Mad Men - Submitted for Your Approval

July 26, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Mad Men begins its second season tomorrow, and I’m not ready. I came to the show only very recently – friend’s house at the shore with AMC On Demand and not much to do at night. But here’s my take, based on the first three episodes.

At first, I thought Mad Men reminded me of Far From Heaven – the 1950s suburban dream undermined by illicit desires (homosexual, interracial) or its present-tense counterpart American Beauty. Then I thought it reminded me of Good Night and Good Luck – guys in business suits with narrow lapels smoking lots of cigarettes.

Now it reminds me of The Twilight Zone and The Sociological Imagination.

KRAMER: All right, so what you’re saying – that we’re wrong? Oh, everybody’s wrong but you!

JERRY: You know, this is like that Twilight Zone where the guy wakes up, and he’s the same - but everyone else is different!

KRAMER: Which one?

JERRY: They were all like that
For those who haven’t seen or heard about the show: it’s set in 1960 and centers on a large Madison Avenue advertising agency. But Don Draper, the main Mad Man, seems more like one of those Twilight Zone protagonists who finds himself in a setting where everything is familiar and yet strange. He seems to sense that something is wrong but can’t quite realize what it is.

But we, the viewers, know. It’s the society and culture of the time. Society and culture are a straitjacket, but one that is so comfortable we are rarely conscious of wearing it. Or else we think that it’s a really good-looking part of our wardrobe. The Mad Men of 1960 are in the vanguard – hip and cynical. Everything’s up to date on Madison Avenue.

It’s only from the perspective of a few decades that these guys appear so old-fashioned, so unaware and limited. The 2008 choices that we take for granted did not exist in 1960. More tellingly, the historical period also limits how people can think about their own lives. We long for the characters to see things differently, with the thoughts that we have. But for the people of 1960, those ideas are just not available.

Those historical forces don’t bother the characters at all, certainly not the men (for viewers today, the arbitrariness of 1950s sex roles leaps off the screen). America is the best of all possible worlds, and the Mad Men are doing quite well in it, thank you. Yes, there are problems – secretaries weep in the powder room, an unfulfilled housewife talks to an unresponsive psychiatrist, unsatisfied men have affairs and drink too much. They all lack the sociological imagination to see their personal troubles in the frame of the social and cultural forces of this particular historical period.

Even Don Draper doesn’t bring our 2008 consciousness to his 1960 existence. Still, we feel that he is our vicarious link to that period because he cannot fully commit himself to the reality of his time – not to his good job, which he does well, not to his pretty wife and his lovely suburban home, not to his artistic mistress, and certainly not to his frat-boyish co-workers. He is the Twilight Zone character in this alien world. Or rather, he himself is the alien, the outsider searching for others of his race.

And we here in 2008? We’re aware, aren’t we? We’re not wearing any cultural straitjackets, right? But when the people of 2040 look back at us, what will they see? What will be so obvious to them that is so invisible to us?

As I said, I’m basing my impressions on only the first few episodes. It’s possible that as the show continues week after week, we will get drawn into the characters’ struggles and lose our sociological distance.


tina said...

I am IN LOVE WITH Mad Men--the highly stylized sets, the fascinating characters you never get to know, and the time/culture stuff is, I agree, the star of the show. Get to watching those episodes, Jay!

Corey said...

I find Mad Men to do a pretty good job dramatizing alienation, class (or stratification), and gender roles. In terms of alienation, all of the main characters are grasping for something, but few know what or why. Despite their affluence, youth, and charm, no one is happy and I doubt they could be happy.

In terms of class & gender, it's interesting to see how the women in the stenographer pool are treated. They're from the outer boroughs rather than Manhattan or the posh suburbs in Westchester (sp?)... are expected to pamper the male executives & junior executives (in many different ways) and are ultimately expendable.

Towards the end of Season one there is a twist on the gender role pattern which is well worth watching sociologically.