I don’t smoke, drink Old Fashioneds, wear a girdle or enjoy watching commercials on television. I’ve no desire to see sexism, homophobia, racism or anti-Semitism sanctioned in the workplace or other parts of society. Yet once again I’m glued to the TV, watching season four of “Mad Men,” the AMC show, set in the early 1960s, about the work and personal lives of the denizens of the advertising agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, where smoking, drinking, women wearing girdles, men wearing fedoras — and prejudice against women, African-Americans, Jews, gays, and just about anyone else are the norm. (The third episode of the new season of “Mad Men” airs on Aug. 8.)
Why am I hooked on a program whose characters’ indulgences are so different from mine, and whose prejudices I don’t share? Because “Mad Men” is the most well-written and acted, extensively (almost exhaustively) researched, and I’d bet anyone the most luscious three-martini lunch, the most stylish show on TV. And although it takes place at a time when gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people couldn’t be out, “Mad Men” has a gay sensibility that still rings true for queer people today.
This isn’t to say that the show doesn’t resonate with straight people (“Mad Men” status has morphed from cult fave to iconic) or that Matthew Weiner, the program’s creator, producer and head writer is gay (he’s straight).
“Mad Men’s” special connection to me and other queer aficionados stems from its style and wit; its focus on hidden and invented identities; and its portrayal of gay life (in the decade before Stonewall when the word queer was used as an epithet).
Volumes could be (and I’m sure will be) written about the intricacies of the relationships and interior life of “Mad Men’s” characters. Suffice it to say that the show is a Rubik’s Cube of layers upon layers of facade, secrecy and identity. Don Draper, “Mad Men’s” main character has spent a good part of his life both reinventing himself and trying to hide his past. Growing up as Dick Whitman, Don had an unhappy, impoverished childhood. His mother, a prostitute, died during childbirth. During the Korean War, Don took the identity of an officer who he fought with. Lying about his identity is a key reason why Don’s marriage to Betty fails.
Other characters in “Mad Men” live with secrets. Peggy Olson, a single, young woman, doesn’t reveal to anyone (other than Don who has been her mentor) that she (without knowing it) had become pregnant after having sex with co-worker Pete Campbell. (She gives the child up for adoption.)
The cost of living a lie is perhaps greatest for Salvatore (Sal) Romano, the former art director of Sterling Cooper and a closeted gay man. (Sal is played by gay actor Byran Batt.) Sal, who is married to Kitty, is so deeply in the closet that he can barely acknowledge to himself that he’s attracted to men. Kitty senses that something isn’t right and that he doesn’t desire her. But she doesn’t understand why until he acts out for her (in a heartbreakingly funny scene) the opening scene of “Bye Bye Birdie.” (Sterling Cooper is using the musical as a basis for an ad for a soft drink.)
Don seems understanding when he discovers, while he and Sal are on a business trip, that Sal has had (or almost has until there’s a fire) a sexual encounter with a bellhop. “Limit your exposure,” Don says to Sal knowingly, quoting, the tagline they’ve been developing for a London Fog ad. Unfortunately, after Sal rebuffs the sexual advances of one of Sterling Cooper’s male clients, Don fires him. You’re likely to identify, as I did, with Sal, though you might think, “How could someone be that closeted or Don be so cruel?” But LGBT people were (usually) closeted then, and Don may not have had any (given the homophobia of the era).
When he fires Sal, Don tells him, “you’ll be fine.”
Despite the secrets and foibles of its characters and time, “Mad Men” stylishly gives us hope that Draper and his cohorts as well as us will all be fine.