Thursday, February 4, 2010

Mad About "Mad Men"

My new television show passion is Mad Men—am about ½ way through Season 3. Although, the pacing has its occasional doldrums, watching this show is a guilty pleasure. Part of the show’s entertainment is the situational irony highlighting all the differences between “then” (late 50s early 60s) and “now.”

Then

Parents are always telling their children to “Go watch television.”

Children attend a birthday and one boy acts unruly. It’s not just his parent who disciplines him. It’s a friend of his parents who gives him a slap.

8-year old Sally Draper puts a plastic dry cleaning bag over her mouth and breathes it in. Her mother gets upset at her for messing up the dry cleaning.

The Draper family goes on a picnic and leaves all their trash on the grass without thinking twice.

Grampa Gene lets his 8-year old daughter drive his Lincoln town car.

Betty Draper brings her baby home in her arms, seated in the passenger seat of the car.

You could say the word stewardess. They were young, cute, flirty and happy to serve.

Roger Sterling worries about an ulcer and “does everything the doctors told him” drinking a daily glass of cream…and winds up getting a heart attack.

The cocktail bar is a central fixture in the Sterling Cooper office. Everybody drinks and chain smokes.

Pre-civil rights: with one unusual exception all the women at the office are secretaries. Plenty of sexually suggestive banter at the office, if any of the women are offended, their job security depends on not showing it. Women aren’t the only outsiders: “Negroes,” “Homos” and “Let’s go talk to some Retail Jews.”

People really dressed up when they went to work or out of the house.

The Cold War: Cuban Missile Crisis and fear that the Russians “Will drop the bomb any day.”


The characters have interesting discussions and interactions with the social issues of their time—integration, the arms race, civil rights, the Surgeon General’s warning about cigarette smoking. It might have been a world filled with danger and uncertainty, but there was also a sense of optimism and excitement about the “Future.” Traveling on airplanes was exotic and exciting, television is the medium of the future, Kennedy has just been elected, Bob Dylan is hot, Space is the new frontier!

Like many of the children of the children of the 60s, I resent that all the fun, excitement and sense of expectation regarding the future disappeared long before I could experience it. We got the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate, followed by the oil shock, economic stagflation, the Iranian hostage crisis, US manufacturing decline and the flower children became yuppies. Instead of optimistically engaging the world around us, we have been taught to stand at a cynical arm's length.

The fictional characters in Mad Men can say and do things that we, in 2010, publicly cannot. While the progressive legislation of the 60s paved the way for a (relatively) more open and inclusive society, the downside is that interesting public dialogue in America today is practically non-existent. You get two ends of the spectrum: the people who are happy not to think, and thus grateful for whatever one-size-fits-all ideology relieves them of this burden, while bestowing on them a corresponding sense of identity and purpose aka imposing their ideology on everybody else or--the equally annoying wishy washy contingent who are so terrorized by what other people think of them--that the prospect of saying anything at all is quite terrifying to them. Such a definitive utterance might be construed as a “value judgment” and, thus expose them as the frauds to post-modernism that they really are.

Since I’m particularly immune to drama with gratuitous Social Message ("Dislike my work at your own risk, I'll accuse you of being unsympathetic to the issues I write about!"), I wouldn’t enjoy Mad Men if it didn’t have some great characters and a compelling plot.

The More Interesting Characters

“Don Draper”
At first couldn’t stand him, but have grown to appreciate the good looking, strong-but-silent type ad exec with a painful past—information about which they dribble out to us as the show progresses. They’ve even managed to convince me that the frequent pans on his blank stare reveal some sort of reflective thought process going on in there. However, the one thing that bothers me the most about him though is the way he constantly cheats on his wife. None of these extra-marital relationships are particularly meaningful; he’s just a serial philanderer. Maybe it’s the female perspective here, I wouldn’t have a problem with this attitude or lifestyle if he were single or he had some arrangement by which his wife were ok with this: it’s the dishonesty that bothers me. Yes, his wife is rather neurotic, but she loves him. Ironically she looks better than almost every single woman he cheats on her with.

Possible writers’ notes on Don Draper’s “sex addiction”

1) This is what most men are genetically programmed to have, but unless they are living in one of your more progressive communes, possessed of extraordinary good looks, financial and/or professional success and strong sense of moral relativity aka Tiger Woods, are rarely able to act on this in a very satisfactory manner.

2) Don Draper, growing up as the abandoned son of a whore, who died upon his birth and left him to be raised by his no-good, alcoholic father who beat and demoralized him and his long-suffering “step” mother, with no love or acceptance from either “parent” or any figure in his life for that matter, lacks a sense of identity and looks for acceptance/affirmation of his masculinity in a stream of meaningless sexual relationships

Betty Draper
Cold, beautiful, ice-princess, Grace Kelly look-a-alike. While I feel somewhat sorry for her, Betty gets on my nerves. Hard not to realize how privileged her situation is when you have the more sympathetic Carla, the black housekeeper, doing most the work to raise Betty’s kids and not complaining about her life…Betty’s constant sulking does not engender much sympathy, wish she would get off the “dime” and actually do something about her unhappiness. Show strays into familiar “Madame Bovary” “Anna Karenina” territory where the only proactive thing, chance at happiness Betty seems to be able to imagine is having an affair, possibly with an older man who will act as a father substitute.

Peggy Olson
Moves out of the secretarial pool to become Sterling Cooper’s first female copywriter “since the war.” Her ambition combines spunk and seeming guilelessness. She might be the only “nice” character if you could forget that she abandoned her infant son…I do have to say Peggy’s mixture of innocence/goodness, her empathy for other people and mostly non-judgmental attitude combined with her desire to go a little wild (and mishaps along the way) make her the most interesting character after Don.

Joan Holloway/Harris
Very curvy office manager who dresses to kill. She initially appears bitchy but then becomes more sympathetic as the show progresses. Her sweetly poisonous lines as she offers advice/tries to undermine the girls are great. "Work hard and well you really won't even have to work will you? You'll be married and living in the suburbs" "He's a doctor, and he's good looking!" Mad Men producers thank you for casting Christina Hendricks in this role and showing that you can be pale, have curves (real curves, not the model look with the boys' backside and the blow-up pneumatic chest) and still be hot.

Pete Campbell
The scheming account exec. who will stop at nothing to get ahead. He occasionally is revealed to be vulnerable and does the occasional good deed, which renders him a little more multi-dimensional. Also sleeps around, no doubt because his father didn’t love and approve of him either.

Burt Cooper
Relatively minor character but entertaining none the less. The exec who no longer does any real work, but plays the “older sage” role. Has an affinity for Eastern philosophy and modern art. Relatively subdued compared to everybody else in the office--his risqué Japanese print of the Octopus and Geisha is hilarious.

Roger Sterling
In his mid-fifties realizes he hasn’t loved his wife for years and fulfills his dream to marry attractive 20-year old secretary. Any woman will do. He is in “in love.” Ironic exchange where Roger tells Don: “I realize that people are envious of me because of how happy I am” to which Don replies: “People don’t think you’re happy; they think you’re foolish.”

2 comments:

Bill Pyne said...

Let's not forget about the episode when Don and Betty sit around on a Sunday morning while their kids make blood marys for them. A few scenes later they stumble into bed and tell their kids to get ready for bed - only to be reminded that they never provided dinner for the kids.

Good times. Good parenting.

Juanita's Journal said...

Instead of optimistically engaging the world around us, we have been taught to stand at a cynical arm's length.


I think you should thank your lucky stars that we have been raised in that manner. The world is not a nice place . . . at all.