As is often the case with appointment television, I came late to the game on Mad Men, the AMC chronicle of Madison Avenue in a martini-swilling age. At this point I’m done with the first season, and have yet to tackle the second. On Sunday night I cheated and watched the Season 3 premiere, which struck me as oddly unimaginative -- certainly less creative than this summer’s ad campaign, a fitting combination of bombast and finesse. (You may have noticed the bus banners, or the Banana Republic storefronts, or the retro-cartoonish Facebook icons of your pals.) But I’ll leave the reviews to the seasoned pros, and to amateurs with a deeper investment than my own.
One thing has been bugging me all along, though, and I wonder whether I’m the only one. The opening credits to the show, iconic enough to have earned their own Simpsons parody, ring stylish but hollow against the substance of the show. Every time I see them -- and that’s numbingly often, when you’re binging through a full season -- a part of me imagines how much better they could be.
Yeah, this is obsessive. But we’re talking about a show that takes period detail to fanatical extremes. From the fashion to the cocktails, nothing is left unconsidered here. In the world of Don Draper and his associates, image is everything, and so the show cleverly gives us a gleaming fabrication, an idealized and profoundly troubled milieu.
The song in the credits, “A Beautiful Mine,” is by the Philadelphia-based hip-hop producer RJD2, whose work I have admired for a while. It’s the final track from his 2006 album Magnificent City Instrumentals, and in its full, 10-minute version, which can be streamed here, it goes through a series of subtle permutations. The contrast of melancholic strings and reverb-laden beats suggests the 1990s output of DJ Shadow, but a touch more constrained, as if there’s a secret to be hid. In that sense it’s a good fit for the show, where surfaces mask realities.
But to my mind, the tone of the song is too muted for Mad Men, and its hip-hop slant feels awkward against the period backdrop of the show. There could have been other options, as we’ve seen in recent years. Consider, strictly for the sake of argument, the curtain-raiser for NBC’s 30 Rock. Obviously too zany for Draper and his tragic coterie, but its sonic particulars are in the right ballpark. Even more fitting, though it unfolds in a feature-length sprawl, is the John Williams theme for the 2002 Steven Spielberg caper Catch Me if You Can:
Again, too long for a television spot. But I have to think that the producers of Mad Men took a good look nonetheless. The slinky theme by Williams -- his nod to Henry Mancini, or his naked appropriation, if you’re feeling less charitable -- hits all the right buttons for a bittersweet early-'60s yarn. And the graphics, by a French firm called Kuntzel + Deygas, pay smart homage to the signature of Saul Bass, who famously designed titles for films by Hitchcock, Preminger and Scorsese. (He also did It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.)
Bass is the same reference point struck by Mad Men’s graphics team: the silhouette-in-freefall offers a tip of the fedora to his work on Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger) and Vertigo (Hitchcock). Here’s Steve Fuller, one of the two title designers, on their concept:
The fall is such a great a metaphor for the confusion; it's such a helpless position. It’s also something people can relate to in dreams, when you’re jolted out of sleep, that feeling of falling. We intentionally kept it simple with straight cuts, cinematic angles and pacing. The slow motion is a big part of that dreamlike kind of feeling.
The choices are insightful, psychologically as well as visually, and I keep wishing the music provided a better complement. Needless to say, there are jazz musicians out there capable of generating the right sort of score. (Couldn’t it have been a diverting exercise for the likes of, say, Darcy James Argue? Maybe John Hollenbeck? Or hey, Ted Nash?) Of course I’m presuming that jazz musicians would jump at the work, which might not remotely be the case. And I’m sure it’s insanely difficult to get noticed by the right producers and A&R types, if you don’t lunch regularly at Spago. (Please excuse the sure-to-be-obsolete Hollywood power-lunch reference. The Lotería Grill is more my style.)
I’ll leave you with two more engaging links: The Incredibles profiled at Art of the Title Sequence, with a patently Mancini-like theme by veteran film composer Michael Giacchino. (Note that the credits come at the end of the film, and thus have the luxury of cannibalizing the plot.) And check out this Saul Bass resource, with animations of many of his best title sequences, and a ton of pertinent information.
Finally, it behooves me to note that the world of Mad Men is a world informed by the events of the late 1950s. Today the Times has a review of 1959: The Year Everything Changed, by Fred Kaplan. I confess that it currently sits at the top of my Stonehenge pile, untouched -- but I have been greatly looking forward to devouring it, and suspect it will go quickly. That’s my rambling digression for the day. More soon.