Friday, November 27, 2009

Lights, Camera, Action!

Strange Bedfellows

On the surface, comparing the AMC series Mad Men to HBO’s The Sopranos might seem like comparing Doris Day to Peg Bundy. On the one hand, you have the dapperly-dressed advertising execs of Sterling Cooper and their dainty, obedient wives in direct contrast to the ruthless, violent vulgarity and misogyny of mafia boss Tony Soprano and the rest of his Jersey crew. But I dare to ask (and wonder) if both Mad Men and The Sopranos are really that different. If Don Draper and Tony Soprano weren’t on different TV shows and living in different eras, I could see the two of them as drinking buddies.

While Mad Men is set in the early 1960’s and the characters look and seem like they are cut out of the goody-two-shoes, cookie cutter mold of the 1950’s, it is quite the opposite. Don Draper, Roger Sterling, Sal Romano and Pete Campbell are the white collar versions of Tony Soprano, Paulie Gualtieri, Silvio Dante and Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero. And while The Sopranos may have the market cornered on adultery, racist and homophobic behavior, blackmail, corruption, sexism and violence, one could say the ad execs at Sterling Cooper were actually their forefathers. The behavior exhibited by the male characters in Mad Men is a reflection of the changing social mores of the time.

Similarities between the two shows are eerily inspired, starting with Mad Men creator and producer Matthew Weiner who also worked as a writer with producer David Chase on The Sopranos. Both show’s lead characters, Don Draper and Tony Soprano have pasts that they’ve tried to hide from their family, friends and business associates. Don, whose real name is Richard Whitman, assumed the identity of the real Don Draper while serving with him in the Korean War after the real Don Draper was killed. Tony is the head of a crime family while projecting the image that he’s an honest, hard working family man to friends and business associates.

Both show’s characters don’t handle the idea of alternative sexuality very well either. When Sal Romano, the art director at Sterling Cooper, who also happens to be a closeted gay man married with children, rebuffs the sexual advances of a male client, the client orders that Sal be taken off of the ad campaign. Don is so angry that Sterling Cooper has lost a large, lucrative account, that he fires Sal. Also, Don had accidentally witnessed a gay encounter that Sal had had with a hotel employee while the two of them were away on business in a previous episode. When Vito Spatafore, a captain in Tony’s crew is outed as a homosexual, he goes into hiding, but is found and brutally killed.

While the Sopranos crew throws out derogatory racial epithets as easily as if they were saying hello, the Mad Men crew express their racist tendencies in other, equally offensive ways, like when Roger Sterling decides to don blackface during a party to serenade his wife with the song “My Old Kentucky Home”.

And as far as women go, both shows treat women as objects of desire and of sexual conquest. While the male characters of both shows are either engaged or married, they frequently have sexual affairs with the opposite sex. In the Mad Men world, the objects of desire are usually the secretaries working at Sterling Cooper while in The Sopranos, it’s usually the strippers at Silvio’s strip club, The Bada Bing. Despite their best efforts, the women in both shows find it incredibly difficult to assert their individuality due to the very prohibitive environments in which they are living.

The old adage that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” certainly defines the lead characters in both shows. Don and Tony, as well as their partners in advertising and crime, will do whatever they feel is necessary to solidify their power bases and appease their narcissistic tendencies, even if it means literally and figuratively screwing (and in The Sopranos case, killing) their neighbor. Watching these characters balance their professional and personal lives while trying to stay on the side of the angels is one of the reasons why both shows are so compelling and keep viewers wanting more.

Mad Men image property of
Sopranos image property of Tower Records.

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