In the new CBS (CBS) sitcom The Crazy Ones, Robin Williams stars as Simon Roberts, the temperamental head of a Chicago advertising agency called Roberts + Roberts, which he co-owns with his uptight daughter, Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar). He’s unorthodox and difficult: Roberts pulls Scottish accents at inopportune moments and boxes with a giant toy robot in his office. (So basically, he’s Robin Williams.) We’re meant to believe he’s a genius, because he explains to a roomful of McDonald’s (MCD) executives in the pilot that his pitch is not about burgers and fries, but about the notion that “family is everything.”
Have you heard this somewhere before? The brilliant but mercurial creative director, the strained familial relationships, the man who is the beating heart at the center of mucky commerce? Oh, right, it’s Don Draper from Mad Men. (The two shows even share an actor, James Wolk, who plays the squirrelly Bob Benson on Mad Men and the slutty Zach Cropper on Crazy Ones.) And though the series are fairly different—Crazy Ones, a half-hour comedy, is terrible—both embrace the stock character of the stormy yet special creative.
Like Mad Men, Crazy Ones embraces the stormy yet special creative
The figure of the adman as volatile magician arose in the 1950s and ’60s, according to Cynthia Meyers, an associate professor at the College of Mount Saint Vincent and the author of the forthcoming book A Word From Our Sponsor: Admen, Advertising, and the Golden Age of Radio. In the early part of the 20th century, Meyers says, ad concepts were dictated by account executives. Illustrators and copywriters just worked for them. Back then, the “hard sell” was the main strategy. A burger ad would focus on concrete qualities such as how fresh the beef is.
Starting in the early ’60s, the “soft sell”—ads appealing to the client’s and consumer’s associations and emotions—began to dominate, and the designers and writers became much more heralded. Along with them came “a romantic terminology about the creative process,” Meyers says. Ads shifted from being about a burger’s juiciness to narratives about how burger grill marks remind you of your father’s love. TV writers in particular, Meyers speculates, like writing about advertising because they see television as experiencing the same central conflict between art and commerce. (Thirtysomething, which featured a married couple who ran an ad agency, memorably explored this theme in the ’80s.)
Mad Men works because showrunner Matthew Weiner is also a master of the soft sell. When Don Draper is pitching Kodak an ad for its Carousel slide projector, he evokes a deep sense of nostalgia, which means “the pain from an old wound” in Greek, he tells the executives. He shows photographs of his perfect young children and beautiful wife in years past and transports his clients—and viewers—to wistful memories.
Crazy Ones isn’t going for the same emotional chords that Mad Men hits so effortlessly. Williams does his thing, inhabiting characters—Mike Tyson and an American Indian from an old western—and the others are just satellites around his manic energy. It’s a shame, because Hamish Linklater, who plays the agency’s art director, and Gellar are both talented actors. All this mugging might have worked for Williams 20 years ago, but here it feels outdated and irritating.
There’s definitely a space in the TV universe for a lightly comedic Mad Men. Most of us work in offices in which to some degree we sublimate our true selves, so it’s a pleasure to live vicariously through characters who not only buck authority but also wrestle with issues of authenticity. But when Simon Roberts shows a clip from a 1972 McDonald’s ad depicting a father and son playing together, and says to the McDonald’s executives, “I was flat broke, but I still had enough money to buy her a Happy Meal. Made me look like a king to her,” it feels glib. Both Mad Men and Crazy Ones are trying to sell the audience on their product. With Crazy Ones, no one’s buying.