made Peggy pregnant and tried to expose Don's murky past in front of the benign and ageing founder of Sterling-Cooper; plus, he's a petty snob to boot. Yet, as Renoir's character says in "The Rules of the Game," “The awful thing about life is this: everybody has their reasons.”

The ten principal writers on "Mad Men" talk about their work and interaction. Maria Jacquemetton, who with her husband Andre, co-wrote three episodes in Season 1, defines the show's success as “The concentration on the small, private moments of people's lives. It was the way the stories were told, the static camera, the proscenium of the look, the saturated colors.” Sami Chellas (who came from journalism in Canada) observes that “a lot of the stories on the show were woven out of the fabric of real or remembered experiences of the writers.” Erin Levy, handpicked by Matthew Weiner while in the screenwriting program at USC, recognizes that “When writing on TV, you're always writing in the voice of the showrunner.” And that showrunner was indeed Weiner, whose imaginative recreation of the 1950s and 1960s is stamped on every episode. He would run Max Ophuls' "Le Plaisir" for his team, or call up a reference to Hitchcock's "Rebecca" or Kazan's "The Arrangement." It was Weiner, of course, who had the genial idea of closing the saga with an upbeat ad for Coca-Cola.

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The heftier of the two volumes in the slipcase runs to 900 pages. It's kind of a photo-novel, with chunks of dialogue from each of the 92 episodes. Fans may be frustrated at the absence of captions to accompany the many hundreds of images. Each page is printed black, with the photographs set within, but as all too many are murky, they somehow do not do justice to the bright colors associated with the show and its period. If you know the series well—and one assumes that few would invest in such a magnificent book unless they were fans—then this serves as a souvenir album, featuring the juiciest moments and the most incisive stretches of dialogue. The overall effect is to prompt one to reserve several evenings of re-viewing on Blu-ray.

Given his total involvement in the series, it's appropriate that Weiner is billed as the author of the Taschen book, and indeed he supervised every element within the publication. Essential members of his crew and team, like Scott Hornbacher, Chris Hanley, and Phil Abraham also add their voices to the book. (Although I for one regret the absence of conversations with actors like Elisabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, January Jones, and Vincent Kartheiser.) For many of these people, "Mad Men" was a life-changing experience.  

"The Godfather," a film immensely admired by Weiner, continues to enthral each new generation, and you can't help feeling that "Mad Men" will become as iconic a landmark in the history of television. 

To order your own copy of Matthew Weiner's Mad Men, click here. 

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