Thursday, September 25, 2008

Mad Men


Since the AMC series "Mad Men" has become one of those great rarities, a mass cultural offering adored equally by critics and the Joe Blow Public (Joe's wife Josephine has been relatively silent on the subject, I've noticed), we're renting the show from Netflix to see what all the fuss is about. A few random observations:
  • the show is beautiful to look at, extremely glossed and stylish

  • they smoke too much. Speaking as someone who was in his teens during the time depicted, I can tell you that even in those "smoking is good for you!" days people weren't lighting up as ubiquitously and constantly as these characters do. (Or maybe they were, but you weren't watching them through a 21st-century camera that made a point of showing all the lighting up and luxuriant exhaling. People did smoke more than they do now, it was a natural, unremarked part of passing through a day.)

  • The first episode is supposed to take place in 1960. The first song you hear in that first epidsode, "Band of Gold," was a hit by Don Cherry (no relation) in 1955. It was considered very old hat by 1960. I thought there was something jarring about that song. Checking the dates told me why.

There are probably more nits I could pick. I'm not disliking the show and we'll stick with it, but one can't help seeing the historical inaccuracies in an imitation of an era put together by people who were either infants or not yet even born during the era depicted. The show's brain trust is Matthew Weiner, its creator, producer, and main writer. He was born in 1965. In a "Fresh Air" interview I heard with him a few days ago, he spoke with great authority of the early 1960s as a time of conformity but also of great intellectual foment. When I heard that, my reflexive response was, "Whaaa...?"

Conformity? In spades, baby. Intellectualism? Maybe in such rarified pockets as Greenwich Village, City Lights Bookstore, and the privileged and educated LA home Weiner grew up in. But I remember it differently. Most of the grownups I knew had come through the Depression, were mere high school graduates (my parents weren't even that), and had pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. They were anything but intellectuals, fomenting or not. "The Andy Griffith Show" was the main cultural currency. PBS was in its infancy; NPR didn't even exist. We were only four years beyond Elvis's scandalization of the public with his hip swivels on the Ed Sullivan Show, and it would be another four years before The Beatles and their hair created real, true foment. Yes, the urban folk movement had germinated in 50s New York, and Joan Baez did come along in 1960 and revolutionize the music catalogue and performance. But she and the ones who followed her were singing to us kids--and maybe to Matthew Weiner's parents and their educated friends (thus giving him his false impression of the world in general)--but certainly not to my parents nor any of the ones I knew. If the guys in "Mad Men" were aware of Baez at all there's no doubt they were aghast and appalled at her lack of makeup, her long unstyled hair, and her complete lack of sex appeal in general. She made it her business to be the antithesis of what passed at the time for feminine beauty and would have had no place in the world-view of the show's protagonsists, nor did she seek one. Sorry, Matthew, but intellectual foment and rebellion were just not on the mass radar screen at the time. Repression was the order of the day. To your credit, the screwed up women in the show do bear witness to that.

I admit I'm only a few episodes into season one. I do like the show and look forward to the development of the characters. But a word to you late and post-Boomers who are in its thrall: it ain't real. It's too self-conscious to be believable.

2 comments:

Jeff said...

I agree that there are some nits to pick - and I do agree that the show takes a somewhat narrow view. But remember, this takes place in New York and basically references what's happening there at that time. Not much had changed when I entered the full time office work force in 1974 nearly 14 years after this show takes place. And I recognize many of the characters as people that I worked with!
As far as the intellectualism of the 60's and Joan Baez-types, the show does pay homage to the "beats" in Don Draper's affair with the artist in the village. And the cultural clash - in one episode (you may not be up to it) one of her friends asks Don cynically, "how do you sleep" and Don answers, "on a bed made of money."
And that's why I also love the show. The dialogue. It's quick, sharp, and strikes very close to home.
Give it time, go thru at least season 1. Then make your decision.
And whatever you decide - I still love you! :)

Ralph said...

Hi, Jeff. LOL! Don't worry, I do like the show. It's just that so far, I'm having trouble getting past the artifice to experience a total identification. But that may happen as I get used to it.

And thanks once again for shedding your unique New York light in a way that teaches me something I'd never otherwise be aware of. We're all parochial in our viewpoints in some ways, I guess, but your New York view seems to resonate because it's New York, and New York is where so many of our cultual movements begin. It would have never occurred to me that these guys would run elbows with the nascent counteer-culture. But of course the would have--it's all in New York!