Monday, December 1, 2008

Mad Men in the Aggregate

Here's what I find evocative about Mad Men, if not reassuring:

By the early sixties the U.S. was responsible for nearly one-half of the world's GNP. If there ever was an entire demographic close enough to being born on third base this was it. In the corner office or on the factory floor if you could drag yourself to work your kept wifey woman had at least another decade for domestic life emptiness to sink in. Why start a Me Generation? The Us Generation had so much pie it hardly needed carving up.

It's no accident that Mad Men takes place at the Apex of America -- the peak earning years of the Greatest Generation. They kept everything under their hats -- except apparently the same prurient lusts and cultural conceits that gave rise to Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts.

What I suck from the tail pipe of Mad Men is this: No matter how many family members we send into the workforce, feelers to the next venture that would have us, or, prescriptions down to the local Walgreens, we are cheated. We want it all. Small was never beautiful -- even in this post GOP world of the immediate tomorrow. And if we can't have it all we can crave what our folks took for granted: the autopilot obsolescence of fat cars, gender bifurcation, meat and TV potatoes (heart attacks, failed marriages, and foreign oil not sponsored, endorsed, or anesthetized by Sterling Cooper).

You look at the unattainables now of our borrowed dreams and it includes:

* Social job security
* Paper plates, plastic cutlery
* Medium health care without high fructose
* Network anchors that Fox/MSNBC viewers respect and trust
* Sports heroes who look like us

To this craven observer we're aiming for our toes (are your toenails as brittle as mine?) We don't want access to clean drinking water and quality education. We're willing to reprise familiar economic hits if you forgive us through a few upcoming mortgage payments.

Mostly I spend my Mad Men bonding time floating in a thematic pool of Flotsam Jetsons. The alternative? It would be texting away the night on Second Life immersed in anti-social media.


Marc Solomon said...

I'll weigh in with a further heavy praise for Mad Men. I found the series compelling in many ways. Certain moments still resonate. Wait till "The Wheel" - originally shown with (purposefully ironic?) "limited commercial interruptions." It nevertheless had plenty of stealth Kodak product placement (but only for a recently-orphaned product). You'll see. It will all make sense. And it's also essentially true - Google wouldn't lie, would it? The main characters are essentially our parents' ages and this was their world. My mother was borne the same year as the character Joan. You'll see and marvel at what was considered laughably old. I don't think the point is merely nostalgia for what might have been lost, but more for being grateful for what we now have instead. I do think things have improved since then in many ways, but agree it's a judgment call as to whether in the aggregate, "things are better." Things are certainly different. Things might have been easier for entitled WASPy men then, and unfair to just about everyone else, but that world didn't make the entitled WASPy men too happy either. It's all very Soprano-esque, with pychologists, no less!

However, D. Draper wasn't born on 3d base (and wasn't even born D. Draper). He is a self-made (indeed self-reinvented) man. But D. Draper has the goods, (again, see "The Wheel"), unlike entitlement-riddled Pete. Even reprehensible Pete gets a few sympathy-inducing moments here and there. As in real life, no one is all good or all bad, though clearly certain characters are mostly bad or mostly good. And Betty, the seemingly-perfect Hitchcockian ice blond, see her melt as the series progresses (any maybe join the NRA). And speaking of Ann Richards, I saw "W" over the weekend - frightening, yet suprisingly entertaining.

We're a long way from Darren Stevens at Tate McMann, and better for traveling that distance.

Marc Solomon said...

That's excellent Fi and properly mindful of the "spoilers" ethos.

A couple of more cents from me on the world the series brings to life. I feel as though I've been on both sides of the line of scrimmage that Mad Men proffers. At Newsday I was in the midst of supremely creative people. Sports department might self-mockingly refer to themselves as the toy department of a newspaper, but in getting to know people from other editorial departments during the production process, I can attest that our ranks were filled with the rapierest of wits that staffed the paper. It was also an environment that was very attuned to treating its own people like the highest form of life. The conflicts were minor and never of a soap-operaish bent. Of course, and don't underestimate this for a moment, it was an almost exclusively all-male milieu. Nobody was daydreaming about taking any bites out of any apples.

On the other hand, my experience in the advertising world mirrored much of Mad Men's perceptions about power politics. I was in a privileged position and all sorts of things were allowed to deflect off my Teflon. Hard-working, well-meaning assistants were granted no such luxury and frequently bore the brunt of my manager's letting off steam -- if for no other reason she didn't dare alienate the sales force. It was only our morale that was important to the success of the enterprise. All the hostility funneled down to the people who answered phones or did clerical work. The bookkeeping department, not incidentally, also led a charmed life.

Insofar as we were on the selling end -- and not the creative end (in the main) as are the characters in Mad Men, our flights of imaginative fancy were far more prosaic. But the coddling of the company's "players" very much resembled the latitude granted Sterling Cooper's meal tickets.

The experience re-emphasized to me how basic decency is no intrinsic gift of mankind. It has to be manufactured and vigilantly preserved. The political correctness "movement" in many ways should be categorized under human rights achievements of the 20th century. A movement that has its excesses, but after all the weighing is done is an important step forward.

Marc Solomon said...


Happy birthday.

Workload and some conscience have delayed my participation in our Mad Men thread, because I have announced my bias (I am fan) in this space. Dish, I find your comments apt. I do not find the characters likeable. I do not root for any of them. But Allison and I remain intrigued.

Perhaps it is mere faith. I believe that Mad Men accurately portrays 1962 New York (when do they land the Mets account?) But I acknowledge that I need to learn more from Sol's Vectors of Integrity analysis to determine the reliability of my belief. One reason to believe: Mad Men famously tries to be accurate; Bewitched, on the other hand famously tried to portray a fantasy world. Ultimately, I am willing to believe, because the Mad Men writing is good. Sol, add that to your Vectors: Good writing enhances credibility.

I cannot think of another episodic TV drama that I watch, and last night, I reconfirmed why. Last night, I had the misfortune of watching the end of an episode of the New York crime drama Law & Order, which drew my attention to bad writing. Pretend New York cops chatted, explained, and argued about issues with colleague pretend New York cops, who likely intimately understood the points without need for discussion. During the discussions, other pretend New York cops, presumably working on something else, dramatically turned in their chairs randomly to offer further explanation. I was waiting for some truth in the writing: "thank you, captain obvious" or "who asked you?" or "hey, enough chat. Back to work." If I see re-runs of Hill Street Blues or NYPD Blue, will it be as bad as last night? Perhaps I have grown more intolerant of bad writing with each passing birthday.

Sol, thank you for your Pacific Northwest souvenir package. I will look forward to learning more about your trip. Perhaps we can do it in person during my next visit to Boston (arrive Monday, December 15; depart Wednesday, December 17). Perhaps we can plan to see The Day The Earth Stood Still together one of those nights.

Garo, we are looking forward to listening to your new holiday CD. But Allison already has expressed concerns about how your children get fuzzier every year.

Happy birthday, Dish.


Marc Solomon said...

Dish: I second those Birthday well-wishes and continue both the Mad Men and Birthday threads by pointing out that Mad Men is "presently" taken place in your birth year. You have to like it for that just a little. And as for Canuck's claim that he does "not root for any of [the characters on Mad Men]," I have to ask, not even for Peggy? A bit harsh no? Can't the girl get a break anywhere? Fi

Marc Solomon said...

Fi, I overstated. I root for Peggy. Allison and I caucused on this subject over dinner last night. We concur that Peggy is the only character for whom either of us roots. 'Nuck

Marc Solomon said...

Yes, but somewhere in the back of your minds has to be the time where she auditioned a voice over girl and if you haven't yet seen that episode you will see she too has been infected with the virus.

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