In the exaggerated, vivid and very boozy world of Mad Men, which added to its arsenal of awards at Sunday night’s Golden Globes, the women are buxom secretaries and bored housewives and the men are womanising, misogynistic, sharply-suited executives.
Yet the show has an undeniable, almost compulsive appeal. It teeters on the edge of repugnance – then corrects itself. When the grey-haired Sterling (John Slattery) picks up a pair of teenage twins from an in-house TV ad casting and sleeps with one on the floor of his office, he is rewarded with a heart attack. Lying in hospital, tended by wife and daughter he is painfully brought back to the real world, where the bonds of family actually mean something.
But it’s the star of the programme that embodies Mad Men’s clever blend of the sympathetic and the morally bankrupt. Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the devastatingly attractive creative director at Sterling Cooper, has an ignominious past that he keeps well hidden. He freely cheats on his wife with a bevy of attractive, intelligent women. But he doesn’t slap secretaries’ bums and he has two kids that adore him, though his beautiful wife (January Jones) eventually becomes a little more of a handful than he bargained for. He’s magnetic, lovable, and dishonest to the core. Women can’t get enough of him – we want to save him from himself, of course.
It’s particularly curious, as a woman, to be addicted to the programme. However things really were in the beginning of 1960s America, the women in Mad Men are sexually harassed at work as a matter of course, they are expected to be faithful and pretend innocence while their husbands philander, and failing to lie well enough for their bosses when they step out for midday liaisons at hotels is grounds for dismissal. Peggy, the non-sexy female lead, is reviled physically but eventually wins respect for her talent for copywriting and wins promotion.
Maybe what keeps Mad Men from being reprehensible is that the women here are actually pretty powerful. They have a clear and permissible weapon to use: their sex appeal. Joan Holloway, the head secretary (pictured) leaves men quaking with lust. And a few well-placed words from her leave them with their tails between their legs.
In a world where men are as enslaved to their libidos as they are here, and the women as perfectly, often joyously feminine, there’s a whole system of power play we’ve quite forgotten in the rules-bound modern workplace. That’s a good thing, of course, even if it does make for fewer interesting office dynamics. But then, as far as excitement at work is concerned, at least we’ve got Mad Men to discuss at the water cooler. Season Three airs 27 Jan on BBC4 at 10pm.