Thursday, January 5, 2012

Life Imitating Reruns

I blame AMC.

If they didn't make such good television series, ones where I can hardly wait the period of the hiatus for new episodes to hit the airwaves, where I comb all manner of episode/series reviews and want to dissect every angle of the show and where I re-watch episodes and seasons just to look at plotlines and characters from a different perspective.

So, this is my story with Mad Men (and a few other shows, what can I say I am a TV junky, and no, I don't need a support group, thanks).

I am not going to bend your ears about how great this series is, most people know that already, but lately, in the Christmas/New Years vacation, when I have been home more than I have been working, and there is nothing new or fresh on tv, I have again, in anticipation for the Mad Men's  5th season which will premiere this spring, I have started re-watching Mad Men.

And in light of what is going on in the United States right now, the good folks at Sterling Cooper (or Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce, depending on what episodes you are actually watching) are enlightening.

These folks are decidedly Republicans, the entire first season takes place in the backdrop of the Nixon/Kennedy race and it was (or maybe still is) just not fashionable in the world that Mad Men takes place in to be anything but a Republican.  The few liberal types you see in the series are poor, often intellectual types but on-the-fringes type people, without stability while the advertising and other executives are firmly on the GOP side of the aisle and live in beautiful apartments with spectacular views, eating at Lutesse, wearing the good clothes and hairstyles and driving Cadillacs (no, Mad Men is not about Aluminum siding salesmen or Jews).

There are so many great things about this show but one of the greatest things is how accurately it portrays this era of America.  The pre-Vietnam America of the early-mid 1960's.

The pre-politically correct America.

On Mad Men women still get chased around the desk (pretty regularly), are relegated mostly to being secretaries (and ergo, looking for husbands), the few that do the same work as men, earn decidedly less.  The other women are privileged housewives.  They have to take care of the house and the kids in the suburbs and don't get any help from their husbands, but then again their husbands earn all the money and keep them in country clubs, riding lessons and dresses, oh, the dresses!    

And yes, the nostalgia of the show is very powerful.  Revisiting that era in time stirs me.  Being born in 1965, the America that Mad Men shows takes place largely in the few years before I was born but much of it is my era.  I hail from Washington, PA and it always took a few years for things to reach Washington, PA from Madison Avenue anyway.  My mom spent her days having coffee with her friends, smoking cigarettes and on selected evenings playing cards or mahjong or going out.  Let's face it the era that Mad Men takes place is is pre-Vietnam America (at least so far).  We were a younger and more innocent America then.  Wars were terrible but we were always the good guys, fighting for freedom, ours and the world's.  I enjoy watching that more naive America.

Mad Men in many ways is a chronicle of how much we have really changed as a society in the half century since the early 1960's,  It's shocking to see the amount people actually smoked and drank in that era.  And I have cringed several times when I see pregnant women downing cocktails and puffing on their cigs.  The racial and gender slurs are sometimes downright eye popping.  In the very first episode of the series, one of the first exchanges was about how they don't hire Jews, where the lead character Don Draper, when asked by his boss if he has ever hired a Jew retorted, "not on my watch."   Later in the series one of the executives, looking for ideas to help a client whose sales are flat, suggests to said client to advertise in African American magazines. This client, recognized it was a good idea but very forcefully refused to do it.  One particular scene, less loaded perhaps but really illustrates the point well is a scene where the Draper's are enjoying an idyllic day having a family picnic.  They play checkers and cuddle on a blanket and when it is time to go, they pack their coolers in the car and they pick up their blanket and shake it out and napkins, paper plates and food remnants go flying all over the grass, they grab the blanket and take off, without a care in the world.  You forget that once, that was perfectly normal, no one even thought twice about it.

And one of my favorite scenes ever is when little Sally Draper playing Spaceman with her friends comes running into the kitchen with a dry cleaning bag over her head and her mother yells at her, worried that something happened to the dry cleaning.  

Yes, a lot has changed since the 1960's.

Another thing which I think what is so fascinating about Mad Men and keeps me watching it over and over is how the values shown in it, which are terribly American were portrayed then and how those same values now are looked at in a totally different light now.  Mad Men is certainly focused on acquiring (or maintaining) wealth and privilege.  Money opens doors and doing anything to go after a buck is not only done but heralded in the America of Mad Men.  Now a half century later, with the American and world economy holding on by a thread, those same values of pushing boundaries to turn profits is what is wrong with America.

Sure I am looking at it very simply but I do think there is a lot of truth to that.    So many Americans I know are truly discouraged with where America is and terrified of where it is going (and I am too).  We love to blame the media, Fox News, the economy, Bush, Obama (depending on what side of the proverbial aisle you sit on), the terrorists, global warming, lack of term limits, Congress, campaign financing, lobbyists and a whole host of other things.  And so many people say things were better in decades past, people were better, more moral, more compassionate toward their fellow man.  People and corporations weren't so cutthroat.

Re-watching Mad Men in my disillusionment-with-America-state has helped me to realize that maybe not so much has changed.  Many of the things/institutions Americans hold responsible for our current state of the nation are not new to our current era.  They have been that way since America was born, maybe just a little more technologically savvy and people have more access to the information, but it happened.  It's business as usual.  The difference now is that the economy is in the dumper and the economy, prosperity and upward mobility are America's real measuring sticks for how we are doing as a nation.  In the 1960's world that Mad Men inhabits, corporations were just as despicable as they are now, but there was  more economic prosperity, so people weren't focused on it.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.


  1. Great post. Haven't seen Mad Men, but your making interested enough to look it up and watch. I too miss the innocent America of my childhood, even though the racism was overwhelming. My kindergarten teacher wouldn't let black children play "house" with white children. Back then, my mom, a civil rights activist, was horrified. But no one else apparently complained.

  2. Mad Men is absolutely fantastic, a MUST see. It's interesting in a show like this to see how much has actually changed, but also how much has actually not changed.